An attempted attack on an FBI office raises concerns about violent far-right rhetoric
Since the FBI search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate on Monday, researchers who track extremism have sounded the alarm about an escalation of violent rhetoric from the far-right, including talk of another "civil war" and threats against federal law enforcement.
By Thursday, an attempted attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati appeared to underscore the real danger behind those threats, particularly given a digital trail of ominous posts that were left under the name of the suspect.
The FBI said an armed man attempted to breach the building, but fled after an alarm went off and special agents responded. After a car chase, a nearly six-hour standoff, and unsuccessful attempts at negotiation, police shot and killed that suspect, according to an account from the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Law enforcement identified the man as 42-year-old Ricky Walter Shiffer, Jr. Shiffer is a veteran of the U.S. war in Iraq. He deployed to Iraq between 2010 and 2011 during his service as an infantryman with the Florida Army National Guard, before leaving the Guard in May 2011, the Guard confirmed to NPR. Shiffer also served in the U.S. Navy from 1998 to 2003, the Navy stated. During his service, he worked as a fire control technician on the USS Columbia, a Navy submarine. News of Shiffer's military service was first reported by Military.com.
Many details of the standoff are still unknown, including an official account of Shiffer's motive.
But on the Trump-backed social media site Truth Social, an account under Shiffer's name posted increasingly violent threats in response to the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago.
The account was deactivated shortly after Shiffer's identity became public. NPR was unable to independently confirm that it belonged to the man who attempted the attack on the FBI field office.
On Twitter, a post from another account under Shiffer's name indicated that he was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, though he does not appear to have been criminally charged in connection with the U.S. Capitol breach.
In the days prior to Thursday's attack, the Truth Social account described leading an "insurrection against the people who usurped our government," and made a "call to arms" to other Trump supporters. "I am proposing war," read one post. "Kill the FBI on sight."
In addition to the search of Mar-a-Lago, the account listed a series of supposed grievances as motivation.
"Steve Bannon might go to jail," the account wrote, referring to the former Trump White House adviser's recent conviction for contempt of congress. The account also referenced the recent verdict in the defamation case against the conspiracy theorist and far-right media personality Alex Jones. The post ended by stating, "1776 was for far less."
The Truth Social posts indicated a complete loss of faith in government institutions.
"We see the courts are unfair and unconstitutional, all that is left is force," stated one post. The account also compared the FBI to the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police and a key perpetrator of the Holocaust.
Despite the explicit calls to violence, the posts remained available on Truth Social until Thursday evening. One user replied that they were forwarding the messages to the FBI, to which the Shiffer account replied, "bring them on."
Shortly after the Cincinnati attack began on Thursday morning, the account left one final post:
"Well, I thought I had a way through the bullet proof glass, and I didn't. If you don't hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the FBI."
The posts from the accounts under Shiffer's name generally include more explicit and specific calls for violent action than what's been seen on extremist forums this week. Still, experts say the rhetoric has noticeably intensified. After a court unsealed documents related to the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago, popular posts on an online pro-Trump forum suggested committing violence against the agents involved in the search, and described those agents as "traitors."
"There's almost a hysteria of violence coming out of these far-right circles in reaction to the search at Mar-a-Lago," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
"We're seeing message boards just flooded with talk of violence, and the next 'civil war,' and this idea that they need to retaliate against the left," said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League.
Both Beirich and Friedfeld compared the level of online violent rhetoric to the run-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Court documents filed in the more than 800 criminal cases show that many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot discussed their violent plans in public posts on social media. Law enforcement authorities failed to take those threats seriously, which contributed to the lack of preparation for that day's chaos.
Both Beirich and Friedfeld said that Thursday's attack was exactly the kind of action they feared.
The Jan. 6 assault featured a unique confluence of volatile factors that contributed to a major violent event: There was a specific time and place, a goal of keeping Trump in power, and support from top political figures. Right now, researchers on extremism say they are more concerned about one-off incidents similar to what appeared to unfold in Cincinnati.
They said one contributing factor has been the intensifying rhetoric from major right-wing media personalities.
In many cases, those personalities have employed a kind of rhetorical two-step, where they simultaneously say they oppose violence, while describing their political opponents in apocalyptic terms and making calls for "war," though they insist those statements are metaphoric.
"I think they're playing a very dangerous game," said Friedfeld.
Former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon appeared on the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' show earlier this week and said the FBI was "a new American Gestapo." His show "War Room" continued to compare the FBI to the "Gestapo" on Friday. Republican members of Congress, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, have also compared the FBI search to Nazi Germany.
Without any apparent basis or evidence, Bannon also suggested that the federal government might be taking steps to kill Trump.
"I do not think it's beyond this administrative state and their deep state apparatus to actually try to work on the assassination of President Trump," said Bannon.
Bannon went on to call Jones' audience to action, comparing the present moment to the American Revolution, while adding, "I'm not talking about violence."
In a statement to NPR, Bannon said, "Those who watch War Room know our mantra is Investigate, Litigate, Incarcerate. There is no reason or place for violence, as we have the votes and the political muscle to win elections."
Even with those disclaimers, Friedfeld characterized that kind of rhetoric as reckless.
"When you tell a story of good versus evil, of the other side being willing to go to any lengths to harm you, to harm your community, to harm the country, they're essentially laying the dots out there for their listeners to connect," said Friedfeld. "And when you connect those dots, it becomes far more plausible to use violence."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.