It takes a network to catch a network

'Sedition Hunters' details how open-source intelligence has helped track down those who attacked the US Capitol on January 6
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On January 6, 2021, thousands of people coalesced at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, to support then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to thwart the certification of Joe Biden’s election win. Media coverage of the attack zeroed in on clear-cut bogeymen like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, or the more ridiculous rioters like the ‘QAnon Shaman’. Later, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol hyper-focused on Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection. While the media and Select Committee painted a comprehensive and well-evidenced picture of crimes committed by a small subset of people, they omitted crucial details of the broader context in which the Capitol attack took place. 

Enter Ryan J. Reilly and his book, ‘Sedition Hunters’, a 400-plus-page deep-dive into the process of holding those who sought to overturn the US government on January 6 to account. Published in October 2023, the book explores the investigation of the Capitol attack from every angle, including from the perspectives of wannabe-patriots-turned-rioters, the police officers who faced off against those rioters at the Capitol, FBI agents responsible for investigating the crimes of the rioters, and—perhaps most importantly—the online sleuths who took it upon themselves to gather evidence of the rioters’ crimes where the US government and law enforcement failed to do so. 

The domestic extremism threat

The Capitol insurrection did not happen in a vacuum. It was a widely predicted byproduct of an escalating trend toward anti-democratic action by the various factions that compose today’s American reactionary right. In ‘Sedition Hunters’, Reilly provides a nuanced and detailed overview of the rhetoric and tactics used by far-right extremists in recent decades, contextualising the activities of the insurrectionists and providing essential context missing from much of the reporting on the event. Reilly assesses the threat landscape for what it is, and in turn rejects the dated and misguided notions that have shaped the US government’s response to these issues for years. He demonstrates that the threat is represented by a network of people not necessarily connected by organisational doctrine, but rather who coalesce around shared conspiracies, hatred of shared enemies, and in turn, shared causes for which they are willing to use violence.

Moreover, rather than placing an outsized focus on extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, Reilly puts a spotlight on the rioters who were your average, everyday Trump supporters. Reilly gets at the uncomfortable truth that the American public has yet to fully understand: those ‘everyday’ people represent just as much of a threat to democracy as those in the Oath Keepers’ military-style stack formations that breached the Capitol on January 6.

That said, Reilly does perhaps offer a bit too much context, foregoing details about the sedition hunters and their investigatory techniques to include particulars about the rioters and their respective histories. He also provides a lengthy history of the conservative movement in the US and how it culminated in an insurrection deemed “legitimate political discourse” by one of the country’s two main political parties. For some, this exhaustive amount of context surrounding the events of January 6 may dilute the thesis of the book: the investigations conducted by the amorphous network of patriotic sedition hunters. 

The power of OSINT

A study from February 2023 demonstrated just how crucial open-source intelligence, or OSINT, has been to the various entities and individuals who have investigated the insurrection. The study found that of the 940 defendants who had been charged at the time, 92.5% of them were charged at least in part due to OSINT evidence. 

Sleuths gathered this OSINT evidence using mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok; alt-tech platforms like Rumble, Gab, and Parler; chat apps like Telegram; and even user-to-user payment apps like Venmo to chase leads and identify accused criminals. Crowdsourcing via these platforms made rioter identification possible; Reilly notes, “One rioter was identified because of the ‘way he folds the brim of his hat’—a sleuth was scouring Parler profiles and the hat fold caught their eye”. Another rioter, deemed ‘Florida Flag Jacket’ based on the outfit he wore while committing crimes at the Capitol, was identified after sleuths started compiling video footage of him via Twitter, eventually coming across a livestream from earlier in the day in which the rioter provided his name and hometown. The rioter in question, Robert Scott Palmer, was later sentenced to five years in prison after attacking Capitol police with a fire extinguisher, a wooden plank, and a pole.

OSINT comes in many forms. In the aftermath of the insurrection, one DC local changed her political beliefs on her profile on the dating app Bumble to ‘conservative’. A handful of men were more than happy to brag about their time at the Capitol complex, sharing details and pictures with their new match. The woman then used Facebook to identify the matches who admitted to being at the Capitol that day. Unsure if these men had committed crimes, the woman sent their information along to the FBI. She later found out that one of her matches, Andrew Taake, had pleaded guilty to “pepper spraying officers and then attacking them with a metal whip before storming the building, weapon in hand.”

OSINT as a means of legitimate intelligence gathering was sorely undervalued in the lead up to the insurrection. In an article predating his book, Reilly quoted Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone, who was almost killed by the rioters: “Maybe we need to be changing what it is that we’re looking for in our hiring”, because he did not understand these new tracking tools. Reilly’s book is overflowing with examples of law enforcement and US government failures related to the insurrection, ranging from inadequate technology (“sleuths told me they had to format the reports they sent to the FBI to make sure they didn’t surpass the email file size limit”) to agents and police officers who were sympathetic with the rioters’ cause (one FBI analyst supervising January 6 cases called the FBI “the Brown Shirt enforcers of the Democratic National Committee”). 

Out-networking the threat

This book tells the story of the tireless work of Americans who witnessed an attempt to overthrow their government on January 6, 2021, and took it upon themselves to pursue accountability and justice for those responsible. As a result of the US government’s investigation into the crimes committed on January 6—and their use of evidence provided to them by these volunteer investigators—OSINT has received greater recognition as a type of intelligence that can, and must, be leveraged to detect threats of violence, gather evidence of crimes, and hold criminals accountable. 

Reilly’s ‘Sedition Hunters’ makes clear that we are in an era of networks, facilitated by the internet, social media platforms, and chat apps. In his book, Reilly masterfully maps the network of pro-Trump organisations, movements, and individuals who inspired, carried out, and defended the insurrection, tied together by a shared cause that many of the rioters were willing to kill and die for. In doing so, he highlights the realistic picture of the threat American democracy faced on January 6 and the threat American democracy still faces today. In that same vein, however, Reilly provides hope through his celebration of the network of sleuths who have spent countless hours pursuing justice. These sleuths hail from a spectrum of political beliefs, voting histories, career backgrounds, and states, but are united in a shared cause. All in all, the threat may be a network, but a network may also be the solution.