The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden will occur at noon EST on Wednesday, January 20, on the US Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. In the wake of the storming of the Capitol on January 6 by a violent mob as legislators symbolically certified the presidential vote, a significantly enhanced security presence has already been at least partially deployed in the National Capital Region (NCR); a federally declared state of emergency is in effect for the city through January 24. Though security will be most augmented at sites directly related to inaugural proceedings, the enhanced presence is likely to be evident at all facilities with governmental relevance in the capital; the National Park Service (NPS) has already announced the closure of the Washington Monument on the National Mall through January 24, and more such closures are likely in the lead-up to January 20. As of Jan. 13, sixteen groups had reportedly applied for protest permits in the capital, though the DC Mayor’s office requested that federal officials reject and cancel all such permits through January 24. Regardless, right-wing extremists are expected to attempt to converge on sensitive areas irrespective of whether they have the necessary permits.
Preparation Details for Inauguration Week
Approximately 20,000 National Guard members will be mobilized and deployed for inaugural events. Although only those tasked with securing the Capitol Building are expected to be armed, US government officials have plans to facilitate the arming of normally unarmed Guard forces if such a scenario becomes necessary. Further reinforcements will be provided by the US Capitol Police, DC Metropolitan Police, US Park Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as other divisions of federal, state (specifically Virginia and Maryland), and local law enforcement agencies. The event will be largely coordinated by the US Secret Service, as it is a designated National Security Special Event (NSSE). Due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this year’s event, NSSE operations have commenced as of Wednesday, January 13, nearly a full week before they would normally have begun.
In addition to security deployments, measures have been taken by both government and civilian actors to mitigate the threat posed by violent extremists. The DC, Maryland, and Virginia governments have issued a joint call for those with travel plans to the capital for inauguration and the days preceding it to refrain from doing so, while Airbnb has announced that it has unilaterally canceled all DC area reservations for inauguration week. A further mitigating factor independent of security efforts has been the broader context of the inauguration running concurrent to the COVID-19 global pandemic, which had already forced officials to seriously scale back what would otherwise be a heavily attended event, instead encouraging individuals to attend virtually through live broadcasts.
While much attention has been devoted to Inauguration Day itself, there has been intelligence – largely gathered through social media networks and chat tools – that extremist groups will stage events from Saturday, January 16, onward. The weekend prior to Inauguration Day is notable in that it includes a public holiday on Monday, January 18, thus providing an increased opportunity to stage (potentially violent) protests. That holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a day of national significance for civil rights and US race relations – is unlikely to be lost on white nationalist groups, who are expected to be among the extremist groups planning events. Furthermore, the perception that full security may not be in place until Inauguration Day itself is likely to make the days preceding more attractive for those looking to engage in violent activity. Any successful effort to remove President Donald Trump from office earlier than January 20, or President Trump’s resignation itself, is likely to further increase the likelihood of unrest on the day of such an event, should it occur.
The threat and specific locations of planned protest or civil disturbance has been challenging to precisely gauge because it is posed by a broad array of actors with varying levels of organization and often with no discernible leadership structure. Groups such as the Proud Boys have been easy to identify as threat actors precisely due to their intentional visibility, defined structure, and uniforms, but the proliferation of social media and the tools that social networks provide for communication and event planning have made arguably less cohesive entities an equally dangerous threat; these include broader “movements” such as QAnon and other conspiracy groups, as well as by right-wing extremist groups such as the Boogaloo Boys and Three Percenters. While there has been much discussion over the resources needed to mitigate another mob-style attack such as that seen on January 6, less attention in the media has been devoted to the continued threat from lone-wolf or small-cell actors, particularly regarding their ability to use more impersonal violence such as the two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found at both the Democratic and Republican National Committee headquarters in DC on January 6. Such threats are particularly difficult to mitigate in that they are less visually obvious, require minimal human resources, and can inflict indiscriminate mass damage; such attacks have a history of being used by terror groups against softer targets such as public transportation and high-trafficked public spaces, and security evaluations for assets in the DC area will correspondingly need to adopt a more comprehensive perspective for mitigation efforts.
Potential for Violence in State Capitals
As noted by a recent FBI bulletin, a secondary threat exists for all US state capitals – primarily for Capitol buildings but additionally for any other buildings of governmental importance (e.g. local/state/federal courthouses, governors’ mansions, etc.) – as armed groups have announced their intention to “storm” or at least protest during the same period as events in Washington, DC. Though the bulletin noted that the threat exists for all 50 capitals as well as DC, particular concern exists for capitals that have already experienced similar events (such as Lansing, Michigan, and Sacramento, California) as well as capitals associated with states that have been focal points of the “Stop the Steal” movement – namely: Atlanta, Georgia; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; Madison, Wisconsin; and Lansing, Michigan. A lack of enhanced security on the level currently being employed in the nation’s capital is likely to make state capitals far more attractive targets in the eyes of many threat actors.
- Clients with interests in the greater Washington DC metro area should consider avoiding all unnecessary travel through January 20. If travel to the capital is required, clients should ensure all planned routes circumvent Capitol Hill, East End, Downtown, Dupont Circle, and Foggy Bottom, and Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill, given the likelihood for a surge in unrest in the coming weeks. Clients with staff or travelers in the capital region should also ensure that they maintain a low profile while in the city. Avoid all political rallies, dress conservatively (avoid themed apparel), and avoid politically charged discussion, particularly in public areas.
- If traveling to DC, clients should ensure a detailed plan has been documented and reviewed by risk management personnel prior to departure. A detailed travel plan should include all travel times, flight numbers, reception and orientation plans, all accommodation locations, work and meeting sites, ground transportation arrangements, planned routes, and names and contact information for all local hosts, drivers, colleagues, and clients. Travelers should also keep on hand multiple communications devices, batteries (battery banks), bottled water, high-energy snacks, cash, a change of clothes, and prescription medication and eyeglasses (if necessary). Ideally, travelers should have enough essentials on hand to sustain themselves for at least 72-96 hours.
- Personnel traveling or working in the DC metro area in the coming weeks should also ensure they have developed a robust communications plan. The key to a robust communications plan is redundancy; it requires multiple communication mediums, including but not limited to, personal and work mobile numbers, residential and/or hotel landlines, primary and alternate email addresses, social media handles, and contact information for a trusted local family member or acquaintance. When traveling in dynamic environments, it is also advisable to schedule multiple daily check-in windows with trusted colleagues, supervisors, local contacts, and relatives. A communication plan should also include emergency protocols for face-to-face wellness checks, in the event multiple check-in windows are missed.
- If staying in a hotel in the capital, request a room between the third and fifth floor to maintain standoff from street-level disruptions while still allowing for ease of access for first responders in an emergency. If possible, request a room facing away from a main thoroughfare. On arrival, check-in as quickly as possible, and avoid lingering in the lobby. Survey all exits, and safe areas that can provide cover from flying/falling debris and bullets/fragmentation. Walk at least two fire exits and count the number of rooms between your room and the nearest fire exits in the event you need to navigate through smoke or darkness. In the event of a disruption while in your hotel room, lock all windows and doors (including patio doors) and seek cover in the bathroom.
- When traveling in DC either on foot or in a vehicle, clients should avoid all upcoming rallies; allow extra travel time and plan alternate routes that circumvent known flashpoints in the city. Even peaceful rallies can spur violence or be met with an aggressive security response. If violence erupts or is imminent, leave the vicinity immediately. If unable to leave the area, seek shelter in a large public building such as a hotel, church, hospital, or museum. Avoid seeking shelter in government buildings and police stations (unless you are actively seeking aid). Avoid public transportation; use hotel car services or vetted local drivers if possible.
- Bystanders may be arrested or harmed by law enforcement or security forces using crowd control measures. Personnel who come into contact with tear gas or other chemical agents need to move into the wind and distance themselves from nearby demonstrators. Once personnel reach fresh air, flush eyes with clean water for at least 15 minutes. If wearing contact lenses, remove and discard. Remove any contaminated clothing, but try to avoid pulling shirts or coats over your head. Wash contaminated skin and eyeglasses with soap and water but do not use oil-based solutions or solutions containing bleach.
- Given recent intelligence, as detailed by the FBI, all of the above measures and procedures apply equally to staff working or traveling in state capitals, particularly concerning movements near capitol buildings and other facilities of governmental importance.
The following open-source links contain information on Washington D.C. road closures, vehicle/public access points, and public transportation. Also included in the Secret Service link is the list of prohibited items.
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