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Protests Show Extremists,Disinformation06/01 06:35

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. officials are seeking to determine whether extremist 
groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and 
deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence  and if 
foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social 
media.

   As demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City 
and overseas Sunday, federal law enforcement officials insisted far-left groups 
were stoking violence. Meanwhile, experts who track extremist groups also 
reported seeing evidence of the far-right at work.

   Investigators were also tracking online interference and looking into 
whether foreign agents were behind the effort. Officials have seen a surge of 
social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month, 
a textbook sign of a disinformation effort.

   The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests, material on police 
brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to 
inflame tensions across the political divide, according to three administration 
officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss 
investigations.

   The investigations are an attempt to identify the network of forces behind 
some of the most widespread outbreaks of civil unrest in the U.S. in decades. 
Protests erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, triggered by the death of 
George Floyd, who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis 
police officer's knee.

   Pandemic-weary Americans were already angry  about COVID-19 deaths, 
lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work. The pandemic has 
hit African Americans harder than whites in the U.S., and the killings of black 
people by police have continued over the years even as the topic faded from the 
national stage.

   But there are signs of people with other disparate motives, including 
anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters, and images 
circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.

   Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that state authorities were hit with a 
cyber attack as law enforcement prepared to diffuse protests in Minneapolis and 
St. Paul, the epicenter of the unrest. He described it as a "very sophisticated 
denial of service attack on all computers."

   President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have said 
the left-wing extremist group antifa is to blame. Short for anti-fascists, 
antifa is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist 
neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations.

   Barr on Sunday said the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task 
forces to "identify criminal organizers," and Trump threatened again to name 
antifa a terrorist group.

   The Justice Department is also deploying members of the U.S. Marshals 
Service and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration on Sunday to 
supplement National Guard troops outside the White House, a senior department 
official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly 
and spoke on condition of anonymity.

   The addition of the federal agents, who will have armored vehicles, came as 
Barr warned that prosecutors could seek to use terrorism statutes against 
"violent radical agitators" who attempt to hijack protests to cause destruction.

   An antifa activist group disseminated a message in a Telegram channel on 
Saturday that encouraged people to consider Minnesota National Guard troops 
"easy targets," two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged 
activists to steal "kit," meaning the weapons and body armor used by the 
soldiers. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and 
spoke on condition of anonymity.

   As a result, soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard were armed during 
their mission at protests across the state Sunday, the officials said. The 
soldiers are sometimes armed but had not been since they moved into parts of 
the state that had been besieged by riots in the last few days. The troops do 
not have the authority to make arrests, and are there to act mostly as extra 
security for police.

   Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists. J.J. MacNab, a fellow at 
George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has been monitoring 
chatter about the protests among anti-government extremists on social media 
platforms. She has access to dozens of private Facebook groups for followers of 
the loosely organized "Boogaloo" movement, which uses an '80s movie sequel as a 
code word for a second civil war.

   She also has been poring over images from the weekend protests and spotted 
some "boogaloo bois" in the crowds, carrying high-powered rifles and wearing 
tactical gear.

   "They want to co-opt them in order to start their war. They see themselves 
as being on the side of protesters and that the protesters themselves are 
useful in causing anarchy," MacNab said.

   She also sees signs that the Three Percenters militia movement appears to be 
taking an interest.

   Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who tracks 
online extremism, saw images of at least four members of the far-right Proud 
Boys group on the periphery of a protest Saturday night in Raleigh, North 
Carolina.

   Trump was expected in the coming days to draw distinctions between the 
legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent 
agitators, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the 
plans ahead of time and spoke on condition of anonymity.

   The Trump administration has largely remained silent on local reports that 
far-right protesters were also involved. Meanwhile, Democratic mayors said 
Trump's handling of the crisis was reminiscent of one of the darkest moments of 
his presidency  when he said there were "good people on both sides" of 
protests in 2017 over white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, 
Virginia.

   America's racial fault lines are a perfect opportunity for foreign 
adversaries looking to sow discord and portray the U.S. in a negative light, 
according to James Ludes, director of the Pell Center for International 
Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.

   "This is a real issue and Americans are legitimately upset about it," said 
Ludes, who studies foreign disinformation tactics. "That's one of the hallmarks 
of these campaigns. You don't create new issues, you exploit existing issues."

   There's a history of this. In 2016, another black man, Philando Castile, was 
killed by police in a Minneapolis suburb, his death livestreamed on Facebook. 
Russians used a fake Black Lives Matter page to confuse and stoke anger among 
the protesters. There were nearly 700,000 followers, but it's not clear how 
many were real.

   One debunked example from this week: That Atlanta had deployed a "child 
militia."

   Floyd was accused of trying to pass a bad bill at a grocery store after he 
was laid off in the pandemic. Disturbing video showed him prone on the street, 
while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck even as he 
cried he couldn't breathe. He later died. The officers have been fired; Derek 
Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd in the video, was charged with murder.

   At first there were peaceful demonstrations, but violence soon erupted. A 
Minneapolis police station was torched and protests took off around the 
country, growing increasingly tense. Video showed a police vehicle ramming into 
demonstrators in New York. Meanwhile, a van with four New York Police 
Department officers inside was hit with a Molotov cocktail and torched.

   Hundreds have been arrested nationwide and cities braced for more protests. 
But booking information from the county jail in Minneapolis, for example, 
showed that out of 59 protest-related arrests, 47 people had a home address in 
Minnesota, with the majority coming from the Twin Cities.

   Before protests began in New York City, organizers of anarchist groups began 
raising money for bail, recruited medical teams to deploy for violent 
interactions with police and planned how to target high-end stores, said John 
Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism.

   Scouts on bicycles would also move ahead of the groups to report where the 
police would be and then direct small breakaway groups to areas where they 
could torch police cars or throw Molotov cocktails, Miller said.

   The NYPD has arrested 786 people related to protests since May 28 and 1 in 7 
of them were not from New York City, he said.

   In Washington, where protesters raged outside the White House, most of the 
17 people arrested were from the area. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the groups 
seemed, at the least, organized to destroy with tools to break windows and 
distribute materials.

 
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