The conspiracy theory-based movement poses a different type of terrorist threat.
You probably heard about QAnon this week. When a reporter asked Donald Trump about it; the president said, “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate” and called them “people that love our country.”
When asked about “this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said “I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”
Mainstream media outlets ran reports about the conspiracy theory, bringing it to new audiences. By focusing on Trump’s involvement — supposedly leading a secret war against a “deep state” of child sex traffickers — many reports left out the public aspect. QAnon followers believe a government official with high-level “Q” clearance feeds them cryptic but decipherable messages via the imageboard website 4chan (then migrated to 8chan, now 8kun) in preparation for a violent, holy, revolutionary event called “the Storm,” in which they, Trump, and their secret allies will rise up and free the world from an evil pedophile cabal, complete with mass arrests and executions.
Many reports describe it as fringe, but while QAnon started on the fringes, it now has millions of followers, presidential validation, and widespread media coverage. Some 20 QAnon believers — including 19 Republicans and one Independent — are running for Congress. One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, won her primary in a red district and is likely headed to Washington. QAnon, in some form, is here to stay.
It’s an online movement whose members collectively fantasize about violence. A few have committed real-world violence, including two murders and arson. In May 2019, an FBI report warned that “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” posed a domestic terrorism threat, naming QAnon. A July report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center drew comparisons to conspiracy theory-driven terrorism outside of the United States. QAnon researchers, such as Travis View and Kevin Roose, have been warning about the potential for violence.
But what raises QAnon to a pressing national security concern is the 2020 election.
How big is the threat?
Terrorism analysts have long worried about the “self-starter” problem, in which individuals who are sympathetic to a cause do violence on their own, without orders, direction, or training from a terrorist group. As we have seen with jihadists, self-starters can’t pull off larger-scale assaults like September 11th or the 2015 Paris attacks, but they’re also harder to identify and thwart in advance. Examples include the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shooting, and various vehicle-ramming attacks.
As Peter W. Singer pointed out in early 2018, the deadliest terrorist threat to Americans in 2008–17 was not jihadists, who accounted for 26 percent of extremist killings, but far-right ideologies, such white nationalists, who were responsible for 71 percent (left-wing extremists made up the last 3 percent). Since then, the U.S. has faced sizable white nationalist terrorist attacks, including the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (October 2018, killed 11) and the El Paso Walmart shooting (August 2019, killed 22).
Jihadists and white nationalists use the internet in similar ways: organizing, recruiting, spreading information, and encouraging self-starters. Here there’s some overlap with QAnon. Like white nationalists, QAnon is a diffuse, leaderless movement. The real identity of Q isn’t known, it’s possible multiple people have posted as Q, and while Q could encourage violence, there’s no indication that the person(s) behind the account has the interest or ability to orchestrate a terrorist campaign like bin Laden or al Baghdadi. The primary danger comes from self-starters. And if QAnon followers behave like internet-based jihadists or white nationalists, they — or at least a subset — will venerate co-believers who take it upon themselves to advance the cause with violence.
But unlike jihadists and white supremacists, many followers of QAnon aren’t ideologues or interested in violence. As game designer Adrian Hon argues, much of their participation resembles play in an alternate reality game, with a large cast of characters and clues to decipher with your friends. A common type of QAnon believer is a 60-something white, church-going woman who’s retired, or a full-time mom whose kids are grown. In QAnon Facebook group chats, many participants come across as lonely, not fanatical.
But the movement is so large that a small percentage of violent adherents would present a national security problem.
There’s no conspiracy to “replace” white Christians with Latinos and Muslims and take over America, but that didn’t stop the El Paso shooting, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and other white nationalist terrorism driven by that theory. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect the non-existence of a conspiracy of powerful child-trafficking Satan-worshipers to stop QAnon, much as that pesky fact didn’t stop a man from attacking the Comet Pizza shop in Washington, D.C., because of the smaller, less complicated, but no more accurate QAnon antecedent known as “Pizzagate.” (The man believed Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were trafficking children through Comet’s basement. Fortunately, though he fired three shots, he didn’t hit anyone, and, finding that Comet lacked a basement and any signs of children in danger, he surrendered to police.)
The number of QAnon believers is hard to measure, but it’s safe to say it’s in the millions. Believers include current police officers and retired military. A study by The Guardian found QAnon Facebook and Instagram groups with, in total, more than 4.5 million members.
Some probably joined by accident. Maybe some are fake accounts (though Facebook’s pretty good at limiting those). And it’s likely that many users joined more than one group. So let’s estimate 1 million unique QAnon believers on Facebook and Instagram.
Now, assume those million users constitute the entirety of QAnon. And assume 99 percent are harmless. They don’t really believe, or they do but they envision the Storm as a series of orderly arrests by law enforcement, or they think average people need to rise up but they’d be too scared or squeamish or lazy to follow through themselves.
Assuming 99 percent are harmless still leaves 10,000 potential terrorists. And if the QAnon community is larger than a million — which it likely is — or if the group who really believe and might act violently is closer to 3 percent than 1, that’s tens of thousands.
Whatever the actual number, it’s safe to say QAnon has crossed the threshold between (1) small enough that it’s best not to bring it up to avoid amplifying it and inadvertently helping it grow, and (2) sufficiently large, publicly known, and dangerous that it’s better to understand it, inform the public, and think about how to prevent violent attacks it could inspire.
Like other cults that believe a day of judgment is coming, Q has highlighted precise dates, only to see them pass with prophecies unfulfilled. But unlike other cults, this one, whether they realize it or not, has a fixed inflection point in the near future: the 2020 election.
Donald Trump (hero) and the Clintons, Obamas, and therefore Bidens (villains), feature prominently in QAnon narratives. The more someone believes this, the more they think the election is not a democratic decision between two different visions for the country, but a showdown between the forces of evil and an avatar of goodness. They swore an oath — yes, literally — to help if not Trump per se, at least his (not real) secret crusade against the (also not real) conspiracy of child traffickers.
If Trump loses, or it looks like he’s losing, some might follow their conspiracy theory to the conclusion that evil is winning and they have to try to stop it with force.
Again, the dangerous subset need not be large. Given the size of the QAnon community, a quarter of one percent taking the violent implications seriously means at least a few thousand potential threats that could become more active around election time. Dangers include armed intimidation at polling places the day of the vote, and of electoral or judicial officials in the event of a contested result. Some may turn to violence, attacking individuals and locations they believe are involved in the conspiracy, seeing it as a last-ditch effort to “save the children.”
Given Trump’s role as hero of their conspiracy theory, the QAnon community saw encouragement in his comments. Many already pore over the president’s public communications, assuming that grammatical errors and odd phrasings are clues to the secret messages he’s sending to prepare them for the Storm. Direct praise gave them further validation.
Trump’s claim not to know much about QAnon didn’t faze believers. They think he’s lying. And in this they’re right, but for the wrong reasons.
Trump is lying. He must be aware of QAnon. Not because he started paying attention to things like FBI threat reports, but because QAnon has been part of internet culture for over two years, and has a substantial presence in circles that intersect with the Trumps’.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory from the internet and Donald Trump is an internet troll/conspiracy theorist. He has retweeted QAnon-promoting accounts 216 times. Mainstream media outlets have covered it. Maybe the just-saw-something-praising-me excuse works a few times, but it increasingly becomes absurd.
If Trump somehow didn’t connect the Q signs at his rallies to the Q hashtags in his replies, people close to him would have. His former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn shared a video of himself and his family taking the QAnon oath. Speechwriter Stephen Miller, recently demoted campaign manager Brad Parscale, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and presidential son Don Jr. spend a lot of time in right-wing internet circles. They might not have studied QAnon closely, but they’re aware of it.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Chris Wallace asked Mark Meadows about QAnon. Trump’s chief of staff was on message: “We don’t even know what it is.”
It might be nothing more than Trump refusing to speak ill of supporters heading into the election. It’s also possible Team Trump sees QAnon as potentially useful; a card to hang on to for later. Either way, the White House’s response to this domestic terrorism threat is to wink at it and play dumb.
Win, lose, or too close to call, Trump will be in a position to activate the violent subsets of QAnon, deliberately or inadvertently. The president has been insisting, without evidence, that the election will be rigged, blaming an ambiguous “they” or a rotating cast of villains. The conspiracy-minded QAnon community makes for a receptive audience.
If Trump starts tweeting things like “RIGGED! They’re trying to take your country. Don’t let them! THIS IS IT! Second Amendment!” — let alone if he uses QAnon lingo like “the Storm is upon us” — there’s a risk that some violence-embracing QAnon followers decide to act. And if some do, it could encourage others.
Maybe I’m wrong, and the election will pass without self-starter terrorism connected to QAnon, white nationalism, or other far-right ideologies. I hope so. But the probability is far enough from zero that counter-terrorism and law enforcement should make it a top priority, at least until the results of the election settle in.