Massive security phalanx aims to shield Biden inauguration from mob, 'lone wolf' threats

Pentagon and FBI officials are screening participating troops to thwart any insider attack

  
Members of the National Guard patrol near the U.S. Capitol building ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021. REUTERS

Members of the National Guard patrol near the U.S. Capitol building ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021. REUTERS

Andrew Kelly

WASHINGTON - Washington braced for a tense inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday, as more than 25,000 National Guard troops stood watch over a barricaded city, emptied of the spectators who usually throng to the quadrennial ritual.

With much of downtown fenced off, security analysts expressed confidence the unprecedented precautions would protect Biden's noon EST (1700 GMT) oath of office from a major assault, like the attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago to the day that left five people dead. 

Few signs of an organized plot to disrupt the inauguration have emerged, experts say, but the threat of "lone wolf" attacks, or violence carried out by radicalized individuals, was still a concern, particularly at state capitals.

As Trump left the White House for the final time on Wednesday morning, his helicopter flew over thousands of American and state flags planted in the National Mall, standing in for the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered for past inaugurations to watch the proceedings on big-screen televisions. 

Near the Supreme Court, about 20 National Guard soldiers stood watch as a handful of protesters shouted anti-gay and anti-feminist slogans through a bullhorn.

Dennis Pluchinsky, a former State Department terrorism analyst, said some right-wing protesters may rally outside Washington's fenced-off central security zone or cause violence there, in a bid to tarnish Biden's message of reuniting the nation.

But he said their disruption shouldn't mar the ceremony. "There is nothing they can do to hurt Biden. I think all they are trying is to fly their flag and poison the inauguration," said Pluchinsky, who is publishing a four-volume history of anti-U.S. extremism.

Pentagon and FBI officials are screening participating troops to avert any insider attack.

On Tuesday, Pentagon officials said a dozen National Guard members had been removed from inauguration duty after vetting that included screening for potential ties to right-wing extremism, and troubling text messages. 

FLAGS NOT PEOPLE

Officials have left little to chance this year. Bridges between Virginia and downtown Washington have been closed, as have Metro stations in the central security area, which some residents have likened to the fortress-like Green Zone of central Baghdad in Iraq.

Some intercity bus services have been suspended, as have many bike-share stations and Amtrak trains running south from Union Station, which pass through a tunnel just east of the Capitol.

With inaugural balls and other parties previously canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event has taken on a somber tone in Washington. 

The number of troops in Washington is three times the normal number of National Guard troops, said Major General William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard.

"We're not taking any chances," Walker told NBC. "It's just to ensure the peaceful transition of presidential power."

In addition, some 2,300 law enforcement officials from across the United States have been sworn in as special deputy U.S. marshals, supporting the overall security operation led by the U.S. Secret Service.

Actions by Twitter and Facebook to suspend accounts calling for violence has pushed organizing activity onto unmoderated channels such as 8kun, said Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonprofit group that conducts public-interest research and investigations.

"The promotion of violence on these fringe channels are explicit, and include instructions on weapon modifications and combat techniques," Jones said. "The FBI appears to be taking these threats seriously, but disciplined lone wolf actors, regardless of ideology, are extremely difficult to track."

(Reporting by David Lawder, Jonathan Landay, Heather Timmons, David Shepardson, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Writing by David Lawder and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Heather Timmons, Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Oatis) ((David.Lawder@tr.com; +1 202 354 5854; Reuters Messaging: david.lawder.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))


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