In the fall of 2016—years before his supporters laid siege to the Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results—Donald Trump was hedging his bets against a potential loss. Less than a month before that year’s presidential election, he ominously warned his supporters in Pennsylvania that “we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us, and is not taken away from us.” Days later, he wrote on Twitter that the “election is absolutely being rigged,” claiming that the “dishonest and distorted media” was unfairly promoting his rival—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. If she won, he suggested, the result would be illegitimate.
Some of his most fervent disciples decided to follow what they saw as Trump’s call to action. Curtis Allen, a Kansas resident in his late forties, had joined the military after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In 2016, he spent much of his time on Facebook sharing right-wing memes, while serving as a commander in the so-called Kansas Security Force, a far-right militia movement. Convinced that Clinton was going to snatch up the election, he and a small group of other Kansas Security Force members planned what NBC News journalist Ryan J. Reilly contends “would have been one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in American history.”
Reilly outlines the unsuccessful plot and its aftermath in his new book, Sedition Hunters. Allen and his co-conspirators were arrested in the fall of 2016, before the election. But bringing a case against them for domestic terrorism was riddled with difficulties and contradictions. In a sentencing memo, his lawyers argued that Allen’s “misguided patriotism was inflamed by the rhetoric of the 2016 political climate,” along with the Russian influence campaign to elect Trump. Allen, a veteran who had joined the military to fight foreign terrorism, had become a terrorist himself, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, the attorneys for one of Allen’s co-conspirators noted that there would be no consequences for the perpetrator of the lies that had inspired the group to violence.
The 2016 case haunts Reilly’s book, which focuses on the insurrection on January 6, 2021, and the ensuing federal investigation, as Reilly traces the conditions that culminated in the siege on the Capitol. The conspiracy to carry out a domestic terrorist attack in Kansas was a precursor to the violence that would occur nearly five years later—and prosecutors would come up against similar problems when they set about identifying and charging the perpetrators of January 6. As Reilly shows, the task was in fact so vexed that the FBI lagged behind a group of independent citizen sleuths, whose work both resulted in many breakthroughs and revealed worrying weak spots in the justice system. Unlike the technologically challenged and politically strained Justice Department, these ordinary Americans had a single-minded focus on identifying the insurrectionists and had the internet savvy to achieve their goals. And as their work exposed flaws in the FBI’s investigation, it highlighted a double-edged trend: In the age of social media, anyone can become a hunter.
If Donald Trump was the first TV entertainer to be elected president, the siege of the Capitol was an insurrection that doubled as a televised spectacle. Now-infamous images captured the spirit of the day: There was Jacob Chansley, the self-appointed “QAnon Shaman,” presiding over the Senate chamber shirtless, with a Viking hat and a painted face. There was rioter Richard Barnett, smiling with his feet on then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman diverted rioters away from where senators huddled; representatives donned gas masks in the House chamber; the western front of Capitol building was overtaken, as smoke and Trump flags obscured the clear January sky.
But those photos, while searing, are arguably less powerful than the shaky videos from cell phones and police officer body cameras, the grainy footage from surveillance cameras, and the triumphant social media updates that insurrectionists posted themselves. The assault was tweeted, posted, and streamed by the rioters, who engaged in self-incrimination with a wink and a boast. These are the images that have been used to identify rioters and that have served as the most critical evidence in federal trials.
The greatest tool the FBI had at its disposal was a range of citizen sleuths, eager to sort through the mountain of digital evidence. Soon after the attacks, a sort of internet neighborhood watch arose, naming and flagging insurrectionists for the Justice Department. “The internet is both to blame for January 6 and responsible for helping to solve it,” argues Reilly. Sedition Hunters is named for the cadre of largely anonymous Americans radicalized into action by the insurrection—not to follow former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election but to identify the thousands of rioters who used his words as an excuse to breach the Capitol.
There’s the twentysomething who entraps insurrectionists on a dating app in a modern-day honeypot scheme, the mom who uses her Facebook stalking skills in the name of justice, and the suburban dad who spends the weekend in his garage developing an app to help identify rioters. This app, and other “open-source tools,” allowed the sleuths “to organize and quickly point the FBI to open-source information on the internet that the bureau could check out and vet themselves,” Reilly writes.
However, the tips that they submitted to the FBI “fell into a black hole at the bureau.” The sheer volume of information coming in was overwhelming, with “a seemingly insurmountable digital pile of evidence that grew each day, a database of tips that would grow into the hundreds of thousands, and a long list of criminal suspects spread out all over the country.” Additionally, it did not help that January 6 was in many ways a digitally abetted crime and the Department of Justice as a whole is a helplessly analog agency, its technological capabilities barely reaching the twenty-first century. After all, the FBI was an organization that initially sent out its list of most-wanted rioters via PDF, and required many tips be submitted via USB drives rather than email. The agency was woefully unprepared to handle the sheer scope of the crime: Even though “nearly every field office in the country was involved in the investigation,” Reilly writes, the FBI was “drowning.”
Meanwhile, “a sizable percentage” at the bureau was sympathetic to the group that laid siege to the Capitol, underscoring what Reilly identifies as the right-wing leanings of the FBI agent population. He cites one email from a former FBI employee who identified bureau officials that were “politically aligned with the president and didn’t see what the big deal was” about January 6.
Collaboration between the FBI and the sleuths often depended on the sheer persistence of the sleuths. Reilly outlines the investigative work of a hunter named Joan, who was able to identify a rioter named Brent Bozell IV. Even after Joan spoke with an FBI agent about Bozell, it took weeks for him to be arrested—and that only happened when two people who knew Bozell turned him in. But Joan continued to keep an eye out for Bozell and identified two more instances of him on the front lines of the siege. She shared the new information with federal authorities. The next day, prosecutors presented evidence to a federal grand jury; the jury indicted Bozell on seven counts, including new felony charges inspired by Joan’s discoveries. As Joan joked to Reilly, Bozell “probably would’ve gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for these meddling sleuths.”
Reilly has extensively covered the Justice Department’s investigation for years and is perhaps the best-sourced journalist with the loose coalition of sedition hunters. He writes about them fondly, highlighting how “many of these sleuths I spoke to have rewarding family lives and thriving careers.” In many ways, they are more effective than the FBI: The sedition hunters actually utilize twenty-first-century technology, Reilly says, and are “just better at collaboration.”
Given the important contributions of the sedition hunters, the narrative can obscure the unsettling role citizen investigators are playing in the FBI’s probe. An investigation reliant on internet sleuths to act as unofficial subcontractors does not indicate a functional system of justice. However noble their intentions, the sedition hunters are enabling a surveillance state enforced by its own citizenry. If the Justice Department is indeed broken, it’s unclear whether the sedition hunters are patching holes or worsening the crisis.
“The truth is that the FBI needs real scrutiny,” Reilly writes. “There are fundamental, structural issues that need to be addressed, and it’s unclear when that could happen.” But if that scrutiny and reform does not come from official channels, such as congressional action, then the best check against the failures of the Justice Department will come from ordinary citizens—who face even less oversight than the agency they are lapping in investigating the worst domestic terror attack in modern history.
The work of the sedition hunters, in their uneasy partnership with the Justice Department, is unfinished. There are still many rioters to be identified, charged, and convicted if found guilty. But the sheer scale of the investigation—and the number of suspects—means that the authorities may never get as far as the people who unlawfully breached the Capitol grounds but never entered the building itself.
Take the case of Brandon Straka: A MAGA influencer present at the Capitol on January 6, he encouraged the crowd to storm the building and egged on rioters stealing a police officer’s shield, as demonstrated by video footage that he filmed himself. Despite spending little time behind bars, Straka became a spokesperson for the persecuted “political prisoners” of January 6, even sitting in a faux cell at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Committee conference in a dubious act of performance art.
Straka was arrested in the weeks after January 6, when law enforcement was focusing on more easily identifiable targets—basically, those who had the ill fortune to go viral. But without the video evidence that ensured his conviction, Straka may not have faced any consequence. In fact, the sedition hunters might not even bother trying to identify someone who did not enter the Capitol itself. “By the two year mark, the parameters of chargeable conduct were pretty well-defined: You either had to enter the building, or you had to commit violence or engage in property damage outside. Anything else wasn’t worth wasting time over,” Reilly writes.
Thousands of people will likely never face accountability for traveling to the nation’s seat of government and joining in efforts to overturn the democratic process. Indeed, one could pose for a photo past the barricades and get elected to the House of Representatives the very next year, as Republican Representative Derrick Van Orden did. Now, on the spectrum of destructive violence, crossing the Capitol grounds illegally is hardly the worst crime; yet the justice system isn’t even set up to try such crimes and make a determination.
Accountability, and the lack thereof, is a through line for Reilly’s book: accountability for the rioters, for a Justice Department that failed to prepare for a foreseeable catastrophe, for the law enforcement officers who remain obliquely or explicitly sympathetic to the insurrectionists, even the sedition hunters themselves. Then there is Donald Trump, who looms threateningly over the narrative, the ultimate case study in what may or may not be considered criminal behavior.
Trump was acquitted of inciting the insurrection in an impeachment trial in 2021; he still faces judgment in the federal and state trials on charges of seeking to overturn the presidential election results. But Trump is, if not the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 election, then certainly the likeliest candidate. If he is elected president once more, he could issue pardons for the criminals painstakingly identified by the Justice Department and internet sleuths and sentenced in federal court. The FBI employees apathetic about investigating the insurrection will once again have their preferred president in office, and the probe will fall apart.
To Trump, and to those of his supporters who perpetuate the lie that the riot was somehow conducted by antifa dissidents or FBI plants, January 6 was not a dark day for democracy; it was a noble effort, a rallying cry, a promise to return. The thorny questions presented by the Justice Department’s reliance on the sedition hunters could be cast aside, overshadowed by the renewed power of the very man who inspired their existence.