Experts say far-right figures who die attacking American law enforcement or institutions are being turned into martyrs on the far right. Bevan Hurley reports
Within hours of Ricky Shiffer being shot dead after a stand-off with police in Ohio last Thursday, far-right messageboards Gab and Truth Social began lighting up with conspiracy theorists asking questions.
Why had negotiations with Shiffer failed to end peacefully? Why couldn’t the police disarm him without the use of lethal force? Did any of it even really happen?
“These questions allow people to theorise, and over time they will start to make up answers and fill in the blanks,” Kris Goldsmith, CEO of threat intelligence group Sparverius and a combat veteran who studies disinformation and far-right movements, tells The Independent.
“This is how it starts.”
By raising such questions, a feedback loop is created where disinformation ebbs and flows from the corridors of power and cable television to the dark corners of the internet, Mr Goldsmith says.
The mythology that’s begun to coalesce around Shiffer, a 42-year-old Navy veteran who had been openly calling for violence against FBI agents, follows this familiar theme.
It’s the same tactic that was employed after Ashli Babbitt was shot dead by police as she tried to climb through the window of a barricaded door inside the US Capitol on January 6.
Like Shiffer, Babbitt became ensnared in far-right politics after leaving the military. Both called for “patriots” to turn their extreme rhetoric online into real-world violence.
Babbitt quickly became a martyr of the Maga movement, and Donald Trump was her cheerleader in chief.
“We have these figures on the right that are being transformed into martyrs after their deaths which I think makes sense as this cult that has formed around Donald Trump,” Joseph Russo, an assistant professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University who studies conspiracy theories, tells The Independent.
He describes Trumpism as a “theo-political” movement, whose central belief posits that the former president is a messianic figure who is the only person capable of saving the country.
According to Rolling Stone, Mr Trump has been telling people close to him that Shiffer might actually have been posing as a supporter in an effort to discredit him.
The magazine cited unnamed sources who described Mr Trump’s comments as a “false-flag theory.”
Those false flag allegations tend to stick as events are renarrated to become part of a clandestine operation to smear Mr Trump, Professor Russo says.
And they form a key part of an unprecedented escalation of threats of violence against federal officials since FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago on 8 August, law enforcement experts warn.
‘We need to be ready for war’
Ricky Shiffer arrived at the FBI’s Cincinnati office clad in body armour and wielding a nail gun and an AR-15 at around 9.15am on 11 August. He attempted to breach the visitor’s screening area and fired the nail gun, police later said.
When agents confronted him, he fled in his car towards Interstate 71 where he was spotted by a trooper and fired shots as the trooper pursued him, Lt Nathan Dennis, an Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesperson, told reporters.
In a post on Trump’s online platform Truth Social at 9.29am after the shooting began, Shiffer wrote: “Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t. If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops while.” The message appeared to be cut short.
Shiffer left the interstate north of Cincinnati with police in pursuit, and came to a stop on a remote road in Clinton County, about 45 miles from Cincinnati, shortly before 10am.
He exchanged gunfire with police while hiding in a cornfield before being shot dead at around 3.45pm, police said.
A threat assessment report from Sparverius shows Shiffer created a Twitter account in April 2022 around the time that news broke about the possibility of Elon Musk taking over the platform.
He interacted with rightwing figures including Donald Trump Jr, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Dinesh D’Souza in the months prior to his death, calling for a “1775”-style revolution and spouting rightwing talking points about guns, slavery and transgender issues.
Replying to a tweet from Mr D’Souza on 5 August, which promoted a conspiracy theory that the January 6 Insurrection was the fault of US Capitol police, Shiffer replied: “We need to be ready for the war against the communists who chemically (neuter prepubescent) children and call it gender transitioning, not bellyache about the arguments of 30 years ago. Save ammunition.”
Shiffer also made references to being at the Capitol for January 6, and social media posts and photos taken on the day appear to confirm his presence.
On Truth Social, Shiffer posted several times in the days after the Mar-a-Lago search, according to a NBC News.
He called for FBI agents to be killed “on sight” and posted a vague list of enemies to be targeted.
Shiffer had been on the FBI’s radar for months, law enforcement forces told the New York Times.
But due to free speech protections, it appears none of his threatening posts crossed the high threshold of illegal incitement.
“He didn’t break the law until he picked up a gun and tried to kill FBI agents,” Mr Goldsmith tells The Independent.
As the FBI warns of an unprecedented wave of threats against the agency, Mr Goldsmith says it’s imperative the Justice Department starts policing violent rhetoric on social media more forcefully.
“America needs to have a reckoning with how law enforcement treats terroristic threats as unserious,” he says.
“I think it’s time for someone like (Attorney-General) Merrick Garland to accept the reality of the internet age and come to understand that the former president of the United States is a stochastic terrorist,”
Stochasitic terrorism refers to the use of mass media to provoke random acts of ideologically motivated violence.
“He knows what he’s doing, he’s inciting violence deliberately, it is not an accident,” Mr Goldsmith says.
There are signs that the Justice Department is being spurred into action.
On Monday, the Department of Justice charged Pennsylvania man Adam Bies with making threats against FBI agents.
According to court documents, Mr Bies posted explicit violent warnings on Gab towards the FBI and law enforcement, stating: “My only goal is to kill more of them before I drop” and “If You Work For The FBI Then You Deserve To Die”.
Two days after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago on 8 August, Mr Bies allegedly wrote: “Every single piece of s*** who works for the FBI in any capacity, from the director down to the janitor who cleans their f****** toilets deserves to die. You’ve declared war on us and now it’s open season on YOU.”
Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told CNN on Tuesday that FBI agents were living in fear of retaliatory violence since the Mar-a-Lago search and called for a forceful condemnation from political leaders.
The firestorm of violent rhetoric that erupted after the Mar-a-Lago raid was just a warning shot of what might come should Mr Trump be charged in connection with any of the numerous criminal investigations he is under, Professor Russo tells The Independent.
“I think we’ll see another January-type incident at the very least. We’ll see violence dialed up against federal agencies which in turn will create the increased securitisation of these agencies,” he says.
“On the more dramatic end of things we could somethings along the lines of a civil war. But we are seeing more deep civil unrest, and I think we’re going to see more of those violent events in our near future.”
Veterans on the front lines of the information war
Mr Goldsmith has studied extremism in the military, and says there’s no evidence that veterans are uniquely vulnerable to propaganda.
But he says it’s abundantly clear that propagandists and those who wish to stoke violence are incentivised to target veterans.
Veterans are more likely to take on leadership roles. They run for office, start a small businesses, become community leaders in greater numbers than civilians, says Mr Goldsmith.
They’re also more likely to indoctrinate their immediate social network “down the rabbit hole”.
“The Russians, the Republicans and the far right target veterans for the same reasons that Fortune 500 companies do.”
Veterans were also at the core of the most serious crimes committed on January 6.
The propagandists’ use of language that leverages patriotism and duty to their country, and calls on them to stand up against a so-called stolen election can be especially effective on veterans, Mr Goldsmith says.
“All of these things combined are why conspiracy theory communities like Qanon are so obsessed with the military.”
He wants to see the US military ban service members from using sites like Gab and Truth Social as they were undermining its mission both at home and abroad.
“It would be within military commanders rights to say active duty troops are not allowed to use Gab or Truth Social or Telegram, all of which have been used to perpetuate disinformation that is meant to undermine the good order and discipline of United State military.”