FBI looking for man in Senate with zip ties, tactical gear; experts call him a rioter 'hunting for people'
Holding five pairs of zip-tie handcuffs, a man in head-to-toe paramilitary gear coursed through the upper level of the U.S. Senate Chamber Wednesday, captured by a Getty photographer as a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the nation's Capitol.
The man was not with security, who'd recently evacuated U.S. Senators and Vice President Mike Pence from the floor below. Experts say he was among the rioters who disrupted U.S. Congress's certification of Trump's election loss with violence, resulting in five fatalities to date.
With his identity unconfirmed by officials as of Thursday evening, the motives of the man whose tactical gear is adorned with symbols indicating support for military and police — including a "thin blue line" in the shape of Tennessee — cannot be verified.
But for two counter-terrorism experts, the photographs bring to mind a recent plot hatched by Michigan extremist group the Wolverine Watchmen — to take politicians hostage after storming the state capitol and subduing law enforcement with Molotov cocktails, according to sworn Federal Bureau of Investigation statements in court documents.
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Extremists recently plotted to storm a state Capitol, take hostages
The Michigan extremists eventually shifted their focus, from a siege on the state capitol to kidnapping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from her home. The FBI announced the arrest of 13 people, on federal and state charges, in October.
Ari Weil, deputy research director for the University of Chicago's Militant Propaganda Analysis team, said the zip ties seen at the Capitol Wednesday are "reminiscent" of the Michigan plot — and suggest a desire to "conduct vigilante justice against members of Congress".
Malcolm Nance, a retired Navy counter-terrorism intelligence officer of 35 years and New York Times bestselling author of multiple books on national security, said he had the same thought as Weil when the zip-ties and tactical gear appeared on social media in the aftermath of the first breach of the building in more than 200 years.
"My greatest fear is that they use this mass of people to push through to breach the building — then what we call a Capture and Kill team," Nance said.
As the executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project, a small think tank studying the strategies and tactics of radical ideologies, Nance said he watched the mob escalate in real-time as his team tracked four different live streams from separate sides of the Capitol Wednesday.
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"Someone hung a noose out on the Mall. What makes you think they wouldn't have tried this," he said of the possibility of taking hostages. Nance said his team also observed the use of flag poles and baseball bats as weapons Wednesday. "These guys came for action, to do damage," he said.
'He's hunting for people'
As for the man with the Tennessee patch photographed walking through the Senate Chamber: "He's hunting for people," Nance said.
He doesn't think he acted alone. The size of the restraints; the man's lack of a backpack; and the unlikelihood he was walking around with them in the open prior to Nance means, "They came from someone else.. someone else is there cooperating."
Images shared on Twitter by John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher for the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which studies the intersection of cyberspace, global security and human rights, show a second rioter donning a helmet, holding similar zip ties.
Douglas Korneski, the special agent in charge of the Memphis Field Office, coordinates FBI counter-terrorism efforts in Tennessee. He said Thursday evening the agency was working to identify the man with the Tennessee patch.
Friday evening, Korneski said the FBI was still working to identify him.
"I can confirm we are aware of that photo and are working with our state counterparts in any way we can to identify him," Korneski said Thursday. The agency has opened a tip line to receive information, photos and/or video at www.fbi.gov/USCapitol and 1-800-CALL-FBI.
"The FBI is aggressively working to identify any of the individuals who were involved in yesterday's events and is working very closely with the Department of Justice in any way we can to prosecute those individuals," Korneski said.
Despite all of the man's tactical gear and emblems, Nance said the man's appearance does not convey military experience to him, as he says the body armor and other gear documented in the photograph is not what a veteran with combat experience would be likely to select.
"He's got all the cool guy stuff. But he's not real," Nance said.
Nance also noted the man had pepper spray; and said Friday the weapon in a holster on the man's hip was a Taser, after ongoing research determined it was not a pistol as he initially thought Thursday.
Contibuting: Travis Dorman, Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel
Follow Sarah Macaraeg on Twitter @seramak.