Thirteen people have been arrested in alleged plots to kidnap the Michigan governor and attack the state capitol building, prosecutors said on Thursday.
The group plotted to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and frequent target of Republican President Donald Trump’s ire, ahead of the November 3 US presidential election, according to an FBI affidavit released on Thursday.
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“Our efforts uncovered elaborate plans to endanger the lives of law enforcement officers, government officials and the broader public,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told a news conference to announce the charges.
Seven people were charged with material support to “terrorism” related to an alleged plot to storm Michigan’s state capitol building, authorities revealed.
Six other men were charged with plotting to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in a United States federal court.
Nessel announced additional charges against the seven men under the state’s anti-terrorism law. She said that the men, all in custody, were linked to the militia group Wolverine Watchmen.
They are suspected of attempting to identify the homes of law enforcement officers to “target them” and make “threats of violence intended to instigate a civil war”.
They also planned and trained for an operation to attack the Michigan capitol building and to kidnap government officials, including Whitmer, Nessel said.
These charges included material support to “terrorist” acts, membership in a gang, and possessing a firearm while committing a felony, commonly called “felony firearm”, as part of a plot to attack the capitol building.
Whitmer has been praised but also deeply criticised for the state’s response to the coronavirus. She put major restrictions on personal movement throughout the state and on the economy, although many of those limits have been lifted.
At the onset of the restrictions, militia groups protested at the Michigan State Capitol, brandishing assault rifles and other weapons.
Whitmer reacted to the charges at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, saying she “never expected” such tumult when she assumed office in January 2019.
“Hatred, bigotry and violence have no place in the state of Michigan”, she continued, calling those allegedly involved in the plots “sick and depraved men.”
Michiganders will get through the political tensions and upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Whitmer said. She also thanked law enforcement for thwarting the alleged plot.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden said the the shows of force directed towards Whitmer were a cause for worry.
“People walk around the governor’s driveway with assault rifles and wave flags, and this is something to be concerned about”, Biden said after landing in Phoenix, Arizona, for a campaign stop.
Biden said Trump inflamed tensions and encouraged far-right groups with his rhetoric. Trump has been criticised for failing to condemn white nationalist and militia groups in the past.
Trump condemned all white supremacist groups on October 2, after appearing to tell the far-right Proud Boys to “stand down” at the first presidential debate.
“The words of a president matter”, Biden said in Arizona. “They can also breathe oxygen into those who are filled with hate and danger. And I just think it’s gotta stop.”
Court ruling unsealed
Four of the six men accused of the kidnapping plot had planned to meet Wednesday to “make a payment on explosives and exchange tactical gear,” the FBI said in the court filing unsealed earlier on Thursday.
The FBI quoted one of the accused as saying Whitmer “has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now. All good things must come to an end.”
The government used informants and undercover agents to thwart the alleged plot. The criminal complaint said the plan involved Whitmer and her second home in northern Michigan.
Nessel said the operation was a “joint effort” and thanked “hundreds” of law enforcement officers for their cooperation.
Nessel was joined by attorneys and law enforcement from across Michigan, and FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Josh Hauxhurst, who called the alleged conspirators “extremists”.
Michigan State Police (MSP) Colonel Joseph Gasper said the case, which involved surveilling residents of both Michigan and Delaware, was “one of the largest cases … the MSP has been involved in”.
Through electronic communications, two of the alleged conspirators “agreed to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution,” the FBI said in the filing.
The criminal complaint identified the six as Adam Fox, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta, all of Michigan, and Barry Croft of Delaware.
Fox said he needed 200 men to storm the capitol building in Lansing and take hostages, including the governor, according to the FBI.
He said he wanted to try Whitmer for “treason” and would execute the plan before the November 3 election, the government said.