Police describe anarchists' extensive prep for violence, including 'bicycle scouts'

Law enforcement has been focused in recent years on foreign-inspired terror in the U.S., not antifa and homegrown anarchists.
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People walk among the debris of a damaged store on Walnut Street in Philadelphia on May 30, 2020, during a protest against the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck on May 25.Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

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By Tom Winter and Andrew Blankstein

Law enforcement officials, Attorney General William Barr and now President Donald Trump have turned their eyes toward the anti-fascist group called antifa and anarchist groups as the root cause of the increasing violence toward police and the destruction of property as protests breakout in major American cities.

U.S. police officials said they are examining both local and out-of-state actors focused on creating damage and inciting violent confrontations with police (and possibly other protesters) in the name of anarchist and antifa causes.

As has been seen in New York's SOHO and Union Square neighborhoods, as well as in L.A.'s Fairfax District, Chicago's The Loop, and Philadelphia's Center City neighborhood, some of these actors appear to be specifically targeting more wealthy areas or areas perceived as more wealthy.

On Sunday night, New York's top terrorism cop, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, detailed his office's analysis and investigation into why the New York City protests have become so violent and damaging at times.

"No. 1, before the protests began," Miller said, "organizers of certain anarchist groups set out to raise bail money and people who would be responsible to be raising bail money, they set out to recruit medics and medical teams with gear to deploy in anticipation of violent interactions with police."

He added, "They prepared to commit property damage and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities."

"And they developed a complex network of bicycle scouts to move ahead of demonstrators in different directions of where police were and where police were not for purposes of being able to direct groups from the larger group to places where they could commit acts of vandalism including the torching of police vehicles and Molotov cocktails where they thought officers would not be."

Miller said that a review of 686 arrests since Thursday found that one of out of seven were from outside New York City, including Iowa, Nevada, Texas and a number of other states.

"We believe that a significant amount of people who came here from out of the area who have come here as well as the advance preparation, having advance scouts, the use of encrypted information, having resupply routes for things such as gasoline and accelerants as well as rocks and bottles, the raising of bail, the placing of medics," Miller said. "Taken together, (this) is a strong indicator that they plan to act with disorder, property damage, violence, and violent encounters with police before the first demonstration and or before the first arrest."

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told NBC News on Saturday night that the groups use "hit and run" tactics that make it difficult for police to identify them in the large crowds. Law enforcement officials said that makes it difficult to catch up with these actors and make arrests.

Shea said, "They had tactics deployed, prepping stations with additional weapons available." He would not identify these groups by name when asked by NBC News.

Over the last decade the intelligence apparatus of police departments that tries to anticipate and track the movements of antifa or anarchists has diminished, according to multiple senior law enforcement officers.

This has limited the ability of departments to better understand how these small and very loosely coordinated groups move and interact with protesters or attach themselves to protests, the officials said.

One of the problems this poses is not only from an information gathering perspective, but also for law enforcement agencies to disrupt these groups from becoming better organized and causing increased damage and violence associated with larger protests.

Law enforcement officials said that as the terrorism threat has impacted more of the country, police agencies have redirected their focus on foreign terror groups and terror acts that those foreign terror groups seek to inspire in the United States. As a result, the breadth of understanding of these anti-fascist and anarchist groups is not robust.

A sampling of local law enforcement officials found that they believe that there were out-of-state actors among non-violent local community protesters who later were arrested for violent acts or destruction of property over the past few days. But those officials note that they are trying to further assess if there are more established networks facilitating and funding these actors.

The LAPD says that most of the crimes associated with Saturday night's protests and violence were local actors. However, Shea told NBC News that in New York City the arrests for violence on Friday were at least 20 percent from out of town and he suggested the number could grow much higher as they suspected that false addresses were initially given to police at the time of arrest.

This is not the first time that antifa or anarchist clashes with police have gotten attention.

In 2017, Boston Police officials commented on these rogue groups and their ability to hit quickly with violence at officers as well as attempt to destroy property. At a "free speech" rally along the lines of the "Unite The Right" protest that followed the deadly incident in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, then-Police Commissioner William Evans said his officers were hit with bags of urine and other projectiles that senior law enforcement officials told NBC News were tied to antifa-type actors.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies in the New York City area have had these groups on their radar since 2017 when they started appearing at right-wing extremist events to hijack those protests in a more violent way, officials said.

Tom Winter reported from New York and Andrew Blankstein reported from Los Angeles.