WASHINGTON — In April 2009, a senior Homeland Security intelligence analyst named Daryl Johnson wrote an internal report warning that right-wing extremism was on the rise in the United States and that it could lead to violence.
The report leaked, and the backlash was swift. Republican lawmakers were furious. Veterans advocates criticized a section raising concerns about service members returning with post-traumatic stress. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for parts of it, and the unit ultimately was dissolved.
Nearly 11 years later, a mob of right-wing extremists, spurred by President Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a deadly riot that highlighted the magnitude of the threat.
"This Capitol insurrection that we just had last week — some people were like OK, this is the climax of the story. No, it's not. This is ushering in a new phase of violence and hostility," Johnson said in an interview. "This isn't the final chapter of a movement that's dying out."
Johnson, who runs DT Analytics, a security consulting firm, published a 2019 book about U.S. extremism called "Hateland." He spoke to NBC News about the threat and how it can be quelled.
A transcript follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
NBC NEWS: Take me back to 2009. What were you seeing that prompted you to write this report?
JOHNSON: In January of 2007, Capitol Police tipped us off that Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, was going to announce his candidacy for president. We all knew that was going to be the worst-case scenario for white supremacists. They said it would be the low point in America when you had "a black" occupy the White House — that was kind of in their literature.
When he won the Democratic nomination, we started seeing white supremacist groups lashing out and threatening him. That, coupled with the housing bubble bursting in '08, left lot of people underwater financially — they started looking for scapegoats for their problems.
NBC NEWS: And you didn't publicize this report, but it got out.
JOHNSON: We disseminated it to police, and then it got leaked. We wrote up the report, it went through 23 revisions, got vetted at all levels, coordinated it with the FBI, went and briefed Janet Napolitano a couple of days before it was disseminated. When I was headed home that day, my branch chief, my immediate supervisor, talked about what a great briefing it was, and she was hearing a lot of positive feedback. Then three days later, all hell broke loose.
NBC NEWS: Let's fast-forward to the present. According to former Trump-era DHS official Elizabeth Neumann, "In the last 10 years, 76 percent of terrorist attacks have come from the right wing in our country." Do you feel validated by the warnings you put out at the time?
JOHNSON: When I wrote that assessment, I was just doing my job. I knew what I wrote was accurate and true. It's just unfortunate that my message got lost in the politicization of the whole thing. I don't take any satisfaction in knowing that I was right. I just wish people would listen and do something about it. So I'm more frustrated than anything.
NBC NEWS: What was your reaction when you saw the insurrection on the Capitol last week?
JOHNSON: Over the summer, spring and fall we had two other capitol buildings, in Michigan and Idaho, that were overrun and breached by the same type of people. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that these people will do a similar thing to try to stop the election. I thought it was going to be at another state capitol building, but it ended up being the U.S. Capitol. So it wasn't a surprise. But it was shocking to see what was going on and how the crowd was incited and turned into this violent mob.
NBC NEWS: One thing I was struck by reading your report is some of the factors you describe as triggers for extremism are associated with President Trump's platform — stoking fear of immigrants, warning that guns will be taken away, talking about a new world order in which U.S. sovereignty is trampled. What role has he played in this?
JOHNSON: He's been the major contributor to stoking the fears and spreading lies and disinformation and promoting conspiracy theories. So he's definitely poured a lot of fuel on this fire. This fire was already raging when he came into the office, and he just took it to a whole new level. This Capital insurrection that we just had last week — some people were like, OK, this is the climax of the story. No, it's not. This is ushering in a new phase of violence and hostility. This isn't the final chapter of a movement that's dying out. It's not.
NBC NEWS: And that's what I wanted to get to next. When you say it's not the final chapter, what should we expect in the coming weeks, months and maybe years?
JOHNSON: The government is — if they're responsible — going to be developing programs and resources to start combating the problem. These people have had over 10 years to stockpile weapons and ammunition to get stoked up and paranoid and fearful. So we've got to be very careful about how we go about cracking down on these groups. If there are gun laws passed, that's just going to feed right into their narratives, draw more recruits, radicalize people.
It needs to be more about de-radicalizing. Funding organizations that have people that have left the movement and can develop strategies on how to do outreach and pull people out. There needs to be a massive marketing campaign on what should citizens be doing. If you've got family members, neighbors, co-workers that are part of these movements, rather than ostracize and debate and criticize and isolate them, we need to love them, have compassion and bring them into the mainstream. The only way you're going to get rid of hate is through love. Every person I've ever known about that's been a white supremacist has left the movement through an act of compassion or love. They didn't leave it because someone convinced them that their belief systems were wrong.
NBC NEWS: Do you believe the president's defeat will potentially stoke the fires even more, or do you think his ouster paves the way for calming them?
JOHNSON: It has the potential to do either. And it's going to depend on Republican leaders, what they decide to do. Because the Democrats, no matter how hard they're going to try, these people won't listen. It's going to take Republican leadership for these people to listen and actually tone down.
The majority of these people are radicalizing in different phases of it. They haven't committed criminal actions yet. Those are the ones that you need to talk to — don't jump off the side of the cliff and become a terrorist. Focus on the root causes of the radicalization: the conspiracy theories, the lies and disinformation that was put out there. All that needs to be done through churches, faith-based communities, civil rights organizations, veterans organizations.
NBC NEWS: To be clear, are you suggesting that the new administration not pursue any gun control measures?
JOHNSON: Exactly. They should avoid that at all costs. Because all that does is play exactly into what the extremists believe — that Democrats will come after your guns. When you start threatening their guns, they're going to get more defensive and even pre-emptive and more angry and agitated. So I would hold off on that and focus more on community engagement and trying to get these people to renounce QAnon, renounce that the vote was rigged and that there was rampant voter fraud.
These people that invaded the Capitol last week thought they were doing a noble endeavor. They thought they were rescuing the Constitution and protecting our nation, that they were true patriots against this evil group of people that want to take away our rights and put us in a socialist state. So that is a huge, huge problem — the fact that we have political leaders, including the president, that's basically implanted that idea and has not backed away from it.
NBC NEWS: You alluded earlier to a final chapter that this is not. What would that final chapter look like if these people have their way?
JOHNSON: According to them, they want a civil war. So that would be a final chapter. Having a bunch of massive terrorist attacks and chaos in the streets and political leaders being assassinated. That's kind of the phase we're moving into right now.
NBC NEWS: That's horrifying.
JOHNSON: Yeah. A final chapter for me would be programs get implemented, people start renouncing these things, we get a handle on these conspiracy theories and discrediting them, have a system in place where sites that propagate this stuff — particularly QAnon, if we have violent acts attributed to people that believe in that, these people need to be held financially accountable. Maybe even criminally accountable. You can't just create these conspiracy theories and profit off of it and then people act violently and you're not responsible for their behavior. So accountability is a big one.