Federal government documents obtained by the Guardian show a wide range of explosives, flamethrowers and incendiary devices found by law enforcement agencies outside political conventions, public buildings and protests during 2020 and 2021.
The extent of the weaponry – including timed devices deposited as part of a suspected pro-Trump bomb plot –reveals the perils and potential violence circulating through American politics in the grip of unrest linked to pandemic shutdowns, anti-racism protests and rightwing activism and insurrection that culminated in the attack on the Capitol in Washington.
A separate New York police department intelligence document circulated in the wake of the Capitol attack defines groups including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, QAnon adherents and the Oath Keepers as potential risks to officer safety, characterizing all of the rightwing groups as extremists in the strongest terms yet seen from any law enforcement agency.
The documents, obtained through freedom of information (Foia) requests and provided to the Guardian by transparency group, Property of the People, show federal, local and state agencies’ assessments of what they claim are increasing dangers posed to officers and public safety by extremists and contentious street protests alike.
The document outlining the use of various explosive devices, entitled Overview of devices used in nationwide protests: May 2020-present, was produced by the National Explosives Task Force, which coordinates data and information sharing about explosives incidents between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and a range of local, state and federal agencies.
Published on 14 January, the document was circulated “in preparation for potential violent activity in connection with upcoming presidential inauguration events”, and “to enhance first responder and bomb technician awareness by highlighting examples” of devices and their tactical employment.
The document offers descriptions and pictures, described as “law enforcement sensitive”, of a range of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which were confiscated from protesters around the country, or found at the scene of attempted and successful bombing attacks.
Included is a picture and description of a “suspected metal pipe bomb with mechanical timer” found outside the Republican National Committee building in Washington on 5 January 2021, the night before rioters entered the Capitol building a few blocks away. The document notes that a “similar device” was found the same night outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
The FBI suspects a single person planted both bombs, but despite video evidence, public appeals and the posting of a substantial reward, the identity of the bomb-maker remains unknown.
That device is the most sophisticated of a range of IEDs in the document that appear to have been manufactured from scratch, including an IED recovered in June last year in Atlanta, which the document says was “modified with nails”, and a tubular device equipped with a string fuse, which the document says was “recovered in connection with damage to the Secretary of State building in Detroit” in May last year.
The document also offers examples of fireworks being used at protests, including commercial grade “M-Series” fireworks, whose explosive power means that they are illegal for consumer use.
In one case, a consumer-grade “Nuclear 24” brand fireworks launcher along with two shells which were confiscated last June in Chicago are pictured alongside a burning Chicago police department cruiser, with a caption reading, “deployment of this type of firework caused a police vehicle to catch fire”.
Molotov cocktails – which according to the document were confiscated by police in cities including Las Vegas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania – are also pictured and discussed in the document. In another example, a device which the document claims was confiscated in June in Little Rock, Arkansas, features a plastic bottle filled with “an ignitable liquid” and an M-150 firework intended to function as a detonator.
The document also depicts improvised flamethrowers that it is claimed were confiscated from protesters in Portland and in Erie, Pennsylvania, last June. The document claims the Portland device – a propane-powered weed burner – was confiscated when “individuals were seen testing [the] device in the back of a truck”. The Erie device, though homemade, appears to be modeled on instructions that circulated widely online after Elon Musk’s Boring company launched their own consumer flamethrower device in 2018.
The document also shows pictures illustrating the claim that “items resembling IEDs may be used by businesses attempting to deter looting activity”. In one example, the document shows an image of such a device which it claims “after a business owner posted a warning on social media showing a burglary deterrent resembling an IED”.
The document concludes that “the danger posed to law enforcement officers and the general public from the all the tactics listed is substantial”.
In an email response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the ATF linked the Guardian to information from the National Bomb Data Center showing that IED bombings declined again slightly in 2019 after a record high in 2016, and that suspicious packages and bomb threats also declined after a dramatic year in 2018.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Risks to officer safety are also outlined in the NYPD document, circulated in the wake of the Capitol riots, which defines groups including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, QAnon followers and the Oath Keepers as risks to officer safety, characterizing all of the groups as extremists in the strongest terms yet seen from any law enforcement agency.
The document, which notes the “enduring threat” posed by “by far-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist world views”, describes the Proud Boys as a “far-right extremist, neo-fascist organization that has promoted and engaged in acts of violence throughout the US and Canada”.
It describes QAnon as a “broad conspiracy movement with antisemitic underpinnings that falsely alleges, based on purportedly classified intelligence, that an elite cabal of pedophiles, led by Democrats, is plotting to harm children and undermine President Trump”.
The document, entitled Awareness of Extremist Imagery Provides Opportunities for Officer Safety Amid Elevated Inauguration Threat Environment, was circulated on 15 January to a national network of Fusion Centers, whose role is to facilitate information sharing between state, federal, local and tribal agencies.
Asked about the evidence of a newfound focus on far-right groups in the documents his organization obtained, the Property of the People’s executive director, Ryan Shapiro, said: “Intelligence agencies have monitored violent, far-right groups for years, but overwhelmingly the results of those investigations have simply gathered dust.”
He added: “Intelligence and law enforcement’s longstanding political policing of the left while simultaneously ignoring or even aiding literal fascists was one of the driving forces behind the January 6 attempted coup.”