We’re About to Find Out How Dangerous the FBI Thinks QAnon Really Is

At least 34 QAnon followers have been arrested in connection with the Capitol insurrection.
April 15, 2021, 12:49pm
QAnon conspiracy theory believers were front and center at the Jan. 6 rally in support of Trump's baseless claims of widespread election fraud as well as the riot that followed. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
QAnon conspiracy theory believers were front and center at the Jan. 6 rally in support of then-President Trump's baseless claims of widespread election fraud as well as the riot that followed. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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In May 2019, an FBI memo produced by the agency’s Phoenix field office described QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat, saying it would “emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

At the time, QAnon was a little-known movement that was still largely siloed on fringe and alternative websites like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. But the FBI’s prediction proved eerily accurate.

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In the almost two years since that memo was produced, QAnon has gone mainstream. It exploded on major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It was tacitly endorsed by a sitting president. It has been linked to numerous acts of violence, including at least four murders. It’s torn families across America apart. And, its followers played a key role in the Capitol insurrection just three months ago.

But in all that time, the FBI has refused to publicly update its assessment of the QAnon movement. Now, that’s about to change.   

On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Worldwide Threats that he was going to release a report on the threat posed by the group “very shortly.” 

The move is a delayed response to a letter sent in December by a group of senators asking the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a written assessment of QAnon, which they said “has inspired acts of domestic extremism and violence, sought to undermine democratic institutions, and contributed to hatred in the United States and overseas.”

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The FBI didn’t immediately respond, and a month after the letter was sent, QAnon adherents played a central role in the Capitol riots.

In February the FBI finally submitted a report to Congress, according to Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who questioned Wray during Wednesday’s hearing. That report was not classified, but it was labeled “for official use only,” meaning it could not be shared publicly.

For the last two months, Heinrich said, his staff has been working with agents at the FBI to create a version of the report that can be made public. 

On Wednesday, Wray said the report is close to being finalized.

“My understanding is my staff is working with yours and we should be able to get you a fully unclassified version very shortly,” Wray said. 

The FBI director did however outline how the agency is thinking about QAnon right now. “We understand QAnon to be more of a reference to a complex conspiracy theory or set of complex conspiracy theories, largely promoted online, which has sort of morphed into more of a movement.”

He also said that at least five self-identified QAnon supporters had been arrested in the wake of the Capitol insurrection—however, a recent analysis of the people charged for offenses during the riot showed that 34 QAnon followers had been arrested for various crimes related to the Capitol attack.

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QAnon began life on 4chan in late October 2017, when the anonymous leader of the movement, known simply as Q, posted their first message. But soon after that, Q moved to another message board known as 8chan, which subsequently became 8kun. The website is owned by Americans Jim Watkins and operated by his son Ron Watkins.

A recent documentary series that delved into the origins of QAnon shows the pivotal role the Watkins family played in facilitating the growth of QAnon, and presents evidence that Ron Watkins himself may have in fact posted messages as Q after the movement migrated to the site he controlled.

Heinrich raised the question of whether Jim and Ron Watkins could face criminal prosecution for their part in QAnon’s growth, but Wray said that the FBI is focused on violence perpetrated by any particular group, not just their ideology. 

“We have to be careful to be focused on violence, threats to violence, and things that violate federal criminal law,” Wray said. “There may be certain instances where language becomes part of a conspiracy, and there are instances where there are other federal statutes which may be violated. But those are complicated questions which I would refer to the lawyers over at the Justice Department.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.