Ahead of the Chauvin trial, authorities warn of threat of cyberattacks and white supremacist violence

In the months leading up to the murder trial of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, federal officials warned local authorities to be wary of potential cyber attacks on government and court computer systems, and the potential for white supremacist groups to travel to the Twin Cities area to incite racial violence,

The warnings, which were presented in a series of internal intelligence briefings, also warned of potential threats in other high-profile court cases, including state and federal trials in early 2022 for the other three officers. accused of aiding and abetting the murder of Floyd.

“White supremacist extremists (WSEs) could emerge and exploit otherwise peaceful protests to engage in violence against law enforcement and others involved in activities protected by the First Amendment,” a briefing said. , which, like others examined by the Star Tribune, has been labeled a secret, but declassified. .

A separate assessment concluded that “it is very likely that law enforcement and government agencies in Minnesota will face an increased threat of being targeted by cyber actors during the trial period.”

The declassified briefings were produced using intelligence from the local FBI office, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, and the Minnesota Fusion Center, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Safety. They offer the first glimpse of how federal and state law enforcement dealt with potential threats to the historic trial less than a year after riots engulfed the city.

Thanks to Chauvin’s six-week trial, Minneapolis has enjoyed an unprecedented level of security. Hundreds of law enforcement officers were deployed, along with National Guard troops, and the downtown courthouse was transformed into a fortress of razor wire fences and barriers. concrete. State lawmakers have passed $ 7.8 million in pre-trial emergency funding to help cover additional security costs. In total, Hennepin County spent $ 3.7 million on courthouse security, worker salaries and other trial-related expenses.

But the lawsuit did not spark the kind of turmoil that followed Floyd’s death, and it’s unclear whether any of the potential threats mentioned in the briefings materialized. Still, authorities have warned that “the diverse threat of domestic terrorism may persist in future trials,” according to a briefing.

Another briefing warned of additional threats that could include “malicious cyber actors targeting the state of Minnesota and local networks, or foreign intelligence entities (FIEs) conducting targeted collection and surveillance operations.” .

The city has seen a wave of cyber attacks following Floyd’s murder “led by hacktivist groups, but not during the trial in the spring of 2021,” city officials said in a statement.

“The threat landscape is changing locally in the United States and around the world. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in ransomware, crypto-mining, denial of service attacks, and malware infections. The city of Minneapolis is constantly evolving its use of cybersecurity technology and practices to deal with cyberattacks, ”the statement said.

In an internal report, federal authorities said they anticipate the potential for “malicious cyber activity” in the form of denial of service attacks on government networks, website “degradations” and “doxxing,” which involves posting a person’s personal information online.

A state official told federal authorities that in the days following Floyd’s death, “unidentified malicious actors” caused statewide outages of emergency communications systems using attacks by directed denial of service. In these so-called DDoS attacks, hackers funnel traffic to a website until it is overwhelmed, according to an internal document.

A Department of Homeland Security report in December 2020 concluded that while there had been no “specific and credible reports that national terrorists” were planning attacks on critical infrastructure or law enforcement, Authorities remained “concerned about the potential (of national terrorists) to incite or commit violence with little or no warning” in the preparation and during the Chauvin trial.

In particular, according to the report, the Boogaloo movement – a loose network of anti-government radicals advocating a second civil war – was “very likely to take advantage of any regional or national situation involving heightened fear and tension to promote their violent extremist ideology.” and call the supporters to action. “

The local FBI office declined to comment and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on specific threats, but noted that it had prosecuted several members of Boogaloo Bois.

Paul Becker, a sociology professor at the University of Dayton who has studied white supremacist groups and protest movements, said the past year had seen the “accelerationism” of some white nationalist groups. Some violent actors in these groups used the 2020 protests to sow fear and discord and “try to hasten the downfall” of what they see as a corrupt government, he said.

“They believe it will all fall apart eventually anyway, so they think they can speed it up by creating chaos,” Becker said.

During and immediately after the Floyd riots, Democratic and Republican officials said organized groups, ranging from anti-fascists to white supremacists and drug cartels, incited violence by launching concerted attacks.

Several members of Boogaloo Bois have been convicted of crimes committed during or after the riots. But dozens of charges in state and federal courts present a much less sophisticated tale of disconnected individuals who sought to profit from – or were caught in – anarchy.

In the months following the riots, Michael Paul, special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Minneapolis, said a “small handful” of opportunistic mobs had spontaneously amassed following news of Floyd’s death. . But he said he saw no evidence of organized antifa groups fueling the riots, contradicting claims by then-US Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump.

Although the marches and rallies that took place during the trial were peaceful, intelligence documents show that authorities continued to monitor possible threats.

Authorities highlighted suspicious activity, including individuals sharing law enforcement moves on encrypted messaging apps and posting instructions on brewing Molotov cocktails and plans to disrupt “the anti-water supply. fires “by opening fire hydrants near the downtown federal courthouse.

In another case, internal documents show authorities detained a man at a downtown hotel, where staff said they could plan a shootout after asking for the highest room available. The man, who has not been identified, had a felony arrest warrant and police found drugs and guns in his hotel room.

Authorities were also concerned about threats from opportunistic “foreign influence actors” with ties to the governments of Russia, China and Iran, who they said were “likely to use state media. , proxy websites and social media accounts to amplify criticism of the United States. ” said an internal report.

The same briefing warned of the potential for foreign intelligence services to use the trial as a cover for covert “surveillance and intelligence gathering” against law enforcement and government officials. The report targeted China, which authorities wrote was known to recruit “business insiders, students, and Chinese citizens and businesses” for its “illicit intelligence-gathering efforts.”

The report cites the case of a Chinese national who, in June 2020, was enrolled in a local university and was seen photographing license plates of law enforcement and government vehicles parked at a police station. command post in Minneapolis where authorities oversaw their response to the post-Floyd unrest. The student’s behavior was reported as suspicious by a state government official; a U.S. Border Patrol records check shows the student left the country and returned to China in August 2020.

As such, authorities said they had stepped up their surveillance efforts, while acknowledging that most of the protesters were engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.

Obviously, the potential violence never happened. But on the day of the Chauvin verdict, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse to await the jury’s decision, National Guard troops were on the lookout for any signs of trouble. There were none. As the verdicts convicting Chauvin of murder were read, the crowd erupted for joy.

Elna M. Lemons