They were waiting in their cars before opening time and, as the doors were unlocked, Detroit’s newest gun owners streamed in to buy firearms.
“They don’t even know the process,” Bill Kucyk, the gun shop owner told us.
“They just want to buy guns – and I’m getting about a hundred calls a day about it.”
He motioned to an empty stack of shelves in front of him. “Normally I’d have about a hundred guns in this cabinet but they’ve been sold twice over. The store has been cleaned out several times.”
The citizens of the key swing state of Michigan are arming themselves because of fears of civil unrest in the event of a disputed election result.
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A young mother of two, Lexus Lewis was trying to buy a 12-gauge shotgun which she was struggling to hold up to her shoulder.
“She’s going to need some serious training to use that,” Mr Kucyk told us as we watched her wrestling with the weapon.
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But Ms Lewis – like everyone else we spoke to in the shop – is very concerned about security and protecting her family from an unspecified threat.
“All of this is new,” she confessed to us. “I’ve always been a little insecure living in Detroit, Michigan, but it’s all new to me… people are doing things that we’ve never even thought about doing before… taking it to limits that we never thought about going before.”
The insecurity is down to a collection of factors which have stoked and fuelled worries – not least, the proliferation of militia groups in the state and throughout the country.
In recent weeks, Michigan has shown itself to be a hotspot for homegrown militant activity.
The most high-profile example is the discovery by the FBI of a plot by an outfit called the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap the Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer because of her coronavirus lockdown measures. The investigations led to the arrest of more than a dozen men, some of whom are accused of driving to a meeting hoping to buy explosives and tactical gear only to find themselves at the centre of a set-up by the FBI.
Just days ago, the FBI and Michigan state police arrested a self-proclaimed leader of the white supremacy group, the Base, accusing him of multiple crimes and running a “hate camp” in the state.
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Counter-terrorism expert Javed Ali, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a senior intelligence officer working in homeland security and the FBI, told us from his Michigan home that the threat of domestic terrorism is not going away quickly.
“It’s not receding and it’ll be a permanent feature of the United States for some long period time. We dealt with al Qaeda and ISIS for more than 20 years… will that be the same with domestic terrorism? It will be something that’s with us for some time in the future.”
Mr Ali believes three key factors have led to this apparent sudden spike in domestic terrorist threats. The impact of the pandemic and the restrictions that have come with that, the social justice protests initially sparked by George Floyd’s killing, and heightened political rhetoric have fuelled individuals to plan violent action.
For decades, US counter-terrorism efforts have been focused on foiling threats from terror groups like al Qaeda and then ISIS while far-right extremists, white supremacists and anti-government anarchists thrived in the shadows, largely on social media platforms, garnering support and often stoking division.
Days before the governor’s kidnap plot was unearthed, the Department of Homeland Security issued a 26-page document warning the threat from homegrown terror groups far outweighs that from international terror groups.
It issued chilling warnings about domestic extremists potentially targeting “events related to the 2020 presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results, or the post-election period”.
It’s a view espoused by Democratic congresswomen Elissa Slotkin, who we saw campaigning in Brighton in Livingstone County in the final few days before the election.
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Ms Slotkin is a former CIA officer who served three terms in Iraq studying the evolution of terror groups in the Middle East. She spoke stirringly to the small audience who’d turned out on the last Saturday before election day about what she described as the “toxic” atmosphere emanating from the top and dripping down to the rest of the country – empowering extremists and enabling “hate speech and hate rhetoric” to be normalised.
Later, inside the Democratic Party campaign office, she spoke of her fears about radicalisation of members growing out of initially idealistic motives.
She said: “There’s a ladder of escalation that as a former CIA officer I used to watch in terrorist groups abroad… how does a young man in the middle of Iraq go from being a shopkeeper to a terrorist?… there’s a ladder of escalation and I never thought that I would be using those skills to watch extremism in my own country,” she told us.
Many of the groups are deeply suspicious of the authorities and the media, who they accuse of deliberately perpetuating negative propaganda about them. But we managed to persuade one – the Boogaloo Bois to agree to meet us in woodland in northern Michigan.
The Boogaloo Bois are a disparate, loosely-organised movement with no identifiable leader and no obvious structure of command. The members have a variety of beliefs and motives and they claim tens of thousands of supporters who – until they were purged from all the social media platforms a few weeks ago – used to communicate, through mainly Facebook. Some have far right leanings, most seem to be anti-government and anti-tyranny which has lately been interpreted as rebellion against coronavirus lockdowns or the confiscation and public display of weapons.
The group we met insisted they’d been mis-interpreted, that they were “patriots” who stood for “liberty and freedoms” and were the defenders of America’s constitutional rights. The string of Boogaloo Bois arrested and accused of plotting or engaging in violent acts recently were “rogue elements” who’d had “breakdowns”.
“The Boogaloo Bois means a single word: liberty,” one told us. “It means justice for all. It’s in our pledge of allegiance.”
A man calling himself Typhon told us: “It’s not the government’s job to regulate us… hands off… don’t regulate me, don’t tread on me.”
Another group member called Tim insisted they were peaceful: “We help to calm situations if they get out of hand. I’ve pulled people out of teargas and helped people to safety. We will only meet violence with violence and that’s only to bring the situation to a neutral setting.”
We asked if he’d be prepared to kill in the name of “liberty”. There was a pause. “I’ll kill someone in the defence of the innocent… and if that has to do with defending liberty then so be it.”
The multiple militia groups active in Michigan – and across America – have sent anxieties soaring in the midst of a particularly toxic election period. And the Boogaloo Bois are symptomatic of the challenges facing the American counter terrorism experts.
Javed Ali, who now lectures at the University of Michigan, said: “The Boogaloo Bos are not monolithic.
“There’s no leader, no defined cells or organisational structure but I think this is a serious threat. The challenge is identifying those on that path to violence rather than those just exercising their first and second amendment rights. It’s when you cross that line into violent political action, that makes you a very different person.”