Who are the Oath Keepers, extremist group whose leader has been charged over Capitol riot

By Graeme Massie
REUTERS

The FBI arrested the leader of the hard-right Oath Keepers group in Texas after prosecutors charged him and 10 other members for their role in the deadly January 6 capitol riot.

Elmer “Stewart” Rhodes, 56, is a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who formed the anti-government extremist group and launched it a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 2009.

The Oath Keepers say that their mission is to defend the rights of Americans from the government, with the group’s name referring to the oath they have taken to defend the US Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

From its inception, observers say that the group has tried to recruit members of the military and law enforcement into its ranks.

In 2014 Mr Rhodes claimed that the group, which has chapters spread across the US, had 35,000 dues-paying members, although experts say that number is more likely to be around 5,000.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, “the main crux of the group’s messaging asserts that the government is engaged in attacks against its own citizens, working to strip them of their civil liberties.”

The SPLC states that “the group advocates for Americans to prepare for inevitable conflict with the government by stockpiling goods and supplies, engaging in paramilitary training and working to create small, self-reliant community networks.”

Mr Rhodes has not shied away about his goal for the group.

“We want to see a restoration of the militia in this country,” he said during an appearance on the God and Guns podcast.

“We think a good first step is to have the veterans stand up in every community and go help form and train neighborhood watches, to get the people to take back into their own hands their own personal self-defense and security.”

(Nathan Posner/Shutterstock)

Since their formation, the group has shown up at a string of high-profile incidents across the US.

In April 2014 they took part in the protest at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy but left amid false claims that the Obama administration was going to launch a drone attack.

They also showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Black man Michael Brown, where police said they illegally tried to protect local businesses from rioters without proper licences.

During the 2016 election, the group threw its support behind Donald Trump, claiming that the one-term president was an ally in the fight against a “corrupt elite.”

And following the 2020 election Mr Rhodes pushed Mr Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, urging people at a Stop the Steal rally in Virginia to not accept Joe Biden’s victory.

“What do you have right now if nothing but a communist insurrection intent on overthrowing our Constitution?” he told the rally.

Now federal prosecutors have charged Mr Rhodes, who has said he stayed outside the US Capitol building during the riot, with seditious conspiracy for the group’s alleged role in it.

“The seditious conspiracy indictment alleges that, following the November 3, 2020, presidential election, Rhodes conspired with his co-defendants and others to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021,” stated the Justice Department.

“Beginning in late December 2020, via encrypted and private communications applications, Rhodes and various co-conspirators coordinated and planned to travel to Washington, DC, on or around Jan 6, 2021, the date of the certification of the electoral college vote, the indictment alleges.

“Rhodes and several co-conspirators made plans to bring weapons to the area to support the operation. The co-conspirators then traveled across the country to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area in early January 2021.”

It is the first case in which the seditious conspiracy charge has been used in connection with the riot, and potentially carries up to 20 years of prison time.


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