High on a flyer of FBI suspects in Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol building is a picture of a shouting man in a cap with a yellow insignia. Though the FBI doesn’t name him, his identity is no mystery: he’s Jon Schaffer, guitarist in Ice Earth, according to the metal band, which has condemned his alleged actions at the Capitol.
But more striking than the appearance of a semi-well known musician at the Capitol putsch was the hat he wore. The baseball cap bore the logo for the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that cloaks itself in patriotic rhetoric and openly recruits law enforcement. With connections to politicians and police, the Oath Keepers spent the months ahead of the Jan. 6 riot promoting civil war.
And unlike other far-right groups like the Proud Boys, they often manage to avoid outright condemnation from authorities.
Schaffer, 52, is wanted by the FBI and could not be reached for comment on whether he is an official Oath Keepers member. It is also unclear whether other members of the group entered the Capitol.
Their leadership, however, was spotted on the Capitol grounds during the attack, and video footage, social media posts, and calls to arm on their website suggest they were instrumental in drumming up support for the rally that preceded the riot. Footage from the rally showed armored men wearing Oath Keepers patches moving in a line up the Capitol steps, through a crowd that was largely standing still ahead of the attack.
Even before the election, the Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes was threatening armed action. Ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3, Rhodes went on the conspiratorial news network Infowars to preemptively accuse Democrats of voter fraud and to threaten to deploy members of his group to polling places. (Neither Rhodes nor any spokesperson for the organization could be reached for comment.)
When Trump lost, Rhodes returned to the far-right airwaves, calling on Trump to overturn the election or risk the Oath Keepers engaging in a “bloody fight” against the left on Trump’s behalf.
Those calls would be cause for concern from any armed militant group. But the Oath Keepers boast of staffing their ranks with former law enforcement and military members. In some cases, those members include current law enforcement.
“Especially with elected law enforcement, notably sheriffs, they claim to have positive relationships with a lot of them,” Sam Jackson, author of a new book on the Oath Keepers, told The Daily Beast of the group.
A recent Politico investigation, for instance, revealed a Texas county in which a constable, a justice of the peace, and a county commissioner were all alleged or open Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers’ own website has marketed those law enforcement ties aggressively, keeping a log of alleged “Oath Keepers in the ranks.” The page claimed that the organization has infiltrated the Chicago Police Department, the National Guard, various Navy SEAL teams, and more.
Official or not, the organization has deployed itself to sites of unrest for years, acting as an unsanctioned police force while standing “guard” at racial justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015. The group reprised the role this September, standing off against Black Lives Matter demonstrators who were protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, multiple cops (including at least two in Seattle, one in Philly, and one Kentucky state trooper) and military members (including an Army psychological operations officer) are currently under investigation for their alleged participation in the riot. Their peers inside the Capitol are also facing scrutiny, after videos appeared to show some Capitol police moving out of rioters’ way, or posing with them in selfies. “Approximately 10 to 15” Capitol officers are currently under investigation for their conduct during the attack, and several have been suspended, officials announced Monday. (One Capitol Police officer was killed by the crowd.)
Bolstering the Oath Keepers’ public image are its ties to state-level politicians. Matt Shea, a far-right Washington state lawmaker whom colleagues previously accused of “domestic terrorism,” has allegedly huddled with Oath Keepers, including getting dinner with Rhodes. (Shea’s last day in office was Monday.) The night before the Jan. 6 riot, Rhodes appeared on a Facebook Live video with Amanda Chase, a state senator from Virginia. In the video, Rhodes (who, along with the Oath Keepers, is banned from Facebook) promoted the event that would go on to kill five people the following day. A Chase spokesperson did not return a request for comment on the events at the Capitol.
Other far-right paramilitary organizations have courted support from law enforcement and government-adjacent officials. The Proud Boys, an ultranationalist street-fighting gang, has previously recruited cops, run failed political candidates, and boasted of its close ties with GOP operative Roger Stone. But Proud Boy affiliates in law enforcement often lose their jobs, and when Donald Trump appeared to promote the group during a presidential debate last year, he was later pressured to disavow them.
The Oath Keepers have a more comfortable relationship with power.
“They rhetorically and ideologically position themselves in a way that makes specific condemnation less likely,” Jackson noted. “They invoke symbols in rhetoric, in their web presence, in their clothing, that creates a very superficial connection between Oath Keepers and people who are almost universally considered patriots and good people in the U.S.”
For all their political elbow-rubbing, however, the group was also playing to a more overtly extremist crowd in the run-up to the Capitol attack. Rhodes and other Oath Keepers participated in multiple trial-run rallies in D.C.—which escalated into violence.
At one such rally, Nov. 14’s “Million MAGA March,” Oath Keepers rallied for Donald Trump alongside Proud Boys, who brawled with anti-fascists. Ahead of a Dec. 12 rally, which Proud Boys billed as a rematch, Oath Keepers advertised for more armed supporters to defend the far-right crowd. In the call for volunteers, Rhodes explicitly invoked the group’s reputation for recruiting cops.
“The leftist terrorists know our police go armed, and they don’t know which among the Oath Keepers they are looking at are police,” Rhodes wrote. “We always mix in our police with our military members.”
At the Dec. 12 rally, Rhodes took the stage to threaten blood in the streets if Trump did not invoke the Insurrection Act to overturn the election.
“He needs to know from you that you are with him, [and] that if he does not do it now while he is commander in chief, we’re going to have to do it ourselves later, in a much more desperate, much more bloody war,” Rhodes told the audience. “Let’s get it on now–while he is still the commander in chief.”
That pro-Trump rally was organized by Ali Alexander, the same GOP operative as the Jan. 6 rally, and hosted many of the same attendees. Online, the Oath Keepers actively sought those ties.
In repeated posts on their official website, the Oath Keepers promoted the Jan. 6 rally as a last-ditch effort to reverse the election for Trump. The group billed itself as a security force against anti-fascists, whom they claimed would “attack the weak, old, disabled, or families—like the hyenas they are.”
Alongside those threats was a call to organize with other militant groups.
“We Welcome Coordination With Other Patriot Groups,” the Oath Keepers wrote in a Jan. 4 call for support. “We have worked side-by-side with many other patriot groups and veterans orgs. If you are a team leader of a group that will be in DC to help protect patriots, and you want to coordinate with us, please email us.”
“Put ‘Patriot Security Team Leader’ in the subject line so we know it’s a message from another group,” the call added. “We will put you in contact with our DC operation leaders.”
But for all its months-long campaign to mobilize on Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers have fallen conspicuously silent after the deadly attack. The group’s only subsequent website update was a blog post complaining about Trump’s Twitter ban, the most prominent in a series of new steps by tech companies to push some violent, right-wing extremists off their platforms.
On Monday night, the Oath Keepers’ website went offline entirely. It was unclear whether the group, or its web host, had pulled the plug.