Washington: Thirteen men, including members of two right-wing militias, have been arrested for plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor of the US state of Michigan and "instigate a civil war", officials said Thursday.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer thanked law enforcement for thwarting the kidnap plot and rebuked President Donald Trump for failing to condemn hate groups.
Announcing the arrests, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel described the conspiracy to kidnap the 49-year-old Whitmer as a "serious and credible threat."
Andrew Birge, US attorney for the western district of Michigan, said six men were facing federal charges for conspiring to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home.
Birge said they had conducted surveillance of her residence and even tested a home-made bomb they intended to use to divert law enforcement away from her home.
FBI agents and Michigan police arrested them on Wednesday as they met to "pool funds for explosives and exchange tactical gear," the Justice Department said.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Whitmer over her tough coronavirus lockdown, and armed right-wing groups have staged protests against her in the state capital Lansing.
"LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" Trump tweeted in April.
Late Thursday Trump showed little sympathy when he commented via Twitter.
"Rather than say thank you" for the FBI action, Trump said, "she calls me a White Supremacist."
Without explicitly condemning the plotters, Trump said: "I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President!"
Whitmer said that when she took the oath of office "I knew this job would be hard," but "never could have imagined anything like this."
She added: "We are not one another's enemy. This virus is our enemy."
Whitmer pointed to Trump's refusal at the recent debate with Democrat Joe Biden to condemn white supremacists and "hate groups" like the two Michigan militias that allegedly targeted her.
"Stand back and stand by, he told them," she said.
"Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action," she added.
"When our leaders meet with, encourage, or fraternize with domestic terrorists they legitimize their actions, they are complicit."
Biden also sought to pin some blame on the Republican president.
Biden said in a statement that he spoke with Whitmer — who was on the shortlist to become his vice presidential candidate — and commended the FBI and law enforcement "for their work to prevent this deranged act by emboldened domestic terrorists."
He said that Trump "is giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country. We have to stop it."
– 'Violent overthrow' –
Attorney general Nessel said that seven members of a militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen were also facing state charges.
They are suspected of attempting to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers in order to target them and "instigate a civil war," Nessel said.
They also planned to attack the capitol building in Lansing and kidnap government officials including Whitmer, she said.
The seven were charged with various offenses including providing material support for terrorist acts, gang membership and firearms violations.
A sworn affidavit from an FBI agent detailed the outlines of the plot to kidnap Whitmer.
The FBI said it became aware through social media in early 2020 "that a group of individuals were discussing the violent overthrow of certain government and law-enforcement components."
A confidential informant attended a meeting in June of around 14 people, the FBI said, where the group "talked about creating a society that followed the US Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient."
"They discussed different ways of achieving this goal from peaceful endeavors to violent actions," the affidavit said.
"At one point, several members talked about state governments they believed were violating the US Constitution, including the government of Michigan and Governor Gretchen Whitmer," it said.
"Several members talked about murdering 'tyrants' or 'taking' a sitting governor," it said.
The six men charged with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer were identified as Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris, and Brandon Caserta.
Croft is a resident of Delaware while the other five live in Michigan.
The affidavit said Fox was recorded in June saying he needed 200 men to "storm the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, and take hostages, including the governor."
"Fox explained they would try the governor of Michigan for 'treason,' and he said they would execute the plan before the November 2020 elections," the affidavit said.