Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers rightwing extremist group, has been charged with seditious conspiracy over his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, marking a major escalation in the federal investigation into the riots led by Donald Trump’s supporters.
The charges are part of an indictment announced by the Department of Justice on Thursday charging 11 defendants with seditious conspiracy and other crimes relating to the siege on the Capitol that interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s election and left five people dead.
The charges are the first to be brought against Rhodes, who was arrested on Thursday in Little Elm, Texas, in connection with January 6. Another defendant, Edward Vallejo, was also charged and arrested for the first time in connection with the riots. The remaining nine co-defendants were already facing separate charges relating to the attack.
The justice department described the Oath Keepers as a “large but loosely organised collection of individuals, some of whom are associated with militias”.
The indictment alleges that in the wake of the November 2020 election, Rhodes conspired with the other defendants to “oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power”, by co-ordinating and travelling to Washington for the certification of the election results and planning to bring weapons to support their efforts, among other things.
The unsealing of the indictment marks a major step in the DoJ’s investigation into the January 6 attack, just one week after the first anniversary of the riots.
US attorney-general Merrick Garland last week vowed to hold January 6 perpetrators “at any level” to account, and defended his department’s work in pursuing those involved. Progressives have accused the DoJ of not acting aggressively enough in pursuing Trump and his supporters.
Garland said more than 725 defendants had already been charged with criminal counts relating to the attack, and indicated bigger charges may be still to come.
“In complex cases, initial charges are often less severe than later charged offences,” Garland said, adding: “The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last.”
The DOJ probe is being conducted separately from a congressional investigation being led by a panel of members of the US House of Representatives.
The January 6 committee, which is led by Democrats and counts just two Republicans among its ranks, has solicited testimony from dozens of former Trump administration officials in its pursuit of information relating to the attack and the final days of his presidency.
Steve Bannon, a close Trump ally, was indicted in November by a federal grand jury for contempt of Congress after he failed to comply with a subpoena issued by the committee. The former president has sued the committee and the US National Archives in an attempt to block the release of documents relating to his last weeks in office.
In its latest intervention, the committee on Tuesday said it would be requesting information from Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives. McCarthy indicated he would not voluntarily participate with the probe, setting the stage for a possible subpoena in the coming weeks.