After the FBI warned about far-right attacks, agents arrested a leftist ex-soldier
By BRITTANY SHAMMAS AND GERRIT DE VYNCK | The Washington Post | Published: February 14, 2021
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Shortly after sunrise on Jan. 15, FBI agents descended with guns drawn on a squat, red-brick apartment complex here, broke open the door of one of the units and threw in a stun grenade, prompting the frightened property manager to call 911.
Inside the apartment, furnished with little besides books and a sign declaring "THE REVOLUTION IS NOT A PARTY," the agents found their target: a 33-year-old U.S. Army veteran and self-described "hardcore leftist" who had posted a flier on social media threatening to attack "armed racist mobs WITH EVERY CALIBER AVAILABLE."
The man, Daniel Baker, hardly fit the profile of those who had been expected to cause trouble in the run-up to President Joe Biden's inauguration. After a mob of Donald Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in hopes of preventing Biden from taking office, the FBI had warned that far-right extremists were plotting armed marches in Tallahassee and other state capitals, as well as in Washington, D.C.
But Baker represents the flip side of that threat: As a far-right extremist movement wages an assault on American government and institutions, experts say an unpredictable battle is brewing, fueling potentially legitimate threats of violence from the opposite fringe of the political spectrum.
"It is ratcheting up and then getting a response and a back-and-forth," said Steven Chermak, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.
Political violence remains far more common a feature of far-right groups than of those on the far left, according to law enforcement officials and data compiled by those who study extremist violence. Federal authorities have repeatedly described homegrown, right-wing extremists as the most urgent terrorism threat facing the nation.
But high-profile right-wing attacks could be spurring far-left extremists to respond in kind, Chermak said. And cases like Baker's can have a snowball effect, he said: Articles about Baker have been circulated online by members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, who cite his arrest as evidence that left-wing activists are plotting against them.
"An important part of convincing people that there's an issue and there's truth to what you're saying is to home in on an example or home in on a particular case, and then that case becomes representative of a larger problem," Chermak said. "It's something to hang your hat on."
Despite warnings of violent plots around Inauguration Day, only a smattering of right-wing protesters appeared at the nation's statehouses. In Tallahassee, just five armed men wearing the garb of the boogaloo movement — a loose collection of anti-government groups that say the country is heading for civil war — showed up. Police and National Guard personnel mostly ignored them.
With no other significant law enforcement actions, Baker's arrest stands as one of the most dramatic events of that period.
A yoga devotee and advocate for the homeless who helped out at an arts center, Baker criticized both Biden and Trump. Baker, a socialist idealist who volunteered to fight against Islamic State forces in Syria, also had traveled to Seattle last summer to support protesters for racial justice who briefly claimed an abandoned police precinct and declared the area around it an autonomous zone.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol deepened Baker's belief that the United States was on the brink of civil war, according to court records, social media posts and interviews with Baker's friends. He felt certain that Tallahassee, where a man fueled by misogyny killed two women at a yoga studio in 2018 and a pickup truck driver accelerated through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters last summer, would see violence at the hands of far-right agitators. And he was convinced they had to be met with an armed resistance.
Public defender Randolph Murrell argued in court filings and during a Jan. 21 hearing that Baker's comments were "the product of the heated political dialogue of the day." They were no different, he said, from online posts by Republican officials telling their followers to "prepare for war" or to "take up arms" in the run-up to Inauguration Day. Baker's friends said he had a bombastic social media presence that he stepped up to match inflammatory right-wing rhetoric.
Those close to Baker say they see a double standard in his being targeted.
"None of his statement was saying 'On Inauguration Day, we're going to go out and hunt down all the right-wingers,'" said Warren Stoddard, who fought alongside Baker in Syria. "He said, 'We're going to stop people from taking the Florida Capitol.' And if no one went to the Florida Capitol, there's nothing to stop."
But the FBI agents who had been monitoring Baker's social media posts since October described him as being on a "path toward radicalization." They catalogued his Facebook musing about being "willing to do ANYTHING to ANYONE so I don't end up homeless and hungry again." They noted updates about "voting from the rooftops" and hoping "the right tries a coup on Nov. 3 cuz I'm so f------ down to slay enemies again." A post on his page in December announced, "Trump still plans on a violent militant coup. If you don't have guns you won't survive."
On Jan. 25, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Frank agreed that Baker posed a potential threat and ordered him held without bond, writing that the former soldier had "repeatedly endorsed violent means to advance the political beliefs that he espouses."
Baker grew up in the city of Jupiter on Florida's southeastern coast, the older of two sons of a deputy in the aviation unit of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. His parents divorced when he was very young, court records show, and the case stretched on for years.
Because of his mother's struggles with substance abuse, a court eventually awarded sole custody to his father, who remarried and had another son. His mother's illness loomed in Baker's childhood: When he was 12, he discovered that she had overdosed after she failed to show up at his school. Citing that and other occurrences in his life, a judge concluded that Baker had "experienced significant emotional and psychological harm."
Friends said Baker had a conservative, Christian upbringing and was taught to valorize the military, his father having served in the National Guard and the Coast Guard Reserve. (Baker's father, Glenn, died in 2019, and other relatives could not be reached for comment.)
At 18, Baker enlisted in the Army, but his military career would be short-lived. Army records indicate that he left after 20 months, at the lowest rank. Prosecutors said he had been separated from the Army with an "other-than-honorable" discharge after going AWOL in 2007 as his unit prepared to deploy to Iraq. Baker had told multiple friends that he refused to go to Iraq after hearing fellow soldiers boast about sexual assault. His service records do not indicate the reason for his discharge.
The decade that followed found Baker living on and off the streets. He became estranged from his family, his friends said, and found occasional work in private security, otherwise struggling to hold a job. He appears to have had one minor brush with law enforcement: a 2008 marijuana incident that prosecutors declined to pursue.
Desiree Gattis spotted Baker on the side of a Tallahassee road in 2011. She often handed out food to the homeless and stopped to make sure he was OK. The encounter sparked a years-long friendship, with Gattis eventually inviting Baker to sleep in her backyard while he got on his feet. He helped with her outreach to the homeless, despite frequently lacking stable housing himself.
"Once you get to a point where you're on that red line all the time, you start to feel like, 'Well, maybe this is what I deserve,' " Gattis, a music teacher, said during a hearing in Baker's case. "He just had a really hard time helping himself."
During those years, Baker began reading the books of anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, political scientist Hannah Arendt and civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Angela Davis, his friends said. He drifted from the conservative ideology of his upbringing and embraced an anarchist worldview, advocating for bottom-up systems with decisions made by community consensus. Conflict with his family and firsthand experience with the shortcomings of public institutions pushed him to rely more on his surrounding community, said friend Jack Fox Keen.
Baker's search for a radically different form of government eventually took him to Syria, where Kurdish groups were seeking to build a socialist democracy underpinned by feminism and environmental sustainability. Baker was drawn to the concept, and he joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as YPG, in their battle against Islamic State forces in 2017.
The Westerners who ventured to Syria as YPG volunteers usually were military veterans looking to continue the fight or idealists committed to the political project, said Stoddard, a Texas native and writer who joined the YPG in 2018. Baker, known by the Kurdish name Ali Sharem Ourecox, was a bit of both. He was at least partly driven by a desire to live up to the militaristic ideals of the father he seemed simultaneously to love and hate, Stoddard said.
"He wanted to be this great warrior," said Stoddard, 26, who returned to the United States after being wounded. "At one point, he told me that he wished that he had gotten shot, like he was jealous of me being shot. Like that was some kind of medal that I got."
A 2019 Vice News documentary, which Baker uploaded to his personal YouTube channel, shows him firing a sniper rifle during clashes with Islamic State forces. In the video, journalists find themselves pinned down in a house with several YPG fighters. The group decides to retreat, and Baker helps lead the reporters to safety. He appears confident and energized despite the danger. When an allied airstrike hits nearby, he grins widely and exclaims, "Yeah! That's our boys!"
The FBI made note of the footage and of Baker's online boasts of being a "trained sniper in the YPG," characterizing the group as linked to the terrorist-designated Kurdistan's Working Party despite the U.S. backing of the YPG. But Stoddard said much of the fighting was over by the time he and Baker arrived. They spent only two weeks on the front line, Stoddard said.
Stoddard described Baker as passionate about injustice but also "a little bit wild-eyed." He was known for doing wacky things to cheer up the fighters during long stretches of waiting and for making comments that "came across more as something stupid to laugh about."
Back in the States, Baker became deeply involved in liberal politics. As protests exploded last summer over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Baker traveled the country to join them.
Eric Champagne, an artist and former monk who connected with Baker online over "spicy memes about social justice," took a road trip with him to the protest camp at Seattle's Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The two wanted "to participate in whatever they were trying to accomplish there," Champagne said.
Baker was eager to offer his combat medical training in support of the demonstrators who claimed the area after police abandoned a local precinct. When shots were fired in the early hours of June 20, an incident that led to the death of a teenager and the eventual demise of the zone, Baker tried to help, Champagne said.
"Dan was among the first to run toward the sound of gunfire to see if anyone was injured," he said.
After leaving Seattle, Baker and Champagne returned to Tallahassee, where they camped in the woods before scraping together money to move into the apartment that agents eventually would raid.
Baker was seeking certification as an emergency medical technician and in the meantime recorded first-aid and self-defense training videos with Champagne. He urged vulnerable communities to learn to defend themselves, telling Fox Keen: "If you can feel like you can physically protect yourself, you will feel more empowered."
Susanna Matthews, a retired academic who owns and manages the property where Baker and Champagne lived, described them as "freewheeling, freelancing, good-Samaritan types."
But after the assault on the U.S. Capitol, friends said, Baker became deeply concerned that the Proud Boys, white supremacists and other groups would flood Tallahassee and that people would die. He told Matthews and Fox Keen to stay inside and called for "militant friends" to join him in his plan to "encircle" armed protesters and "trap them inside" the building.
And he printed the fliers that would become one of the FBI's main pieces of evidence against him.
"Armed racist mobs have planted the Confederate flag in the nation's Capitol while announcing their plans to storm every American state Capitol on or around Inauguration Day," the call to arms said. "We will fight back."
The Washington Post's Alex Horton, Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.
The apartment building where Daniel Baker was arrested Jan. 15, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. The FBI charged him with using interstate commerce to threaten to injure or kidnap right-wing protesters he thought were planning to attack the Florida Capitol.
CHARLOTTE KESL/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST