WASHINGTON - Thousands upon thousands of troops are preparing to pour into an increasingly fortified Washington ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, as the district begins to remind some officials of beleaguered capitals such as Baghdad or Kabul, rather than the seat of government for the leader of the free world.
Military officials said Friday that 18,000 armed troops with the United States National Guard were expected to arrive in the U.S. capital over the next five days, in addition to the 7,000 sent in following the January 6 riot and siege of the U.S. Capitol by extremists supporting outgoing President Donald Trump.
The National Guard - a part-time force that can be deployed overseas but is often called upon to help with domestic emergencies - has become a key contributor to what some officials are describing as the strongest capital-area security response in history.
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The troops, along with the area's police forces, are being briefed on the rules of engagement, which govern when they are authorized to respond with potentially deadly force.
Already, numerous streets around the Capitol have been closed to traffic, while the core area of the National Mall, which runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the west side of the Capitol and has been the site of some of the country's most famous protests, is closed to visitors.
Temporary fences increasingly block the view, while the U.S. Secret Service, in charge of security planning for the January 20 inauguration, has created Washington's own "Green Zone" for the occasion, warning that any vehicle trying to enter will be searched for explosives and weapons.
The beefed-up security stands in sharp contrast to the presidential inauguration four years ago, when 8,000 National Guard troops were called in to help.
"I'm sad about it," Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters during a security briefing Friday.
"I'm committed to making sure that we get our city back," she said. "But I also know that we have a special responsibility that there is a peaceful transition of power in our country."
Officials organizing the security effort say the goal is to make sure the Biden inauguration is not marred by the same violence that led to the riot and siege of the Capitol earlier this month that left five people dead.
They warn, however, that the threat of violence at the hands of domestic extremists is real.
"We are seeing an extensive amount of concerning online chatter," Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, warned late Thursday, while briefing outgoing Vice President Mike Pence on the preparations.
"We're tracking calls for potential armed protests and activity leading up to the inauguration," Wray said. "We're concerned about the potential for violence at multiple protests and rallies planned here in [Washington]."
Officials said Friday that permits had been approved for two protests along Pennsylvania Avenue, which leads to the White House. But they said the protests would be limited to about 100 people, who will have to go through metal detectors and be escorted by police.
They were unsure whether extremist groups, such as the far-right Boogaloo Boys or Proud Boys, might seek to cause trouble.
"I don't know if anyone has raised their hand to say, 'We are coming, we will be there,' but we are preparing as if they are," Matt Miller, the agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service Washington Field Office, told reporters.
Other parts of Washington are bracing for possible spillover.
"We do recognize that because we have such a robust and hardened perimeter, we have so many assets ... there is a potential for people to go elsewhere, whether it's back to their state capitals or to other parts of the city," Miller said.
"It's not just all hands on deck for the [Green] zone. It's all hands on deck for our entire agency," said Robert Contee, Washington's acting police chief. "Because our entire agency has a responsibility for the entire city."
Security measures are also being put into place in the neighboring state of Virginia, which agreed to shut down a number of roads and bridges leading into Washington.
Other states are also on alert. Officials say they are in contact with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local police agencies sometimes on an hourly basis.
"We have a tremendous capability built up to exchange information and be in the loop on potential threats," Jared Maples, director of New Jersey's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, told VOA.
"As far as the potential threat to the [New Jersey] statehouse [that] we are tracking, there's been a lot of chatter," he said, noting a proliferation of flyers pushed via social media promoting insurrection.
"Right now, we don't have a specific or credible threat," Maples said. "But we are absolutely chasing down every single lead. We are investigating to the fullest extent any tip that comes in."
Other states have started making arrests.
Florida officials, for example, arrested a former U.S. Army infantryman on Friday, charging him with inciting violence after he tried to rally his social media followers to attack protesters who might gather at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.
Daniel Baker, who had been kicked out of the Army and later fought against the Islamic State terror group in Syria with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), was reportedly upset over the riot and siege of the U.S. Capitol.
"Extremists intent on violence from either end of the political and social spectrums must be stopped, and they will be stopped," Lawrence Keefe, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, said in a statement.
In New York on Tuesday, federal agents arrested 40-year-old Eduard Florea after he posted on social media that he planned to travel to Washington to kill one of the newly elected Democratic senators from Georgia.
Fears that some extremists might try to target U.S. officials and lawmakers grew Thursday after a court filing related to the siege of the Capitol alleged some of the rioters were seeking "to capture and assassinate elected officials."
But acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said Friday that there was no "direct evidence" that any of the rioters had created so-called "kill capture teams."