A voice for moderation, Yair Lapid hoped for a centrist coalition to oust Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid, the centrist politician and former media celebrity, has emerged as Israel’s most potent opposition leader but he appears, at least for now, to have fallen short of his goal of forming a liberal coalition that could oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Exit polls projected that his party had won 16 to 18 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and that the broader bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties had won 59 seats. But it is made up of ideologically diverse parties with clashing agendas that would find it difficult to work together. Based on the exit polls, Mr. Netanyahu appears to have an easier path to power.

In his desire to unseat Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid did what many politicians consider unthinkable.

Mr. Lapid pledged that he would not insist on taking up the premiership if doing so would prove an obstacle to ousting his opponent.

The proposal displayed a level of humility rarely seen in Israeli politics — or most any political theater. But it was not simply an act of noblesse oblige. Mr. Lapid was well aware of the difficulties he was likely to face in getting some of the other parties opposed to Mr. Netanyahu to back him as leader of an alternative coalition.

reneged on a main election promise and joined forces with Mr. Netanyahu to form an uneasy unity government after last year’s election.

After a highly successful career as a journalist and popular television host, Mr. Lapid was the surprise of the 2013 election when his party surpassed expectations and placed second, turning him into the chief power broker in the formation of the coalition.

His father, Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and an abrasive, antireligious politician, also headed a centrist party and served as justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known novelist.

An amateur boxer known for his casual chic black clothing, Mr. Lapid rode to power on the back of the social justice protests of 2011 by giving voice to Israel’s struggling middle class.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has stuck to the middle ground, presenting safe positions within the Israeli Jewish consensus.

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Election Day in Israel: Live Updates

reneged on a main election promise and joined forces with Mr. Netanyahu to form an uneasy unity government after last year’s election.

After a highly successful career as a journalist and popular television host, Mr. Lapid was the surprise of the 2013 election when his party surpassed expectations and placed second, turning him into the chief power broker in the formation of the coalition.

His father, Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and an abrasive, antireligious politician, also headed a centrist party and served as justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known novelist.

An amateur boxer known for his casual chic black clothing, Mr. Lapid rode to power on the back of the social justice protests of 2011 by giving voice to Israel’s struggling middle class.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has stuck to the middle ground, presenting safe positions within the Israeli Jewish consensus.

Likud party election campaign banners of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on election day.
Credit…Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press

As Israeli voters filed to the polls on Tuesday, there was little of the usual festival-of-democracy talk.

Instead a pall of fatigue, cynicism and déjà vu seemed to hang over an election after three contests failed to bring some semblance of political stability.

“The only one excited about going out to vote today is our dog, who is getting an extra walk this morning,” said Gideon Zehavi, 54, a psychologist from Rehovot in central Israel.

Amid concerns of low voter turnout, the Central Elections Committee reported that 42.3 percent of the electorate had cast ballots by 4 p.m., compared with 47 percent by the same time in last year’s election. But the 4 p.m. turnout rate was only slightly behind that of the previous two elections in 2019.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a traditional visit to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, on Monday night and put a handwritten note in a crack between the huge stones. “I pray for an election victory for the sake of the state of Israel and the economy of Israel,” he wrote.

His main opponent, Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition, said after voting on Tuesday, “This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel.”

Elad Shnezik, 24, a foreign-exchange trader from Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem, said he had voted for Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, as he has always done. “There is no other leader here who can replace him at his high level, with his qualities and abilities,” Mr. Shnezik said.

He said he was not bothered that Mr. Netanyahu is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. “No person is completely pure,” he said.

Shai Komarov, 30, a yoga teacher in Jerusalem, said he was voting for the predominantly Arab Joint List. “There needs to be a major change in the agenda,” he said. He had switched between parties on the left “one or two elections ago,” he said. “It’s getting hard to keep track.”

But he added: “Anyone who has been indicted should not be prime minister. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Negina Abrahamov, 45, from Ramle, another city in central Israel, said she did not plan to vote this time. “I struggled with myself over voting the last three times,” she said, “and every government that was formed after the elections failed me and failed the purpose for which it was formed.”

With opinion polls indicating a possible continuation of the gridlock that has led to the recurring elections, Albert Sombrero, 33, another voter from Rehovot, said, “I feel like we will be meeting again six months from now.”

Isabel Kershner, Gabby SobelmanIrit Pazner Garshowitz and

Rahamim Havura casting his vote inside an intensive care ward for coronavirus patients at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

A third more ballot boxes than usual. Fifty extra mobile voting stations that can be deployed to avoid overcrowding. Separate polling stations in health clinics and drive-in tent compounds for infected or quarantined voters. Ballot boxes placed inside nursing homes.

These are some of the precautions taken by Israel’s Central Elections Committee as the country holds its fourth election in two years, and its first amid the pandemic.

The goal, the committee said, was “to give every citizen the right to vote while taking all possible measures to protect public health.”

Israel does not allow voting by mail, and only diplomats or service members abroad can cast absentee ballots, so the pandemic has complicated the electoral process — and could affect the outcome.

Israelis do not have to declare their vaccination status to go out and vote. But with the majority of Israel’s over-18s already fully vaccinated in a rapid inoculation campaign that has outpaced the rest of the world and with infection rates dropping dramatically, for many in the country the risk of contracting the virus has faded as an issue.

The pandemic has featured strongly in the political campaigning. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken personal credit for procuring millions of vaccine doses and has claimed victory over the virus. His government opened up the economy, including restaurants, cultural events and nightlife, in the days and weeks before the election.

Mr. Netanyahu’s detractors have focused on the more than 6,000 Israeli lives lost to the virus and blame him for putting his political and personal interests ahead of the public’s in his earlier handling of the crisis.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this month that daily quotas for incoming flights must be lifted, in part to allow Israeli citizens stranded abroad to come back in time to vote. A ballot box was even placed at the airport. But more Israelis were registered to fly out of the country on Tuesday than to return to vote.

A demonstration against an Israeli settlement near Nablus in the occupied West Bank this month. The prospect of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains dim, regardless of the Israeli election outcome.
Credit…Alaa Badarneh/EPA, via Shutterstock

Whether it ends in a victory or loss for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or yet another muddle, analysts believe the election will have few major consequences for Israeli foreign policy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israelis across the political spectrum share broad agreement about what they see as the threat posed by Iran. They share widespread resistance to an attempt by the Biden administration to return to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which many saw as ineffective. And efforts to normalize relations with once-hostile Arab states, a process started by Mr. Netanyahu, are likely to continue under any successor.

All potential Israeli administrations would also oppose efforts by the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli leaders for alleged war crimes in the occupied territories. And even with a change of government, the prospect of a final status agreement with the Palestinians remains dim. Two of Mr. Netanyahu’s potential successors oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and have expressed support for annexing some or all of the West Bank.

There would be little change “in terms of policy,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster based in Tel Aviv. “It’s maybe a difference of tone.”

Mr. Netanyahu picked fights with President Barack Obama and sought alliances with right-wing nationalists like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Donald J. Trump.

But Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition who is Mr. Netanyahu’s closest challenger, would see himself in the same light as other moderate world leaders, like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, said Dr. Scheindlin.

“He sees himself as a centrist, pragmatic, cooperative believer in the international system,” she added. “As long as it doesn’t come for Israel.”

Keen to cultivate a statesmanlike aura, Gideon Saar, one of the prime minister’s main right-wing rivals, has promised to be more constructive in dealing with the United States than Mr. Netanyahu was during the Obama administration.

And while he opposes a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr. Saar would likely disagree with Mr. Netanyahu about “the feasibility of catalyzing a regime change in Tehran,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

Likud supporters campaigned for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week. Mr. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister during negotiations.
Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

The final results from Tuesday’s election will likely take several days to tally, and it may be weeks or even months more before coalition negotiations allow for the formation of a new government.

Israel’s Central Elections Committee hopes near-final results will be released by Friday afternoon, when much of the country shuts down to observe the Sabbath.

But legally the committee has until March 31 to submit the complete results to President Reuven Rivlin, and the process may be delayed by the Passover holiday, which begins on Saturday evening.

After the election results become clear, Mr. Rivlin will give a lawmaker four weeks to try to establish a coalition. He usually gives that mandate to the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats, which is likely to be Mr. Netanyahu. But he could grant it to another lawmaker, like Mr. Lapid, if he believes that person has a better chance at assembling a viable coalition.

Under the Israeli system, any party that wins more than 3.25 percent of the vote can enter Parliament. That allows for a wider range of voices in Parliament, but makes it harder to form coalitions and gives smaller parties outsized influence in the formation of government.

At any point, a majority of lawmakers could vote to dissolve Parliament again, forcing yet another election.

If the first nominated lawmaker’s efforts break down, the president can give a second candidate another four weeks to form a government. If that process also stalls, Parliament itself can nominate a third candidate to give it a go. If that person fails, Parliament dissolves and another election is called.

In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister. If somehow no government is formed by November, Defense Minister Benny Gantz might still succeed him. Last April, Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to a power-sharing deal that was enshrined into Israeli law. It stipulated that Mr. Gantz would become prime minister in November 2021.

But if Mr. Gantz loses his seat in Parliament before November, it is unclear whether he would be permitted to assume the premiership.

Naftali Bennett has had a long and fraught relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Credit…Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the boutique right-wing Yamina party and an energetic political mover and shaker, has emerged as the potential kingmaker in the formation of Israel’s next governing coalition.

Mr. Bennett, 48, has had a long and fraught relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since a stint as his chief of staff ended in acrimony more than a decade ago. A sharp critic of some of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies, Mr. Bennett has sat in several Netanyahu-led governments as a minister as well as serving in the opposition.

Throughout this election campaign, Mr. Bennett presented himself as a challenger for the premiership, despite the modest size of his party.

He called for change but said he would not sit in an alternative government led by Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition. Mr. Bennett says his goal is to form an alternative right-wing government. But he has also not ruled out sitting with Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who is standing trial on corruption charges.

Mr. Bennett could help tip the balance for Mr. Netanyahu after two years of political gridlock by handing him the support he needs for a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat Parliament.

In return Mr. Bennett and his partner in Yamina, Ayelet Shaked, would likely demand senior ministerial posts.

Mr. Bennett could also end up supporting an alternative coalition including Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition, and Gideon Saar, another right-wing rival and former minister who recently quit Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party. But that would likely involve complicated coalition agreements for a rotating premiership and support from smaller parties with clashing agendas.

Maintaining opacity this weekend, Mr. Bennett wrote on Twitter: “Netanyahu claims that I will go with Gideon and Lapid; Gideon and Lapid claim that I will sit with Netanyahu. The truth is that Yamina will do what is best for Israel: We will prevent them from dragging us to fifth elections.”

He then signed a pledge, live on a right-wing television channel, vowing not to sit in a Lapid-led government. Analysts said the move had severely reduced his leverage and essentially meant that he had thrown in his lot with Mr. Netanyahu.

The final results of the election may not be in for days, and any number of permutations could change the outcome.

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Discord and Microsoft Said to Discuss Deal That Could Top $10 Billion

SAN FRANCISCO — Discord, a social media company popular with gamers, has held deal talks with Microsoft for a transaction that could top $10 billion, according to people briefed on the situation.

The talks were preliminary and no deal is imminent, said one of the people, who declined to be identified because the discussions are confidential. The talks have taken place as video gaming has boomed in the pandemic and as Microsoft, one of the world’s most valuable tech companies, has bolstered its gaming business with deal making.

Many of Microsoft’s acquisitions in recent years have focused on online communities, such as its purchases of LinkedIn, GitHub, and the gaming developer that created Minecraft. Last summer, Microsoft was in talks to buy the video app TikTok in what would have been a blockbuster acquisition; the discussions later fell apart. In September, Microsoft also bought ZeniMax Media, the parent company of several large gaming studios, for $7.5 billion.

Discord, which counts more than 100 million monthly active users, has been highly popular in the pandemic, as people have used the service to chat with one another while playing games. The San Francisco-based company, which has raised nearly $600 million in funding since 2014, has had preliminary deal talks with various suitors over the years, said another person with knowledge of the matter.

previously reported that Discord was holding deal discussions, and Bloomberg reported Microsoft’s involvement.

Joost van Dreunen, a New York University professor who studies the business of video games, said that if a deal were to happen, Discord “would be a natural fit” with Microsoft’s Xbox video gaming business. He said Microsoft has been “building hardware, buying software, and is now stitching it all together with the connective tissue of a community layer.”

Microsoft has said it wants to make it easier for people to play games at home on its Xbox consoles, or on-the-go on their phones. In the last three months of 2020, its gaming business generated $5 billion in revenue for the first time, following the release of new Xbox consoles.

Discord was founded in 2015 by Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy, programmers and entrepreneurs, as a platform for video game players to chat and hang out while gaming. It gained mainstream attention as a gathering ground for the far right, who used Discord to organize the white nationalist Charlottesville, Va., rally in 2017.

Discord has since implemented stricter content moderation rules and banned alt-right communities. The app, which allows people to create private servers — in essence, small communities — features audio, text and video chat options.

Last year, Discord announced plans to expand beyond gaming into everyday usage among online groups of all kinds. It has been used for activities like college classes and organizing events like the Black Lives Matter protests.

The company crossed $100 million in revenue last year, one of the people said. Discord makes money by selling subscriptions to a premium version of the service.

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Roger Stone faces fresh scrutiny as Capitol attack investigation expands

As the federal investigation of the 6 January Capitol insurrection expands, scrutiny of Donald Trump’s decades-long ally Roger Stone is expected to intensify, given his links to at least four far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who had been charged, plus Stone’s incendiary comments at rallies the night before the riot and in prior weeks, say ex-prosecutors and Stone associates

Although Stone was not part of the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob that shocked America, the self-styled “dirty trickster” – who was convicted on seven counts in the Russia investigations into the 2016 elections but later pardoned by Trump – had numerous contacts with key groups and figures involved in the riot in the weeks before and just prior to its start.

The night before the riot, Stone spoke at a Washington DC “Rally to Save America” where the former president’s unfounded claims that the election was stolen by Democrats were pushed and Stone urged an “epic struggle for the future of this country, between dark and light, between the godly and the godless, between good and evil”.

Early on 6 January, Stone was seen in cellphone videos near a Washington hotel hanging out with six members of the far-right militia Oath Keepers serving as his “bodyguards”, including three who have been charged in the federal investigation. Stone, according to Mother Jones, also raised funds for “private security” events on 5 January and 6 January before the Capitol attack, which included a rambling talk by Trump urging his supporters to “fight like hell”.

Back on 12 December, Stone also spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally that amplified Trump’s erroneous claims of massive election fraud, and urged hundreds of Trump loyalists to “fight until the bitter end … Never give up, never quit, never surrender, and fight for America,” Stone implored the crowd

Congressional investigators looking into the far-right Proud Boys, including some charged in the riot, have also reportedly been looking into ties that Stone had with their leaders Enrique Tarrio and Ethan Nordean, who were seen in a video in contact with Stone at another demonstration in DC the night before the December 12 rally, according to Just Security

Nordean is one of at least a dozen Proud Boys who have been charged so far in the riot investigation, and one of several who are facing conspiracy charges

Tarrio, who attended Stone’s trial and had other contacts with him, was arrested in DC two days before the riot and charged with setting fire in December to a Black Lives Matter flag and for carrying high capacity magazines for weapons

Back in 2016, Stone first set up the group “Stop the Steal” which raised false claims that the election would be stolen from Trump, a baseless charge that grew exponentially post election in 2020 to try to undermine Biden’s victory.

Last year Trump railed against Stone’s conviction in the Russia inquiry which included lying to Congress and drew a 40-month jail sentence. But shortly before Stone was to enter prison in mid 2020 Trump commuted his sentence, and in December gave him a full pardon.

Members of the Oath Keepers provide security to Roger Stone in Washington DC on 5 January. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Former senior prosecutors say that Stone could be a growing focus of the federal inquiry of the riot which has already charged more than 300 people including at least a dozen Proud Boys and 10 Oath Keepers for illegal acts related to their roles in the Capitol attack.

“Prosecutors follow the facts and evidence where they lead, and certainly should be investigating any connections between Stone and those who were responsible for the insurrection on January 6,” Mary McCord, a veteran prosecutor who led the national security division at Justice at the end of the Obama administration until May 2017, said in an interview

Other ex-prosecutors go further and see Stone as a potential target.

“As a result of the pardon corruptly granted by Trump, it would not be surprising for Roger Stone to become a federal prosecutor’s holy grail,” said Phil Halpern, who retired last year after 36 years as an assistant US attorney who specialized in corruption cases. “In this quest, the charged Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are merely pawns leading to the ultimate prize. Rest assured, prosecutors will be dangling lenient treatment and other inducements in return for any testimony implicating Stone in the Capitol riot.”

But some ex-prosecutors caution that charging Stone will be difficult “absent direct evidence of an intent to commit or aid and abet treason or seditious conspiracy”, said Paul Pelletier, a former acting chief of the justice department’s fraud section

The Washington Post and other outlets have reported that Stone and Alex Jones, the host of the conspiracy driven InfoWars talk show where Stone has often appeared as a guest and promoted disinformation, are being investigated related to their ties with figures in the riot and if they had any role in its planning.

Jones, who has boasted he paid $500,000 for the rally on 6 January, and Stone have had close links since at least the 2016 campaign, when Stone spoke glowingly of Jones declaring in an interview that his show is “the major source of everything”.

In an email, Stone vehemently denied having anything to do with the Capitol riot.

“Any statement, claim, insinuation, or report alleging, or even implying, that I had any involvement in or knowledge, whether advance or contemporaneous, about the commission of any unlawful acts by any person or group in or around the US Capitol or anywhere in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, is categorically false.”

Stone has previously said that he simply wanted to spur “peaceful” protests of Congress on 6 January and stressed that he “denounced the violence at the Capitol”.

On his website, StoneColdTruth, he has launched appeals to help with legal expenses by requesting checks for “the STONE LEGAL DEFENSE FUND to help prepare to fend off this malicious assault on me once again”.

Stone’s denials notwithstanding, some former lobbying partners of his at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly voice dismay at his decades long fealty to Trump, a client of the firm in the 1980s, about a decade after Stone earned notoriety for playing a small part in the scandal-ridden 1972 Richard Nixon campaign.

“Roger has been totally devoted to Trump for over 30 years and that has clouded his judgment about his own ethical values and led to a criminal conviction,” said Charlie Black in an interview.

“I’m not surprised that the devotion is still there, even post-election and post-pardon.”

Similarly, ex-Stone partner Peter Kelly said he’s been shocked by Stone’s recent drive to discredit the election results – and similar efforts by Michael Flynn, who was also convicted in the Russia inquiry and pardoned by Trump. “To see people like Gen Flynn and Stone who just escaped a serious encounter with the law, walking the edge again is stunning,’” Kelly said in an interview.

In 2016, Kelly blasted Stone’s modus operandi, telling the Guardian that “Roger operates by a different set of rules, and his object is to disrupt. He traffics in the unusual.”

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Capitol attack: more than 60 Proud Boys used encrypted channel to plan, indictment says

The neo-fascist Proud Boys deployed a large contingent in Washington on 6 January, the day of the US Capitol attack, with more than 60 “participating in” an encrypted messaging channel called “Boots on the Ground”, a federal indictment says.

The indictment, which includes conspiracy charges against four men described as leaders of the far-right group, presents fresh evidence of how officials believe members planned and carried out a coordinated attempt to stop Congress certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump.

At least 19 leaders, members or associates of the Proud Boys have been charged in federal court with offenses related to the 6 January riot, which resulted in five deaths. More than 300 people have been charged in total. Trump was impeached for the inciting the insurrection but was acquitted after only seven Republican senators broke ranks to vote to convict him.

The indictment unsealed on Friday also suggests that the Proud Boys, whom Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate last year, were discussing what they would do after he left the White House.

“We need to start planning and we are starting planning for a Biden presidency,” one alleged leader wrote after the Capitol invasion, according to the indictment.

Just two days before the Capitol attack, the Proud Boys’ leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested in Washington, charged with vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic Black church, and ordered to stay out of the District of Columbia.

The Proud Boys reacted with alarm, one alleged leader warning that communications could be “compromised”, telling members they could be “looking at Gang charges” and suggesting they “stop everything immediately”, according to the indictment.

But they regrouped, creating fresh encrypted channels to communicate and advising members to meet at the Washington Monument at 10am on 6 January, according to the indictment. One alleged leader told members on 5 January to “avoid getting into any shit tonight. Tomorrow’s the day.” Proud Boys were repeatedly warned not to wear their typical black and yellow colors. “Cops are the primary threat,” one channel was warned on the night before the attack.

On 6 January, the Proud Boys marched to the Capitol before Trump finished addressing thousands of supporters near the White House.

About two hours later, just before Congress convened a joint session to certify the election results, a group of Proud Boys followed a crowd who breached barriers at a pedestrian entrance to the Capitol grounds, the indictment says. Several Proud Boys entered the Capitol after the mob smashed windows and forced open doors.

A Wall Street Journal investigation of video footage found Proud Boys members were “key instigators”, at the “forefront” in many pivotal moments.

The messages in the indictment show the Proud Boys using military language before and during the attack, one asking if leaders should hold a “commander’s briefing” before gathering at the Washington Monument.

At 3.38pm, Charles Donohoe, an alleged leader of a chapter in North Carolina, announced on the Boots on the Ground channel that he and others were “regrouping with a second force” as some rioters began to leave the Capitol, according to the indictment.

Ethan Nordean and Joseph Biggs, two of the four defendants charged, were arrested several weeks ago on separate but related charges. A day before the riots, Biggs posted on the Boots on the Ground channel that the group had a “plan”, according to the new indictment, which also charges Donohoe and Zachary Rehl, described as leader of a chapter in Pennsylvania.

“This was not simply a march,” the assistant US attorney Jason McCullough said in a recent hearing for Nordean’s case. “This was an incredible attack on our institutions of government.”

All four defendants are charged with conspiring to impede certification of the electoral college vote. Other charges include obstruction of an official proceeding, obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder and disorderly conduct.

The defendants carried out their conspiracy in part by obtaining paramilitary gear and supplies, including tactical vests, protective equipment and radio equipment, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors have said the Proud Boys arranged to communicate using Baofeng radios, Chinese-made devices that can be programmed for use on hundreds of frequencies, making it difficult for outsiders to eavesdrop.

A lawyer for Biggs declined to comment. Attorneys for the other three men didn’t immediately respond to messages.

In Nordean’s case, a federal judge accused prosecutors of backtracking on claims that he instructed Proud Boys members to split up into smaller groups and directed a “strategic plan” to breach the Capitol.

“That’s a far cry from what I heard at the hearing today,” the US district judge Beryl Howell said on 3 March.

Howell concluded that Nordean was extensively involved in “pre-planning” for the events of 6 January and that he and other Proud Boys “were clearly prepared for a violent confrontation”. However, she said evidence that Nordean directed other Proud Boys members to break into the building was “weak to say the least” and ordered him freed from jail before trial.

Proud Boys members describe themselves as “western chauvinists” and have engaged in street fights with antifascist activists. The Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, sued the Southern Poverty Law Center for labeling it a hate group.

On Friday, Howell ordered the group member Christopher Worrell detained in federal custody pending trial on riot-related charges. Prosecutors say Worrell traveled to Washington and coordinated with Proud Boys leading up to the siege.

“Wearing tactical gear and armed with a canister of pepper spray gel marketed as 67 times more powerful than hot sauce, Worrell advanced, shielded himself behind a wooden platform and other protestors and discharged the gel at the line of officers,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

His defense attorney John Pierce argued his client wasn’t aiming at officers and was only there in the crowd to exercise his free speech rights.

“He’s a veteran,” Pierce said. “He loves his country.”

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Unmasked: man behind cult set to replace QAnon

The mysterious individual behind a new and rapidly growing online disinformation network targeting followers of QAnon, the far-right cult, can be revealed as a Berlin-based artist with a history of social media manipulation, a prominent anti-racism group claims.

Since Donald Trump left the White House, QAnon’s vast online community has been in a state of flux as it comes to terms with the reality that its conspiracy theories – such as the former US president being destined to defeat a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles – amount to nothing.

That may explain why significant numbers have turned to a new far-right network, found mostly on the Telegram messaging app, that is growing quickly in the UK and globally and has amassed more than one million subscribers so far this year.

Sebastian Bieniek in 2018. The campaign group Hope Not Hate says he has a track record of inventing online conspiracies. Photograph: Reza Mahmoudidschad

Called the Sabmyk Network, like QAnon it is a convoluted conspiracy theory that features fantastical elements and is headed by a mysterious messianic figure. Since its emergence there has been widespread speculation about who that figure might be. The person who first posted as “Q” has never been positively identified.

This week the British anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate will unmask Sabmyk’s leader, who it claims is 45-year-old German art dealer Sebastian Bieniek. It says Bieniek – who has not responded to questions from the Observer – has a history of creating online conspiracies and even wrote a book in 2011 called RealFake that detailed a campaign to deceptively promote his work.

But Hope Not Hate says the speed of Sabmyk’s growth serves as a warning of the opportunities for manipulation that exist on social media, particularly unregulated alt-tech platforms such as Telegram.

Gregory Davis of Hope Not Hate, which will publish its annual report into the far right on Monday, said: “His success in developing such a huge audience is a reminder that the QAnon template of anonymous online manipulation will continue to pose a threat in the years to come.”

Since 21 December last year, when Sabmyk was supposedly “awakened”, more than 136 channels in English, German, Japanese, Korean and Italian have sprung up, adding tens of thousands of followers on a daily basis.

Much of Sabmyk’s content is designed to appeal to QAnon followers; it features Covid mask scepticism, anti-vaccine conspiracies and false assertions that the 2020 US election was stolen from Trump.

Some is also designed to actively recruit Britons: one Sabmyk channel, the British Patriotic Party, uses the same branding as anti-Muslim group Britain First and posts about the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Other channels are entitled London Post and Liverpool Times, as well as the Great Awakening UK, a reference to a well-known QAnon trope predicting a day of reckoning in which Trump would rise against his liberal enemies. Others include WWG1WGA, an acronym for the QAnon rallying call “where we go one, we go all.”

Among the clues used to identify Bieniek are posts saying that the messiah Sabmyk can be identified by specific marks on his body. One post claimed that Sabmyk would have “17 V-shaped scars” on his arm, the result of a “prophetic ceremony at the age of 24”.

What is QAnon and why is it so dangerous? – video explainer
What is QAnon and why is it so dangerous? – video explainer

Hope Not Hate has found a since-deleted section on Bieniek’s website recalling a 1999 art exhibit in which, aged 24, he cut V-shaped wounds into his arm for 16 days in a row.

Attempts to connect Sabmyk to Trump have been made, including a clip that splices together instances of the former president saying “17”, and a doctored image showing him with a Sabmyk pamphlet in his suit pocket.

Bieniek has created countless false identities, according to the Hope Not Hate investigation, to promote his career as an artist. The group also says his German Wikipedia page has been deleted at least four times, most recently in January.

A list of Bieniek’s accounts has been sent to platforms including Telegram with a call for them to be removed on the basis of “inauthentic and coordinated platform manipulation”. Telegram has been approached for comment.

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