Police vehicles burn after being set on fire by demonstrators in the Fairfax District on May 30, 2020, in Los Angeles
CNN  — 

The police chief of Bellevue, Washington, was patrolling downtown on a Sunday afternoon late last month as a crowd of what appeared to be peaceful protesters gathered with signs bearing the name of George Floyd, the black man who had died days earlier at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Police in the wealthy Seattle suburb had tracked discussion on social media and seen intelligence from federal agencies that gang members known to investigators were planning to descend on the city, so Chief Steve Mylett positioned himself and his department to respond to a possible riot. Over a matter of minutes, and with apparent coordination, the crowd of two dozen swelled to some 300 people, most of whom appeared to have no connection to the protest movement, Mylett said in an interview.

“It was like a tsunami coming at us of people,” he said. “They took over the intersection, they dropped the George Floyd signs, there was no more protesting.”

Scores of businesses were looted and destroyed in the “well-coordinated attack” that night, Mylett said, totaling millions in dollars of stolen property and damages and mirroring scenes of destruction seen nationwide.

For police departments and prosecutors across the country, the thousands of riot-related cases being investigated so far are largely divorced from the politics behind a narrative pushed by President Donald Trump, who along with his top law enforcement leaders has claimed that the violence amid the wave of protests was caused by left-wing extremists alone.

While federal law enforcement officials say intelligence gathered so far in dozens of investigations shows that some of the chaos was fanned or carried out by agitators from a mix of extremists across the ideological spectrum, both left and right, federal and local officials also say that local criminal groups, including gangs and neighborhood crews known for other criminal activity, posed a major part of the disorder.

In Los Angeles, police observed a caravan of cars preparing together ahead of a looting spree. In New York, investigators believe it was “opportunist action by regular criminal groups” that led to the ransacking of blocks of ritzy SoHo stores. And in Philadelphia, three men with local criminal records have already been charged with attempting to steal from ATMs.

“The narrative that it’s all Antifa or all white supremacist is not accurate,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office is coordinating investigations into more than 50 ATMs that were destroyed with explosives in the Philadelphia area.

One man arrested there last week who’s suspected of selling dynamite to be used on ATMs has a local criminal history but no known ties to extremist political groups. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia also unsealed charges against two convicted felons on Tuesday after police found them near a safe that had been dragged into a street.

Trump was quick to pin episodes of rioting and looting that broke out amid the protests on Antifa, a far-left anti-government movement, and on May 31, US Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would treat violence instigated by “Antifa and other similar groups” as acts of domestic terrorism.

But federal officials have provided little evidence to back up the claim. Of the more than 50 people charged by the Justice Department in relation to the unrest as of Tuesday, only a handful are alleged by prosecutors to have a connection to any extremist group.

Federal prosecutors charged three Las Vegas men alleged to be members of the far-right Boogaloo extremist movement last week with conspiring to cause destruction and possessing Molotov cocktails at a protest in the city. The FBI and local authorities also arrested three Texas residents on Friday who are accused in state charges of being members of Antifa and looting a Target store.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has also singled out Antifa by name, although he acknowledged at a news conference last week the complicated picture investigators are seeing: “While a majority of the protesters are peaceful, there are certainly instigators, agitators and opportunists seeking to exploit these demonstrations to commit violence or rioting, and exactly who these people are, who is driving them, what’s driving them, what tactics they use, varies widely sometimes from city to city, sometimes even from night to night.”

On Monday, Barr described rioters as a “witch’s brew” of extremists, telling Fox News that there remained a number of “very focused investigations” into suspects connected to Antifa, and he suggested that allegations of explicit ties may be added into some already-public prosecutions at a later stage.

In the Los Angeles area, police watched caravans of cars travel to high-end shopping districts and dozens of people pour out to methodically target retail stores near Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. Some looters then set fires. Some tried to mix in with the protests, while others didn’t bother to pretend, police say.

One Los Angeles Police Department supervisor told CNN that undercover officers saw groups of vehicles arrive and then “watched them staging, putting on their gloves and masks, before going into the stores. This was on purpose. This was staged. They were using Snapchat and social media to organize this.”

LA investigators say well-known gangs have in recent years moved from drug trafficking into crimes targeting retail stores.

Similar scenes unfolded in New York City, where news footage captured carloads of people, some arriving with duffel bags to fill up with valuable goods, targeting retail stores and pharmacies.

“The looting was not a feature we anticipated, nor is it one we’ve seen before associated with these kinds of movements, nor do we actually believe that it’s associated with this movement,” John Miller, NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told reporters over the weekend. “We believe it was an opportunist action by regular criminal groups who decided to exploit this.”

Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, says his office is focused on the criminals, whose activities take attention away from a legitimate cause. “The people who are peacefully protesting are out there for a righteous cause,” he said. “We definitely need to reform our criminal justice system.”

In Philadelphia, police have arrested nearly 900 people in connection with a variety of riot-related crimes, from attacking police to looting. Opportunistic local people, not outside political groups, account for 80% of the arrests there and in Pittsburgh, he said.

More than 50 ATM robberies are being investigated by a Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office task force along with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Criminals have been using homemade M100 fireworks to blow up the ATMs.

Mylett, the Bellevue police chief, said his department has already begun to make arrests related to the looting and will soon roll out a regional task force with the Seattle Police Department to investigate crimes related to the unrest.

The damage caused by the criminal groups, however, extends beyond shattered windows and stolen goods, he said.

“The protesters are getting hijacked by this criminal element,” Mylett said. “It’s a shame, because what we need to be talking about either gets paused or put to the side because we have to deal with this other garbage.”