Extremist paramilitary or militia groups have re-emerged in California and other western states, calling themselves a last line of defense but acting like camouflage-wearing vigilantes.
While experts who track such groups said they see little solid evidence of a surge, they agreed that the timing for a resurgence seems ripe.
"It just absolutely fits. From a strategic point of view it makes perfect sense," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Militias in rural states have gone largely unnoticed since their apocalyptic predictions of a millennium disaster proved ridiculous. Now, the militias claim that the federal government has agitated a world situation it cannot control and that armed Americans must prepare to defend themselves, said Cooper and others.
"There has certainly been an increase in militia rhetoric," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, noting recent activities in Arizona, where private citizens claim they have a right to carry out armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border.
If and when that rhetoric will translate to public activities remains unknown, he said, adding that increased patriotism makes the militia's anti-government messages less palatable even to those on political fringes.
"Some militia groups have tried to position themselves as true defenders of homeland security. They say the government can't protect us," said Michael Barkun of Syracuse University's Maxwell School, who has written extensively on the militia movement.
"This has the double advantage (from) their standpoint of being a recruiting appeal and also a way of legitimizing themselves."
David Martin, a contact for the Militia of Northern California, claimed its ranks have swelled of late as its members learned to operate in small cells that don't attract attention.
He said the armed groups, including "a pretty good and a pretty big one" in Contra Costa and other East Bay counties, stand ready for local governments and law enforcement to mobilize them in coming times of unrest.
Contra Costa Sheriff Warren Rupf did not return two messages left with his spokesman.
"The militia should be used to provide security and to put down civilian unrest. It should be called a militia, it's not a four-letter word," said Martin, a member of a cell in San Luis Obispo County and a host of a show on the far-right Genesis Radio Network.
The president of the police chiefs state association scoffed at that notion.
"These groups do their own training based in their own ideologies and they feel they are not constrained by anything. We could not legally or ethically allow them to work with our personnel," said Arroyo Police Chief Rick TurBorch, association president.
The latest state information on militias is a brief mention in a 2000 Department of Justice organized crime report to the Legislature that mentions the use of cells, said Michael Van Winkle, a department spokesman.
Van Winkle said no report was completed for 2001 because of a redirection of resources after the Sept. 11 attacks. A report for 2002 is in progress, he said. Those writing it refused interviews for fear of compromising law enforcement monitoring militias, Van Winkle said.
The militia of 2003 is not a hate group but rather a collection of "godly men who truly love this country," Martin said. He estimated that as many as 4,000 members across the state stand ready to fight and have gone unnoticed because of their lack of formal command structure, and shunning of uniforms while training on ranches and rifle ranges.
He claimed the members carry mostly foreign-made weapons and are required to have at least 80 rounds of ammunition, a sidearm and "and a good knife." The groups use a don't-ask, don't-tell policy concerning the state's ban on assault weapons, Martin said.
Mark Potok, a militia expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, dismissed Martin's force estimate. "It's absolute baloney," he said. Potok agreed that militias have learned to operate in cells.
Most militia Web sites for California seem active but not recently updated. The High Desert Militia of Southern California maintains an active site. Its members did not return an e-mail seeking comment for this story.
An Orange County man who identifies himself as a spokesman for a group called The State Medical Command of the California State Militia, Michael E. Reighley, confirmed the group's existence in an e-mail but wouldn't answer questions about it.
The most active militia Web site in the country is that of the Militia of Montana, whose co-founder, John Trochmann, is an icon of the national movement. He continues to spew anti-government rhetoric and a call to arms.
"They think we are a bunch of dummies," Trochmann said in an interview this week. "But they left the Internet wide open to us. We went low profile and let go of the command structure."
It doesn't take long for militia members like Martin and Trochmann to talk of grand conspiracies, such as the federal government blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Martin claimed that he often sees Chinese soldiers on reconnaissance missions along the Central Coast, scouting for landing areas for an amphibious assault. The Chinese government, he claims, has caches of weapons hidden around the country for its invading army.
He likened the militia's current role to that which Californians found themselves in during the early days of World War II when fears of Japanese invasion spurred many people to arm themselves. "We face something very similar right now," he said. "It is no secret (the Chinese) have intentions of someday invading."
Sitting at a park bench in Paso Robles, Martin, a pudgy, 56-year-old owner of an electronics business and an Army veteran, said he is fit and ready to defend his homeland. He can shoot a man in the head with a rifle at 175 yards, he said, and has weapons stashed at several locations so he can battle invading armies.
He insisted that the militia "is a defensive organization only" and desperately needed to protect his community. "We don't let in crazies and wackos."
Other militia members were watching from a distance as he talked, Martin insisted. He couldn't be too careful, he said, and then slipped away. He said he needed to scout for Chinese troops.