Camouflaged and silent, the assault team inched toward a walled stone compound for more than five hours, belly-crawling the last 200 yards. The target was an old state prison in eastern Ohio, and every handpicked member of Red Team 2 knew what was at stake: The year is 2014, and a new breed of neo-Islamic terrorism is rampant in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio ... The current White House Administration is pro-Muslim and has ordered a stand-down against Islamic groups. The mission: Destroy the terrorist command post - or die trying. The fighters must go in "sterile" - without name tags or other identifying insignia - as a deniable covert force. "Anyone who is caught or captured cannot expect extraction," the briefing officer said.
At nightfall the raiders launched their attack. Short, sharp bursts from their M-16s cut down the perimeter guards. Once past the rear gate, the raiders fanned out and emptied clip after clip in a barrage of diversionary fire. As defenders rushed to repel the small team, the main assault force struck from the opposite flank. Red Team 1 burst through a chain-link fence, enveloping the defense in lethal cross fire. The shooting was over in minutes. Thick grenade smoke bloomed over the command post. The defenders were routed, headquarters ablaze.
This August weekend of grueling mock combat, which left some of the men prostrate and bloody-booted, capped a yearlong training regimen of the Ohio Defense Force, a private militia that claims 300 active members statewide. The fighters shot blanks, the better to learn to maneuver in squads, but they buy live ammunition in bulk. Their training - no game, they stress - expends thousands of rounds a year from a bring-your-own armory of deer rifles, assault weapons and, when the owner turns up, a belt-fed M-60 machine gun. The militia trains for ambushes, sniper missions, close-quarters battle and other infantry staples.
What distinguishes groups like this one from a shooting club or re-enactment society is the prospect of actual bloodshed, which many Ohio Defense Force members see as real. Their unit seal depicts a man with a musket and tricorn hat, over the motto "Today's Minutemen." The symbol invites a question, Who are today's redcoats? On that point, the group takes no official position, but many of those interviewed over two days of recent training in and around the abandoned Roseville State Prison near Zanesville voiced grim suspicions about President Obama and the federal government in general.
"I don't know who the redcoats are," says Brian Vandersall, 37, who designed the exercise and tried to tamp down talk of politics among the men. "It could be U.N. troops. It could be federal troops. It could be Blackwater, which was used in Katrina. It could be Mexican troops who are crossing the border."
Or it could be, as it was for this year's exercise, an Islamic army marauding unchecked because a hypothetical pro-Muslim President has ordered U.S. forces to leave them alone. But as the drill played out, the designated opponents bore little resemblance to terrorists. The scenario described them as a platoon-size unit, in uniform, with "military-grade hardware, communications, encryption capability and vehicle support." The militia was training for combat against the spitting image of a tactical force from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), FBI or National Guard. "Whoever they are," Vandersall says, "we have to be ready."
As militias go, the Ohio Defense Force is on the moderate side. Scores of armed antigovernment groups, some of them far more radical, have formed or been revived during the Obama years, according to law-enforcement agencies and outside watchdogs. A six-month TIME investigation reveals that recruiting, planning, training and explicit calls for a shooting war are on the rise, as are criminal investigations by the FBI and state authorities. Readier for bloodshed than at any time since at least the confrontations in the 1990s in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the radical right has raised the threat level against the President and other government targets. With violence already up on a modest scale, FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state agencies point to two main dangers of a mass-casualty attack: that a group of armed radicals will strike out in perceived self-defense, or that a lone wolf, trained and indoctrinated for war, will grow tired of waiting. Even the most outspoken militia commanders worry about the latter scenario. Kevin Terrell, a self-described colonel who founded a group of "freedom fighters" in Kentucky and predicts war with "the jackbooted thugs" of Washington within a year, says he has to fend off hotheads who call him a "keyboard commando." Some are ejected from his group, he says, and others are willing to wait a little longer. "You have to have the right fuel-air mixture, the piston has to be in the right position, the spark has to be perfectly timed," he says. "The day will come - sooner than later."
Within a complex web of ideologies, most of today's armed radicals are linked by self-described Patriot beliefs, which emphasize resistance to tyranny by force of arms and reject the idea that elections can fix what ails the country. Among the most common convictions is that the Second Amendment - the right to keep and bear arms - is the Constitution's cornerstone, because only a well-armed populace can enforce its rights. Any form of gun regulation, therefore, is a sure sign of intent to crush other freedoms. The federal government is often said in militia circles to have made wholesale seizures of power, at times by subterfuge. A leading grievance holds that the 16th Amendment, which authorizes the federal income tax, was ratified through fraud.
In a reversal of casting, the armed antigovernment movement describes itself as heir to the founders. As they see it, the union that the founders created is now a foreign tyrant. "It's like waking up behind enemy lines," says Terrell. He says he smelled a setup when the FBI arrested nine members of Michigan's Hutaree militia in March and charged them with plotting to kill police. (Their trial is set to begin in February.) Terrell and other leaders put their forces on alert, anticipating a roundup. "There was a lot of citizens out there in the bushes, locked and loaded," he says. "It's only due to miracles I do not understand that civil war did not break out right there."
Some groups, though not many overtly, embrace the white-supremacist legacy of the Posse Comitatus, which invented the modern militia movement in the 1970s. Some are fueled by a violent stream of millennial Christianity. Some believe Washington is a secondary foe, the agent of a dystopian new world order.
A small but growing number of these extremist groups, according to the FBI, ATF and state investigators, are subjects of active criminal investigations. They include militias and other promoters of armed confrontation with government, among them "common-law jurors," who try to make their own arrests and convene their own trials, and "sovereign citizens," who respond with lethal force to routine encounters with the law. In April, for example, Navy veteran Walter Fitzpatrick, acting on behalf of a group called American Grand Jury, barged into a Tennessee courthouse and tried to arrest the real grand-jury foreman on the grounds that he refused to indict Obama for treason. In May, Georgia militia member Darren Huff was arrested by Tennessee state troopers after telling them that he and other armed men intended to "take over the Monroe County courthouse," free Fitzpatrick and "conduct arrests" of other officials, according to Huff's indictment and his own account in an interview posted online. Investigators are keeping a wary eye on a related trend, which has yet to progress beyond words, in which law officers and military service members vow to refuse or resist orders they deem unconstitutional. About a dozen county sheriffs and several candidates for sheriff in the midterm elections have threatened to arrest federal agents in their jurisdictions.
Group distinctions are seldom clear because of overlapping memberships and alliances. The Ohio exercise, for example, included a delegation from the 17th Special Operations Group led by Colonel Dick Wolf, a former Army drill sergeant who previously took a unit to join Arizona militia leader Chris Simcox in armed patrols along the Mexican border. Wolf travels around the country to train other groups in such skills as knife fighting and convoy operations. He does not ask about their philosophies. "That's their business," he says.
The Obama Factor
None of these movements are entirely new, but most were in sharp decline by the late 1990s. Their resurgence now is widely seen among government and academic experts as a reaction to the tectonic shifts in American politics that allowed a black man with a foreign-sounding name and a Muslim-born father to reach the White House.
Obama's ascendancy unhinged the radical right, offering a unified target to competing camps of racial, nativist and religious animus. Even Patriots who had no truck with white supremacy found that they could amplify their antigovernment message by "constructing Obama as an alien, not of this country, insufficiently American," according to Michael Waltman, an authority on hate speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Perennial features of extreme-right scare lore - including imagined schemes to declare martial law, abolish private ownership of guns and force dissidents into FEMA concentration camps - became more potent with Obama as the Commander in Chief.
Threats against Obama's life brought him Secret Service protection in May 2007, by far the earliest on record for a presidential candidate. At least four alleged assassination plots between June and December - by militiamen in Pennsylvania, white supremacists in Denver, skinheads in Tennessee and an active-duty Marine lance corporal at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune - led to arrests and criminal charges before Obama was even sworn in.
"We call it somewhat of a perfect storm," says a high-ranking FBI official who declined to speak on the record because of the political sensitivities of the subject. With an economy in free fall and rising anger about illegal immigration, Obama became "a rallying point" for dormant extremists after the 2008 election who "weren't willing to act before but now are susceptible to being recruited and radicalized."
Theirs is not Tea Party anger, which aims at electoral change, even if it often speaks of war. In the world of armed extremists, war is not always a metaphor. Some of them speak with contempt about big talkers who "meet, eat and retreat." History suggests that even the most ferocious, by and large, will never get around to walking the walk. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center observes that "there are huge numbers of people who say, 'We're going to have to go to war to defend the Constitution or defend the white race,' but 'That will be next week, boys.' "
And yet there are exceptions, and law-enforcement officials say domestic terrorists are equally the products of their movements. Those most inclined toward violence sometimes call themselves three percenters, a small vanguard that dares to match deeds to words. Brian Banning, who led local and interagency intelligence units that tracked radical-right-wing violence in Sacramento County, California, says, "The person who's interested in violent revolution may be attracted to a racist group or to a militia or to the Tea Party because he's antigovernment and so are they, but he's looking on the fringe of the crowd for the people who want to take action."
One such man was James Von Brunn. On June 10, 2009, he pulled up to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, raised a .22-caliber rifle and shot security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns in the chest. Part of Von Brunn's story is now well known, but police, FBI and Secret Service investigators held back a startling epilogue.
Von Brunn was an avowed white supremacist with a history of violence that reached back decades. He had spent six years in prison after an attempt to take hostages at the Federal Reserve in 1981. After finding only disappointment in organized groups, Von Brunn retreated to his website and railed against passive comrades. "The American Right-wing with few exceptions ... does NOTHING BUT TALK," he wrote. At 88 and hospitalized with a gunshot wound he suffered at the museum, Von Brunn did not loom large in the public eye as a figure of menace. He was profiled as a shrunken old man, broke and friendless, who ended another man's life in an empty act of despair. He died seven months later in prison before he could be tried.
What authorities did not disclose was how close the country had come to a seismic political event. Von Brunn, authoritative sources say, had another target in mind: White House senior adviser David Axelrod, a man at the center of Obama's circle. The President was too hard to reach, in Von Brunn's view, but that was of no consequence. "Obama was created by Jews," he wrote. "Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do."
The episode sent a jolt through the FBI and DHS. Von Brunn had demonstrated motive, means and intent to kill one of the President's closest aides. The Secret Service assigned Axelrod a protection detail and took other, undisclosed steps to broaden its coverage. The DHS put out bulletins to state and local law-enforcement agencies on the tactics, warning signs and other lessons of the case. FBI agents need to understand, a senior supervisor says, that "it isn't just the threat from Islamic extremists but also from homegrown or domestic terrorists" with antigovernment agendas - as the bureau had already seen in a small town in Maine.
The Dirty Bomber
The first thing Jeff Trafton noticed at 346 High Street was a "big swastika flag in the living room." Upstairs, where a man lay dead in his bedroom, there were photographs of the victim posed in a black Gestapo trench coat. Any murder was unusual in Belfast, Maine, a town of 7,000 where Trafton is chief of police. This one kept getting stranger.
Who did it was not a mystery. Amber Cummings, then 31, shot her husband James, 29, to death, dropped the Colt .45 revolver and walked to a neighbor's to dial 911. Evidence of her torment at the dead man's hands during years of domestic abuse would later persuade a judge to spare her a prison sentence. (Comment on this story.)
On the day of the shooting, Dec. 9, 2008, the story she told and an initial search of the house brought an FBI forensic team running. James Cummings appeared to have accumulated explosive ingredients and radioactive samples. He had filled out an application to join the National Socialist Movement and declared an ambition to kill the President-elect.
It was hard to tell how seriously to take that threat. On Jan. 19, 2009, WikiLeaks made public the FBI search inventory, which was distributed to security planners for Obama's Inauguration. State police assured reporters, in response, that the Cummings home lab had posed no threat to public safety.
A much more sobering picture emerged from the dead man's handwritten notes and printed records, some of which were recently made available to TIME. Fresh interviews with principals in the case, together with the documents, depict a viciously angry and resourceful man who had procured most of the supplies for a crude radiological dispersal device and made some progress in sketching a workable design. In this he was far ahead of Jose Padilla, the accused al-Qaeda dirty-bomb plotter, and more advanced in his efforts than any previously known domestic threat involving a dirty bomb. Cummings spent many months winning the confidence of online suppliers, using a variety of cover stories, PayPal accounts and shipping addresses. He had a $2 million real estate inheritance and spent it freely on his plot.
"He was very clever," says Amber Cummings, who until now had not spoken publicly about her late husband's preparations. "There's a small amount of radioactive material he can legally buy for research purposes. He'd call those companies, and he had various stories. He'd claim he was working as a professor."
On Nov. 4, 2008 - Election Day - Cummings placed his last two orders for uranium, at a total cost of $626.40, from United Nuclear Scientific Equipment & Supplies. The Michigan-based company, which declined to answer questions, offers uranium for sale online in "medium, high, super high and ultra high radiation" blends. In an ironic twist on customer service, United Nuclear wrote with regret to inform Cummings that one of the samples he ordered that day "was already purchased by Homeland Security for training purposes." By way of apology, the company sent a larger quantity, in two chunks.
A vendor in Colorado sold Cummings radioactive beryllium. Cummings produced a third radiation source at home. From standard references and technical manuals, Cummings learned how to extract thorium from commercially available tungsten electrodes by soaking them in a peroxide bath.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, all three metals - uranium, thorium and beryllium - are highly toxic when ingested and cause cancer if inhaled as fine airborne particles. Cummings had none of them in large quantity, and none had the high output of gamma rays that would make for the most dangerous kind of dirty bomb, but he was looking for more-lethal ingredients. A shopping list, under the heading "best for dirty bombs," named three: cobalt-60, cesium-137 and strontium-90.
Cummings made his best progress on high explosives. He bought large quantities of 3% hydrogen peroxide, which is commonly sold in pharmacies, then concentrated it on his kitchen stove to 35%. With acids on hand, Cummings had a recipe and all the required ingredients for TATP, a hellishly energetic explosive favored by Middle Eastern suicide bombers.
In 2001, when shoe bomber Richard Reid came close to downing American Airlines Flight 63, he had several ounces of TATP in his hiking boots. Cummings had the ingredients to make many times that much, as well as aluminum powder, thermite, thermite igniter and other materials used to detonate the explosive and amplify its effects. Crude designs Cummings sketched on lined paper suggest that he had a lot to learn about efficient dispersal of radioactive particles. Even so, he was aware of the gaps in his knowledge. "His intentions were to construct a dirty bomb and take it to Washington to kill President Obama," Amber Cummings says. "He was planning to hide it in the undercarriage of our motor home." She says her husband had practiced crossing checkpoints with dangerous materials aboard, taking her and their daughter along for an image of innocence.
Maine state police detective Michael McFadden, who participated in the investigation throughout, says he came to believe that James Cummings posed "a legitimate threat" of a major terrorist attack. "When you're cooking thorium and uranium under your kitchen sink, when you have a couple million dollars sitting in the bank and you're hell-bent on doing something, I think at that point you become someone we want to sit up and pay attention to," he says. "If she didn't do what she did, maybe we would know Mr. Cummings a lot better than we do right now."
Who Would They Fight?
The abandoned state prison in Roseville, with its broken cinder-block walls and crumbling stairwells, made a suitably apocalyptic set for the Ohio militia's August exercise. In the officers' ready room, where back issues of Shotgun News and Soldier of Fortune lay on folding tables, an ancient graffito reading "KKK" had been painted over by one of Kenneth Goldsmith's men. "The Klan in this area, they don't like me at all," Goldsmith says. "They came to me a few years ago to join forces ... I told the guy, 'You think you are from a superior race, is that it?' He said yes. I said, 'You don't look so superior to me.' "
Members of militias around the country say, like Goldsmith, that they resent comparison with white supremacists like Cummings and Von Brunn. They complain of being tarred as members of hate groups by watchdogs at the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy being lumped in with sociopathic organizations like neo-Nazis, antiabortion extremists and Holocaust-denial groups," says Darren Wilburn, a private detective in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who trains with a hard-core militia he preferred not to name. He cites his motto, "Life, liberty and the pursuit of anyone who threatens it," as evidence that he is not looking for trouble as long as trouble keeps clear of him.
The same two points - a defensive posture and ill will toward no one - were repeated with sincerity by many of Goldsmith's men. There were layers of meaning beneath those words, which peeled back as the weekend progressed. The Ohio Defense Force charter declares two missions, which may sound the same to outside ears but mean very different things. One is to help state and local law enforcement upon request. The other is to "assist in the protection of local citizens in emergencies."
An example of the first mission, the most recent one Goldsmith could think of, came after flooding struck Columbiana County six years ago. Chief Deputy Sheriff Allen Haueter says the militia helped direct traffic, leaving sheriff's officers free to respond to emergencies. But Haueter did not authorize them - "Oh, no, no," he says - to carry guns. They could as easily have done the job garbed as candy stripers.
Why, then, the paramilitary training that takes up nearly all the militia's time? That question bothers Sheriff Matt Lutz of Muskingum County, where the militia is headquartered. "There is no correlation with them saying they're there to help us in any way and them running around with assault rifles in the woods," he says. "That's what scares people. That just tells me they're preparing for the worst."
As indeed they are. The militia's second mission, protecting local citizens, requires no invitation from the likes of the sheriff. An officer named Ken, who asked that his last name and hometown go unmentioned, says, "You can be a civilized human being and defend yourself without being a bad guy." Against what? "Most likely it will start when the government tries to take our guns," he says.
Craig Wright, 50, a consulting engineer from Mansfield, was one of the face-painted raiders who ambushed the Blue Team's rear-perimeter guards. He learned something important, he says, when he went drinking with fellow members of force Red. "Some of these people are, quite honestly, quite scary," he said. "They might not be well educated, they might not listen to Beethoven, but they can take care of themselves."
And that is what Wright is looking for.
"We're not planning to overthrow the government," he said. "We're planning for what could happen." He proceeded to list, among other scenarios, a pandemic; economic collapse; hunger-driven big-city refugees; a biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist attack; an electromagnetic pulse from the sun that wrecks earthly machinery; invasion by Mexican drug cartels; and an eruption of ash from Yellowstone that "wipes out the breadbasket of the United States." Any one of those would likely give Washington the excuse to declare martial law. If so, Wright and his brothers in arms would fight back. "Hopefully," he said, "if they rule the cities, we'll rule the countryside."
This is a frame of mind that law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials have seen before, and it worries them. "There are a number of militias out there that we call almost defensive in nature, right?" a senior national-security official says. "So they train. They're pulling in arms or pulling in weapons. They're pulling in food. They're preparing bunkers ... They're preparing for confrontation, but they will call it defensive." The official paused as if to play out a scene in his mind's eye. A well-equipped paramilitary force with "a perception of being confronted would strike out and strike out pretty hard," he says. "For a small or even a medium-size law-enforcement agency - anybody, really - there would be some serious, serious issues."
War on the Feds
On the sidelines of the disparate antigovernment movement, its philosophers are edging their followers closer to violence.
Bob Schulz, a leading exponent of the view that the IRS and much of the government it funds are operating illegally, has reached the brink of calling for war. The moment is significant because he is an influential voice among militia groups.
After more than a decade of conventional legal battles, Schulz and a network of allies organized by the We the People Foundation began filing hundreds of petitions for redress of grievances. Schulz had come to believe that the First Amendment's petition clause required governors, legislatures and federal agencies to provide specific and satisfactory answers to accusations of wrongdoing. He filled government dockets with thousands of questions - one petition, for instance, asked the IRS to "admit or deny" 116 allegations of fraud in the 1913 debate that ratified the 16th Amendment. When his petitions went ignored and the Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2007, he wrote a formal brief accusing the court of "committing treason to the Constitution." The IRS, meanwhile, revoked his foundation's tax-exempt status, alleging that he used it to promote an illegal "tax termination plan" and bringing tax-evasion charges against some of the people who followed Schulz's advice.
Last year Schulz convened hundreds of delegates to a second Continental Congress in St. Charles, Ill., drafting Articles of Freedom with "instructions" that state and federal governments halt unlawful operations. Refusal to comply would be "an act of WAR," the delegates wrote, and "the People and their Militias have the Right and Duty to repel it." Several militia leaders are among the authors.
Then, in November and March, Schulz staged vigils at the White House in which he and some of his followers dressed in the mask of the menacing "V" from the film V for Vendetta. (In the movie's final scene, the oppressive seat of government erupts in spectacular flames to the swelling strains of the 1812 Overture.) "If the First Amendment doesn't work," Schulz says, "the Second Amendment would." He asks, "What does a free man do" when all other avenues are closed? "I am struggling with my conscience."
Regardless of what conscience tells them, what chance do would-be armed rebels possibly have of prevailing against the armed might of the U.S.?
One answer comes from former Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh, who wrote an essay that is among the most widely republished on antigovernment extremist sites today. In "What Good Is a Handgun Against an Army?" Vanderboegh says the tactical question is easy: Kill the enemy one soldier at a time. A patriot needs only a "cheap little pistol and the guts to use it," he writes, to shoot a soldier in the head and take his rifle; with a friend, such a man will soon have "a truck full of arms and ammunition." Vanderboegh is hardly a man of action himself, living these days on government disability checks. Even so, when he wrote a blog post in March urging followers to protest the health care bill by breaking windows at Democratic Party offices, they did so across the country.
Another answer comes from Richard Mack, who is holding constitutional seminars for county sheriffs from coast to coast, urging them to resist what he describes as federal tyranny by force. In his presentations, he shows movie clips to illustrate his point, like a scene from The Patriot in which Mel Gibson says, with fire in his eyes, "You will obey my command, or I will have you shot."
Citing a long list of antecedents, beginning in 11th century England, Mack asserts that each of the nation's county sheriffs is the supreme constitutional authority in his or her jurisdiction. A sheriff has the power to arrest and, if necessary, use lethal force against federal officers who come uninvited, and he may "call out the militia to support his efforts to keep the peace in the county."
In his term as sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, Mack became famous for fighting and winning a legal battle against a provision of the Brady Bill that required him to enforce federal gun-control laws. He now says he wishes he had stayed out of court and simply drawn a line in the sand with the ATF. "I pray for the day when the first county sheriff has the guts to arrest the real enemy," he says. Among the enemy, he numbers "America's gestapo," the IRS. Steve Kendley, a Lake County, Montana, deputy sheriff who is running for the top office there on Mack's platform, says he expects federal agents to back off when threatened with arrest, but he is prepared for "a violent conflict" if "they are doing something I believe is unconstitutional."
The nearest antecedent to Mack's argument, and the only one known to scholars interviewed for this story, is the Blue Book of the Posse Comitatus, by white-supremacist militia leader Henry Lamont Beach, whose organization disintegrated after leading members were convicted of felonies or killed in 1983 during shoot-outs in Arkansas and North Dakota with federal marshals and uncooperative sheriffs. Beach used nearly identical language, saying the county is "the highest authority of government in our Republic" and the sheriff "the only legal law-enforcement office." After TIME emailed Mack extracts of Beach's book, he replied that it "sounds exactly like Jefferson."
Beware the Lone Wolf
Federal law-enforcement agencies want no part of a conversation about angry antigovernment extremists and refused in virtually every case to speak on the record. A few injudicious passages from career analysts at the DHS in an April 2009 report titled "Rightwing Extremism" - which could be misread to suggest danger from ordinary antigovernment opinions or military veterans in general - brought a ferocious backlash. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano distanced herself from the report and forbade further public discussion of the subject. Shortly afterward, the National Security Council staff canceled plans for a working-group meeting on the surge of violent threats against members of Congress.
Yet the months that followed brought fresh support for the study's central finding, that rising "rightwing radicalization and recruitment" raised the risk that lone wolves would emerge from within the groups to commit "violent acts targeting government facilities, law-enforcement officers, banks and infrastructure sectors."
Within 90 days came the Von Brunn shooting; a triple murder of police officers in Pittsburgh by white supremacist Richard Andrew Poplawski; and a double murder of sheriff's deputies in Florida by a National Guardsman, Joshua Cartwright, who attributed his rage to Obama's election.
The specter of the lone-wolf terrorist is what most worries law-enforcement officials, who return again and again to the searing example of Timothy McVeigh. Before destroying the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, McVeigh cycled through several white-supremacist groups and militias. In the end he decided to act alone, abetted by his friend Terry Nichols.
A top FBI counterterrorism official says the bureau's "biggest concern" is "the individual who has done the training, has the capability but is disenchanted with the group's action - or in many cases, inaction - and decides he's going to act alone." A high-ranking DHS official added that "it's almost impossible to find that needle in a haystack," even if the FBI has an informant in the group. James Cavanaugh, who recently retired from a senior post at the ATF and took part in some of the bloodiest confrontations with the radical right in the 1990s, says the creation of monsters in their midst is the greatest danger posed by organized groups.
The ceaseless talk of federal aggression - and regular training to repel it - "becomes a hysteria where you constantly, constantly practice and nothing happens," he says. "Now most of them wouldn't go out offensively, O.K.? But generally why they're dangerous is that some people can't stand that rhetoric and just wait for it to happen. And they go off the rails, À la McVeigh."