Domestic Terrorism: the FBI view

An interview with the man in charge of confronting the tide

MSNBC/ April 20, 2001

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, as the top law-enforcement agency in the nation, has taken the lead role in confronting the tide of domestic terrorism currently rising in the United States. MSNBC's David Neiwert recently interviewed Robert Burnham, the FBI's section chief for domestic terrorism, about how the agency is dealing with the problem.

Q: What trends in domestic terrorism have you seen in the past 10 years?

A: I think in the last 10 years, what we've probably seen, if we were to categorize it, is a rise in anti-government sentiments - anti-government from the standpoint of militia groups, Aryan Nations, skinheads, KKK. I think the thing that probably binds them all together, in one way or another, is the anti-government sentiment. And what we are also starting to see entwined with that is religious extremists - the Christian Identity movement. We're seeing more and more of that in some of the militias.

I could probably cite examples across the country where particular field officers have gotten a call from the local police department where they've gone in - it could be a domestic situation or something like that - and they call us and say, "Hey, we've found 30 pounds of explosives here, circuitry, instructions on how to make a bomb, and in addition to that we've found a copy of 'The Turner Diaries' and other right-wing extremist literature." In some instances, we've determined that they are also associated with Christian Identity or the Phineas Priests or other right-wing religious extremist groups like that.

The trend is that there's now a multitude of these groups out there. You've got the common-law courts, the sovereign citizens, the secessionists, the Republic of Texas - that type of group. Even these particular groups, while they may profess anti-government sentiments, they've developed mature political agendas, and appear content to proceed within the bounds of legitimate political activity - recognizing that anything toward any type of violent activity will produce an overwhelming reaction by law enforcement. So what they have done is they've stayed within the bounds of legitimate political activity.

The trend we've seen is "leaderless resistance" - the lone offender, or the lone wolf out there, who may go to meetings, who may attach to some particular group or ideology, that we don't know about. And he's out there, he's the one with the bomb-making materials, who's a member of Christian Identity, who attends various meetings (it could be Aryan Nations meetings, it could be a militia meeting, things like that) and attaches to that ideology, and is out there doing his own thing. That's law enforcement's biggest challenge in the future, is to identify that individual - to identify who they are.

And I believe the best thing the federal government can do is to form partnerships. We've got 20 joint terrorism task forces around the country, because really, local law enforcement is going to be the ones who first come upon these individuals. We've got 20 task forces now. By the end of this fiscal, we're going to have three more, and we expect more next year. In those, we're got state and local law enforcement, we have federal law enforcement, we have a multitude of federal agencies.

And those are really the individuals, if I can characterize it, who would be the tripwires: the ones who identify the individuals out there who are the Timothy McVeighs and the Eric Rudolphs. That is our biggest threat right now.

Q: How do you go about training people in law enforcement to develop an awareness of how to distinguish between people who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights and those who are in the process of carrying out violent acts?

A: We have in-services a couple times year for all of our agents working in domestic terrorism matters and their supervisors. We go through the Attorney General's guidelines, we go through case studies, we go through current trends exactly like this. Again, I'm stressing: a lot of these groups out here recognize that if they keep their activities to political rhetoric, that's perfectly acceptable. Which is what we're stressing also with our agents out in the task forces, out in particular field offices - be conversant with what we can and can't do. But recognizing that the Attorney General's guidelines also allow you to open preliminary inquiries on individuals who may come to your attention through either a task force, through intelligence with the police departments, through relationships that the filed officers are developing with local law enforcement - it does allow us to conduct preliminary inquiries to look at particular individuals and to see if they are engaged in activity which would warrant a full field investigation for domestic terrorism.

Q: One thing that's clear from the record is that law enforcement actually has done a remarkable job of preventing any number of disasters before they could happen.

A: A lot of it goes to the way we operate within the concept of the joint terrorism task forces. When we bring these law-enforcement agencies together, a lot of times local law enforcement is very result-oriented. Whereas what we try to bring to the table is that a lot of these particular cases may be long-term in nature - there may be some intelligence gathering before action is taken or before it results in any prosecution. The task forces, I think, in local law enforcement has brought this as well.

A lot of these are not just quick cases. I mean, you can go out and arrest a guy for explosives, but what's he going to do with the explosives? Who are the other individuals he was associating with? A lot of our cases are geared toward the long term. As a result, we've been very successful in tracing some of these individuals who are actually engaged in domestic-terrorist activity, as opposed to just going to meetings and that type of thing.

Q: How about the effects of millennialism?

A: What we're looking at now is the effect of the millennium on some of these particular groups, particularly the right-wing militia groups. Looking at the literature from Christian Identity, for example, it's clear it believes that the world is on the verge of a violent apocalyptic struggle between God and Satan - a battle to be fought between Aryans and Satan's offspring - Jews, nonwhites and any entity aligned with such groups, including the U.S. government. And some of them, from the intelligence we're getting, are starting point to the millennium as the time when the world will explode in this battle.

You've also got the militia groups, a lot of right-wing extremists are saying too that the Y2K computer crisis may be the final fuse that leads to the New World Order.

Q: To what extent do you think average citizens should be concerned about domestic terrorism?

A: Aside from Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, I think this country has been very lucky with respect to terrorist incidents. I think part of it is that it's a credit to law enforcement - and it's not just the FBI, it's all of law enforcement.

One of the things you'll find if you get into the area of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, I think the threat of a WMD incident is low, but when it does occur, as we saw in Oklahoma City, the consequences can be devastating. So they are out there, we are working the credible threats, we are out there working with law enforcement, working with our state and local partners and first responders.

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