Threat From Within

MSNBC, July 5, 1999
By David Neiwert

Four years have passed since the most devastating act of terrorism ever committed on American soil: the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, in which 168 people died and another 400 were injured. In that time, home-grown acts of terror, particularly those committed by factions of the radical right similar to those responsible for Oklahoma City, have not gone away - and have, if anything, grown dramatically in frequency.

A SURVEY of politically motivated crimes committed in the United States since April 1995 reveals a disturbing increase in the activity. During those four years, some 39 documented cases involving terroristic intent have arisen, largely the product of the same virulent anti-government ideology ascribed to by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the two men convicted of the Murrah bombing.

Most of these cases, however, have not involved acts so spectacular and horrifying as the massive destruction of an occupied building. Rather, they have been comprised of an array of pipe bombings, bank robberies, police shootings, armed standoffs, attacks on abortion providers, actual and planned attacks on federal officials and facilities, and hate crimes, all committed (like Oklahoma City) with the intent of fomenting a revolutionary overthrow of the current American government.

Prior to April 1995, most cases of U.S. domestic terrorism - that is, crimes of violence intended to force political or social change committed by Americans on their own soil - were relegated to a handful of causes representing a broad array of issues: animal-welfare activists, pro-environmental radicals, anti-abortion activists and extremists from racist "hate" groups. But after Oklahoma City, observers have seen a surge in incidents, arrests and investigations that have been related almost solely to activism on behalf of rightist anti-government beliefs - that is, from self-described "Patriot" movement and related rightist groups, comprised of a range of militias, anti-abortion groups, "constitutionalists" "Freemen," "common-law courts," secessionists and tax protesters.

According to experts in law enforcement and academia, domestic terror has occurred in the U.S. throughout its history, hitting peaks and valleys, and that the nation is currently going through one of those peaks. In recent history, an earlier peak occurred in the middle of the 1980s, followed by a dip later that decade, because of aggressive efforts by law-enforcement agencies.

However, according to Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University political scientist who is the author of several books on the extreme right, the early 1990s saw a significant increase in domestic terrorism. "Part of this is clearly related to the rise of the militia movement, although certainly not all militia groups have been involved in acts of violence," he says. "But there seems to be a rise in paramilitary activity in the early '90s. Then Oklahoma City comes along, and again, there's a very aggressive push by particularly federal but also state law-enforcement agencies to get both intelligence and control over this kind of activity - but the activity doesn't seem to stop." Other experts note particularly that there was an impressive surge in domestic terrorism beginning in early 1996 - a trend that hasn't leveled off yet.

'Leaderless resistance'

The apparent upswing, according to these and other experts, is almost certainly a product of a change in tactics by the would-be revolutionaries of the far right. Beginning in the early 1990s, their leaders began moving away from their traditional hierarchies and advocating a system of organization they called "leaderless resistance": forming small, five- to eight-man cells of like-minded "Patriots" who would then carry out a variety of acts of "resistance."

First elucidated by former KKK Grand Dragon Louis Beam in a 1992 paper, it appears to have been itself inspired by the real-life example of The Order, as well as by the blueprint for fomenting a race war drawn up by William Pierce, leader of the virulently racist National Alliance, in his 1978 novel, "The Turner Diaries" (a book favored as well by both McVeigh and Robert Mathews, leader of The Order). It quickly spread through the Patriot movement as a strategic cornerstone.

This metamorphosis was epitomized by the episode, in spring through fall of 1996, involving the so-called "Phineas Priests" in the Spokane, Wash., area. A group of four men, all members of a racist Christian Identity church in Sandpoint, Idaho, engaged in a brief reign of terror by robbing a series of banks, using pipe bombings at nearby locations (a newspaper plant and a Planned Parenthood clinic) as diversions and setting off bombs within the banks themselves. Before they were arrested by the FBI in October 1996 while attempting another robbery in Portland, Ore., they left behind a series of notes making clear their mostly Identity-driven ideological motives, marked with the sign of the "Phineas Priesthood."

This "priesthood" was first announced in a 1990 book, "Vigilantes of Christendom," by a North Carolina white supremacist named Richard Kelly Hoskins. It outlined the formation of small cells of "priests" who would go about the work of "enforcing God's laws": that is, killing mixed-race couples, civil-rights leaders, "race traitors" and abortion providers, or anyone else who violated the arcane Identity interpretation of Old Testament laws. It also argued for robbing banks - since banks engage in the sin of "usury" - to finance the operations.

"The whole concept of the Phineas Priesthood was essentially a fictional construct," says Barkun. "I see no evidence that any such organization existed prior to the publication of 'Vigilantes of Christendom.' I think it was simply Hoskins' rather creative reading of European and American history."

However, what was not fictional was the way the book became, like Pierce's, a blueprint for action. "Then you get this kind of imitative behavior in which people begin to think of themselves as Phineas Priests and act out the scenario that Hoskins presented," Barkun says. "And the same thing happens with the concept of leaderless resistance."

Rising awareness

Law-enforcement officials have not let the trend go unnoticed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the activities of the radical right, the FBI before Oklahoma City had only 100 open domestic-terrorism cases; today, it has over 1,000. Specialists like Barkun and the Militia Watchdog's Mark Pitcavage, who provides training and background for the FBI and local law enforcement under a Justice Department program, have seen a steep increase in the demand for their services.

And the trend has induced law enforcement to apply more agents to the problem. "There's no question that there's more informants, there are more people working for the feds, there are more agencies interested in this," says Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC's monthly Intelligence Report. "You know, virtually every major federal agency has a task force or a unit. I'm talking about everybody, even the IRS - everybody has a domestic-terrorism unit."

However, this same phenomenon clouds the law-enforcement picture. "It's like certain kinds of crime statistics: Are we seeing an actual change in incidents, or are we seeing a change in reporting?" says Barkun. Indeed, many of the 39 identifiable cases of domestic terrorism since Oklahoma City have involved arrests in which law enforcement caught would-be conspirators before they carried out their plans. It's difficult to tell whether those arrests would have occurred at all in a less sensitive environment.

Optimism and concern

Those same arrests, though, indicate the extent to which law enforcement - particularly after horrendous stumbles like the fiascoes at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993, that provided fodder for many of the terrorists' ideological fires - has learned to effectively counter domestic terrorists. They found ways to defuse hostile situations without bloodshed, as evidenced by the peaceful surrender of the Montana Freemen in 1996 after an 81-day armed standoff. And they have grown sophisticated enough not only to recognize potential problems, but to distinguish mere resistance from more radical actors and act accordingly.

That in turn reassures many of the people who monitor domestic terrorism. "I tend to be fairly optimistic in terms of criminal extremism," says Pitcavage, "in that even though there is what I think quite a high level of activity, I think the evidence also suggests that local, state and federal law enforcement has been pretty successful in dealing with it."

He points particularly to the case involving a group of seven "constitutionalists" in the Midwest led by a Kansas man named Bradley Glover, who organized to fight what they believed was the imminent invasion of the U.S. by "New World Order" forces. "These guys were planning on attacking Fort Hood, Texas, on the Fourth of July, with 50,000 men, women and children present to celebrate the Fourth of July," Pitcavage says. "They weren't planning to use bombs, but anti-personnel devices and spraying machine-gun fire, because there were Red Chinese troops being trained there.

"Well, who knows what would have happened on the Fourth of July if they had actually done that. I think a catastrophe was averted by really smart law enforcement. The Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI just did an excellent job."

Y2K and terrorism

However, the approach of the millennium almost certainly means that it will not subside for some time. "I think most people who look at Identity and millenarian issues agree that the danger level is creeping back up with Y2K," says Potok.

The millennium feeds the fires in two ways: first, it fuels apocalyptic fears latent in Identity beliefs, particularly their view of racial conflict in the context of Armageddon; and second, the claims of coming social chaos related to the so-called "Y2K bug" in computer systems actually amplify the survivalist mentality innate in most Patriot belief systems.

Barkun observes that on one level, survivalists would presumably be less likely to engage in crimes because all they want to do is be left alone. "On the other hand, there certainly are cases of a survivalist lifestyle in which the separation from the larger society becomes so radical that law violations are inevitable," he says. "This is what happened with the Freemen. These were people who not only wanted to be self-sufficient, they didn't feel that they should have driver's licenses or get building permits or pay taxes or do any of the large number of things that are required of people in this society."

And the problem, he says, will likely continue beyond New Year's Day, particularly in light of millennialist literature making predictions of awesome events going well into the first decade or two of the next century.

"I don't think this is going away," he says. "I don't think that it's about to go away."

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