For those who follow terrorism and hate crimes in America, it has been a busy couple of months. On December 12, two white supremists in Little Rock, Ark., were charged with murder, racketeering, and conspiracy. Prosecutors say they hoped to overthrow the federal government, replace it with a whites-only Aryan People's Republic, and use polygamy to build its population. On the same day in Philadelphia, a 39-year-old man was arraigned on charges of leaving eight pipe bombs at local businesses and painting swastikas on politician's offices. The man is suspected of having perpetrated hate crimes for three years. In November, racist skinheads in Denver went on a violent crime spree, firing at cops and bystanders, leaving dead an African immigrant and a police officer. The events left a tolerant city stunned by the violence in its midst.
Twenty months after the Oklahoma City bombing, investigators say, the threat from heavily armed extremist groups remains high. "Another Oklahoma City could happen tomorrow," says Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI's terrorism section. "There are still a lot of people out there with a lot of potential for violence." Most he says, are U.S. citizens. Credible bomb threats arrive at government offices every two weeks, on average, say federal officials. Favorite targets are police stations and offices housing the IRS, FBI, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Following the devastation in Oklahoma City, federal and local law enforcement agencies have cracked down hard with a concerted effort to identify and infiltrate the most violent of the hundreds of armed militias and "patriot" groups nationwide.. The FBI currently has more than 900 active investigations into domestic terrorism, compared with 100 investigations before the Oklahoma City bombing. Among the active cases are 10 high priority operations in which the bureau is targeting antigovernment groups with intensive surveillance and investigation.
With their new efforts, agents have peeled back layers of the violent underground to find a hard core of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and bizarre sects. Among them are the "Phineas Priests"--self proclaimed avenging angels of the far right-- and some members of an obscure sect that worships the Norse god Odin. The fastest growing of the hard-core, violence prone groups, investigators say, are neo-Nazi skin heads. Particularly worrysome is that in some places antigovernment movements have split into small cells to prevent penetration; officials say violent loners, though, are the most unpredictable.
To combat these threats, police have turned to tactics that proved successful against the Mafia: heavy use of informants and electronic surveillance. Those engaged in politically motivated violence generally are not being prosecuted under sedition laws, as they might have been a generation ago; instead, they face charges under fraud, racketeering, and weapons statutes. "We're going after them as criminals, not martyrs," says one Justice Department official. To aid in the crackdown, congress and the White House have nearly tripled the FBI's counterterrorism budget since 1994, allowing the bureau to add 350 new agents to domestic terrorism cases.
HEADING OFF VIOLENCE. In their raids, agents have seized huge arsenals filled with hundreds of semiautomatic weapons, machine guns, booby traps, and all sorts of explosives: pipe bombs, TNT, C-4 plastic, and more than 650 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in the bombs that struck Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center. Federal prosecutors have brought hundreds of criminal charges against far-right extremists: conspiracy to bomb federal buildings, stockpiling of illegal weapons, financial fraud, and bank robbery.
The crackdown appears to have headed off several well-planned acts of mass violence. In April this year, four Ku Klux Klan members were caught planning to blow up a natural gas refinery outside Bridgeport, Texas. The explosion was to have been a diversion for their main act, the robbery of an armored car 9 miles away. Police say the Klansmen intended to use the money to finance other terrorist acts. The plan so alarmed the group's own imperial wizard that he turned them in to the FBI just days before the crime was to have been committed.
Elsewhere in Texas this year, members of a radical militia splinter group planned to attack a July 4 celebration at Fort Hood with semiautomatic weapons. The group was convinced that United Nations troops from China were training there to take over the United states. FBI agents and state police swooped down on the would-be assault squad at a campground near Fort Hood and found seven firearms, 1,600 rounds of ammunition, and a container labeled "riot smoke."
While most federal prosecutions of extremists have been successful, heavy use of informants and conspiracy charges has met with skepticism from some juries. In February, a federal jury in Washington State found members of the antigovernment Freemen and Washington State Militia guilty of weapons charges. The jurors, however, deadlocked on broader charges of conspiracy to blow up radio towers, a bridge, and a train tunnel to stop U.N. troops from "invading" from Canada. "The government is using the conspiracy statute against disfavored individuals when all they've don is speak their mind," says Robert Leen, attorney for one of the Freemen. "People should be prosecuted for what they do, not what they say or think."
Opening doors. One tactic that has paid off for law enforcers is opening lines of communication with militia movements. After the Oklahoma City bombing, FBI Director Louis Freeh ordered top field agents to meet with established militia groups around the country, hoping to open doors and defuse tension. The leaders of one prominent group, the Michigan Militia Corps, tipped off the bureau about Brendon Blasz, a local activist who allegedly spoke of bombing government offices, federal armories, and a Kalamazoo TV station. Blasz was arrested in March for making pipe bombs and pleading guilty. "I don't like the IRS or [Kalamazoo's] channel 6 either," said Lynn Van Huizen, commander of the Michigan Militia. But you can't be making pipe bombs and stay law abiding."
Through such contacts, the FBI has been able to better sort out which groups it needs to really worry about and which are more bark than bite. Tens of thousands of Americans are active today in various antigovernment groups, according to those who monitor the movements. Many of these self-declared militias arm themselves with semiautomatic weapons, conduct paramilitary drills, and see sinister conspiracies of world domination by the U.N., Jews and environmentalists, among others. But few are involved in violent acts, say law enforcement officials.
The hard core extremists number only "in the hundreds," according to the FBI, and are splintered into various sects and gangs. The more organized groups, such as Christian identity "churches," the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazis, have proved susceptible to infiltration. But what worries officials most is what militants refer to as "leaderless resistance"-- a strategy to avoid law enforcement by operating in small, independent cells. Of special concern are so-called Phineas Priests, fanatics who practice a violent creed of vengeance advocated by the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. These self styled priests take their name from the biblical story of Phineas the zealot, who pleased God by striking down the unfaithful. The sect struck in 1996 in Spokane, Wash., in a four-month crime spree that included bank robberies and bombings of the local newspaper and Planned Parenthood. At the crime scenes, the men left behind religious missives signed "Phineas Priests." "These people don't answer to anyone," says the FBI's Blitzer. "We don't know where they're going to come from."
Another strange sect attracting the radical right is the Odinists, who espouse a form of ancient Scandinavian mythology. Odinist practices include witchcraft and paganism, and the sect has gained a strong following among neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, who blend in white supremacy beliefs. There is even a skinhead heavy-metal band called Odin's Law, whose white power lyrics stirred protests while the band was performing in Vancouver, British Columbia. Odinists believe that to enter Valhalla-- the heavenly hall where Odin feasts with heroes-- one must die fighting. Although most Odinists are not dangerous, several believers, members of a neo-Nazi group known as the Order, launched a bloody wave of murder and bank robberies during the early 1980s.
While the threat from leftist revolutionaries has largely faded with the cold war, occasionally throwbacks still appear. In what seemed almost an anachronism in 1996, a routine complaint about a crying child led New York City police to a heavily armed Marxist sect in Brooklyn-- this, seven years after the end of the cold war. The group, calling itself the Provisional Communist Party, immersed itself in talk of armed revolution, though its members had committed no violent acts in its 20 year existence. Nonetheless, authorities seized nearly 50 pistols, rifles, and shotguns, thousands of ammunition rounds, and potential bomb making materials. Several other extremist groups remain sources of concern. Radical environmentalists and animal-rights activists have destroyed or sabotaged research labs and timber-company property, and, say ranchers, killed and mutilated cattle. And the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Puerto Rico next year could prompt attacks by independence-minded terrorists from that island.
A serious terrorism threat also remains from international groups, particularly from the Mideast. Yet while international terrorists have repeatedly attacked American target overseas, they have not struck inside the United States since 1993. The first reaction of many Americans to the Oklahoma City blast was to blame terrorists from overseas. But then, as now, the biggest challenges were here at home.
In chronological order: