Ten years ago next month, 168 persons died when a truck bomb ripped through the Oklahoma City federal building. A nationwide focus on the anti-government movement followed, and today it’s in disarray. But serious concerns remain.
At the time, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.
On April 19, 1995, a truck bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 persons and wounding hundreds of others. The catastrophe shocked the nation and turned the spotlight on a subculture that had been growing but operating off the grid: the anti-government movement.
Ten years later, that movement — which includes everything from the patriot and militia groups to the more violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis — is rudderless and in disarray, experts say. Many of its leaders are dead. Others are in prison, the result of a crackdown on anti-government activity after the bombing.
But those who monitor the movement say that is a cause for concern, not complacency. They say the lack of leadership has created a potentially explosive environment in which “lone wolves” are encouraged to carry out their agendas.
And a disturbing new trend is that, a decade after that deadly day in Oklahoma, some groups are turning to the Internet to attract young recruits.
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“Things are dramatically different,” said Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, a book about militias and extremist groups. “The movement is but a pale shadow of its former self.”
Among the reasons is that the emotional impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, has made anti-government types think twice about a sales pitch that involves killing fellow Americans.
“On the other hand,” Levitas said, “it’s completely accurate to say that, although the movement is smaller and is faced with pretty significant institutional and ideological problems, what remains is in some respects deadlier, more dangerous.”
Adding to that concern, experts say, is that after Sept. 11 federal authorities shifted their focus from domestic terrorism to foreign terrorist groups, allowing potential homegrown terrorists to slip through the cracks.
“The bulk of federal law enforcement attention certainly turned overseas,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There certainly has been a tendency in the last few years to pay less attention than probably is needed.”
Consider the case of William Krar of Texas.
In 2003, the white supremacist was caught with fully automatic machine guns and other weapons, nearly 500,000 rounds of ammunition, more than 60 pipe bombs, remote-control bombs disguised as briefcases and enough sodium cyanide to kill hundreds of people.
“You had a domestic terrorist actually having acquired weapons of mass destruction,” Potok said. “A guy running around with an unassembled, but still incredibly deadly sodium cyanide bomb. How did that happen?”
If Krar had been a foreign terrorist, Potok said, “it would’ve been shouted from the rooftops in Washington.” Krar was sentenced last May to more than 11 years in prison, although he could have gotten a life sentence.
“As it was, it was a tiny little press release put out in Tyler, Texas, and nobody noticed it for a year,” Potok said. “I would not attack the federal government for turning away from this completely, but I would say it’s perfectly clear that the focus has shifted.”
FBI officials said that their focus did shift after Sept. 11, but dispute that they are ignoring domestic terrorism.
“We still have pending investigations of domestic terrorism cases, but obviously, after 9/11 our primary focus became counterterrorism, counterintelligence and from a reactive to a proactive type of approach,” said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson in the agency’s Washington headquarters.
Bresson acknowledged, however, that fewer agents today are assigned to domestic terrorism cases.
“We’ve had to kind of shift resources in some ways because the threat from international terrorist extremist groups has become a much more grave concern,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re still focused on all the threats that exist out there. We know that the possibility for an attack from one of these domestic groups is always there.”
Indeed, Bresson said the Oklahoma City bombing changed the way law enforcement viewed terrorism.
“Oklahoma City showed it may only take one, two or a small group of individuals who could execute major attacks that profoundly impact the country,” he said. “That was definitely when it became very prominent on our radar screen, the threat that domestic terrorism presented. And even more of a concern was the so-called lone-wolf theory.”
Authorities say they will be especially alert in the days leading to the April 19 bombing anniversary.
“Anniversaries of significant terrorist events are always a concern,” said FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza of the bureau’s Kansas City office. “Our nation’s perception of the threat in this country is defined by 9/11. And we should not forget there was another major terrorist attack in this country, on 4/19.”
Despite disarray in the anti-government movement, no one should let their guard down, said Leonard Zeskind, director of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
“At the end of the day, this movement never loses the impulse for violence,” Zeskind said.
“They reconfigure it, and they think about whether they need small cells, big cells, underground armies, lone-wolf killers. But the fact of the matter is the pulse of violence just never goes out on this thing. And that’s really the ugly truth.”
Those left in the white-supremacist movement agree that the turmoil in their organizations could lead to increased violence.
“What’s changed is that because of the way the country’s going, it’s basically sent the luke-warmers and the fence-sitters running for cover,” said August B. Kreis III, national director of the Aryan Nations, a white-supremacist group. “And the only people that will really stay are the hard-core people.”
But Kreis said he preferred it that way.
“I want the hardest of the hard,” he said. “When enough white people say that we’ve had enough, we’re not going to take it any more and we realize now that blood is going to have to be spilled, then it’s going to get bad. I really believe that, and I’m really hoping I’m here to see that.”
A former Kansas City Ku Klux Klan leader also says the movement today is not for “wimps.”
“After the bomb went off in Oklahoma City, the White Knights completely collapsed,” said Dennis Mahon, who now lives in Tulsa, Okla. “They shut down the post-office box, they shut down the hot line. They were scared to death. They just went down the hidey hole.”
The militia movement also went into hiding after the bombing, Mahon said. He said now a different strategy is needed.
“There’ll be a time when we can go ahead and go with leadership movements,” he said. “But right now, I think it’s just we all want to overthrow the government and get a state of our own. There’s many ways to do that. It’s called small cells and lone wolfism.”
One need look no further than Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing to see how deadly those tactics can be. Another lone wolf was Eric Rudolph, who is charged with a 1998 abortion-clinic bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Two persons died and one was maimed in those attacks.
Yet, the three main racially-based groups left — the National Alliance, the Creativity Movement (formerly called the World Church of the Creator), and the Aryan Nations — have all suffered setbacks recently.
“I think what we’ve seen in the last few years is the decapitation of the major neo-Nazi groups,” Potok said. “And that has really changed the shape of the movement in significant ways.”
Potok said that before Pierce’s death, the National Alliance had more than 1,400 members and 17 full-time national staff members. Now, he said, they have fewer than 700.
In recent months, the group has been making headlines by leafleting neighborhoods and putting signs on billboards in many states, including Missouri.
“Frankly, it’s nothing new,” said Devin Burghart, of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based organization that monitors hate groups. “It’s a publicity stunt.”
The Creativity Movement was crippled when its leader, Matt Hale, was convicted in 2004 of trying to hire someone to kill federal Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago. Lefkow’s husband and mother were shot to death last month. Authorities investigated whether the murders were linked to white supremacists but later concluded they were committed by a disturbed man with no connection to the movement.
Potok said that when Hale went to prison, the Creativity Movement collapsed.
“It immediately dropped from 88 chapters to five,” he said. But now it is up to 16 — including a chapter in Springfield, Mo. “Most of the chapters are tiny, a handful of people, if that. Not only that; some of the chapters don’t recognize the other chapters. The thing is falling apart.”
Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler, whose followers have been convicted of murders, bombings and armed robberies, died last September. The loss of a $6.3 million lawsuit forced the group into bankruptcy and, after Butler’s death, it splintered into two factions.
The Aryan Nations made headlines this month when The Kansas City Star reported that one faction was moving its headquarters to Kansas City, Kan. The group changed its plans after the publicity created intense community opposition.
Other factions of the movement also have lost leaders.
Robert Millar, head of Elohim City, died in May 2001. Elohim City was a white-separatist compound in northeast Oklahoma that came under scrutiny when it was revealed that McVeigh called there shortly before the Oklahoma City bombing. Sam Francis, an influential figure in white-nationalist circles, died last month.
Those deaths create a vacuum in the movement that authorities should carefully monitor, said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.
“It’s that kind of lack of strong leadership that has the potential to bring out the real radicals, because they’re angry,” Aroesty said. “They’re frustrated. Matt Hale’s in jail, Richard Butler died, William Pierce died. They’re thinking, ‘Where’s the vision? Where’s the structure? Now’s the time to do something.’?”
Militias, which enjoyed their heyday in the mid-1990s, have grown quieter in recent years.
“They’re not even having the Preparedness Expos any more,” Burghart said. “The guns shows still happen, but they’re more for collectors and enthusiasts these days than they are the survivalist types. The survivalist types are probably still trying to get out of debt from Y2K, or they’re still hunkered down.”
The Kansas City-based Missouri 51st Militia now only meets once a year and doesn’t have booths at gun shows anymore.
“Clearly, things have died down,” said Mike McKinzey, the militia’s public information officer. “But that’s the way it works. Historically, when the militia was needed, they came together, and when they weren’t, they all went home and farmed.”
Others, such as the well-known Militia of Montana, were ridiculed when the predicted Y2K disasters failed to materialize. It is still intact, but is referred to by critics as the “Mail-Order Militia” because it peddles survivalist books and such paraphernalia as gas masks and emergency food tablets.
“I think what happened was that after Oklahoma City, it went up and up and up until 1999,” Potok said. “Then, virtually every sector of the movement all believed that the millennial date change was going to do something — Armageddon, the computers were going to collapse, riots would occur.
“And when nothing happened … it really took the wind out of their sails. There was almost nothing for a year or two. But it’s clearly kicking back up. We’re seeing more confrontations and shootouts and plots.”
Overall, Burghart said, the white-supremacist wing of the movement has been more active than the patriot wing.
“That’s in no small part because the issues which are more salient at the moment are the ones that are being more capitalized upon by the folks in that end of the wing,” he said. “Right now, it’s not guns and it’s not federal intervention that’s propelling people to get involved in these groups; it’s issues around immigration, affirmative action and the other clearly racially defined issues.”
Seeking new blood
Since Oklahoma City, at least one troubling trend has emerged — an attempt to recruit young people through racist music and the Internet.
“That’s creating a whole new generation,” Burghart said. “They have been more successful than ever.”
Groups such as the National Alliance with its company, Resistance Records, produce and distribute everything from comic books and video games to compact discs and T-shirts, Burghart said.
A Web site called Stormfront, which is based in Florida and run by a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon, also is actively recruiting young people.
“It’s become more and more like a group,” Potok said. “They have 46,000 who are registered members.”
Potok said that although the Internet has not been as successful of a recruitment tool as white supremacists had hoped, it has provided another opportunity to seek new converts.
“The Internet is very targeted at young, college-bound white kids who have always been hard to reach. So while mom and dad are making dinner, the kid’s in his bedroom talking to Nazis.”