AUSTIN, Texas – (KRT) – When FBI agents searched a rented storage locker in a small east Texas town last year, they were alarmed to discover a huge cache of weapons and the ingredients to make a cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands.
Just as startling was the identity of the owner of the arsenal, which included nearly half a million rounds of ammunition and more than 60 pipe bombs. He was not some foreign terrorist with ties to al-Qaida but a 63-year-old Texan with an affinity for anti-government militias and white supremacist views.
William Krar, an itinerant gun dealer, quickly pleaded guilty to possession of the chemical weapon and then promptly clammed up, leaving federal officials to wonder what he intended to do with his deadly arsenal and whether his conspiracy extended beyond two known accomplices who pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Experts who track domestic terrorist groups would like to know as well. The 1995 Oklahoma City, Okla., bombing, which occurred nine years ago Monday, led to a period of disarray and decline for militias, but anti-government right-wing extremists remain a largely hidden threat of unknown proportions.
With the nation focused on terrorist threats from abroad in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, experts wonder if the Krar case, which FBI agents discovered only by accident, could be a harbinger of homegrown attacks to come.
“All of this homeland security, all of the orientation of the government’s war on terror is about protecting our borders,” said Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors right-wing groups. “We’re moving back into this period where radical right-wing activism is being dismissed as goofy and loopy, whereas the al-Qaida threat is around every corner. But the right-wingers are much closer to home. And they are still there.”
Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League, noted that criminal acts by right-wing extremists “remain at a very high level,” including the slayings of three law enforcement officers last year.
In one incident, Pitcavage said, a member of the Michigan Militia allegedly killed a Michigan state trooper after a traffic stop, while in South Carolina, a family of “sovereign citizens” – right-wing anarchists who reject all government power – allegedly ambushed and killed two local police officers.
Many militia cells withered after the Oklahoma City bombing, their potential members put off by the magnitude of the crime, while the predicted Year 2000 apocalypse failed to materialize, leaving many disillusioned survivalists with basements full of dried beans. Meanwhile, other white supremacist groups were hit with a series of criminal and civil prosecutions that depleted their memberships and bank accounts.
But while the more marginal followers and hangers-on have dropped away, the hard-core members of extremist groups have only increased their resolve, experts say. And anti-Muslim sentiments that have grown in the country since the Sept. 11 attacks are providing fertile ground for new recruitment efforts.
“When the threat is foreign, brown and speaks a different language, that plays into exactly their whole rap to attract people,” said Toole.
Secretive extremist enclaves, such as the white-supremacist Elohim City in Oklahoma, are thriving, while new skinhead groups have surfaced in the Pacific Northwest, experts say.
“With distillation, you usually get a purer form of something, and with these groups you get a purer form of militancy,” said Daniel Levitas, author of “The Terrorist Next Door,” a study of domestic terrorist groups published in 2002.
“If you look at the cycle of rebirth of these movements over the last century, each cycle is more and more extreme,” Levitas said. “Now we have William Krar in Texas building a fully functional chemical weapon. You’ve had paramilitary activists produce ricin. It’s only a matter of time before one of the more hard-core remnants of the militias decides to one-up Timothy McVeigh.”
McVeigh was convicted on federal charges of masterminding the Oklahoma City bombing and was executed in 2001. His co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, already serving a life term for his federal conviction in the case, is on trial in Oklahoma on state murder charges, for which he could face the death penalty if found guilty.
The Nichols case is resurrecting fresh scrutiny of extremist groups, because the defense team intends to present evidence suggesting that a white-supremacist bank-robbery group might have been involved in preparations for the Oklahoma City bombing.
As bad as that bombing was – 168 people were killed when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was destroyed – federal officials say that Krar’s chemical weapon, had it been used, could have been far worse.
Among the remote-controlled bombs, machine guns and silencers discovered during the FBI’s April 2003 raid on Krar’s storage locker were containers of hydrochloric, nitric and acetic acids, as well as more than 800 grams of sodium cyanide. Mixed together, the ingredients would have turned into the same poison once used in gas chamber executions, and Krar had enough of the materials to create a bomb capable of killing everyone inside a 30,000-square-foot building, authorities said.
Also discovered when Krar was pulled over for a traffic violation in Tennessee in January 2003 were cryptic documents titled “Trip” and “Proceedure” that contained instructions, meeting places and secret codes for a cross-country trip.
One set of code phrases detailed in the documents employed references to the weather to communicate various levels of threat.
” `Tornadoes are expected in our area’ – Things very hot; lay low or change your travel plans,” stated one of the instructions, which were included in an affidavit filed by the FBI as part of its request for a search warrant for the storage locker.
The documents, along with other evidence of Krar’s manufacture of fraudulent identification and his connections to militia groups, suggested “a much more involved criminal scheme which could potentially include plans for future civil unrest and/or violent civil disorder against the United States Government,” FBI Special Agent Bart LaRocca wrote in the affidavit.
Krar faces a maximum penalty of life in prison when he is sentenced May 4. He claimed that the coded instructions were intended to help a girlfriend escape an abusive ex-husband, but revealed no information about his plans for the arsenal. Federal prosecutors have issued more than 100 subpoenas in their efforts to determine how far any conspiracy might have spread.
Krar first came under scrutiny in 1985, when he was convicted of impersonating a law enforcement officer. In 1995, federal agents investigated him for alleged illegal gun dealing, though he was not charged with a crime, according to the FBI affidavit.
The FBI stumbled upon Krar again in 2002 after he sent a package containing numerous forged identification documents to a member of the New Jersey Militia. The package was mistakenly delivered to a resident of Staten Island, N.Y., who turned it over to police.
“The Justice Department is to be commended for having aggressively pursued that investigation and tracked Krar down,” said Levitas. “But the fact that they made this discovery entirely by accident, and Krar slipped through their fingers and off their radar screen on numerous occasions, is extraordinarily troubling.
“There are thousands of William Krars out there who aren’t being pursued,” Levitas added.