The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 28, 2003
By BRIAN ANDERSON, Dallas Web Staff
It became the rallying cry for thousands of disenchanted Americans fed up with what they perceived to be an overzealous government bent on gun control and the abolition of privacy rights.
With rifles in hand and camouflage on their backs, they trained in survivalist tactics, sharpened their marksmanship and preached of government conspiracies and the guerilla war they were prepared to wage against an ever more repressive society.
“It has been said, and I think correctly, that the militia movement was conceived at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and born in Waco in 1993,” said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks the activities of so-called Patriot groups along with white supremacist and other extremist organizations.
FBI agents killed the wife and son of white supremacist Randy Weaver during an 11-day standoff at his Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin. Eight months later, more than 80 Branch Davidians died following a 51-day siege by federal agents of their compound near Waco. Enraged by the government’s actions, scores of Patriot paramilitary groups began warning of an approaching apocalypse.
But where are they now almost 10 years after the Waco inferno that so incited them to action?
“Reality is you never hear about Waco anymore,” said Mr. Potok, who routinely monitors Patriot propaganda. “I haven’t seen a poster, heard a speech or read an article about Waco in probably two years.”
Authorities believe a combination of tough new laws and unfulfilled prophecies have left the militia movement vanquished.
“There really are no real active militias out there anymore,” Mr. Potok said.
At the peak of their popularity in 1996, Patriot groups numbered more than 850 in the United States, according to Southern Poverty Law Center estimates. That number has steadily dropped to 143 in the most recent 2002 statistics. Texas was believed to be home to 21 such organizations in 2002, the most for any single state.
Mr. Potok said most of the remaining groups are considered “mail-order militia,” marketers of survivalist equipment and propaganda materials via catalog and the Internet but not actively engaged in organized acts of aggression.
New state laws targeting “paper terrorism,” such as the improper filing of property tax liens and the formation of bogus courts, have helped curb militia activity by stripping away a favored tool, Mr. Potok said.
“That scared people off. There are literally thousands of people in jail from offenses like that,” he said.
But more instrumental in the Patriot downfall was a lack of confidence among the rank and file.
“A big part of that was the leadership of these groups were saying, ‘The end was near,’” Mr. Potok said.
The Patriots’ top brass predicted massive racial uprisings across the county, spread rumors of foreign control in the U.S. government and foresaw the establishment of federal concentration camps intended to re-educate Americans for the creation of a new world order. And finally, with the dawn of Y2K, global anarchy was to welcome the new millennium.
“None of that came to pass,” Mr. Potok said. “They all predicted doom and disaster on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. Lo and behold, the world hadn’t changed. It drove people out (of the militias) by the thousands. Eventually, people got sick of hearing the militia leaders cry wolf and Y2K was the capper.”
Unlike the Davidian cult leader at Waco, today’s Patriot organizers lack the charismatic guidance necessary to steer large radical memberships, said Adam Dulin of the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups in Huntsville.
“It’s all about the leadership,” Mr. Dulin said. “David Koresh could sell a red Popsicle to a woman in white gloves.
A changing threat
Despite their shrinking numbers, the remaining militias and like-minded yet less organized individuals still pose a significant threat of domestic terrorism, some experts said.
“You see more or less declining support for violent activities, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Mr. Dulin said. “(Militias) can be very opportunistic when they are down and out.”
In the years following the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, law enforcement thwarted about 30 major domestic terrorism conspiracies attributed to the militia movement. Most of those victories resulted from police investigations that were able to track communications between conspirators, providing early warning of the groups’ plans.
Now, those who would carry out domestic attacks are less likely to have loose lips.
“They are using increasingly covert methods,” Mr. Dulin said.
Terrorism experts gathered at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville earlier this month for an international symposium on current international and domestic terrorist trends.
Dr. Richard Ward, dean of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State, said domestic terror groups are now more likely to employ “leaderless resistance” tactics in the planning and execution of their attacks.
“You’ll see small groups operating without individual guidance. (Timothy) McVeigh is probably the best example of this,” Dr. Ward said, referring to the man convicted and executed for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Like many of his known militia associates, Mr. McVeigh cited the Branch Davidian siege as motivation behind his violence. He sought his revenge in 1995 on the second anniversary of the fatal fire at the Davidian compound.
From an investigative standpoint, Dr. Ward said, loosely organized terror plots are more difficult to unravel. He said with fewer players involved, there are fewer opportunities for law enforcement to catch wind of the pending tragedy.
Two different terrors
Dr. Ward warned that Islamic international terrorists might use the same small-group approach to operations within the United States. However, Mr. Dulin said that’s where the similarities between domestic and foreign-based terrorism end.
“The differences are many and vary between the two,” Mr. Dulin said.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, most international terrorist organizations were believed to crave publicity for their cause over elevated body counts. That assessment has changed since terrorist-controlled planes slammed into targets in New York City and Washington, D.C.
But most domestic terrorists continue to maintain a political or social agenda.
“What we are seeing now is the single issue or special interest groups,” Mr. Dulin said, pointing to extremists within various environmental, animal rights and anti-abortion movements as today’s most likely source of homegrown terrorism in the form of assassinations, sabotage and isolated bombings.
“It’s reassuring because you can negotiate,” Mr. Dulin said. “You can talk with these political groups.”
Unlike the heavily armed foreign terrorist with black market access to weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties, the domestic terrorist is likely to rely on more conventional weaponry like pipe bombs and gasoline-based explosives that are less capable of inflicting heavy damage to life and property.
“They are less experienced and work with what they have,” Mr. Dulin explained. “They aren’t out for the big bang, they just want to do something.”
Still, the combination of both foreign and domestic terror threats is enough to keep law officers wary of the potential for future catastrophes.
“It’s going to be very taxing on our law enforcement,” Mr. Dulin said. “It’s one of those low possibility, high casualty concerns.
“What people should be warned about is being vigilant. They are obviously a threat, but what are the odds of being a target? More people die in highway accidents.”