Who's sending out anthrax? One possibility is becoming harder to ignore: The U.S.'s own far-right extremists.
For weeks, government officials have publicly speculated that the source for anthrax attacks against the United States is almost certainly foreign — either Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, or a rogue state, most likely Iraq.
But suddenly that’s changed, and some officials, privately, are speculating to reporters that the “evildoers” behind this scourge may really be closer to home.
Tuesday, the Washington Post cited a “government official with direct knowledge of the investigation” into the origin of the anthrax spores found in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office as stating that it is “unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.” There’s only one other country considered able to produce the kind of high-grade, chemically treated bioweapon discovered in Daschle’s mail: the United States.
Of course, even a homegrown weapon could be stolen by a foe, and it’s quite possible these government experts, like others in recent weeks, are speaking prematurely and inaccurately. Still, their comments raise the specter of involvement by the United States’ own internal agitators — a bona fide fifth column pursuing its own agenda of destruction. And there are already those on the far right who have gone out of their way to become suspects — thanks to their history of anthrax threats and their words since Sept. 11.
Less than a half-hour after two jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, the national leader of the white-supremacist Posse Comitatus posted a celebratory note on his Web site. “Hallelu-Yahweh!” wrote August Kreis, a 40-ish neo-Nazi from Pennsylvania. “May the WAR be started! DEATH to His enemies! May the World Trade Center BURN TO THE GROUND! Rev. 18 … Keep Yahweh in your hearts folks for His wrath is upon His enemies! Praise His Holy name … Hail Victory!”
When the towers collapsed shortly afterward, Kreis adapted his earlier remarks with a more detailed explanation. “This is why America is so hated, for whatever goodwill we the citizens of America have towards anyone, the policy of the American government is so hostile towards those opposed to Jewish domination that those justly opposed to Jewish domination most obviously feel that they have no choice but to respond through tragic and desperate actions like those we witnessed today.”
“If, as a Christian Republic, we want to put an end to so-called terrorism on the soil of this nation we must expel ALL Jews and non-whites from OUR Promised Land, this New JerUSAlem, call all of our armed forces from around the world back home, END our support of the TERRORIST State of Israel, CLOSE our borders, all Praise to our Father and mind no one else’s business other than that of our own nation.”
Kreis’ sentiments were echoed by a number of other leaders of the American radical right, though that response has hardly been uniform. Right-wing extremists are, after all, highly disparate, ranging in focus from racism to abortion to gun rights and even land use and education. These interests often overlap, but the tactics and levels of inherent violence range widely.
Among the more moderate militia-movement types, the response initially was to line up vocally behind President Bush — and in fact, many such “Patriots” were among the most strident voices denouncing liberals and dissenters from the Bush agenda. In recent weeks, however, even that segment has shifted back to a more traditional government-fearing mode, as Bush’s domestic anti-terrorism initiatives take on more of a black-helicopter “New World Order” appearance in their eyes.
Moreover, among factions that have been the source of much of the past two decades’ worst domestic terrorism, the response has been uniformly celebratory. Antiabortion extremists have adopted a narrow version of the Jerry Falwell line: The attacks represent God’s just punishment of America for allowing abortion to remain legal in America.
Among neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the response has been even more pronounced. Besides Posse Comitatus, Web sites such as the National Alliance (a vehicle for William Pierce, author of “The Turner Diaries”), Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and the World Church of the Creator, as well as a number of other skinhead and white-supremacist sites, all hailed the Sept. 11 attacks as the beginning of the end for American democracy.
In a recent address to followers, Pierce seemed to relish the prospect of more chaos: “Things are a bit brittle now. A few dozen more anthrax cases, another truck bomb in a well chosen location, and substantial changes could take place in a hurry: a stock market panic, martial law measures by the Bush government, and a sharpening of the debate as to how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.”
Even though their minions almost certainly had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, they clearly view the Sept. 11 events as a huge windfall for their cause — one they clearly intend to take advantage of.
The recent spate of mail-borne anthrax attacks — and especially the accompanying anthrax hoaxes — may be the first sign that they are doing just that. And yet so far, publicly, the Bush administration will only characterize the possibility of domestic terrorism as the work of “someone disgruntled” or “cranks.”
And while disgruntled they surely are, the potential of domestic terrorism — just six years after the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing — should surely not be underestimated.
Deeply marginalized for most of the past half-century, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who populate the fringes of American politics have longed desperately for a return to the zenith of their powers in the 1920s and ’30s, when the Ku Klux Klan was a significant political force, and racism and anti-Semitism were commonplace.
But their strategies in the past two decades have turned from merely trying to regain popularity to the very serious business of overthrowing the American system completely, and replacing it with a racist authoritarian regime. Their chief means for achieving this end has been terrorism.
Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, outlined this strategy explicitly in his 1978 “novel,” “The Turner Diaries,” a book that describes the revolutionary overthrow of American democracy. Throughout the book, Pierce’s hero, Earl Turner, describes the agenda of the Organization, the collection of racist radicals who have been bombing FBI headquarters and killing minorities and “race mixers” to achieve their purposes. “We do not expect to bring down the already creaky American economic structure immediately, but we do expect to cause a number of localized and temporary breakdowns, which will gradually have a cumulative effect on the whole public,” Turner explains at one point.
Later, Turner’s contempt for democracy and his fellow citizens is laid bare: “What the Organization began doing about six months ago is treating Americans realistically, for the first time — namely, like a herd of cattle. Since they are no longer capable of responding to an idealistic appeal, we began appealing to things they can understand: fear and hunger.
“We will take the food off their tables and empty their refrigerators. We will rob the System of its principal hold over them. And, when they begin getting hungry, we will make them fear us more than they fear the System. We will treat them exactly the way they deserve to be treated.”
“The Turner Diaries” is more than a mere racist screed; it has in fact inspired real actions intended to destabilize society on a massive scale. The 1984 rampage of The Order, a Northwest-based neo-Nazi offshoot of the Aryan Nations, was the first such event; before it concluded with the fiery death of its leader in a standoff with the FBI, it had claimed the life of a Denver radio talk-show host and absconded with millions of dollars in armed robberies. A few other like-minded bands, mostly originating out of the Aryan Nations, attempted a smattering of subsequent terrorist acts in the years following, but all wound up behind bars in short order.
The real signal event inspired by Pierce was the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, which killed 168 people and maimed hundreds more. McVeigh later explained how he intended to strike fear into the American populace with the act, just as Earl Turner did in attacking FBI headquarters in Pierce’s tome.
A five-year wave of right-wing terrorism followed, involving more than 30 different attempts to wreak mass havoc on the population. Some of these took the form of pipe-bombings of abortion clinics and gay bars, the murders of abortion providers, or one-man shooting rampages that maimed children or left a morgue full of dead minorities in their wake. Others involved efforts to achieve massive destruction, like the 1997 plot by Texas militiamen to attack a natural-gas refinery, or the late-1999 plan by a couple of Sacramento militiamen to blow up a nearby propane facility. (This count does not even include the massive mailings of hoax anthrax threats sent to abortion providers and other targets between 1998 and 2000, which certainly represented another kind of terrorism.)
However, few of those plots ever came to fruition, due in large part to the ability of law enforcement to nip them in the bud. And the nation’s media — obsessed at the time with President Clinton’s private affairs — paid only momentary attention to the violent acts or ignored them, and almost completely overlooked the trend itself.
There is no real effort to win over a popular majority in this kind of terror-based strategy; rather, the idea is to so terrify the populace as to cow them into submission. If enough people come to believe that the existing government can no longer protect them, then a strong-willed authoritarian will be that much more attractive.
The chief drawback to this strategy is that, despite Oklahoma City and the terrorism that followed it, Americans have continued to remain secure in their belief that society is stable, and that the government can indeed protect them from violent terrorists. Hard as they might try, the far right’s domestic terrorists have managed only to make small dents in that sensibility.
Now, in the wake of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, that sense of security is starting to crack. And seeing their first real opportunity, at least some on the American radical right have made it clear that they intend to shatter it further — to the point, they believe, of finally achieving their goal.
Anthrax has been a point of fascination for a number of figures on the far right for several years. However, this interest has largely turned out to be a matter of fantasy.
In 1998, for instance, three “Patriot” movement members from Texas were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction after threatening President Clinton and other federal officials with biological weapons. The men’s plan revolved around a Maxwell Smart-style scheme to use a cactus thorn coated with anthrax and fired by a modified butane lighter.
The most notorious such case involved an Ohio man named Larry Wayne Harris, who created a minor bio-terror scare in 1995 by trying to obtain inert samples of bubonic plague. Harris, a member of the Aryan Nations, became a celebrity on the far-right Patriot talk circuit, announcing his expertise on biological warfare wherever he went.
Harris’ fascination led to his arrest in 1998 when he told associates he had obtained anthrax. When the FBI, alerted to his claims, swooped down on him in Nevada, headlines around the nation trumpeted the far-right anthrax scare. One New York tabloid proclaimed: “FEDS NAB 2 IN TOXIC TERROR.” As it turned out, though, all that Harris actually had in his possession was a harmless sample of anthrax vaccine.
The incidents may have been harmless, but the witless reportage of them actually inspired a wave of very real terrorism. Within a week of the Harris arrest, anthrax threats were being mailed to all kinds of entities — schools, government agencies, businesses. The largest volume of anthrax threats by far was directed at abortion clinics; between 1998 and 2000, the National Abortion Federation had reported over 80 such threats. Right-wing radical groups such as the Army of God claimed responsibility.
They all turned out to be hoaxes. But the threats were very effective in disrupting work at the clinics, which would at times cease operations while workers were quarantined and tested for anthrax. They also succeeded in creating terror among the clinic workers.
However, once again the threats received relatively little attention in the press, and were given only perfunctory attention from law-enforcement officials. Indeed, the FBI has never arrested anyone for making any of the threats.
When, after the Sept. 11 attacks, very real anthrax turned up in the mail of both media personages and prominent politicians, the threats suddenly took on another shape altogether. Suddenly, the realization hit home that the potential for danger was anything but fantasy.
Just as important, the hoax threats that followed in short order — over 130 of them in the shape of envelopes containing white powder sent to abortion clinics — actually aided and abetted the terrorists who sent the genuine article. After all, they not only added to the work faced by law-enforcement officials trying to sort through the threats; they spread even more fear over a wider swath of society.
There are other, more basic reasons to suspect that the American far right might be responsible for the real anthrax attacks. While Middle Eastern terrorists remain the first suspects — largely because they are blamed for the Sept. 11 atrocities — there are indications that the anthrax strain used in Florida, New York and Washington was domestic in origin. All of the samples from those attacks are derived from the Ames strain, a variety of anthrax devised in the United States.
Nonetheless, there is no evidence yet concretely linking any domestic terrorists with the genuine anthrax threats, while the clues indicating Middle Eastern involvement remain fairly compelling.
However, what can be surmised with greater certainty is that many of the hoax anthrax threats were the work of radical-right terrorists, considering their targets, which tended to be either abortion clinics or government agencies. In one case in the Seattle area, the threat was accompanied by explicit white-supremacist literature and was sent to a woman married to a man of another race.
What is striking about all these threats is the reality that anthrax in general is not a serious weapon of mass destruction. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan — which later killed 12 people in a Tokyo subway bioterrorism attack using Sarin — discovered this in 1993, when it attempted on three occasions to spread anthrax spores around government offices, to no avail.
This is particularly true of at least some of the anthrax sent through the mail, specifically to the media, which government officials have classified as a lower-grade, crude form of the spore. “That’s why I think the main goal of these recent anthrax incidents was not actually to kill people, because the way they did it was actually a very poor way to kill people,” says Mark Pitcavage, National Director of Fact-Finding for the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s primarily to cause fear and panic. And that’s one of the reasons it was sent to news agencies.”
“I think the whole world knows, as a result of what happened in 1998 and 1999, that Americans get scared easily about anthrax. And I think this was a terrorist attack in the sense of trying explicitly to cause terror. Casualties would be gravy, but really terror was what was intended.”
Likewise, the hundreds of hoax threats that have piled onto the genuine anthrax cases seem intended also to spread terror. And yet when Attorney General John Ashcroft denounced the hoaxes, he referred only to a single case in which a Connecticut man created a hoax threat as an apparent workplace joke. FBI Director Robert Mueller likewise lumped the hoaxes in with pranks. There was no recognition that the hoaxes could well be part of an effort to abet the terrorists who mailed the real anthrax.
Unfortunately, that view meshes with a common governmental approach to the activities of the far right in general.
When President Bush addressed the Congress — and the nation — on the evening of Sept. 20, nine days after the first attacks, he declared that “the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows.”
Bush’s remarks suggest an obliviousness to the fact that one of the important places that terrorism has been growing for the past decade is in Americans’ own backyards. Bush’s definition of terrorism seemed only to view its practitioners as overseas products; his statements then and since have seemed to refer only to Middle Eastern terrorists.
Other Republicans in key positions have made plain that the domestic terrorism engaged in by the American right would not be viewed as part of Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Florida Republican Porter J. Goss, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, explicitly said so during hearings on the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The trouble is, ‘terrorism’ is a very broad word, and it lends itself to a lot of mischief for people who would abuse common sense,” Goss said. He then cited bombings of abortion clinics. “To me, that’s not the kind of terrorism I’m talking about.”
“That’s criminal law enforcement,” Goss said. “But it would fit most broad definitions of terrorism because the purpose [of those attacks] is to scare people.” (Of course, as Pitcavage observes, the primary purpose of the recent anthrax attacks has also been to scare people, but that point appears to have eluded Goss.)
Eric Rudolph, among others, would be pleased to hear Goss’s extraordinarily narrow view of what constitutes terrorism.
Rudolph currently resides — along with Osama bin Laden — on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list. He is the chief suspect in the bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that killed one woman and injured a hundred other people. He also is suspected of a string of other bombings, including an abortion clinic and a gay bar in Atlanta, and another abortion clinic in Alabama.
Rudolph remains in hiding somewhere, perhaps the rural North Carolina woods where he was last seen. The FBI surrounded the area for more than a year and could not flush him out. His case does not provide great hope for those now pursuing bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan. Moreover, there are hints that Rudolph may be involved in the current epidemic of terrorism now gripping the nation.
There is at least a passing resemblance between the letters that Rudolph appears to have sent to news agencies after the Atlanta clinic bombing and those that were sent to Tom Brokaw and Sen. Tom Daschle containing anthrax. Both use block capital letters, and both reveal a downward-sloping hand.
Perhaps equally significant is the fact that Rudolph declared in the letters that the bombings were the work of the “Army of God,” a name adopted nearly a decade ago by various far-right anti-abortion extremists. The same name was used by whomever sent out the 130 or so letters to abortion clinics in 15 states in the past two weeks suggesting that the envelopes contained anthrax.
While such clues may be tantalizing, they are far from conclusive in linking Rudolph to the recent rash of anthrax attacks. But they certainly underscore the confluence of interests between the Sept. 11 and anthrax terrorists, and the far-right domestic terrorists of the 1990s.
“That to me is the really remarkable thing,” says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report. “The anthrax attacks, and especially the hoaxes, have made it clear that the American far right has become almost indistinguishable, in terms of their agenda and their strategies, from Islamic radicals. While 25 years ago they were wrapping themselves in the American flag, they have become so anti-American — anti-democracy, anti-everything our society stands for — that they’re willing to resort to the worst kind of terrorism to bring it down. When they do act, we can’t tell the difference between them.”
That confluence, to no one’s great surprise, has been remarked upon explicitly by William Pierce, author of “The Turner Diaries.” In a radio speech he posted on the National Alliance’s Web site recently, Pierce seemed to encourage his followers to help echo the threats made real on Sept. 11.
Declaring that “terrorism is not the problem,” Pierce went on to explain that the current threat is “the price for letting ourselves, our nation, be used by an alien minority to advance their own interests at the expense of ours” — meaning, of course, Jews.
“Bombing the whole Middle East flat will not solve our problem,” he wrote. “Our problem is here, not in Afghanistan or Iraq. What Osama bin Laden gave us on September 11 was just a wakeup call.
“What the people mailing out anthrax-infected letters are giving us is just a reminder that we can have no real security — in fact, no real future for our children and our grandchildren — until we regain control of our own government. Americans will never again have real security or real peace of mind until they have regained control of their government and their media.”
Earl Turner, of course, would have agreed.
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David Neiwert is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He won a 2000 National Press Club award for distinguished online journalism, and is the author of "In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest."