Militias on the Move

Two years after the Oklahoma City terror bombing, the right-wing extremist movement is bigger and more belligerent than ever. One such group is even brazenly recruiting former employees of nuclear power plants and water supply facilities as part of its ominous intelligence gathering.


Andrew Ross
March 8, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

each year, Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, compiles information on right-wing extremist groups in the U.S., which it sends to law enforcement agencies nationwide. Its latest report, "Two Years After: The Patriot Movement Since Oklahoma City," concludes that the number of such groups has grown significantly in the past two years. According to Klanwatch, there are over 850 active "Patriot" groups -- not all of them violence-prone -- scattered across the 50 states. That represents an increase of 6 percent over 1994-95. Of those groups, 380 are armed militias, 101 of which are linked to white supremacist organizations.

Klanwatch notes that these groups are increasingly using such harassment tactics as filing false liens against public officials and setting up bogus "common law" courts in which to "try" them. And, says Klanwatch, an increasing number of underground groups advocate the use of violence against people and property.

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Salon talked with Michael Reynolds, senior intelligence analyst for Klanwatch, based in Montgomery, Ala., about the report.

You've expressed special concern about the more secretive, violence-prone wing of the militia movement. What do you know about these underground groups?

We think we've seen an intensification of those movements since the Oklahoma City bombing. We've seen arrests in Arizona, Washington, Georgia, West Virginia, for conspiracy to bomb, possession of explosives, illegal weapons and so forth. We've had an Amtrak train derailment. We know about the Aryan Republican Army, which has been involved in 32 bank robberies that we believe were conducted to fund the underground movements. We don't know for sure about the recent bombings in Atlanta, but it has all the earmarks of an underground group.

How many people are involved in these groups?

The operative word there is speculation. It's a dark and murky figure, but we think there are up to 100,000 -- not necessarily active participants -- but who subscribe to or support, in one fashion or another, these groups.

And what about the hard-core extremists?

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I'd say it cooks down to about 10 percent.

Ten thousand?

Yes, who are willing to cross over the line. Whether it is filing these bogus liens and arrest warrants or stockpiling illegal weapons, conducting guerrilla training or actually going out and committing acts of violence -- robberies, bombings, etc. -- or providing safe-houses for those who do. That's an extraordinary amount for such an open society. If you compare that with groups like Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad, which have a hard core of 1,000 or 2,000 people conducting operations worldwide, then I'd say the situation in the United States is getting extremely serious.

And this "crossing over the line" has become more evident in the past two years?

Yes. Definitely.

But isn't there a danger of exaggerating the extent of these groups? In a previous interview with Salon, you rightly warned, for example, that all the arson bombings of black churches might not be a racist conspiracy.

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We applied the same initial skepticism to the cases I mentioned above, otherwise I wouldn't be mentioning them to you now.

How do you quantify your information? How do you know, for example, that there are over 858 patriot-type groups?

We monitor their publications, we monitor their faxes and Web page communications, and we read press reports from all over the country. We also work from law enforcement reports. We have our own field investigators. We also have donors and supporters who are very helpful in supplying pieces of information that often get overlooked if they are from smaller communities. All that goes into our database, which has been maintained for 17 years.

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Since you're drawing some of your information from the extremist groups themselves, aren't you concerned that they might be inflating their own importance?

Oh, yeah. If we err in any direction, it is to step back and apply more rigorous scrutiny. We don't accept every piece of information on its face value that comes in. Just in the way a journalist would approach it, you get a piece of information from the source, you double back and check that information against other sources.

Is law enforcement getting more adept at dealing with these groups?

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Yes, especially in states that are proactive. Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Montana and Florida have aggressively pursued cases and consequently the groups' hangers-on have retreated. But what has happened is that the hard core have moved underground or are fugitives and take their activities to other states. There is a network of this underground that goes from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest.

Your report refers to these groups developing a kind of national intelligence network.

Some of the militias started doing this in 1995. One group called the Tri-States Militia ...

Which states?

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No, no, not geographical. The "Tri-States" stand for God, Family and Country. They issued a "Salute Form," which is an acronym for size, activity, location, unit, time and equipment. Other militia and patriot groups fill out the form, which goes into a central database, to be used for God-knows-what. In February, something called the American Constitutional Militia Network issued a professionally written "guideline" seeking recruits who worked at water supply facilities, power plants, nuclear plants and so forth to gather information about these facilities.

So you could have people out there who are gathering information on security procedures and layouts and taking photographs and funneling the information back to the group's headquarters. This doesn't sound like it's being done for a hobby. This is jacking up the stakes a bit.

One would think, especially since Oklahoma City, that the FBI would have started to infiltrate these groups, like they did with the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, but the Levi-Smith guidelines (named for former Attorneys General Edward Levi and William French Smith) restricted the FBI's ability -- or any other agency's ability -- to gather intelligence on political or radical groups across the spectrum. That's put them behind the curve. Right now, they have to play catch-up to successfully penetrate this movement. It's one thing to go to the meetings and so forth, but getting deeper into the underground cells is much more difficult. We saw the success in West Virginia, Georgia, Arizona and in Washington state. But those busts have made the movement more paranoid and more skillful in hiding their operations.

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So the revulsion Americans felt at the Oklahoma City bombing hasn't slowed these people down.

The true believers, the ones who have committed their lives -- or the loss of their life -- to this movement are more intense now than ever. They are in a state of war. There is no other way to put it. In a war with the United States government, and anyone else who gets in their way. Those who are in Saturday afternoon militia training out in the woods with a bunch of other good old boys are not the real players.

Where are they getting their money from?

Bank robberies by groups like the Aryan Republican Army. Also fraudulent checks, which accounts for an extraordinary amount of money.

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Has the Internet spurred the growth of this movement? Neo-Nazi and other hate groups have long used the Net to communicate and propagandize.

Yes, and more so since Oklahoma City. There are more (Web) pages up and more people using them. A year and a half ago we found 72 sites. Now we're looking at close to 200 sites, ranging from extreme libertarianism to neo-Nazi. That's a lot of noise out there, and they all feed on it.


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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