The real "fifth column"

While conservative pundits whine about treacherous lefty intellectuals, a real group of far-right traitors may be striking at America from within.

Published November 1, 2001 11:31PM (EST)

The war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, a single enemy with two names, is not only a just war, but a war that bears some striking parallels to the last great conflict between democracy and fascism. Among those haunting similarities is the apparent presence within the borders of the United States of enemy sympathizers and potential agents -- with the important difference that this time, the "fifth column" may be responsible for acts of terror as well as propaganda.

The real fifth column is not, as some overwrought writers have suggested, represented by minuscule antiwar demonstrations or the handful of academics scribbling anti-American screeds. Such misguided people are of little consequence today and few, if any, of them have demonstrated a propensity for violence. Their right to dissent must be respected and protected.

The true domestic threat is posed instead by an unknown number of organizations and individuals on the farthest fringes of the right, with ideologies that echo Nazism and rap sheets that include every crime from bank robberies to bombings. Having repeatedly declared their determination to overthrow the United States government and exterminate the "racially impure," these outfits hailed the Sept. 11 attacks as the opening salvo in a conflagration they hope will engulf us.

A candid reaction was voiced that very day by Billy Roper, a top official of the National Alliance, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the United States: "Anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude."

At first glance, the apparent affinity between domestic far-rightists and Islamic fundamentalists seems incongruous. The crude racism of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who infest certain corners of the United States has always included Arabs, South Asians and Muslims among the despised "sub-humans." In recent years, right-wing skinheads have perpetrated horrific attacks on precisely those peoples both here and in Europe.

But while Western neo-Nazis hate dark-skinned immigrants, they also share longstanding strategic and ideological aims with Islamic extremism. Aside from their vilification of Jews and Israel, both camps adore death and bloodshed as much as they abhor secularism, individualism, feminism, capitalism, socialism, human rights, democracy and every progressive concept in the modern world. If they disagree about religious mythology, they both idealize bygone barbarisms and despise modernity itself.

That common outlook first found concrete expression during the Third Reich, when Hitler embraced the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem as his guest in Berlin and established a Muslim SS legion. The alliance continued during the murky era of the Cold War, when fleeing Nazi officials found refuge in the secret services and military ranks of Syria, Egypt and other authoritarian Arab regimes. Independent observers and government officials believe that Nazi-linked organizations in the West have been reaching out to Muslim extremists both openly and covertly for decades. As recently as last year, for example, an infamous Holocaust-denial "institute," based in California, invited leading anti-Semitic activists from around the world to a conference hosted by its contacts in Beirut.

What makes all these obscure relationships relevant now, of course, is the anthrax assault inflicted on East Coast cities in the wake of Sept. 11, which has now claimed four lives. Although some conservatives insist that the likeliest suspect is a foreign power such as Iraq, there is just as much evidence to suggest that America's homegrown enemies could be responsible. The lengthy list of terrorist acts and plain old felonies by these groups demonstrates their deep criminality; and in recent years, the racialist right has shown an increasing interest in biological warfare.

The most notorious case is that of Larry Wayne Harris, an Aryan Nations adherent arrested in 1998. Although the government eventually dropped most of the charges against Harris, there is no doubt that the anti-Semitic extremist spent much time and money experimenting with biological weapons. As Jeff Stein reported in Salon, Harris told a former government biowarfare expert that he had isolated cultures of anthrax, bubonic plague, tularemia and cholera. He insisted that he was interested only in "civil defense," but his claims to have worked for the government were vehemently denied by the Pentagon and the CIA.

In any case, Harris is hardly the only extremist who harbors an obsession with anthrax. Other Aryan Nations nuts have played around with cyanide and other deadly toxins such as ricin. Their literature is full of references to biological and chemical warfare against their racial and political enemies. For several years, terrorists with apparent links to the "militia" movement have threatened Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers with anthrax -- when they haven't been planting actual bombs and shooting doctors.

There are still many more questions than answers about the sources of the anthrax attacks, and there is as yet no known basis for accusing any individual or group of culpability. But there is ample reason for Congress and the Justice Department to open a wide-ranging investigation of the enemy within.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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