America's homegrown terrorists

An expert on right-wing hate groups talks about the tortured emotional roots of their rage, their response to Sept. 11 and their role in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Published January 17, 2002 9:25PM (EST)

The state of Oklahoma will have to wait a little longer before prosecuting Terry Nichols for his role in the murder of 160 civilians in the Oklahoma City bombing; his attorneys' appeal for more legal fees from the state have delayed the trial. (Nichols, already serving a separate life sentence in connection with the deaths of eight federal agents in the tragedy, was found guilty four years ago of conspiring to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with Timothy McVeigh.) And while Oklahomans surely are anxious to bring Nichols to full justice, what could turn out to be the most compelling aspect of Nichols' trial is whether his lawyers will introduce new evidence about what happened on April 19, 1995. Remember those mysteriously missing thousands of pages of FBI documents on McVeigh? Some suspect that those documents hold the answer to an often-speculated possibility: Were more people than McVeigh and Nichols involved in this domestic terrorist attack?

With "In Bad Company: America's Terrorist Underground," Mark S. Hamm builds a convincing case for the widely held theory that McVeigh couldn't have pulled off the bombing alone. Hamm's investigation points to the Aryan Republican Army, a small group of disaffected right-wing white men who went on a Midwestern bank robbery spree in the early 1990s and who, like McVeigh, were outraged by the FBI's ambushes at Ruby Ridge and Waco. In the book, Hamm, a professor of criminology at Indiana State University, also profiles these men, shading in the violent years that might have led them to Oklahoma City. According to Hamm, one of these men might be the shadowy John Doe No. 2.

I couldn't sleep after reading Hamm's book, mostly for two reasons. First, Hamm tells a good, scary story. Second, attempting to understand these characters is chillingly frustrating: Even with all Hamm's research on and experience with the terrorist mind, it still seems as if there's something about his subjects that's impossible to understand, and therefore impossible to challenge.

Hamm spoke to Salon from his home in Bloomington, Ind., about what makes a terrorist, why Americans can't understand them and whether the FBI is equipped to take them down.

Was it disturbing to talk to these people?

Not really. I spent 13 years working in prisons so I've been around inmates and violent men. And I've been studying and interviewing skinheads for a good 10 years. But I will say that I've never met anyone so violent and extreme as Pete Langan [the head of the Aryan Republican Army]. From what I know about [Richard "Wild Bill"] Guthrie [another ARA member] -- and I never interviewed him -- he's the same way. These people were way off the radar chart.

Was it the language he was using or something in his demeanor?

At certain points, and on certain issues, he would definitely exhibit an unresolved rage. On other things he was quite easy to talk to. But you can tell from talking to him that he has some real underlying problems surrounding his gender identification crisis and his conflict with authority. When you get into the business of justice -- in his terms -- that's where the real rage comes from.

What makes a terrorist?

There are two things that go on. Somewhere in the background of many of these men, and certainly all of the men who were involved in the Aryan Republican Army, there's an incident that has led to profound shame or humiliation. In Langan's case, it was the prison rapes. That was a turning point. One way that they rise above that shame, which often has to do with an assault on their masculinity, is through militarized masculinity. They go overboard to compensate for that shame.

It seems as if many of them had some experience with the military, either personally or through their families.

Certainly the leadership of the ARA did. The younger skinheads were too dysfunctional to make it into the military to begin with. But certainly the leadership -- Langan, Guthrie, McVeigh -- all had experiences with the military that had a significant impact on their lives and on their extremist beliefs.

Some of them failed to make the cut.

Particularly Guthrie. Guthrie's and McVeigh's biographies are very similar in that respect. Guthrie had one goal in his early life and that was to make it into the Navy SEALs. He failed because he couldn't meet physical requirements. The same thing happened to McVeigh; he washed out of the Green Berets. After that Guthrie developed an agenda against the government, and the same can be said of McVeigh.

You say that had Waco and Ruby Ridge never happened, Oklahoma City would never have happened. Do you really think so? Wouldn't they have found something else to be angry about?

If Waco and Ruby Ridge never happened, then there never would have been a citizen militia movement in this country, and without the militia/patriot movement in this country, the ARA and these extreme anti-government groups would have never had a cause. It is unlikely that they would have ever met each other. It is unlikely that they would have engaged in crime together. McVeigh's attorney said that if there had been no Waco, there would have been no bombing of Oklahoma City. That's from his interviews with McVeigh.

That might have been McVeigh's way of justifying it. But don't you think he would have found something else?

All terrorism begins with a grievance. If you start with that premise, then you have to look at the period we're talking about here -- early '90s to mid-'90s. If there wasn't Waco and Ruby Ridge, what else did we have that could have provided these men with a grievance? The only answer that you come up with is the Brady Law. But that wasn't toxic enough to create this revenge against the government. I must say that I don't think these men would have robbed banks and funded bombings without something dramatic.

The other thing you talk about is that they were alienated from American culture. How much do you think that plays into it? We hear about that with the Islamic world, that this disgust with American culture serves as a foundation for their hatred of America. Do you really think that American culture has this effect on domestic terrorists?

Oh, of course. These men were creatures of subculture. From an early age, they began to turn their back on mainstream culture, especially institutions. None of them went to college. The only institution they had any faith in was the military. When they got out of the military, they became adrift and alienated. Out there emerged this incredible anti-government movement with its own subculture: its own music, its own propaganda, its own books, its own videos. They became steeped in that subculture, as years before they had been deeply steeped in the remnants of the flower power subculture. The question I always wondered about was: If an alternative subculture that was more left-leaning had risen in one unified voice to speak out against Waco and Ruby Ridge, would it have attracted the likes of Langan, Guthrie and McVeigh? But the only game in town to protest this was the right.

You talk about these men's interest in music quite a bit. How much did hardcore metal like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, as well as British white power bands like Skrewdriver and Brutal Attack, attract people to the extremist right?

Without it there would have been no Aryan Republican Army. The young kids -- Scott Stedeford, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Brescia -- were first and foremost musicians in the Philadelphia area. It was through the music that they became involved in the white power movement.

When you talked to them would they name things in American culture that they felt alienated them?

Each one of them had -- and this holds true for all the extremists that I've studied -- something that served as the straw that broke the camel's back. There were numerous failures and disappointments and then along came that one thing that causes them to cross the line and now they're in this netherworld of neo-Nazism. They're picking up guns and robbing banks.

Take McVeigh, for example. Can you trace how this one major disappointment led to extremism?

It was not making the cut for the Green Berets. Had he made it, we might not have seen him return home to poverty and dead-end jobs. That's when he becomes involved in conspiracy theories and gun shows and meets these other extremists. I believe that, for him, was the turning point.

The other thing is that if you look back, all of these men have real tragedy in their childhood. Deaths of mothers and fathers and abandonment. These issues leave a scar on them that they carry through life. It becomes such a burden that at some point, they break. But again, they break in the company of others. They don't break alone. We find very few in this movement who were lone wolves. They're doing things in a collective.

So when you watched McVeigh and people said he was simply sick and depraved, would you disagree?

There's an explanation for everything. People don't come into this world full of hatred. People don't come into this world with the capacity to commit murder and mayhem against innocent people. They have to be taught that. They're taught that in a group with others; they become politicized through this group process.

With regard to McVeigh, I never from Day 1 thought he was crazy or somehow mentally unbalanced. His school performance was remarkable. McVeigh went all the way through junior high and high school and never missed a day. He was not only bonded to conventional norms, he was hyperactive in his bonding. Langan and Guthrie were excellent students as young boys. Langan had a great education; at 9 years old, he spoke three languages fluently. People who knew Guthrie said he was nearly a genius in science and history. He spoke several languages. Stedeford was the consummate artist. He had something of a following among Philadelphia subcultural edgy youth. In all of these people, in terms of intellectual capacity, I don't see any pattern of deficiency.

As much as racism and anti-Semitism has to do with their hate, it seemed like there were so many other things that motivated them even more. Was that the case? Individually, how deep was their prejudice?

These men were products of the time. I believe that in the aftermath of Waco and Ruby Ridge, because those were such monumental events in the world of the radical right, anti-government sentiment came to replace racism and anti-Semitism as the guiding principle of the radical right. Although they do subscribe to this notion of the Zionist Occupied Government, their hatred for the government trumped their racism and anti-Semitism. Primarily, it's the hatred of the FBI. That's who their war was against.

How important was religion, particularly Christian Identity, a theology that, you write, "gives the blessing of God to the racist cause ... the Identity creed proceeds from the idea that Jews are the children of Satan, while white 'Aryans' are the descendents of the Biblical tribes of ancient Israel and thus are God's chosen people"?

Christian Identity was very important to all of them in the development of their paramilitary profiles. It wasn't necessarily the fire of Identity teachings that influenced them as much as it was the bonding and sense of belonging that they got there. One of the characters, for example, is nearly illiterate. He doesn't have the capacity to read the Bible like most people [in order to] understand religion and gain some morality from it. In contrast, Identity was passed on as an oral tradition. So it was the seduction that they found in these bizarre alternative explanations of Christianity that became attractive to them. Then they found a brotherhood among other true believers of this religion.

They justified arming themselves through the Bible too, didn't they?

They believed that the founding fathers were the true Christians and chosen people and when they created the Bill of Rights and the Constitution -- specifically the Second Amendment -- that those were somehow divinely inspired.

You make the point that Jesse James, a famous early American terrorist who was their hero, would never have murdered children. What made these men different?

James definitely was one of their heroes. They were students of Jesse James, they patterned their bank robberies after his and they even used certain techniques and phrases that James used.

The ARA during these bank robberies prided themselves on the fact that no one was hurt and no one was shot. On that level, I believe that they followed in the Jesse James tradition. When it came to Oklahoma City, it was that technology could be used; materials could be amassed and bombs could be constructed and ignited and the perpetrators could be somewhere else. The quickness with which that act was done could allow them to separate themselves. No blood on their shirts. That squares with McVeigh's pattern of violence dating back to the war against Iraq, the Persian Gulf War, where he killed his first human being from a Bradley fighting vehicle a mile away.

Did you ask them about this contradiction after Oklahoma City?

The thing about McVeigh, quite honestly, is that you cannot determine when he's telling the truth. Ask any question of McVeigh and you can go back and see where he told one journalist one thing and another thing to another. There was a time when he told his psychiatrist that he did not know there was a day-care center there until two days before the bombing. Then he told someone that the windows of the day care center were blackened so he didn't know children were there. Always, his motive was to portray himself as a hero and a historical figure of the anti-government movement. The only power he had left in his last years was the mystery about himself.

You criticize the way the media approaches right-wing extremists. What don't we understand about terrorists and why is it so hard for us to do so?

Because terrorism has not been something we've had to deal with for a long time. Consequently, we've turned a blind eye to it in other countries and to the phenomenon in general. When it is visited upon us, as it has been so dramatically since 1995, we don't have the language and concepts to understand who these people are and why they do what they do.

Another reason is that when the media or analysts try to understand terrorism, they almost exclusively rely on court testimony. Court testimony is designed to serve a legal aim. It's not necessarily the best material to use for research purposes. When you do research on burglars, for example, the best thing to do is to interview burglars. For some reason, we don't have the tradition of doing the same with terrorists. And it's so hard to get access to them. They're locked away and attorneys and judges won't let you get to them. We've never really come to terms with terrorists in this country as the Israelis have -- with an ambitious agenda for understanding political extremists who commit crimes.

What do the Israelis do?

The Israelis have topologies of suicide bombers and countless interviews with them. It seems to me that the research on terrorism that comes out of Israel is not even in the same realm as what we do in America. The many books that we produce in this country on the phenomenon of terrorism are almost exclusively reliant on secondary sources.

Can we learn from what they've found? What are some of the universal traits of terrorists -- regardless of what country they're from?

I believe that first and foremost on that list is that these people should be thought of for what they are. They are warriors. The term "criminal" doesn't do justice to what we're dealing with here. "Extremist" or "white supremacist" or "Islamist" -- these are all terms that, while useful for background purposes, don't get us very far. Even the term "terrorist" doesn't really describe what they are. First and foremost, they are warriors. They are combatants and true believers who are willing to die for their cause.

So you don't think they ever could have been rehabilitated?

Not necessarily. The metaphysics of age take over. These people burn out, just like a career criminal does. They slow down and disengage. The same thing can and does happen with terrorists. The men in this book -- almost every one of them -- began to forge genuine human relationships and disengaged from criminal life. One of them had a kid, one had an authentic relationship, and they put down the rifle.

What do you think they thought of Sept. 11?

I've talked to them about this. They say they can understand the rage against the government.

They didn't feel at all protective of their country?


Did they feel sad at all?

Emotionally, these guys keep their cards pretty close their chest. No, I didn't get any of that.

Were they impressed?

I didn't hear any of that, though I did see quite a few Internet postings from cyber-warriors who talked about being impressed by it.

What's the difference between those guys and the quieter ones?

My theory is that there are above-ground activists and below-ground activists. The above-ground activists always talk and that's bigger than their bark. It's the below-ground activists, the Langans, McVeighs and Mohammed Attas, the people you never hear about, who are the dangerous ones. You won't hear them spouting off on the Internet. These are the people building the pipe bomb or hijacking the plane. Unfortunately, we never know about them until after the fact.

Where is the movement now?

There are some who want to say that the patriot/militia movement is in disarray. Certainly, all the figures I've seen confirm that the numbers have dwindled. The government hasn't given them another cause. They don't have a burning grievance on the table.

There's another school of thought that says that the neo-Nazis are still a force to be reckoned with. You still have your Eric Rudolphs [responsible for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombings] out there running around -- if he's still alive. The Internet is one indicator that the movement is still alive; there are more and more sites and CDs and publications. The big gun shows still go on.

What's the scariest group right now?

Again we're back to the issue of above- and below-ground activists. Just because we know about a group isn't exactly helpful when it comes to terrorism. For example, we didn't know about the ARA until after they were arrested.

The FBI knew about the Bank Bandits, but they didn't know that they were part of the ARA.


Do you believe that they were robbing the banks to fund the Oklahoma City bombing?

The measure of a good theory is not that it accounts for all of the relevant facts but that it accounts for those facts better than any other theory. And I believe that the theory that the ARA was involved in funding or implementing the plan to bomb the Murrah Federal Building is a theory that accounts for the facts better than the government's lone wolf theory.

Was it easier for the government to pin this on McVeigh and Nichols?

The government didn't know who was in the ARA and wasn't aware of all of their criminal activities until sometime around the spring of 1997. By this time, federal prosecutors had already built the case against McVeigh and Nichols. Some say that introducing these other accomplices into the bombing would have diminished the culpability and responsibility of McVeigh. The second problem is that you now have to bring these other guys into court and try them so now you've made it five to six times harder than if you simply go after one individual.

One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I can't forget the Time/CNN poll of 1997 that shows that 70 percent of the American people believe that there were others responsible for the bombing. That is a sentiment I found in my lectures and consulting with other groups and talking to survivors of Oklahoma City and talking to the students I teach. There are too many unanswered questions.

Then we get to the final year of McVeigh's life and the revelation comes out that he couldn't pass a polygraph test when asked whether there were others involved. He passed on every other question.

And Langan said?

Langan will say whatever benefits his case at that point in time. He's very circumspect about what he does say. He will say that he has information about the bombing conspiracy and he will indicate that Guthrie knew McVeigh and Guthrie robbed the gun dealer Roger Moore and the proceeds from that robbery were used to build the bomb. He will indicate that Nichols was elsewhere on April 19 but there were others from the ARA who were in fact in Oklahoma City.

So the FBI is no longer investigating whether there are more people involved?

That's correct, but we still have the State of Oklahoma vs. Terry Nichols. There you have an opportunity to bring in other evidence.

The second thing is: Remember all the mysterious documents about Timothy McVeigh that went missing preceding his execution? Those still have not been released. News organizations have filed Freedom of Information requests and they have not been responded to yet. There have been hints that those documents did identify accomplices seen with McVeigh in the days leading up to April 19.

The person who holds the key to this is Langan, I believe. Because there were deals negotiated between the FBI and Langan's attorney concerning information Langan may have had about accomplices in the Oklahoma City bombing. Those were not followed up on.

Do you feel confident that the FBI is better equipped now to deal with terrorism?

In the years after Oklahoma City, their response to crisis situations was well informed by the mistakes they made. For example, in the Jordan, Mont., siege of 1996, no shots were fired. The FBI waited with endless patience, they brought in third-party negotiators. They used none of the coercion they used with Randy Weaver or David Koresh.

So you're saying that the FBI has to take special care when dealing with them?

Waco and Ruby Ridge were wake-up calls to federal enforcement agencies. I've spoken quite a bit to these groups and what I find is that many times they don't know the history of the radical right. They don't know how the radical right got so angry in the first place. Many agents haven't read about these groups. It seems like the FBI has come a long way but that they also have a long way to go.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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