By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/18/2005 11:25:59 AM ET 2005-04-18T15:25:59

Although it’s been 10 years since the Oklahoma City bombing, and no similar attacks have occurred on U.S. soil, experts who follow the extreme radical right say they still pose a serious threat of domestic terrorism.

"We are still experiencing a large degree of right-wing activity, including acts of terrorism," said Mark Pitcavage, who tracks the radical right for the Anti-Defamation League. "Overall, anti-government and hate groups remain very active."

But certain groups — such as the militia movement which gained widespread publicity in the mid-1990s — have declined, while others, such as hate groups, seem to be thriving. And while the top three neo-Nazi groups have suffered reversals in recent years, their troubles may actually increase the risk of domestic terrorism, said Mark Potok, who monitors right-wing militants for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Video: Domestic terrorism threat Those who follow the violent right-wing movement in the United States break it down into two broad groups — the anti-government Patriot movement, with which Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was associated, and hate groups such as the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, although membership in both groups often overlaps.

"When we say 'Patriot movement,' we mean groups who are desperately anti-government, and very involved in conspiracy theories such as the U.N. is going to take over the U.S.," Potok said. The Patriot movement's fears were heightened when federal agents' attempt to serve arrest and search warrants for illegal weapons at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, turned into a shootout, a 51-day standoff, and finally an assault, on April 19, 1993, that ended with 84 men, women and children killed. "That was seen as showing the extent to which the 'fascist federal government' will go to stop guns," said Potok.

Two years later to the day, McVeigh retaliated, blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people.

Oklahoma City bombing split radical right
The Oklahoma City bombing split the radical right. "Lots of militia groups were put off by the Oklahoma City bombing," said Clint van Zandt, the chief negotiator for the FBI at Waco, who is now a security consultant and a commentator on MSNBC. Immediately after the attack, the FBI used that revulsion to its advantage, meeting with extreme right-wing groups and asking their help to identify what van Zandt calls the "fringe of the fringe."

"We told them 'We need your help in identifying those people and stopping a bloodbath like OK City,'" said van Zandt. "A lot of people in those militia groups responded."

Others did not; instead they developed new conspiracy theories claiming that the government had blown up the Oklahoma City federal building itself. "In some versions McVeigh is a patsy, in others he is innocent," Potok said.

After the Oklahoma City attack, dozens of other terrorist plots were reported, although very few resulted in anything being blown up. But they caused many Patriot Movement sympathizers to rethink their allegiances. "I think these things frightened people greatly," Potok said. "Many people began to revise their views of what the militias were about. It was obvious that this was a movement producing high levels of violence."

The late 1990s also produced a law enforcement crackdown on the Common Law Court movement, a subset of the militant right that claimed federal and state courts and officials had no jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. At its height, movement supporters filed hundreds of liens against judges, lawyers or public officials they disliked, tying up their property in complicated litigation. But more than 30 states passed or beefed up laws against impersonating public officials or filing unjustified property liens, and hundreds of Common Law Court devotees were convicted and jailed.

"There were a lot of people going to prison, there were a great many terrorist plots coming out, and I think people started to rethink the [conspiracy theories about the] OK City bombing," Potok said.

World continued after 2000
Some of the survivalist-oriented right-wing groups also suffered when the millennium came and went with no attendant catastrophe. "Virtually every group in the Patriot Movement made a big deal about the millennium," said Potok. "They said we'd have Armageddon, computers would collapse. Welfare checks won't go out and blacks in the inner cities will rise up and come into the countryside to steal your crops and rape your wives. But then on Jan. 1, 2000, the sun rose bright in a blue sky and absolutely nothing happened, not a computer crashed."

Patriot publications were filled with angry letters from disillusioned supporters, many of whom had spent lots of money buying a stockpile of food, water and survival gear, Potok said. "I think it clearly took the winds out of the Patriot Movement. There are no militias really operating -- we just don't see these guys running around in the woods any more."

More division over Sept. 11 attacks
As with Oklahoma City, the Sept. 11 terror attacks divided the extreme right. "Sept. 11 brought this wave of patriotism," said former FBI profiler van Zandt. "Some folks began to think maybe the real enemy is not the FBI and the ATF [the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] -- maybe the real enemy is without."

But from the hard-core neo-Nazi groups, Sept. 11 brought applause -- for al-Qaida. "This was an attack on Jew York City," Potok said. "The head of one of the neo-Nazi movements wrote an e-mail saying, in essence, 'We may not want them marrying our daughters, but anyone willing to fly an airplane into a building to kill Jews is all right with me.'"

Still, there has been no proof of any link between neo-Nazi or other U.S. extremists and al-Qaida. "A few of the hate groups have nominally given a tip of the hat to al-Qaida, praised holy jihad," Potok said. "But there's nothing to show any cooperation going on. To American neo-Nazis, al Qaida is staffed by mud people [the extreme right's name for non-whites]. It's hard for them to make anything like this work for real."

At least on the surface, most of the right-wing groups are careful to avoid outright calls for violence. For example, the head of the Creativity movement, Matt Hale, was convicted of trying to hire someone to kill U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow of Chicago in retaliation for her ruling against him in a trademark dispute over the group's name. But on the Creativity Web site, a Frequently Asked Questions page denies that the group favors violence. "Nowhere in our book do we ever suggest killing anyone," the page states.

But the group doesn't deny that its actions could destroy other races. "Perhaps it would, but that is not our responsibility, nor is it our doing," the group says. "In no ... species in Nature, does the stronger and superior species voluntarily hold itself back and help subsidize a weaker and inferior species so that inferior species might crowd it from the face of the earth."

Neo-Nazis' decline could unleash more violence
Ironically, the decline of Creativity and two other large neo-Nazi groups could increase the threat of domestic terror attacks, Potok believes. Because the leaders of all three groups have died or are in trouble, their followers have been left to their own devices.

Creativity head Hale was sentenced to 40 years in jail April 6 for plotting against Judge Lefkow. William Pierce, head of the National Alliance and author of the militant bible, The Turner Diaries, died in 2002, leaving his group leaderless. And Richard Butler, head of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations, lost his sprawling Idaho compound after he was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2000 and forced into bankruptcy.

"We're at a point right now where the most serious and scary groups have been decapitated," Potok said. But that can be dangerous since the leaders of most extreme groups typically prevent the group from committing acts of violence. "They say, 'Yes, we want to kill the Jews -- but that's for next week,'" said Potok. "These guys [the leadership] don't want to go to prison."

While organized militant groups are a threat in that they tend to gather people who have criminal tendencies, in general, "terror attacks are not planned by hate groups in smoky rooms," said Potok. "In virtually every case, it is a few people who break away from the group and decide the time is now."

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