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Whither Domestic Terrorists?

While U.S. troops were scouring Iraq in vain for weapons of mass destruction, federal authorities stumbled on the genuine article in the United States itself. Amid white-supremacist and antigovernment literature found in a home in Tyler, Texas, the FBI discovered a sodium-cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands, more than 100 explosives, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and scores of illegal weapons. In connection with this discovery, in November William J. Krar pleaded guilty to charges of possession of a weapon of mass destruction.

Since 9-11, government and media have focused attention on foreign terrorists, but this incident and others suggest that some of that attention should be turned back onto domestic groups that once garnered headlines.

“I think that the Krar case shows that domestic terrorism is alive and well,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate and extremist groups. Mark Pitcavage, director of the fact-finding department at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), notes that domestic extremists on both ends of the political spectrum are involved in “a pretty high level of activity.” For example, racist skinheads in the west have murdered immigrants, gays, and homeless people in the last couple of years, while two Southern California law enforcement officers were recently ambushed by antigovernment extremists.

One of the most significant threats is virulent hate groups, says Potok, who notes that they now number about 750 and their ranks are on the rise. “We’re monitoring more hate groups than ever before,” he says.  Another top threat is environmental extremists, notes Stefan Leader, a terrorism analyst for Mantech Integrated Data Systems who works with a government task force on combating terrorism. “They urge their people to turn to violence when needed,” he says.

Still, Potok says, right-wing extremist activity has ebbed since its high-water mark in the 1990s. Recent years have seen erosion of these groups at the organizational level, Potok adds, through such events as the 2002 death of William Pierce (the founder and leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance) and the incarceration of World Church of the Creator founder Matt Hale.

Mark Hamm, a professor of criminology and terrorism expert at Indiana State University, adds that these groups have not been galvanized recently by a shared grievance. “As far as anyone can see, there’s nothing currently out there to sort of rally the troops,” as there was when Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Brady bill occurred in quick succession, he says. Anti-Israel and anti-Patriot Act sentiments are common, Hamm says, but haven’t risen to the level of rage.

In fact, militia numbers are way down since their heyday, Potok observes. He attributes some of the decline to the “Y2K debacle,” in which members were encouraged to stock up for a post-2000 world in which martial law would prevail. That, of course, didn’t happen, leaving many disaffected militia members.

But both Potok and Pitcavage point out that splintering of these groups could actually increase violence. “Most criminal acts don’t come from organized groups,” says Pitcavage, “but from offshoots.”

And these extremists remain a threat, experts emphasize.

“There’s a tendency to forget that the radical right has carried out vastly more terrorist attacks than al Qaeda and all other Islamist groups in [the United States] combined,” says Potok. “Al Qaeda has outdone them in deaths, of course, but it’s not for a lack of trying.”