Law enforcement and former extremists wonder if recent violence means the United States will see a repeat of the domestic terrorism of the 1990s
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A strange sight grabbed my attention in the middle of Maryland: a convoy of New York Police Department vehicles driving up the interstate with lights blazing. They were returning after providing security for President Joe Biden’s inauguration the day before. At a gas station in New Jersey, National Guardsmen knelt to change a tire on their military cargo truck. The Interstate 95 corridor felt like it was on high alert.
The heightened security is continuing for Washington, D.C., even as the NYPD has returned to New York after the inauguration. Local National Guard leadership decided that thousands of troops would remain in the city through the end of March in anticipation of more “civil disturbance.” Weeks after the inauguration, barricades remain around the Capitol. Billboards advertise rewards for anyone with information about the Capitol violence of Jan. 6.
Is the simmering tension of watching for more unrest and violence the new normal for the United States? Increasing domestic extremist violence prompted a terror alert from the Department of Homeland Security at the end of January.
Online fringe movements like QAnon, real-life pressures under the coronavirus pandemic, and frustration about a new Democratic presidential administration all create pressure points that violent groups can exploit, according to law enforcement and former members of violent groups. With recent violence from both the political right and left, are Americans seeing a repeat of the domestic extremism of the 1990s? Most people, even if radicalized in groups or online, won’t take any violent action, but law enforcement is paying closer attention to the few who might.
A LITTLE OVER 40 YEARS AGO, Kerry Noble gradually became one of those few. In 1977, Noble joined a communal group in the Ozarks as a Bible study teacher. He and his wife hoped for an intense, early-church-style community in which they could raise their children. But the group devolved into something increasingly violent and apocalyptic that embraced white supremacy: the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). He eventually rose to be one of the group’s leaders and plotted violence against black and gay people. He says now that “anyone can be deceived” into joining extremist groups.
“It’s one thing to have the mob mentality,” he told me. “It’s a whole other thing to go by yourself like Timothy McVeigh and do something.”
Richard Snell, a member of the group, killed a black state trooper and a pawn shop owner who he thought was Jewish. CSA members were involved in the bombing of a natural gas pipeline and the burnings of a synagogue in Indiana and a church in Missouri that approves of homosexuality. Leaders of the group originally hatched the plan for bombing the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., Noble said, which McVeigh carried out a decade later in 1995.
Noble has examined fringe theories now circulating the internet and thinks they all amount to the same thing: lies people believe because they are unhappy with something in their life.
He and other CSA recruiters looked for someone with IRS problems or who had lost a job to a racial minority: “Then they’ve got something that we called a hot button,” he said. “It’s something we could push to make them more and more upset. They didn’t research the stuff we threw at them, they just sort of accepted it. It just gives them someone to blame.”
LAW ENFORCEMENT WILL PRIORITIZE domestic extremism after the Capitol riot, according to Michigan State University criminologist Steven Chermak, who has researched extremism and domestic terror from the left and right.
He said sometimes an event like Jan. 6 can be “cathartic” to angry people ready to commit violence, so other incidents die down for a while. But he still sees potential for more violent incidents.
The Capitol breach led to five deaths, 140 injuries to officers defending the building, and two suicides of officers on duty that day. Another person arrested for participating in the riot also committed suicide. That day law enforcement discovered viable pipe bombs at the nearby headquarters for both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. The FBI recently increased the reward to $100,000 for information on whoever placed the bombs.
Other politically motivated violence in the last year has included the alleged plot by members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. One of the six men charged in the federal kidnapping conspiracy has pleaded guilty so far, and eight others face state charges. According to law enforcement, the men had gotten as far as building bombs and surveilling the governor’s vacation home before the FBI busted the plot in October.
In March, FBI agents attempted to arrest neo-Nazi-affiliated Timothy Wilson, who allegedly planned to set off a car bomb at a Missouri hospital. He shot himself during a gunfight with FBI agents.
In May, federal authorities arrested a woman in New York who, during protests after the death of George Floyd, allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail into an NYPD vehicle containing four police officers. The firebomb shattered the windows but didn’t fully ignite, sparing the officers.
In June, federal officials arrested members of the “boogaloo” anarchist movement for plotting attacks on police while participating in a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas and planning firebombings of a power substation and U.S. Forest Ranger station.
Federal authorities arrested and charged another boogaloo associate, Steven Carrillo, with the murders of two law enforcement officers and shootings of several others in May and June. Carrillo and the man who allegedly served as his getaway driver met in a Facebook group. In September, federal authorities charged two boogaloo associates with attempting to provide weapons and personnel support to Hamas.
FBI Director Christopher Wray says the FBI describes many boogaloo members and self-identified antifa members as violent anarchists. Anarchists often try to incite violence within protests, as the boogaloo suspect did. Wray also warned that foreign adversaries have been attempting to “piggyback” on the unrest to advance their interests in the United States.
Protesters have also attacked each other, with self-identified antifa affiliate Michael Forest Reinoehl allegedly shooting and killing a Trump supporter, Aaron Danielson, in Portland in August. U.S. marshals shot and killed Reinoehl after, they said, he pulled a gun on them in the course of an attempted arrest.
“You feel that there is a groundswell on both sides … in terms of violence,” said Chermak, the criminologist.
Much attention is focused on the far right. Suspects arrested after the Capitol riot included people sporting QAnon gear, members of the far-right Proud Boys, and other militia groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, whose leader had spoken for months about preparing for a civil war.
Afterward, one of the arrested Proud Boys leaders, Joe Biggs, joined a video stream with other Proud Boys, wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with “FBI.” He was not apologetic and argued Trump supporters were being marginalized.
“It’s only going to get worse,” Biggs said. “That’s what people don’t understand. The more you push the bear, the more you poke the bear, the bear is going to [expletive] come back.”
WHAT LAW ENFORCEMENT CAN’T PREDICT is when online talk will turn into violent action. Most people in fringe groups would never take violent action, but a few might.
“You get on a stump somewhere and start screaming, ‘We need to go blow this up!’” said Tom Farrow, a retired FBI agent who worked a large part of his career in the hills of east Tennessee. “There are a bunch of wackos with swastikas on the sides of their necks that are going to jump up and down, but a lot of people will say, ‘That doesn’t sound right, I’m going to call someone.’”
The FBI relies heavily on direct informants: It doesn’t have the authority to surveil conversations domestically without clear evidence of criminal activity. Investigations start locally, usually with a tip from someone, Farrow said.
“Billy Bob’s wife calls up and says, ‘He’s come home drunk the last time, he’s always at this militia meeting, and they’re talking about blowing up the courthouse,’” he said. “Bingo, that’s something they can sink their teeth into.”
The FBI then opens a time-limited early investigation. Usually an agent getting a tip would go to a supervisor, who might point him to another agent who has informants in that particular group. As the agent builds contacts, it usually starts to become clear whether the subjects are a “drinking club” or into more serious trouble, Farrow said. Then the agency either opens a full investigation or closes it.
About four years ago, Farrow got an unexpected call: The East Tennessee Mountain Militia wanted him to come and speak to their group. He didn’t know anyone in the group but agreed, and showed up to what looked like “church grounds” with a building with classrooms and training facilities. At the time the militia was thinking of its role as supporting government forces if an insurrection came from the left, he said.
The militia members asked him, Do we have anything to fear from the FBI?
Farrow asked if they were planning or advocating the violent overthrow of the government. They said no. Do you plan on blowing anything up? They said no. He told them the FBI probably knew the group existed but didn’t care. They were also worried about the FBI confiscating their guns. The fear about gun control or confiscation is one “trip wire” that the Biden administration could stumble over, Farrow says.
While he was working at the FBI, Farrow developed an informant in the Earth Liberation Front, a violent animal rights group. He thinks its setup is similar to some far-right groups: three or four “hardcore idealists” while others were “just kind of there.”
“The true believers are the ones to watch,” he said.
NOBLE BECAME A TRUE BELIEVER as the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord grew and amassed munitions and supplies to survive in its Ozarks compound for years. Noble decided to take action to prove his commitment to the cause. In 1984, he had the group’s weapons specialist make him a briefcase filled with C-4 and dynamite and fashion a silencer for a .22-caliber pistol.
Noble went to a park in Kansas City one Saturday night with a gun and a plan to shoot gay and black people. But no one was in the park. He then took the briefcase bomb to an adult bookstore but couldn’t find a way to leave it without arousing suspicion.
The next day, a Sunday, he carried the bomb into a pro-LGBT church, Metropolitan Community Church. But as he sat down and watched the parishioners fill in, then begin to sing, he said, he began to put a “human face on the enemy.” In his book, Tabernacle of Hate, he recounted, “Next, I tried to imagine how this one lone incident would start a revolution—and knew that it could not.” He left with the briefcase.
“I took it as far as you could without killing people. And it cost me,” he told me.
In 1985 the FBI descended on the CSA’s heavily armed compound in the Ozarks, and a four-day siege ensued. The group’s leaders initially said they would die fighting, but Noble and an FBI negotiator worked out a peaceful surrender.
Noble pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and received a five-year sentence. He struggled to rebuild his life after leaving prison. But his marriage survived, and his six children are all grown and out of the house now. He preaches against the white supremacist views he used to hold and has a renewed Christian faith, describing his life as “Christ-centered.” He says, after he left “the movement,” white supremacists would call him often. He told them, “There is nothing you can tell me that I didn’t used to believe.”
Noble thinks the Capitol riot will “sober some people up.” He remembered that extremist violence quieted down after the FBI broke up his group, but violence returned with a deadly showdown in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, then a deadlier event at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Then the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 “scared people off, and they went back into the woods for a while.” But the attack proved “it doesn’t take too many to do some damage.”
—WORLD has updated this story to clarify the role and identity of FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Before Pastor Bob Pardon became a Christian in 1971, he was part of a violent mob of students that broke into an administrative building at the University of Michigan. They were protesting the administration’s seeming lack of concern over the Vietnam War. Pardon says he got caught up in the “mob mentality” and saw a rioter perch his feet on the president’s desk, as one of the Capitol rioters did in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Pardon made it out without getting arrested and didn’t remember anyone getting hurt.
He and his wife Judy have since had a long career working with people trying to leave Christian-influenced cults. They’ve intervened with members of militia groups and white supremacist churches and have been consultants to the FBI. Bob has found that most members have mixed motives, like chasing women in the group, while only a few are “true believers.”
Citing Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture framework, Pardon advises Christians to be involved in culture in healthy ways. He criticizes the “ghetto mentality,” where Christians strive to live separately from anything they perceive as evil. Increasing isolation is a dangerous part of the cults he’s worked with, ruining lives in their wake.
That isolation may take the form of online echo chambers. Christian Instagram influencers and QAnon promoters I follow have been pushing their followers to join platforms like Gab, whose less restrictive moderation policies have attracted white nationalists booted off other platforms.
Michigan State University criminologist Steven Chermak says online rhetoric and conspiracy theories are reminiscent of the domestic terrorism of the 1990s. But movements like QAnon are a “whole different animal” because of “the spread and the burrowing in, and people’s access and ability to find like-minded individuals.”
As a pastor, Pardon ties belief in conspiracies and cults to a fundamental question: What is objective truth? “Unless there is something outside of us, ... it’s going to be extremely difficult to put anything together, because we’re all in our corners here.” —E.B.
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