In the decades since the “Militia Movement” first rose to prominence in the ’90s, the movement has received even fewer minutes of primetime coverage. Yet, the groups’ threat has not dissipated with the passage time. In fact, some would argue this coalition of armed, anti-government groups, often with religious and racist ideologies, poses an ever present terrorist threat — one we ought to be more worried about today.
The Militia Movement’s first wave arose in the 1990s in part catalyzed by the actions of former President Bill Clinton. During his first term in office, Clinton signed the Brady Act and Assault Weapons Ban into law, prompting many to take up arms to protect their First Amendment right, and, most significantly, his FBI raided the Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center ranch near Waco, Texas. The raid’s 51-day standoff ultimately concluded when a member of the Branch Davidians set fire to the compound, killing 76 people inside, including the sect’s leader David Koresh. The Waco Siege is seen by many to be the starting point of a seditious movement within the United States, especially since it motivated the devastating bombings in Oklahoma City two years later. The perpetrator of these attacks, Timothy McVeigh — a known militia sympathizer — bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in revenge for the FBI’s Waco Siege. Between these two highly interconnected events, 255 people were killed.
From here there began a series of militia-led terrorist attacks on American soil. Later, in 1996, a group of self-designated militiamen named the “Montana Freemen” launched an 81-day long armed standoff with the FBI after the group refused to pay taxes, be subject to the US government and attempted to set up their own state. One year later, one faction of the Republic of Texas militia kidnapped a couple and held them hostage in an attempt to “free” Texas from its occupation by the United States. This hostage crisis ended peacefully, but another faction of the militia survived this event to go onto be convicted of plotting to assassinate high-ranking officials, including the president of the United States. These high-profile events meant that for much of the decade, Americans primarily directed their fears of terrorist attacks towards those who lived amongst them and took part in militias.
This all changed when 9/11 occurred: Militia movements largely began to decrease in number and were overshadowed by the threat of foreign terrorism. But this lull has not lasted, and recently militia groups have once again been growing at an incredible rate. Between 2008 and 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there has been a 755 percent increase in the number of militia groups: six years ago there were approximately 149 militias and, by 2011, that number had jumped to 1,274. Some attribute this jump to the election of a black man to the presidency and the “decreasing populations of Americans of European decent.” Others attribute it to the economic downturn and the perceived notion that the United States is giving into international pressures. Either way, this second wave of the “Militia Movement” has gone largely unnoticed by the media despite many examples of attacks just foiled in time by law enforcement.
In 2003, a member of the New Jersey Militia planned with a compatriot in Texas to release chemical agents across the United States, hoping to kill thousands. To do so, as was found at the time of their arrest, they had in their possession hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, acetic acid, a sodium-cyanide bomb, hundreds of explosives, 500,000 rounds of ammunition and numerous illegal firearms. They planned to use numerous fake IDs to gain access to high-profile buildings and sites, as well as to avoid the police. The potential for destruction was absolutely horrific, and it is safe to assume that, if their plan had been successful, possibly thousands of lives would have been tragically taken.
Another dangerous militia-planned terrorist attack took place in the sleepy city of Toccoa, Georgia. A group of four men planned in 2011 to release the biological agent ricin across the highway interstate system between major US cities, assassinate public officials and detonate explosives at government buildings. Two were convicted in 2012 on explosives and weapons charges, while the other two were convicted this month on possession and conspiring to possess biological toxins. The Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention both classify ricin as a “schedule 1 controlled substance,” whose only purpose is for weaponization. The goal of this group was unclear, other than the fact that they feared government overreach and wanted revolution. Their goals of mass murders, bombings, assassinations and chemical warfare may seem farfetched, but they had a great amount of potential for destruction. One of the culprits is quoted by the New York Times as saying, “I’d say the first ones that need to die is the ones in the government buildings,” after one of his comrades conducted research on the IRS and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives local federal buildings in order to plan attacks there.
As recently as this year, a group of Georgia militia men attempted to build pipe bombs and were encouraged by fellow members “to review guerilla warfare tactics and small unit tactics, accumulate supplies, and prepare their families” in apprehension of an insurrection and possible war against the government. In addition, people connected to the militia were arrested attempting to cross the border into Canada with pipe bombs, similarly motivated towards acts of terror. These are just some of the many terrorist plots and attacks, including a planned bombing of an MLK Day parade, that have occurred in recent years.
Since 9/11, domestic terrorism has stayed out of the public eye. Once one of the most pressing issues in American discourse, it has fallen to the backburner. The consequences of our blissful ignorance of the dangers of homegrown terrorism could be immense if one of these attacks should slip through law enforcement. Terrifyingly, militiamen have been able to secure access to CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear) weapons with the intent of using them against the American public, only to be stopped at the last moment. Police and federal agents have successfully foiled these, despite Americans’ apathy and general lack of attention.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.