UPDATE: October 3, 2014 Robert Talbot, Jr.—who was arrested in March after the FBI had closely tracked his alleged scheme to launch a violent “American Insurgent Movement,” including alleged plans to kill police officers, rob armored cars, and blow up mosques—will appear in federal court Friday. In light of his re-arraignment hearing, we are re-posting an April story detailing Talbot’s largely-online efforts to corral a right-wing rebellion, and the FBI’s undercover plot to catch him.
Robert James Talbot, Jr. woke up on the morning of March 27 ready to carry out the plan he’d allegedly been concocting for months. He drove to a storage facility in Houston, Texas where he met the three other members of “Operation Liberty.” According to a criminal complaint filed against him, Talbot had recruited his teammates via a Facebook group called the American Insurgent Movement to help him rob armored cars; the first phase of his larger scheme to kill police officers and blow up mosques and government buildings. Talbot allegedly provided his team with detailed maps of the financial institution he wanted to target, and escape routes for best avoiding law enforcement. He put two Composition 4, or C4, plastic explosive devices in his black backpack and asked one of his team members to read a “manifesto” he’d brought with him.
“We must rebel. There is no other option,” it read, according to the complaint. “Blood and bullets are the only two things that will change this world, short of divine action.”
On his way to carry out the robbery, Talbot was arrested by an FBI SWAT team.
Unbeknownst to the 38-year-old Talbot, he’d been the subject of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation since August, 2013. The people he’d recruited to be a part of his team were a pair of undercover FBI agents and a civilian informant.
While the words “terrorism” and “insurgent” often conjure thoughts of Islamic extremism, the majority of domestic terrorist attacks in the United States over the past two decades have been carried out by right-wing radicals. According to data compiled last year by the liberal website ThinkProgress from the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, right-wing extremists have been responsible for 56 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots since in the U.S. the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. 12 percent have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists.
Before a federal judge, Talbot—who reportedly wore the green fatigues and brown “American Insurgent Movement” t-shirt he was arrested in—was charged Friday with attempting to interfere with commerce via robbery, solicitation to commit a violent crime, and possession of an explosive material. Talbot faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted of the attempted robbery charge alone. Each of the remaining charges carry an additional 10 years and $100,000.
According to the complaint against him, the FBI began investigating Talbot in August 2013 after he unwittingly met with an unnamed informant and allegedly expressed his desire to rob banks and use that money to equip his “resistance” group with weapons with which they would kill law enforcement.
Over the next eight months, the FBI complaint alleges, Talbot set his plan into motion: He created a Facebook group titled “American Insurgent Movement” or “AIM.” He described it as “a Pre-Constitutionalist Community that offers those who seek True patriotism and are looking for absolute Freedom by doing the Will of God. Who want to restore America Pre-Constitutionally and look forward to stopping the Regime with action by bloodshed.”
According to the FBI, Talbot continued to meet and chat online with the informant. Talbot asked whether the informant would be ready to quit his job to start robbing banks; ordered him to start staking out Bank of America and Chase bank locations that they might be able to hit; and suggested he prepare mentally for killing people by watching violent war movies.
Talbot also started engaging with undercover FBI agents, both online and in person. He was eager to start robbing banks, he allegedly told two undercover agents at a restaurant in Katy, Texas on January 30. That way, he could get the money he needed for better weapon and equipment to kill law enforcement agents and government officials in Washington, D.C.
Talbot’s Facebook posts started to take on a sense of urgency as well. On January 30, according to the complaint, Talbot posted on the AIM page that “Liberty movement starts this summer for those who are up for anything. Email the admin if your [sic] interested in walking away from your life (we have weapons if you need a weapon) to stop the Regime. We always will be recruiting…”
But by February 9, Talbot had narrowed his search to “ONLY ex-military or self-trained men who trained in guerrilla warfare and understand war/battle to the fullest. I cannot take someone whom [sic] doesn’t understand what war/battle is or like,” he posted on Facebook, according to the complaint. “I don’t need someone freezing up when bullets are whizzing past there [sic] head and jeopardize the rest of the team. I can train you, but I have no time to put that much effort into someone mentally to handle blood and killing.”
At 1:30 a.m. on January 12, Talbot was arrested for driving while intoxicated. According to court documents, he was sentenced to one year of probation. More than a month later, the FBI complaint alleges, Talbot met with the two undercover agents in person and informed them that he wanted to kill the state trooper who arrested him. He had a plan to ambush the trooper at night, the complaint states, and then wait for more police officers to arrive as back up and kill them as well. He also allegedly said he wanted to kill his probation officer.
Mid-March, the FBI alleges, Talbot told the undercover agents that he had been researching how to create shaped charges, explosives shaped to penetrate armored steel. Talbot allegedly asked the agents to get Composition 4 (C4) plastic explosives for him and to hide them in a storage facility rented under a fake name. He planned to use the C4 explosives to make shaped changes with which he could penetrate armored car doors. He also requested from the agents at least six hand grenades, one of which he said he would tape to the armored car driver’s door in order to kill the driver and keep the vehicle from driving off during their heist.
In the week leading up to Talbot’s arrest, the complaint claims, he was observed staking out multiple banks and financial institutions around Houston, surveying with binoculars from his car from various vantage points and following an armored car to learn its driver’s routine. On March 22, he allegedly sent the undercover agents $500 via Money Gram—money that the FBI says was placed in evidence—in order to purchase the illegal explosives he asked for.
On March 24, Talbot, who has been identified in local news reports as “a laborer,” told the informant via text message that he quit his job. The complaint states that when asked by one of the undercover officers whether he was serious about going through the with armed robbery planned for the 27th, Talbot said, “I didn’t quit my job for shi**• and giggles.”
For someone who allegedly advertised his own terrorism plot online, Talbot has virtually no personal Internet footprint. According to one local Houston news report, the Batavia, New York native had been living in some sort of boarding house. Terry Denny, a man who lived in the same boarding house, told KPRC-TV in Houston, that Talbot spent a lot of his time watching anti-government videos and claiming that he kept a stash of weapons in New York.
“I believe this kid was as savvy or maybe more savvy than Timothy McVeigh, honestly I do. If he had a Terry Nichols with him, who knows what he would do?” Denny was quoted saying.
Whether Talbot had a Terry Nichols—or any accomplice not secretly working against him—also remains unknown. Philip Gallagher, the federal public defender representing Talbot, declined to comment for this story as he is “still investigating this matter.”
What is clear from the American Insurgent Movement Facebook page, is that whoever created it identifies with a wide-range of radical, right-wing, anti-government beliefs often ascribed to “Patriotism.” In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1274 active “Patriot” groups in the United States. While they vary slightly across the country, they are almost all united in their disdain for (and fear of) federal government control over everything from their money to their health care to their guns. Posts on the AIM page proclaim the gamut of fears, from “police departments oath keepers being laid off and replaced with bilingual foreign soldiers” to President Obama giving himself the authority “to seize all of your assets.”
“Do you have what it takes to become an insurgent? Are you sick of tyranny and your line has been over crossed?” a post from March 25 on the AIM Facebook page reads. “Do you feel like your being watched or already in chains? Do you have nothing to lose? Then AIM is for you join Operation Liberty. Regardless of your history we have supplies and weapons to provide after you join.”
The SPLC notes that Talbot’s alleged plans resembled the 1984 armored car burglary and assassination of a Jewish radio host in Denver by a white nationalist group called The Order. The biggest difference between the two, the SPLC writes, is that “Talbot talked about some of his planned crimes on Facebook, the complaint says, while The Order committed murders, robbed armored cars, and carried out a number of other attacks.”
In court, Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Ferko asserted that she has no doubt Talbot would have carried out his plans if given the chance.
“I would say he had the will. He was absolutely determined,” she said, comparing him to a tortoise: “slow and steady.”