Stopping the Next McVeigh

Neo-Nazis took to the streets in Arizona and Minnesota this weekend, a new boldness that officials say echoes the homegrown terrorism of the 1990s. James Verini talks to the extremists leading the charge.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

A year after President Obama's election, hate groups are feeling bolder than they have in over a decade, and their usually insular anger is beginning to spill into the public realm. This weekend, the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization, held rallies in Arizona and Minnesota. Those demonstrations came on the heels of similar actions in Southern California, where epithet-spewing white supremacists were forced to disband by rock-throwing counter-protesters. The upsurge in visibility is more than anecdotal—law-enforcement officials are monitoring levels of agitation among extremist groups that they say are the highest since Timothy McVeigh’s deadly attack in Oklahoma City nearly 15 years ago.

The outcries of right-wing tea-partiers, death panellers, birthers, and the like are accompanied by increased activity all along the paranoid fringe.

“It’s sort of a beehive now,” says James Cavanaugh, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Cavanaugh was one of the agents at the standoff at David Koresh’s Waco, Texas, compound in 1993 (which McVeigh timed his terrorist act to commemorate, two years later, on April 19, 1995). Last October in Tennessee, Cavanaugh aided in the arrest of two white supremacists charged with plotting to assassinate Obama, and in 2007 he helped bring down members of the Alabama Free Militia, who were found with hundreds of hand- and rifle grenades and other explosives. The arrests had an unsettling familiarity. “We haven’t had that kind of activity since the 1990s,” Cavanaugh says.

“We believe there is a real resurgence,” adds Lieutenant David Hall, director of the Missouri Information Analysis Center, which tracks antigovernment extremist groups around the Midwest. “The atmosphere is ripe.”

So where might another McVeigh—or worse—spring from?

Experts on extremist groups say that the outcries of right-wing tea-partiers, death panellers, birthers, and the like are accompanied by increased activity all along the paranoid fringe—from radical border-patrol groups to skinheads to sovereign citizens. Two camps are particularly restive: militia enthusiasts and white supremacists; their members are seething because of the persistence of two wars and the election of a black (and Democratic) president with an ambitious agenda. The previous upsurge of antigovernment activity in the 1990s—of which McVeigh’s attack marked the apex—was set off in part by a recession and the election of a liberal president.

The Anti-Defamation League is tracking about 200 militias, up from 50 in 2002, according to Mark Pitcavage, the ADL’s director of fact finding. “The single greatest factor in the agitation is Obama. The extreme right hated George W. Bush. If they hated him, you can imagine how they feel about Obama,” Pitcavage says, adding “I see so many parallels today with 1994.”

To find out more about this, I got in touch with both a recent militia-founder and a prominent white supremacist. First, I called James Ambrose, an Idaho truck driver who last year founded the Idaho Citizens Constitutional Militia. The ICCM is not difficult to find—it’s listed in the “militia contacts” section of the Web site “ A Well Regulated Militia", and his email is listed on ICCM’s site. Ambrose, 34 and unmarried, is a veteran of the Army, in which he served as an artillery specialist, though not in Iraq or Afghanistan. (He was stationed in Korea and Fort Bragg.) He says the ICCM now has 40 members, about half of them veterans. Their “first muster” will be in the spring. In the meantime, Captain Ambrose, as he prefers to be called, and his troops keep in close touch and try to recruit more members.

Ambrose said he started the militia because he “felt something needed to be done with the direction the government has taken. Not in the sense that we’d ever go to war with government, but I felt Idaho should have a militia. It was the strongest statement I could make.” I asked him what he meant. “I formed it to defend Idaho if it wants to secede. If Idaho decides it no longer wants to be part of the United States, we back that decision.” Why would Idaho want secede? “I think we’re headed in a direction of totalitarianism,” he said. As evidence of this slide Ambrose mentioned George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, and, of course, health-care reform. (“The crazy groups are trying to latch onto the legitimate issues. They exploit them,” the ATF’s Cavanaugh explains.)

Ambrose is also convinced that Obama plans to create a civilian defense force, “funded on the scale of the military,” to keep American citizens in check. “He’s given speeches about it,” Ambrose assured me.

Interestingly, though, Ambrose dismisses out of hand the conspiracy theories about FEMA concentration camps perpetuated by one of his favored news sources, Glenn Beck. (Beck is also a favorite of Nancy Genovese, the mother of three who had posted prolifically on MySpace and Twitter about FEMA concentration camps before she was arrested in August for trespassing on an Air National Guard Base in New York's Long Island—while in possession of an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a videocamera—and of Richard Poplawski, the white supremacist who killed three Pittsburgh police officers in April.)

Like Ambrose, Billy Roper, the head of White Revolution, a fast-growing white-nationalist group, was willing, even eager, to talk to me. White Revolution’s Web site is somewhat rambling and hysterical, promising that “The United States of America was born in bloody revolution, and the multiracial cesspool of squabbling minorities squealing for their slice of the affirmative-action pie and taxpayer provided benefits that it has become will die that way.” But in conversation Roper, 37, a former skinhead and history teacher who now lives with his wife and children and says he raises money for charities (he wouldn’t say which) for a living, is almost unnervingly articulate in conversation.

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There were “two reactions among people of my political stripe,” to Obama’s election, he told me when I reached him on the phone at his home in Arkansas, which was not difficult; his number is listed on White Revolution’s Web site. “The first was panic. The paranoid mind-set was that we’d all be rounded up and put in a gulag. The other reaction was that this will be a wake-up call for people.” Roper situated himself in the second camp. “People are going to become increasingly disenchanted with Obama’s America.”

And that is why Roper is running for president in 2012, which he called a “last-ditch election year” for America. His Nationalist Party of America has completed its platform and is already raising money. “We don’t anticipate winning or even being a spoiler for either party,” Roper admitted, but he intends to add to the debate. (He says he is especially excited about the health-care proposals. They focus on HMO reform.)

“For years, white Americans were just concerned with watching sports and drinking beer and being consumers,” Roper said. “They were like bad puppies. Obama is like the rolled up newspaper smacking their butt. And now they’re baring their teeth. We’re at the stage kind of like the original 13 colonies around 1760. We’re at that awkward stage of the revolution when it’s too late to work within the system and too early to shoot the bastards.”

But Roper observed that any violence against the president would be counterproductive. “Harming Obama would be one of the worst things that could happen to our cause,” he said. “It would lead to the entire weight and power of the government coming down on our heads.”