‘90s-style extremism withers
Three years after foreign terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in the Sept. 11 attacks, Steve Holten left the San Francisco Bay Area, drove east through the Tahoe National Forest, skirted the Truckee River and settled himself in Reno. Here he proclaimed himself a lieutenant colonel of the local chapter of Aryan Nations. He sent an e-mail to area newspapers declaring war on the federal government, the media and the Jews.
But no war came. Holten’s career as a domestic terrorist was short and uneventful. FBI agents promptly arrested him, and a federal grand jury indicted him for transmitting a threatening e-mail. He pleaded guilty and served four months in prison. After getting out he contracted the AIDS virus, and he was rearrested, this time for soliciting a man for sex in a nearby city park.
With shaved head and Nazi lightning-bolt tattoos on his neck, Holten is emblematic of how far the anti-government terrorism movement has sunk in the years since the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Richard Butler was a lion of the movement. He built the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations from a barbed-wire-encircled compound in Hayden, Idaho, into a hate empire. But when he died in September 2004, at age 86, he left a depleted organization with two factions feuding over the detritus.
John Trochmann, once an omnipresent face of hatred for the government, still has the iron-gray beard and fiery eyes from the days when he helped found the Militia of Montana. Today he drives a 13-year-old black Suburban to gun shows in the Pacific Northwest to hawk anti-government pamphlets or sell log cabins to get by. He still believes, but at 64, he doesn’t act.
“9/11,” he said in an interview at his home near Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. “Boy, did it ever change things.”
Though violent extremist groups have been around in America for decades, they surged in the 1990s, a decade of spectacular domestic mayhem -- at a cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho; on a compound outside Waco, Texas; in downtown Oklahoma City. Their heroes were men like Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph.
Today the groups are shadows of themselves, with many of their leaders dead, imprisoned, disillusioned or just inept.
Many observers attribute that to Sept. 11, for diverting the rage of disaffected Americans away from the U.S. government and toward foreigners, and for fueling the subsequent Patriot Act-driven crackdown. Others say the movement began to crumble earlier, when the Y2K disaster, a favorite prediction of conspiracy theorists, failed to materialize.
And part of the collapse may have just been human nature. “Many of the people had such huge egos that they didn’t know how to work together and keep the movement going,” said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at the liberal Political Research Associates think tank who specializes in the study of right-wing networks. “So it basically unraveled.”
In contrast to the 1990s, this decade has seen only a smattering of arrests of isolated plotters, caught before they could act. Syracuse University tracked domestic terrorism prosecutions over the last five years and found them down by 47%. California and Oregon were the leading states for prosecutions in 2006, with eight each.
In some cases those fomenting hate have directed their vitriol at immigration across the Mexican border. There also are environmental and animal-rights extremists, and in the first months after Sept. 11 there was a spike in racial attacks against Muslims.
The Department of Justice recently compiled a summary on foreign and domestic terrorism for 2002 through 2005. They found that 23 of the 24 attacks committed by domestic groups were perpetrated by “special-interest extremists active in the animal-rights and environmental movements”; the other was a white supremacist’s firebombing of a synagogue in Oklahoma City. None was carried out by the traditional anti-government elements popular in the 1990s.
The report was filled with details of plots in three dozen major cases of foreign terrorism operations in the U.S. All drew intense public scrutiny: Jose Padilla was arrested in Chicago, Al Qaeda cells were dispersed in the Pacific Northwest, and in upstate New York half a dozen men were prosecuted for attending an overseas Al Qaeda training camp.
The domestic cases were generally much smaller matters that garnered few headlines and, like the Holten arrest in Reno, did not nearly approach the potential danger posed by foreign conspirators.
The FBI remains vigilant, said Assistant Director John J. Miller, against terrorists of all stripes. “Not every terrorist needs to be linked to an organized group like Al Qaeda to kill the innocent.”
The decade of anti-government terrorism was nearing a close in 1999 as extremists traveled the country and spread messages on the Internet, railing that the Y2K computer glitch was a secret federal operation to shut down the country when the clock ticked past midnight, Dec. 31, 1999. They met at conventions and preparedness expos warning that the nation’s economy would collapse, that Washington politicians and “the Jews” would enrich themselves -- that chaos would follow.
But when the calendar rolled over to 2000 and nothing collapsed, many of their followers turned away.
On June 11, 2001, McVeigh, the man whom many extremists idolized for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, was executed by the federal government. His body count, 168 victims, was the largest at its time, and many of them were government workers. His act seemed unmatchable.
But three months later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden sent four airplanes on suicide missions. With so many more dead, the enemy now from beyond American borders, a patriotic nation galvanized to fight the terrorists abroad.
The aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks also brought stronger law enforcement tools, most notably the Patriot Act, and reinforced FBI field offices with Joint Task Forces to seek and destroy unfolding terrorist plots.
Though hate groups might not be as in-your-face as before, said Mark Pitcavage, investigative research director of the Anti-Defamation League, the FBI and local police continue making arrests.
“We definitely found that 9/11 had one positive aspect,” he said. “It caused us to raise awareness.”
Many extremists contend the Sept. 11 attacks were orchestrated by the government itself in a devious plan to pass the Patriot Act and weaken the 2nd Amendment right to own guns.
Norman “Dave” Somerville, tied to a militia in northern Michigan, armed himself at a small compound with machine guns and ammunition after the attacks. The former Special Forces veteran kept photos of President Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld with rifle-scope cross hairs on their faces.
In fall 2003, authorities arrested him on weapons charges. He is serving an 80-month sentence at a federal prison medical center in Kentucky and will be 55 by the time he gets out. His job is washing dishes. “Prison sucks,” he lamented.
In an interview, he insisted his only crime was not registering his firearms, and he alleged that the government had used Sept. 11 to create public distrust of Americans who challenged authority. It is a common complaint among anti-government conspiracy theorists.
“When it happened, we thought the world was coming to an end. But it was a fraud,” he said. “I’ve seen demolition jobs and how buildings come down. And there’s no way those buildings came down without extra explosives. It was done for purposes of greed, for helping the Jews, for taking over the oil.”
Others have sought to link themselves with foreign terrorists, finding common ground in their hatred of America. Ronald Grecula of Bangor, Pa., tried to arm an Al Qaeda operative with explosives. The operative turned out to be an FBI undercover agent. Grecula was sentenced to five years after a federal judge heard him on the surveillance tapes.
“I have a suitcase full of stuff,” Grecula boasted in an AmeriSuites hotel room in Houston. He compared himself to the slave Spartacus who revolted against the Roman Empire “I have no loyalty for America,” he declared. “This government is the most wicked and worst it has ever been.”
Now at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., Grecula claims he was set up. Yet Grecula, 71, rails on. “I have something to give the world and I’m going to give it to them, whether they like it or not,” he said. “Never give Americans what they want. Give them what they need.”
His rhetoric, he bragged, makes him a bit of a star in prison. “They think I’m a terrorist in here, that I’ll blow up a city where their family lives,” he laughed.
Others, like Holten in Reno, admit mistakes.
“The enemy is still the United States,” he said. But he concedes that his declaration of war was ill-conceived and that perhaps the heyday of the domestic terrorism movement was past.
“I made poor choices,” said Holten, 43.
He pledged to clean up his life but not his style. “I didn’t throw my beliefs in the trash can,” he said.
His attorney, Fredilyn Sison, said Holten never scared her, never fit the profile of a bomb thrower. “I remember he had a sweet mom and he was devoted to her,” she said.
Asked why the movement lost steam, she offered this: “I wonder if they just are mere wannabes. A lot of them are just young and trying to figure out life, you know.”
Perhaps they are like Demetrius Van Crocker, incarcerated in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., until 2030 for attempting to acquire chemical weapons and explosives to destroy government buildings.
Explaining himself in a letter, he said: “I just wanted an M-16 to play with.”
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In the 1990s, domestic terrorists stepped into the spotlight during a decade of spectacular mayhem. Some of the anti-government figures and their fates:
Killed 168 in the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City federal building. Executed in 2001 by the U.S. government.
“Unabomber” killed three and wounded 23 in mail bombings and other blasts. Sentenced in 1998 to life in prison.
Killed two and wounded well over 100 in bombings of abortion clinics, a gay nightclub and the Olympic Games in 1996. Sentenced in 2005 to life in prison.
Los Angeles Times