The difficulties came into focus Sunday when Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran with ties to “white power” groups, opened fire in a Wisconsin Sikh temple. The FBI and watchdog organizations had known of Page, according to reports, but had not viewed him as a threat before the massacre, which took six lives and ended with Page’s death. (Despite earlier reports that police had gunned down Page during the rampage, the FBI disclosed Wednesday that he had shot himself in the head after being struck by police gunfire.)
Authorities are still investigating the shooting at the temple and have not released a motive. But the episode has reignited questions about the nation’s monitoring of domestic terrorist threats and raised fears of more attacks.
“Over the last 10 years, the United States has faced a major threat from jihadists linked with al-Qaeda,” said Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst who tracks extremist Web sites. “But you can’t leave all your defenses down to other threats, and there’s no doubt been an explosion in growth in right-wing hate groups in the last four or five years.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups has risen by 65 percent since 2000. There were 148 “patriot groups,” such as the one that gave rise to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, at the end of 2008, according to the organization’s count. That number, which includes armed militias, had risen to 1,274 in 2011.
Analysts say the increase is partly a response to the economic downturn, which has fed conspiracy theories about the potential collapse of the U.S. monetary system, as well as the election of the nation’s first African American president.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI say they have a robust program aimed at rooting out homegrown threats. Last month in Florida, more than a dozen members of the neo-Nazi group American Front were charged in connection with an alleged plot to fight a “race war.” The charges grew out of a two-year FBI domestic terrorism investigation, according to local news reports.
But experts say law enforcement has struggled with a number of challenges, both practical and political.
Investigators are hindered by laws that protect civil liberties but prevent them from tracking people engaged in hateful speech unless there is a possible or suspected crime.
“No matter how offensive to some, we are keenly aware that expressing views by itself is not a crime and the protections afforded under the Constitution cannot be compromised,” said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman.