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Bad Economy May Fuel Hate Groups, Experts Warn
Experts Warn That Downturn Could Drive Discontent, Help Extremists Recruit

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

For 20 years, Bart McIntyre has tracked white supremacist movements, even spending two years undercover in Alabama to penetrate a violent young band of criminals who called themselves the Confederate Hammerskins.

Away from his wife and young daughter, McIntyre took the alias "Mark," attended Ku Klux Klan rallies and educated himself in racist propaganda. He and a law enforcement partner ultimately helped build criminal cases that sent more than 10 men to prison for their involvement in the murder and vicious beatings of black men in the Birmingham area in the early 1990s.

Now, as McIntyre prepares to retire from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he and other analysts are warning that the threat from hate groups and splinter organizations connected to the Klan should not be underestimated, especially at a time of economic unrest.

"In society, you have a very small number of people who are going to push the envelope and take it to the next step," said McIntyre, the resident ATF agent in charge in Roanoke.

Veteran investigators say they have advocated for increased attention to the problem since late September, when the nation's economic troubles widened, giving white supremacists a potent new source of discontent to exploit among potential recruits.

The number of U.S. hate groups has increased by 48 percent, to 888, since 2000, according to experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an independent organization that monitors racist movements.

Although questions persist about the ability of such groups to carry out violent plans, several recent national developments have combined to worry analysts, said Mark Potok, chief of the law center's Intelligence Project. In addition to the economic downturn, he cited rising immigration, demographic changes that predict whites will not be a majority within a few decades, and what some might see as "the final insult -- a black man in the White House."

The election of Barack Obama, who will become the first African American president when he is inaugurated Jan. 20, prompted a short-term burst of hateful incidents including racist graffiti, cross burnings and violence from New York to California, according to news reports and criminal indictments. On Wednesday, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn indicted three Staten Island men on hate crimes charges, alleging that they assaulted black residents "in retaliation for President-elect Barack Obama's election victory."

Last week, intelligence officials assessing security threats to Obama's inauguration found no evidence of an organized plot, although they expressed concerns about "individuals on the extremist fringe of the white supremacist movement" who might see the event as an ideal time to make a powerful statement.

Law enforcement officials declined to discuss the impact of Obama's victory, but several recent criminal cases investigated by the FBI and the ATF touch on the issue. In Tennessee, two young men -- one with ties to the Southern White Alliance, an offshoot of the Imperial Klans of America -- were arrested in October and charged with conspiring to threaten and kill African Americans. Daniel G. Cowart and Paul M. Schlesselman carried a short-barreled shotgun, a .357-caliber handgun and cases of ammunition across state lines as part of the alleged plot.

Authorities say the men planned to overtake a predominately African American school, kill scores of people, and then attempt a drive-by attack on Obama while wearing white top hats and tails, according to government court filings. Cowart and Schlesselman have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bond until their trial.

"They sound crazy, like a really bad movie -- Quentin Tarantino gone awry," Potok said. "You listen to that, and you say, 'In a hundred thousand years, they never would have reached Obama.' But the reality is, they might have walked into a black high school and killed 20, 30, 40 people before anybody knew who they were."

Last month, federal prosecutors in Roanoke lodged new criminal charges against William A. White, a prominent young movement leader who calls himself the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party. White sent letters laced with racial epithets and swastikas to the homes of black tenants involved in a housing discrimination lawsuit, according to the seven-count indictment. He also posted threats on his Web site, Overthrow.com, and in Internet chat rooms visited by white supremacy supporters, authorities said.

Shortly before he was taken into custody in mid-October, White posted on his Web site a photo of Obama "with cross-hairs taking the form of a swastika" over his face, according to a sworn statement by FBI special agent Maureen E. Mazzola in the bureau's Chicago field division. White had solicited $10,000 that would have allowed him to print 20,000 copies of the image and distribute them in 14 "major drops" before the November election, Mazzola reported.

White is one of many hate crime suspects who have used the Internet to connect with like-minded people, said Jim Cavanaugh, a 34-year veteran of the ATF. Cavanaugh said he based his observations on long experience, not any specific pending cases.

"These three things -- the Internet, immigration and the economic crisis -- that is the molten mixture for these guys," said Cavanaugh, who leads the ATF's Nashville office. "That is the furnace of hate. As we speak, this is happening."

In recent years, the racist hate movement has veered away from large-scale, Klan-type gatherings as many of its most prominent leaders died, went to prison or buckled under personal and financial troubles, according to scholar Brian Levin. Instead, followers come together online at Web sites such as Stormfront.org, which attracts an estimated 150,000 registered users who view instruction manuals, learn movement history and exchange stories.

The Stormfront site allows users to share information about birthdays, dating preferences and "white nationalist demonstrations," as well as self-defense tips. One recent day a headline about Jewish fund manager Bernard Madoff, the alleged mastermind of a $50 billion Ponzi investment scheme, ran across the top of the site.

"The number of real, hard-core hate-mongers is quite low," added Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. "The major risk is some splintered part of a hate group or an unstable person who uses the Internet to identify methods, targets, timing and opportunity."

One of the ATF's biggest recoveries came in 2007, when agents arrested seven members of a group calling itself the Alabama Free Militia.

A government informant met a militia member at a flea market, infiltrated the group and eventually reported that he saw grenades in a member's home. The group allegedly stockpiled weapons while planning to attack a group of Latino residents near Birmingham. Ultimately, authorities seized 130 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The trailer home of one suspect was booby-trapped with tripwires and hand grenades, according to law enforcement agents.

All seven men have pleaded guilty.

The FBI reported in October that the number of hate crime incidents dropped last year by a little more than 1 percent, to 7,624. But violence against Latinos and gay people slightly bucked the downward trend, bureau officials said.

At the same time, according to the Anti-Defamation League, "most sections of the country have seen a significant and troubling resurgence of racist skinhead activity" over the past five years.

The trick for investigators, the ATF's Cavanaugh said, is separating hateful words from impending violence. "They all hate, they all go to rallies, but for the most part, most of them will not go out and plant a bomb or shoot," he said. "Maybe four or five out of 100 will go out and do that. The hard part for us is to sort out the free speech and find the person who's really going to make a bomb or shoot someone."

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