The FBI has long maintained that Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 168 lives, was the prototypical "lone wolf" terrorist and that anyone implicated in the bombing conspiracy is behind bars. But old loose ends and troubling new revelations about McVeigh's association with white supremacist groups have led many people to wonder whether a wider conspiracy was behind the bombing that took place just over 10 years ago. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, is considering holding hearings to try to answer these lingering questions. What he is likely to discover is not a disagreement over the facts, but a fundamental misperception of how most extremist groups operate.
Most people have never been to a Ku Klux Klan rally or a militia meeting; you don't stumble into one by walking through the wrong door at the dentist's office. Chances are, you wouldn't know how to find where a white supremacist group meets in your community. In fact, you'd probably be shocked to learn that there was one in your community.
I learned how extremist groups operate firsthand as an FBI undercover agent assigned to fight domestic terrorism. They don't always call themselves the KKK or the militia; they sometimes use benign names that mask their true nature. They might wear Nazi symbols right on their sleeves, but they might not. They could be just a couple of grumpy old geezers who meet for coffee at a local cafe, or a few young punks looking for trouble, or even one guy sitting in his basement chatting on neo-Nazi Web sites. But they are all part of an underground extremist community.
Even if you could find them, they wouldn't just welcome you into a meeting. They tend to be suspicious of strangers. They use coded language and symbols that help them distinguish insiders from the uninitiated, and they are careful to avoid infiltrators.
But every once in a while, a follower of these movements bursts violently into our world, with deadly consequences -- McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Buford Furrow Jr., Paul Hill, to name just a few. And all these convicted murderers were identified as "lone extremists," the most difficult terrorists to stop because they act independently from any organization.
Or do they?
Tim McVeigh seemed able to find a militia meeting wherever he went. He was linked to militia groups in Arizona and Michigan, white supremacist groups in Oklahoma and Missouri, and at gun shows he sold copies of "The Turner Diaries," a racist novel written by the founder of a neo-Nazi organization. No one finds such groups by accident. Eric Rudolph, who planted bombs at the Atlanta Olympics, two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub, grew up in the Christian Identity movement, which identifies whites as God's chosen people and encourages the faithful to follow the biblical example of Phineas by becoming instruments of God's vengeance. Aryan Nations, formerly of Hayden Lake, Idaho, was a center of Christian Identity thought; not incidentally, Buford Furrow worked there as a security guard before going on a shooting rampage at a Jewish day-care center in Southern California. Paul Hill wrote of the need to take "Phineas actions" to prevent abortions and was so well known that the news media used him to speak in support of Michael Griffin's killing of abortion doctor David Gunn. That Hill later shot an abortion provider himself should have surprised no one.
The fact that these individuals, after being exposed to extremist ideology, each committed violent acts might lead a reasonable person to suspect the existence of a wider conspiracy. Imagine a very smart leader of an extremist movement, one who understands the First Amendment and criminal conspiracy laws, telling his followers not to depend on specific instructions.
He might tell them to divorce themselves from the group before they commit a violent act; to act individually or in small groups so that others in the movement could avoid criminal liability. This methodology creates a win-win situation for the extremist leader -- the violent goals of the group are met without the legal consequences.
Actually, there's no need to imagine this. Extremist group leaders produce a tremendous amount of literature, including training manuals on "leaderless resistance" and lone wolf terrorism techniques. These manuals have been around for years and now they're even available online.
"Lone extremism" is not a phenomenon; it's a technique, a ruse designed to subvert the criminal justice system. McVeigh did act as a lone extremist, as the FBI says. He was trained to do it this way. But his act of lone extremism was part of an ongoing conspiracy that continues to inspire violent attacks to this day, and to close our eyes to this conspiracy is to deny reality. It's a matter of connecting the dots.
As an image takes shape, remember that these aren't the type of conspiracies cooked up by a few guys in a back room. But they are conspiracies nonetheless because they involve conscious discussions, decisions and encouragement for others to break the law by destroying property or taking lives.
Just six weeks ago self-avowed white supremacist Sean Gillespie was convicted of firebombing an Oklahoma City synagogue. According to a CNN report by Henry Schuster, "Gillespie said he once had been a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, but later left the group. At the time of his arrest, he told authorities that he was a racist skinhead, acting on his own." But before the attack, he videotaped himself, stating, "I will film it for your viewing enjoyment, my kindred. White power!" If he's all alone, who are his kindred?
Neo-Nazi ideology is also a leading influence in rising school violence. The March 21 shooting at Minnesota's Red Lake High School was carried out by a Native American teen who praised Adolf Hitler and used the name "NativeNazi" in Internet chat rooms. And the shooters at Colorado's Columbine High School reportedly greeted each other with Nazi salutes and chose Hitler's birthday as the date of their attack. But you rarely hear these incidents described as acts of domestic terrorism.
While the FBI is right to distinguish between hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, and hate crimes, it should not ignore the larger conspiracy simply because the leaders of these groups have devised a method of masking their influence. The murderous destruction of another race is a crime, not a political platform. By providing both the motive and method for violence, these leaders become part of the conspiracy. Their cynical reliance on First Amendment rights, which they would not grant others, does not negate their role.
Increasingly, judges and juries are showing that they can see through this charade. Matt Hale, a lawyer and former leader of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator, was convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge despite carefully choosing his words to appear as if he was not giving an order: ". . . if you wish to, uh, do anything yourself, you can."
Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center has had great success suing white supremacist groups in civil court on behalf of the victims of racial violence. These lawsuits have virtually bankrupted the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance and forced the sale of compounds once owned by the Aryan Nations and Church of the Creator. Civil actions take advantage of a lower burden of proof and are often better at fracturing these organizations than criminal prosecutions. But the government doesn't need to rely on private organizations to do this work. The Justice Department can bring civil suits, as it often does in white-collar crime and environmental crimes cases. Why not do the same in domestic terrorism cases?
Bringing to justice everyone directly responsible for acts of violence is important, but unmasking the full conspiracy is even more important from the standpoint of preventing terrorism. Lone extremists pose a challenge for law enforcement because they are difficult to predict. It's like searching every haystack for a needle. Perhaps we'd have better luck if we paid more attention to the needle factories. This is especially true now that militant Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda are adopting the model of leaderless resistance that our homegrown terrorists mastered so well.
Mike German was an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism from 1988 to 2004.