A Most Dangerous Profile: The Loner
By Roberto Suro
Federal investigators believe that Rudolph, who has been charged in the Jan. 29 bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic and is wanted for questioning about several other bombings, is representative of a new and dangerous sort of home-grown terrorist. A still-classified Justice Department report describes the type as "individuals who are inspired by, but not affiliated with, terrorist groups, thus making them harder to identify and stop."
This newly developed profile -- inspired by convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh -- is the product of a federal law enforcement apparatus increasingly concerned about how to combat domestic terrorism that officials now believe is most likely to be carried out by loners like Rudolph.
"We are seeing three, four, five new cases every year of people who have links to white supremacist groups, who talk the race-hating, anti-government rhetoric, and who ended up plotting or committing violent acts," said Robert M. Blitzer, head of the FBI's domestic counterterrorism section. "These are usually rootless guys with a high level of frustration in their lives who go out on their own. They have access to firearms and explosives and are prepared to use them. For us, it is a real challenge to stay ahead of them."
These solitary actors, though few in number, are now considered the most dangerous domestic terrorists, according to FBI and Justice Department officials, who continue to struggle with a key question: Are they lone wolves who need no outside guidance or the instruments of someone else's political agenda?
"There is a definite increase in acts of violence committed either by a single individual or very small coteries of people who operate without any central direction," said Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University and expert on domestic radicals.
"This is becoming a major problem for law enforcement because, unless the authorities are very watchful or very lucky, these people go unnoticed until they have done something," said Barkun, who has served as an occasional adviser to the FBI.
Americans whose politics might lead them to violence have not posed a significant, nationwide challenge to federal authorities since the 1970s, when the perceived threat came from radical leftists. But ever since newspaper articles about right-wing militia activities first raised alarms at the Justice Department in the summer of 1994, counterterrorism has become one of the fast-growing sectors of federal law enforcement.
Added resources aimed at both domestic and international threats now include a new interagency command center, joint response teams with local officials in most major cities, nearly 1,000 new FBI agents and nearly $200 million for a proposed Justice Department counterterrorism fund that would go toward training and equipping local police and emergency services.
After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Attorney General Janet Reno issued revised guidelines on domestic terrorism investigations, granting federal law enforcement officers greater authority to open cases, recruit informants and use other aggressive investigative techniques. Justice Department officials say they loosened the rules out of concern that the FBI would be overly cautious in responding to what they identified as a major new threat.
The FBI's reluctance stemmed from the memory of the scandal surrounding its improper and sometimes illegal efforts to disrupt the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s while supposedly investigating national security threats. As a result, the FBI wanted clear directions before it again made a major commitment to combating domestic terrorism, a senior department official said.
At every step of the counterterrorism buildup that has followed, federal officials have had to ask themselves whether there were larger conspiracies behind criminal acts or whether such deeds were merely the work of an individual or a small group operating autonomously.
In the Oklahoma City bombing case, it took the largest criminal investigation ever mounted by the federal government to frame charges blaming the attack on McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols; after their federal convictions, a state probe is still looking into allegations of a wider plot.
The McVeigh investigation has influenced the law enforcement view of domestic terrorism, some experts said, which initially focused on highly visible groups with readily identifiable leaders, like the militias, but is now focused increasingly on individuals.
"Once the FBI realized that the militia movement did not bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City, it had to come to terms with a more complex idea of how social movements develop and accept the fact that they are not always dealing with groups that operate with clear lines of authority," said Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates, an organization that monitors militias and other groups.
The "Army of God," for example, is a name that has been associated with antiabortion violence back to at least 1982. The name has also appeared in at least one bomb-making manual, according to federal officials. Letters signed by the "Army of God" claimed responsibility for the Jan. 29 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic although only Rudolph has been charged in that crime and investigators believe he acted alone. Similar letters were received following two 1997 bombings in Atlanta. Rudolph is wanted for questioning in those attacks as well as for the blast in Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics.
Federal investigators suspect that the "Army of God" exists not as an actual organization in this case but was invoked by Rudolph to represent the ideas and possibly the people who inspired him.
FBI officials say Rudolph learned the radical ideology of the Christian Identity movement as a teenager, living with his mother as part of the "Church of Israel," a congregation based in the Missouri Ozarks that espouses the view that the white race is God's chosen nation. Federal investigators said Rudolph maintained contact with other Christian Identity groups in recent years and also appears to have been in contact with the Aryan Nations, the Idaho-headquartered organization that has periodically spawned violent offshoots and which federal officials say has recently sought to exert its influence over the militia movement.
If Rudolph's alleged plan for terror had been known to anyone in these groups it has remained a secret, and federal officials concede they have no leads linking him to any other individuals.
"Unless someone comes forward and tells us something, how do we identify an individual like this before he commits a crime and leaves clues behind?" said Blitzer. "That is a very big question for us, and it is not a question I can answer."
Federal law enforcement agencies have scored a series of successes in the past two years against groups that were either planning or had conducted acts of politically motivated violence, but virtually every case has been broken when an individual became concerned enough to tip off the authorities.
The case of Dennis McGiffen, who pleaded guilty in April to federal gun charges in East St. Louis, Ill., illustrates how difficult it can be to trace lines of authority even when investigators believe they have exposed a conspiracy.
Citing conversations secretly tape-recorded by an informant, federal prosecutors alleged that McGiffen organized a terrorist cell of five men in southern Illinois that called itself "The New Order."
A 35-year-old pipefitter, McGiffen was known as the leader of a Ku Klux Klan faction in the early 1990s but does not appear to have engaged in criminal activity. He allegedly told his recruits that he had become a colonel in the Aryan Nations and, according to federal law enforcement officers, he not only adopted the Aryan Nations' anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-government ideology, but also learned his tactics from the group.
McGiffen has claimed in court documents that his terrorist plans were merely drunken boasts. But federal investigators say his dream was to provoke a race war, and he allegedly had a precise plot: robbing banks in order to finance the operation, bombing the offices of Jewish organizations and assassinating civil rights figures. McGiffen held meetings with top Aryan Nations officials while he was enlisting recruits and allegedly collecting an arsenal that included automatic weapons, according to federal investigators. But they are still trying to determine what relationship, if any, existed between McGiffen's New Order and the Aryan Nations. FBI officials now believe that McGiffen, and perhaps Rudolph as well, are examples of what right-wing radicals have dubbed "leaderless resistance."
A widely circulated tract by Louis Beam, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who is now called the "ambassador-at-large of the Aryan Nations," advises that "it is time to rethink traditional strategy and tactics when it comes to opposing state tyranny." Beam's essay warns that federal investigators can easily penetrate groups with a clear chain of command. As an alternative, Beam instructs "patriots" that "it becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done. . . . No one need issue an order to anyone. Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when they feel the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them."
Beam concludes, "It goes almost without saying that Leaderless Resistance leads to very small or even one-man cells of resistance."
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