America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
APOCALYPTIC RELIGIOUS TERRORISM POST-9/11
On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda launched the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil in the nation’s history. The tragedy fundamentally reoriented law enforcement’s approach to terrorism. Understandably, the government focused its resources on identifying and disrupting Al Qaeda cells inside America’s borders to prevent another mass casualty attack. Domestic terrorist groups became a secondary concern, so much so that FBI agent Mike German, who infiltrated white supremacist groups for the agency, resigned in 2005 and became a whistleblower. He gave interviews and wrote columns that attempted to put the terrorism problem in perspective, specifically highlighting the danger still posed by domestic terrorism. An examination of acts of terrorism (and attempted terrorism) on U.S. soil shows that in terms of the number of acts, as opposed to the number of people killed or injured, incidents of American right-wing terrorism far outnumber instances of foreign jihadi terrorism.
More and more terrorism experts have been arguing this point. Among them is journalist Peter Bergen, author of several books on terrorism and one of the only people to interview Osama Bin Laden. In a 2014 article for CNN’s website, cowritten with terrorism expert David Sterman and titled “U.S. Right Wing Extremists More Deadly Than Jihadists,” Bergen wrote,
Since 9/11 extremists affiliated with a variety of far-right wing ideologies, including white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants, have killed more people in the United States than have extremists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology. According to a count by the New America Foundation, right wing extremists have killed 34 people in the United States for political reasons since 9/11… .
By contrast, terrorists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology have killed 21 people in the United States since 9/11… .
Moreover, since 9/11 none of the more than 200 individuals indicted or convicted in the United States of some act of jihadist terrorism have acquired or used chemical or biological weapons or their precursor materials, while 13 individuals motivated by right wing extremist ideology, one individual motivated by left-wing extremist ideology, and two with idiosyncratic beliefs, used or acquired such weapons or their precursors.1
The article was responding to Frazier Glenn Miller’s April 13, 2014, assault on a Kansas City, Missouri, Jewish community center and retirement home. Bergen and Sterman, who research terrorism for the nonpartisan New America Foundation, highlight the fact that Miller shouted “Heil Hitler” after being arrested for his crimes. They then pose an interesting thought experiment in which “instead of shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ after he was arrested, the suspect had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Only two days before the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, this simple switch of words would surely have greatly increased the extent and type of coverage the incident received.”
The double standard highlighted by Bergen and Sterman extends not just to the media but to law enforcement. Consider two recent prosecutions of two different groups of people, one right wing and one (supposedly) jihadist. The first group is the Hutaree Militia, concentrated in southeastern Michigan but with affiliated members throughout the Rust Belt. At the end of March 2010, law enforcement authorities arrested nine of its members on federal “charges of seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosive materials, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence.” Based on information obtained from two undercover informants, the FBI concluded that the Hutarees intended “to ambush and kill a local police officer and then use his or her funeral as a stage for further killings using explosive devices.” One FBI informant, fifty-seven-year-old Dan Murray, infiltrated the Hutarees by attending meetings and earning their trust over time. He, in turn, introduced the next undercover informant, Steven Haug, as his best friend. Haug so convincingly endeared himself to the group’s leader, David Stone, that he served as the best man at Stone’s wedding. Both Murray and Haug surreptitiously recorded Stone making comments like the following: “We need to quit playing this game with these elitist terrorists and get serious because this war will come whether we are ready or not.” Of the scenario targeting police officers Haug recorded Stone as saying, “And if I kill their wives and their children inside, then so be it, because I’m sending a message to the rest of them.”
The government presented evidence that the Hutarees had trained (with Haug) to develop explosives, that they had a “kill list” for potential assassinations, and that they had cached as much as 148,000 rounds of ammunition. The Hutarees’ defense team did an excellent job of challenging much of the government’s case. It pointed out that Hutaree members had never actually detonated an explosive device—only Haug had done so—that the kill list included names of people who were already dead; that the government had selectively excerpted parts of the tape recording to highlight its case; that Murray often tried to bait Stone into making incriminating statements; and that the plans for the attack were defensive in nature, not offensive. This last point is particularly important, as the Hutaree Militia followed the teachings of Christian Identity. The war they referenced in the recordings was a holy race war. Their defense attorneys, as assistant religious studies professor Susan Palmer noted in her study of the case, emphasized the religious dimensions of their militia at trial:
Swor described his client as a firm believer in the Book of Revelation and the rise of the Antichrist. “The anti-Christ as David Stone understands it will come from overseas, and the troops of the anti-Christ will take over America. That is the resistance that David Stone was preparing for.” Swor emphasized the religious purpose of Hutaree training, as “contingency training for the Day of Apocalypse, when the forces of the Antichrist literally—not figuratively, not symbolically, not allegorically—but literally invaded the U.S. and took over the U.S. government and proceeded to impose the will of the Antichrist on the people.” The Hutaree saw themselves as training for that day, Swor noted—but they would never give a date.2
William Swor’s point was twofold: first, to argue that the supposed plotting on the tape was too vague to constitute an actual conspiracy plot (as opposed to “just talk”), and second, to show that the plot was too fantastic to be taken seriously by the government in the first place. U.S. district court judge Victoria Roberts agreed with the defense; she “gutted the government’s case against seven members of a Michigan militia, dismissing the most serious charges in an extraordinary defeat for federal authorities.”3 In her ruling, Roberts asserted that this was a case of free speech: “The court is aware that protected speech and mere words can be sufficient to show a conspiracy. In this case, however, they do not rise to that level.”4 The prosecution had presented evidence that the Hutarees had engaged in dangerous activities and were hostile to the U.S. government, but it had never presented any concrete plan, developed by the Hutarees, for an actual conspiracy, she argued. The government’s case fell apart, and all that remained were convictions for illegal firearms possession against two members; the perpetrators got time served. To add insult to injury, members of the Hutaree Militia subsequently sued the government for damages and won.
Contrast the outcome of the Hutaree Militia case with that of the so-called Newburgh Four, four Muslim men from the working-class Riverdale community in the Bronx, associated with the Masjid al-Ikhlas Mosque in Newburgh, New York. In 2009 the federal government charged them with conspiring to blow up Jewish institutions and to shoot down military aircraft. Taped conversations from an undercover government informant played a key role in the Newburgh trial, much as they had in the Hutaree prosecution. With the blessing of the FBI, Shaheed Hussain, a hotel operator, had built a rapport with one of the four men, forty-two-year-old James Cromite, inside and outside the mosque. After four months, Hussain (falsely) claimed to be a member of a Pakistani terrorist group and made a proposal to Cromite: the group would give Cromite $250,000 if he helped plot a terrorist attack against U.S. interests. Cromite actually ceased contact with Hussain until weeks later, when the former lost his job. At that point, Cromite recruited three other alleged conspirators: David Williams, Onta Williams (no relation), and Laguerre Payen. Veteran journalist and fellow at the Center on National Security Phil Hirschkorn reported that authorities arrested the four men “on May 20, 2009, moments after placing three ‘bombs’ each equipped with 30 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives inside cars parked outside two synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.”5 The explosives, and Stinger missiles also found in the possession of the men, “were duds created by the FBI and made available to the men through Hussain.”
The fact that the men were caught with the materials represented a clear advantage to federal prosecutors, one not enjoyed by the government lawyers in the Hutaree case. But in many other ways, the Newburgh case was far weaker. None of the men involved in the Newburgh conspiracy had any military background or training with explosives, and one clearly suffered from cognitive impairment. Despite the connection to the mosque, none of the men were particularly devout or pious. Hussain failed to record a number of key exchanges with the men, notably his first encounters with Cromite. In one of the recordings, the men actually expressed concern to Hussain about the loss of human life. More than anything, as Hirschkorn points out, Hussain seems to have served more as an agent provocateur than an informant. “Hussain did all the driving on ‘surveillance’ trips. Hussain suggested the targets and the means of attacking them, and then provided the fake weapons to do so. Even when the temple ‘bombings’ went down, it was Hussain, not the Newburgh Four, who turned on the fake detonators.” But an entrapment defense did not work, and the men received mandatory minimum twenty-five-year sentences. Even the district court judge, Colleen McMahon, asserted during sentencing that “The government did not act to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot; there was no plot to foil… . I doubt James Cromite had any idea what a Stinger missile was.”
More than one observer has pointed to the surprising discrepancies between the outcomes in the two cases. Judges in both cases voiced serious reservations about the government’s case, but one did it while throwing out the basis for the government’s charges while the other did it following a jury conviction. But the government’s failure to secure a conviction in the Hutaree case may have as much to do with preconceived notions and ignorance about the history of religious terrorism as it does with free speech. In the Hutaree case, the government presented the religious motivation of the Hutarees but then let defense attorneys dismiss the end-times beliefs of Stone and his followers. Palmer notes how Stone’s lawyer, Swor, “emphasized the ludic, speculative quality of Hutaree battle plans.” She quotes his closing argument:
They liked to sit around and fantasize about their battles in the End Time. Someone suggested that they hire strippers to act as decoys in the future battle with the Devil (that shows you how realistic they were). Mr. Stone was constantly talking about the End Time. All you have to do with Mr. Stone is say ‘Hello’—and he’s off!6
The defense lawyers refer to Stone’s eschatological beliefs as “fantasy.” Here again, a full understanding of radical Christian Identity and its connection to domestic terrorism would have led to the realization that the apocalyptic claims of the Hutarees, far from being fantasies, had factored into countless terrorist attacks and attempted attacks by a variety of American far-right paramilitary groups dating back to the 1960s. The individuals who plotted or carried out these attacks often imagined the same exact scenario offered by David Stone on tape: a small-scale attack followed by provocative acts of violence that would metastasize into something much greater—a holy race war. Ignorance of the past here led to a gross underestimation of the danger.
The double standard regarding prosecuting terrorism in the United States reveals prejudices about which religious faiths are more prone to violence and terrorism. Few experts doubt that the Newburgh conspirators’ Islamic background played a role in their conviction. That is why the defense attorneys in that case did everything to minimize their clients’ piety.
In contrast, the Hutaree Militia attorneys embraced their clients’ Christian devotion (while dismissing concerns about their unusual eschatological beliefs) and won a startling victory. A thought experiment, similar to the one proposed by Bergen, puts an accent on the contradiction. Imagine if the Hutaree group had been a terrorist cell of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) instead of being Christian Identity militants. In an excellent study of the group for a recent article in The Atlantic,7 Graeme Wood outlines the key features of ISIS’s ideology. Its members believe that their legitimacy comes from occupying land governed by strict Sharia law; they believe that the end-times is soon approaching and that the final battle will take place in Syria; and they believe that their soldiers will play an active role in fighting the forces of the Antichrist until Jesus (who is the second-most-important prophet in Islam) vanquishes the enemy and ushers in a paradise. Many experts believe that by publicizing its shocking acts of violence, ISIS hopes to bait the West into invading the Middle East. The group’s interpretation of the end-times in Islam requires an invasion from “Rome,” which could mean the United States. It is not hard to see the parallels to Christian Identity militants, but it is almost impossible to imagine a defense attorney owning up to this comparison, ridiculing it as a fantasy, and leveraging that to convince a federal judge that members of ISIS are not a threat.
Wood’s article enters into dangerous territory when it asserts that a group like ISIS (or Al Qaeda) is “Islamic. Very Islamic” and that it “derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”8 It is true that some leaders of ISIS are devout Muslims whose hyper-literal and orthodox application of Islam and Sharia date back to the late eighteenth century, to an Islamic offshoot known as Salafism. Attempts to minimize this connection by pointing to the large number of young, disaffected rank-and-file members who form the bulk of ISIS’s constituency and appear to be recent converts with little or no familiarity with Islam, misses the point. The degree to which the young foot soldiers are motivated by genuine religious fervor rather than socio-ethnic grievances is irrelevant. If they advance the goals of devout leaders, even obliquely, the result still serves an apocalyptic and religious agenda. This is no different from what happened with skinheads in the 1990s.
It is also true that most Salafis represent a small subset of the Islamic community and that most Salafis are apolitical and nonviolent. But that, by itself, also does not mean that those who do embrace violence are perverting the religion; Islam is not an inherently pacifistic faith. But those in ISIS and Al Qaeda break from long-standing traditions and norms within their faith in a key way: their willingness to excommunicate supposed infidels and apostates in their own community. The concept, known as takfir, involves the expulsion and treatment of those within the Islamic faith who betray its core values; such individuals could be subject to harsh punishments if one takes a literal reading of the Quran and the Hadith. But in the fourteen-hundred-year history of Islam, this kind of excommunication is very rare and is applied only after consensus of a host of scholars and clerics.
In contrast, Al Qaeda and ISIS excommunicate fellow Muslims en masse and seemingly allow just about any ISIS (or Al Qaeda) operative to judge and execute apostates. The process effectively creates thousands of enemies whose presence in the Middle East demands immediate attention and action. Couple that with another relatively new innovation in militant Islamic theology—the idea, spread by Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s mentor, Egyptian theologian Sayyid Qutb , that the West, by promoting materialism and promiscuity, is engaged in a cultural assault on the Muslim community—and one has the core and idiosyncratic basis for militant Salafi jihadism. For the vast majority of Muslims, jihad refers to an internal struggle to become a better believer, not a holy war against external enemies. Muhammad’s words and teachings hold that “Muslims constitute one brotherhood”; that Muslims should not “do injustice” to any fellow Muslim; that they should allow nonbelievers to live in peace if they pay a tax. One seeing a Middle Eastern world where Muslims are the most victimized group by ISIS and Al Qaeda, and where non-Muslims are beheaded or crucified, is wrong to blame Islam for this calamity. It is not by applying Islam that terrorists justify their behavior but by widening the scope of those to whom they do not have to apply Islam—and then creating something like a siege mentality (fears of cultural imperialism) among alienated foot soldiers. Here too one finds echoes of a Wesley Swift, who fundamentally reinterpreted the book of Genesis to move Jews and minorities outside the orbit of Christian concern, who constantly warned of an impending Armageddon to encourage and justify violence against Jews and blacks.
This gets to the heart of the current debate between the Obama administration and its detractors in the military, in the Republican Party, and in conservative media outlets over how to define one’s enemy. Obama has argued that extremists of all religions have perverted their faiths to engage in terrorism; his supporters offer the Ku Klux Klan as an example. The war on terrorism is really a war on extremism, the president has argued. He refuses to say that radical Islam is the root cause of terrorism because that would legitimize extremists. Obama’s critics (even including a few liberals like Bill Maher) imply that there is some fundamental aspect of Islam that accommodates violence in ways that Christianity does not and that defining the “enemy” with the broad term extremist distorts the anti-terrorism campaign in practical ways. They argue that one should not spend resources to combat or undermine extremists of all stripes when the obvious source of terrorism is Islamic radicalism. If the president just says that this is a war on Islamic radicalism, they argue, he will crystalize the objective and focus the nation’s resources accordingly.
In ignoring the legacy of Christian Identity terrorism, both sides risk putting the nation’s security in danger, however. But in pointing out the influence of Christian Identity theology on the history of U.S. terrorism, we do not want to fall into the trap of overgeneralizing. Defining an enemy too broadly is problematic, and the generic example of the Ku Klux Klan illustrates the point. Factions of the KKK undoubtedly were terrorists, but for much of the Klan’s history, Christianity was an ad hoc cover for neo-Confederate, secular terrorism. The Klan used religious imagery—the fiery cross—and quoted scripture, but its members could never fully reconcile their religious veneer with their actual conduct. At the peak of the Klan’s influence, in the revival of the 1920s, it featured Romans 12 as its key passage of scripture, a facade so incongruous with its record of violence that even the FBI ridiculed it in reports.
The very fact that the influence of the KKK ebbed and flowed over its 150-year history shows its secular core. The widely recognized four waves—during Reconstruction, during the 1920s, during the civil rights era, and during the Reagan and first Bush administrations—were all obvious reactions to secular political developments: the expansion of political rights to freed slaves, the influx of foreign immigrants and the migration of blacks to the North, the movement toward racial integration in the South, and the economic dislocation of working-class whites throughout the country, respectively. In contrast, Christian Identity terrorists legitimately saw themselves as warriors in God’s army. From the 1950s on, Christian Identity radicals infiltrated several KKK groups and exploited them for their religious agenda. But that did not happen in all KKK organizations. For example, there is little evidence that the United Klans of America, the largest KKK group in the United States during the civil rights era, was hijacked by Identity radicals; Robert Shelton, the longtime Grand Wizard of the UKA, does not appear to be a Swift follower in any way.
The danger in broadly characterizing all KKK activity as extremist and hence lumping a secular KKK group together with a group like the NSRP is that the two operate differently and require different responses from the government. Most experts on terrorism are careful to distinguish between religious and ethnonationalist terrorists for that very reason. Religious terrorists are more willing to engage in provocative acts of violence, to accept “collateral damage” to civilians, to use “propaganda of the deed,” and to persist in the face of adversity.9 As the waves of KKK history show, secular-nationalist groups tend to die out depending on whether or not they succeed through their reactionary violence (as the KKK did following Reconstruction) or fail with those same reactionary tactics (as the KKK did following the Voting Rights Act of 1965). In contrast, even during the period of fragmentation following the death of Wesley Swift in the 1970s, the number of Christian Identity believers grew. The reason offered by scholars of terrorism is easy for a layman to grasp: religious terrorists desire and expect a massive and profound change in the world order whereas secular terrorists pursue some limited political aim.
But if the Obama administration is making a mistake in conceiving of the problem too broadly, the president’s critics are failing to apprehend the dangers that come with lack of precision in defining one’s enemy. Here too the history of Christian Identity terrorism would benefit those sincerely concerned with domestic security. As noted many times, not all Christian Identity believers favor proactive violence. The failure to make that distinction may well have inspired almost a decade’s worth of terrorism in the 1990s. No event did more to radicalize domestic terrorists than the raid on Randy Weaver’s Idaho estate in 1992, when Weaver’s wife and son were killed by federal agents. As noted in Chapter 13, Weaver believed in a passive form of Christian Identity. He was a survivalist and a white separatist, not a Robert Mathews type convinced that violence would bring about a white utopia and ready to die in a blaze of glory. But in conflating Weaver with the latter type of Identity militant, the government grossly mistook him as a threat and responded in a disproportionate manner.
A similar lack of nuance applied to the raid on Waco in 1993. David Koresh may have deserved some level of scrutiny from law enforcement, but the Branch Davidians were not the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. The irony is that in the latter raid, the government did a better job of negotiating a surrender. The unintended consequences of this lack of precision also include the Oklahoma City Bombing, as well as many lone-wolf attacks.
Even a label as exacting as “militant Salafi jihadist” could be problematic in the so-called War on Terror, as Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually rivals that compete for the same pool of potential recruits. Al Qaeda favors the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian religious scholar whose time spent in the United States in the 1940s convinced him that the “far enemy”—the United States and the West—represented the greatest threat to the Muslim community by way of cultural imperialism and moral corruption. His student Ayman Al-Zawarhiri became Osama Bin Laden’s chief advisor and has run the group since Bin Laden’s death. On the other hand, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in placing an emphasis on a caliphate in the Middle East, is more concerned with the “near enemy”—nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia that do not apply an orthodox-enough version of Sharia law. This distinction is a matter of priorities more than anything else; Al-Zawarhiri despises the “infidels” in the West, and al-Baghdadi despises what he sees as Western puppet governments in the Arab world. Differences between the two groups suggest different responses and courses of action—possibly attempting to pit one group against the other.
Fomenting factionalism, not just between but within groups, became an important part of law enforcement’s efforts to subvert white supremacist organizations in the United States, whether the group was secular or influenced by Christian Identity. Anyone who shares a religious worldview like Christian Identity—who imagines that the forces of the devil are constantly conspiring against him—is inherently prone to paranoia. So infiltrating, surveilling, coopting, and subverting such people are all highly effective strategies. Such human intelligence is as important as electronic intelligence in fighting terrorist organizations. But targeting nonviolent groups such as the SCLC with the same tactics one would apply to the Black Panthers has not only undermined legitimate forms of dissent that are valuable within a democracy but also wasted valuable resources.
Conserving resources also means taking stock of the government’s failures when employing human sources rather than burying and concealing these failures. One can only imagine the time and money wasted infiltrating subversive groups that cannot be punished because the government operation veered into any number of improprieties, from informants running amuck to informants provoking actual violence. This is to say nothing about the cost in human lives and property when terrorists start operating with some sense of immunity. Ignoring the mistakes of the past or hiding them from future law enforcement agents and task forces contributes to a lack of institutional memory, which makes the same failures much more likely in the future. (Federal law enforcement agencies can start to rectify this deficit by releasing files and materials related to the crimes discussed in this book, many of which are more than thirty years old.)
The type of pseudo-entrapment seen in the Newburgh case was not new in domestic counterterrorism, and the practice has continued after 2011. This has helped contribute to the impression that the government is profiling or out to get Muslims—an impression that is likely to persist if politicians continue speaking broadly about “Islamic radicalism” without being more precise. In so doing, the United States is making itself less, not more, safe, because the government is increasingly alienating one of the most important resources America has in preventing a domestic attack: the Muslim American community. America’s frontline defense against any effort by an Al Qaeda phantom cell to launch a mass-casualty attack would be Muslim Americans who could work in conjunction with the FBI and local police to identify suspicious characters in their own communities. As terrorism expert Tony Gaskew has argued, “Muslim Americans are the resident experts on Islam in the United States and the only reliable eyes and ears for law enforcement in their often ‘exclusive’ communities.”10
Pundits ranging in ideological orientation from Sean Hannity to Bill Maher have shown a disrespect, bordering on contempt, toward Muslims in general, American Muslims included. If the goal is to protect American security rather than score points in some sort of culture war, to officially label the current conflict the “war on radical Islam” suggests bad faith. The spirit behind President Obama’s refusal to use the term radical Islam is important; the country does not benefit from alienating its law-abiding Muslim community. If Muslim Americans distrust the government and law enforcement, if they fear they could be targets rather than allies in the fight against terrorists, it could undermine the very security Obama’s critics claim to hold dear.
If those same pundits argue that a more precise definition of the enemy, “militant Salafi jihadism,” is too complicated for Americans to understand, they miss the point of naming one’s enemy in the first place. The goal is to understand the threat and to direct limited resources against those most likely to do the country harm. American law enforcement would be making a huge mistake if it treated members of the Westboro Baptist Church, however abhorrent one may find their views and practices, with the same scrutiny and tactics that it directs at the Aryan Nations. The latter is violent; the former is a nuisance.
In his article for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood highlights a similar distinction between militant Salafis and what he calls Salafi quietists. The latter are reminiscent of Randy Weaver in that they embrace the hard-core belief system of their fellow militants, but they do not favor violence. In Wood’s estimation, the kind of propaganda war implied in President Obama’s approach of combatting “extremism” can go only so far. It might prevent someone from becoming radicalized, but it is unlikely to “reform” someone who has already become radical. Defining one’s enemy precisely, in this case, means accepting the reality of “extremist” thought, perhaps by funneling budding extremists into the quietest camp, to minimize the potential for extremist violence.
A similarly pragmatic, if risky, approach has never been tried with homegrown religious terrorism in part because it has yet to be taken as seriously as it should be. Many of the very same people who demand that the Obama administration make “radical Islam” the centerpiece of America’s antiterrorism campaign have openly worked against acknowledging almost any kind of homegrown terrorism. A 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that pointed out the sharp rise in hate groups since President Obama’s election and argued that economic and political conditions (as they always have) could push right-wing groups to violence was lambasted by conservative media icons. Conservative blogger and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin called it a “piece of crap report” and a “hit job on conservatives,” and her views were hardly exceptional. In fairness to Malkin, the term right-wing, and even far right, is in many ways too imprecise, and the DHS report should have been more nuanced.
But a 2013 report that did attempt to draw those kinds of distinctions, written by Professor Arie Perliger, a scholar at West Point Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, drew a similar, if more muted, reaction.11Although Perliger continued with the broad label “far-right terrorists,” he divided terrorist groups into three main subgroups: racist/white supremacy groups (like the KKK, the Hammerskins, and the National Alliance), anti-federalist groups (like militias), and religious fundamentalist groups (like antiabortion and Christian Identity organizations). The conservative overreaction was almost breathtakingly defensive: the head of the American Life League, Julie Brown, called the report a smear tactic against pro-life activists. A constitutional law professor, Herb Titus, called Perliger a “propagandist” for the Obama administration who “disagrees with those who favor small government, cutting back of federal government encroachments upon the powers of the state, and to discredit this movement [he] focuses on a few gun-toting militia.”12
Politicizing Perliger’s report meant ignoring very important data. He had tabulated twenty years’ worth of incidents of domestic terrorism and violence and offered some important insights. The KKK had perpetrated the largest number of attacks (264) in that span, but it was much less likely than other groups to engage in mass-casualty attacks that targeted human beings (as opposed to property). Skinheads had engaged in 205 violent acts, numerous enough to secure second place among radical groups, but these young militants were much more likely to target human beings (96 percent of the time) than the KKK (28 percent of the time.) Christian Identity groups, to whom Perliger attributed only sixty-six attacks since 1991, had targeted human beings nearly as often as skinheads (94 percent of the time) but did so through mass-casualty attacks far more often than skinheads (13.6 percent versus 2.4 percent). The only groups to “outperform” Christian Identity terrorists were militias, but the numbers were highly skewed by Timothy McVeigh’s and Terry Nichols’s 1995 Oklahoma City attack.
That the bombing of the Murrah Building qualifies as a militia attack illustrates one of the weaknesses of Perliger’s report. Without question, McVeigh and Nichols both actively associated with militia groups, but they never were officially tied to any group. On the other hand, McVeigh may have been influenced by Christian Identity ideas and likely looked for help and assistance from Christian Identity radicals. Skinheads, as noted in Chapter 14, were highly influenced by Christian Identity teachings as well as Odinist and Creativity theologies, neither of which are counted in Perliger’s statistics. To his credit, Perliger recognized the influences of Identity on other groups, writing that the theology:
Functioned as a source of intellectual inspiration and moral justification for the violent activities and operations of ideologically related movements. Hence, it is not surprising that many of the prominent ideologues of the white supremacist and anti-federalist movements intensively cooperated with—and at times saw themselves as part of—the fundamentalist movement. This dynamic allowed the penetration of non-identity ideas into the movement, and in many ways facilitated the narrowing of the gaps between the fundamentalist movement and other streams of the American far right.13
But his quantitative analysis does not consider the degree to which these movements cross-affiliated and shared ideological influences. As noted time and time again, Identity leaders control and Identity theology permeates many KKK groups and skinhead organizations, even patriot militias. Part of Perliger’s problem is his misreading of history. In echoes of the Megiddo report, he asserts that “the fundamentalist movement’s militant and violent nature was relatively late to develop. For many years … the fundamentalist movement did not produce violent sub-groups.”14 Had he understood the dynamics of groups such as the Christian Defense League, the National States Rights Party, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi (under Sam Bowers), or the Minutemen, perhaps he would have been more open to the idea that Identity leaders spent their “early development” appropriating the agenda of groups like the KKK. They did the same over the next four decades with farmers’ protest movements, anti-immigration groups, anti-federalist groups, and skinheads, becoming more open about their goals for a race war while the white supremacist movement became more and more decentralized in the face of law enforcement scrutiny.
But for a fortunate stroke of fate, Perliger and others may have become much more aware of this history in the early 1990s. Scott Shepherd, the onetime Grand Dragon for the Tennessee KKK, recently discussed a journey he once took with Byron de la Beckwith, Medgar Evers’s convicted assassin. In the late 1980s, Shepherd developed a close relationship with the onetime White Knight; Beckwith even attempted to convince Shepherd to become a Phineas priest. Beckwith rarely asked Shepherd to go on long car rides, but, as Shepherd would learn, this was a special occasion. The trip occurred sometime near the turn of the decade (1980s to 1990s). The destination was Meridian, Mississippi, and a meeting with Sam Bowers. Joining Bowers and Beckwith was J.B. Stoner.
Both Bowers and Stoner had been more or less inactive in recent years—Stoner for the obvious reason that he had only just been released from prison, and Bowers because the WKKKKOM had vanished over time under the management of L.E. Matthews in the 1970s (while Bowers was in prison). They did not discuss the Order at that meeting, but on later occasions Beckwith made it clear to Shepherd that the Silent Brotherhood helped inspire the old hands to return to terrorism. Bowers and Stoner made it clear at the meeting that they wanted back in, and in a major way.
According to Shepherd, the men began outlining the contours of a major terrorist operation. The idea would be to harness the growing skinhead movement, by way of the Hammerskins. Records show that both Stoner and his friend Ed Fields had developed ties to skinheads in Georgia. The plan would involve decentralizing the Hammerskins into strike teams, similar in structure and function to the phantom cells described by Louis Beam. Some signal would trigger the strike teams to begin their operation: blowing up federal buildings and assassinating prominent African Americans. But the 1990s marked renewed interest by law enforcement in solving decades-old civil rights cold cases, such as the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing (likely masterminded by Stoner) and the murder of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer (ordered by Bowers). The three old hands at that meeting in Meridian faced law enforcement scrutiny at a level they had not experienced since the 1960s and were forced to abandon their plans. The prosecution of Beckwith in 1994 jump-started a wave of new prosecutions. In 1998 justice also found Sam Bowers, who was convicted of ordering the Dahmer slaying. Both men died in prison, Beckwith in 2001 and Bowers in 2006. Stoner escaped further justice for his past crimes but suffered from ill health, according to Shepherd. He died in 2005 in his home state of Georgia.
If the foiled plot outlined by Stoner, Bowers, and Beckwith at that Meridian meeting bore striking similarities to Identity conspiracies of the past, it was no accident. Bowers, who in 1964 had talked about strike teams and assassination plots to an audience of White Knights days before the Neshoba murders, said that he wanted to revive the old playbook. The three zealots discussed their objective openly in front of Shepherd: “It was a race war plan,” they argued, “that was the plan from the start.”15