ATLANTA -- More than 30 of the nation's most radical right-wing militias and an Idaho-based neo-Nazi group with a history of violence have simultaneously launched intelligence-gathering operations aimed at government agencies, civil rights organizations and the media, according to a civil rights organization.
The move, coming on the heels of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, has alarmed experts who monitor the radical right. They say they fear that a coordinated intelligence network could lay the groundwork for a "jihad"-style campaign of terror directed at individuals and agencies seen as enemies by the groups.
"Counterintelligence seems to be the new game in town for these groups -- both in the white supremacy world and the militia world, and in the area where the two meet," said Joe Roy, chief investigator for Klanwatch, an Alabama-based organization that monitors racial hate groups. "It's a big push within the more extreme militias and more growth-oriented white supremacist groups to centralize their intelligence."
Militia leaders have played down their intelligence-gathering, and federal officials said that collecting information is not illegal. But groups such as Klanwatch see the move as cause for concern.
A terror campaign involving bombings and murder was briefly waged in the 1980s by white supremacist groups affiliated with Aryan Nations, the neo-Nazi umbrella organization that allegedly is involved in the new spying network, authorities said.
It was an apparent attempt by neo-Nazi offshoots to duplicate the plot of "The Turner Diaries," a racist and anti-Semitic novel that authorities said is the bible of racist hate groups. The book, which also is popular in some parts of the militia movement, depicts the overthrow of the U.S. government by armed citizen forces.
Aryan Nations and other white supremacy groups have been largely stagnant since aggressive federal prosecution and lawsuits weakened them in the late-1980s. Now organizations that monitor such groups say that Aryan Nations is trying to revitalize itself by aggressively recruiting members from among the ranks of anti-government militias.
The catalyst for the alliance between neo-Nazi groups and militias was the government raid on the cabin of Idaho white separatist Randy Weaver in 1992 in which his wife, son and a U.S. marshal were killed. Shortly after the Ruby Ridge raid, some longtime leaders of the white supremacy movement met with militia leaders in Estes Park, Colo., to discuss strategy, said Mr. Roy.
The militias have played down links to racist groups. "They want to keep a clean face so they can attract members," said Mary Ann Mauney, a researcher with the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal.
Membership figures are elusive, but the Aryan Nations now has branches in 20 states, said Mike Reynolds, senior analyst on the Klanwatch militia task force. A year ago, it had only three state chapters. According to a survey released in June by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), militias are operating in at least 40 states, with membership of 15,000 and rising.
While the leaders of the militias deny links to racist groups, the ADL estimates that 20 percent of the nation's militia groups have secret ties to neo-Nazi or other white supremacist organizations.
John Trochmann, a founder of the Militia of Montana, has spoken at the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho and has other neo-Nazi links, although militia leaders have said that they never have been members of such groups.
"The ties are there despite efforts to play them down," said Thomas Halpern, associate fact-finding director for the ADL.
Militia leaders do not deny that they have taken steps to improve their information-collecting capabilities. But they say that there is no coordination between groups and no sinister motive.
Randy Trochmann, Militia of Montana co-founder, accused Klanwatch of advancing a conspiracy theory for purposes of publicity. "It's just fund raising. That's how they got a $53 million reserve -- through these fund-raising efforts."
But Mr. Halpern of the ADL noted other signs that point to an increased emphasis on intelligence-gathering. In a newsletter last year, Mr. Halpern said that Tom Metzger, a former California Ku Klux Klan leader who went on to head a neo-Nazi group, urged "our own spying network" as a safeguard against infiltration by law enforcement members and others.
Despite this history of violence by organizations affiliated with Aryan Nations, spokesmen for the FBI and the Justice Department said that they would only be concerned officially about intelligence-gathering by racial hate groups if they had information that the groups had broken laws or planned to use the information to commit crimes.
"It's a free country," said Bill Carter of the FBI. "People can collect information if they want to collect it. It is not necessarily of interest to the FBI unless we had an open investigation on them, and if we did we would not disclose that."