War on homegrown terrorism proceeding with quiet urgency

Violence: The focus is on foreigners, but experts say the domestic threat is still strong.

Oklahoma City: 10 Years Later

April 17, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OKLAHOMA CITY - There is a reflecting pool now where the horrifying shell of the bombed federal building once stood, and a museum displays photographs of the 168 people killed that April day 10 years ago, along with small reminders of the lives they lived - a young woman's red lipstick, a doctor's stethoscope, a baby's pacifier.

But the remembrances of what happened at the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995, which until Sept. 11, 2001, stood as the worst act of terrorism on American soil, do not only look back. In offices adjacent to the memorial museum, a small group of researchers work on how to prevent, and better respond to, the next attack.

Their work has urgency. Independent groups that monitor extremist activity inside the United States say that while the country has focused since 2001 on the threat from foreign terrorists, domestic operatives like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh have not gone away and, in some ways, are more dangerous than ever.

For officials at the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, it is the sad fact inherent in work intended to honor the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. What happened here, they know, could happen again.

"It will happen," said Ken Thompson, the institute's external affairs director. Thompson's mother was killed in the blast at the Murrah building, and he now works in an office overlooking the memorial pool and the rows of sculptural chairs representing each victim.

"I don't know that anyone can expect that the federal government can stop 100 percent of the attacks," he said. "We know it will happen again, and the most important thing we can do is be better prepared to respond and bring the people to justice than we have in the past."

The institute's research offers a reminder of Oklahoma City's unique lesson about the danger of the homegrown terrorist. Its extensive "Terrorism Knowledge Base" shows that, of 25 terrorist incidents recorded in the United States from 2003 through January, all but three were thought to have been carried out by militant domestic ecological groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front.

The remaining incidents involved the mailing of ricin-laced letters to government offices in Washington in late 2003 and early 2004. Those cases are unsolved, but they also are suspected to be the work of a domestic criminal who complained in the letters about new Department of Transportation trucking rules and used the signature "Fallen Angel."

More broadly, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 751 active hate groups operating inside the United States in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. The FBI last year identified ecological extremism as the top domestic terrorist threat, responsible for more than 1,100 criminal acts and $110 million in damage since the mid-1970s. Mark Pitcavage, director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League, said that in the decade since the Oklahoma City bombing, 15 law enforcement officers have been killed by anti-government extremists or white supremacists.

"There's a lot of activity, and some of it's quite serious," Pitcavage said in a recent interview. "My one concern is that people not go to sleep on this issue. We may have other threats from international extremism. But that doesn't mean domestic terrorism is no longer a problem."

Pitcavage and others who track domestic terrorism say the threat has changed over the past 10 years. The anti-government militia movement, which drew the greatest scrutiny after Oklahoma City, shrank after its association with the ugly carnage of that attack. Dire warnings from militia leaders that Jan. 1, 2000, would be marked by catastrophic computer failures hurt the movement as well when the predictions proved untrue.

Three of the country's most prominent white supremacist groups - the National Alliance, Aryan Nations and the Creativity Movement - also have suffered setbacks because of the death or incarceration of key leaders. But observers say that the loose-knit followers who remain could pose a greater threat, one compounded by the widespread use of the Internet, which extremist groups use heavily for recruitment, fund raising and mobilization and which was not a factor a decade ago.

Daniel Levitas, the Atlanta-based author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, said that while the movement is smaller than it was 10 years ago, "the people who remain are much more hardened in their beliefs and in their capacity for violence."

"In the wake of Sept. 11, I think most people have forgotten the fact that there are Americans who are just as fanatical and maniacal as al-Qaida," Levitas said. "People have short memories."

Across the country, cases that have both attracted great attention and gone almost unnoticed demonstrate the continuing threat of U.S. extremism:

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