Fighting Fire On the Right
The feds are keeping an eye on homegrown extremists
When FBI agents raided the home and storage facilities of William Krar in Noonday, a small town in East Texas, two years ago, they stumbled upon a small arsenal. There were about 2 pounds of deadly sodium cyanide, 65 pipe bombs and several remote-control briefcase bombs. They also recovered more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition and a collection of white supremacist books. If mixed with some of the other chemicals Krar had, the cyanide compound could have created enough poison gas to kill everyone inside a large office building.
In the decade since the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, local police and federal agents have foiled roughly 60 right-wing extremist terrorist plots, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. While homeland security and intelligence officials understandably focus today on terrorism threats from abroad, hate-group experts say the danger from homegrown extremists like Krar, now in federal prison, shouldn't be ignored. "The fact that the only chemical weapon incident in the United States involved a domestic extremist suggests that domestic terrorism is still a serious threat," says Mark Pitcavage, director of fact finding at the Anti-Defamation League. The Southern Poverty Law Center's estimates that 762 extremist right-wing hate groups were active in the United States last year, up slightly from the 751 groups tallied the year before.
Loners. Last April, a strategy paper on domestic and international terrorism threats prepared by the Department of Homeland Security was leaked to the press. The paper listed radical leftist groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, but there wasn't a single word about right-wing militia or extremist groups. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, says the DHS must focus more intently on right-wing groups. "The department's responsibility includes protecting the homeland from domestic terrorists," Thompson says. "And that should mean all domestic terrorists, not just some of them."
The DHS says that its strategy paper wasn't a comprehensive assessment of the risk of domestic terrorism. "We remain concerned about all threats," says Katy Montgomery, a DHS spokeswoman. Communication between her department and the FBI has improved significantly since 9/11, Montgomery says, and the two agencies frequently issue joint information bulletins to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The relationship between the two agencies isn't quite as good as it could be, however, others say. Mike German, a former special agent with the FBI who specialized in domestic counterterrorism, says he seriously doubts whether the bureau is sharing its best information with DHS. German learned how right-wing extremist groups operate firsthand as an undercover agent who infiltrated several white supremacist organizations. Radicals like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh are often mistakenly seen by the FBI as "lone wolf extremists," German says. But "lone extremism" is a technique taught by some white supremacist groups, he adds: "Unless you see this as an ongoing conspiracy, you aren't going to be out front to prevent the next attack."
German resigned from the FBI last year after criticizing these and other alleged management problems in the FBI's counterterrorism program. The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating his claims. Ed Cogswell, a spokesman for the FBI, says the bureau cannot comment because of the pending inquiry. But the FBI, Cogswell says, considers both left- and right-wing domestic terrorism groups to be serious challenges. "Extremist groups," he says, "are difficult to track."
The difficulty is not hard to understand--and sometimes it just takes a bit of luck to stop a violent radical bent on trouble. Catching Krar, for example, wasn't the result of great detective work. After a package of bogus identification documents he mailed wound up at the wrong address, the unwitting recipient alerted authorities. FBI agents went to the return address Krar had scrawled on the package. As soon as they found the cache of weapons, they slapped the cuffs on him.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.