Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Domestic terrorism: New trouble at home

Domestic terrorism: New trouble at home

Mon Nov 15, 2004

By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

Since Sept. 11, the nation's attention has been focused on possible threats from Islamic terrorists. But home-grown terrorists have been steadily plotting and carrying out attacks in unrelated incidents across the nation, according to federal authorities and two organizations that monitor hate groups.

None of the incidents over the past few years matched the devastation of 9/11 or even the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 and remains the deadliest act of terrorism against the nation by a U.S. citizen.

But some of the alleged domestic terrorists who have been arrested had ambitious plans. The people and groups range from white supremacists, anti-government types and militia members to eco-terrorists and people who hate corporations. They include violent anti-abortionists and black and brown nationalists who envision a separate state for blacks and Latinos. And they have been busy.

"Not a lot of attention is being paid to this, because everybody is concerned about the guy in a turban. But there are still plenty of angry, Midwestern white guys out there," says U.S. Marshals Service chief inspector Geoff Shank.

Shank, who is based in the Chicago area, says the concerns about domestic terrorism range from anti-abortion extremists who threaten to attack clinics and doctors to some violent biker gangs that may be involved in organized crime. And the FBI (news - web sites) said in June that eco-terrorism - acts of violence, sabotage or property damage motivated by concern for animals or the environment - was the nation's top domestic terrorism threat. The bureau said then that eco-terrorists had committed more than 1,100 criminal acts and caused property damage estimated at least $110 million since 1976.

Alleged terrorist plots by U.S. citizens are not new, but many of the recent conspiracies were overshadowed by 9/11 and the hunt for terrorists abroad. Most of the foiled plots didn't get very far. And few got much publicity. But there were some potentially close calls, such as the scheme by William Krar, an east Texas man who stockpiled enough sodium cyanide to gas everyone in a building the size of a high school basketball gymnasium before he was arrested in 2002.

Shank, whose unit mainly searches for fugitives, including some wanted on domestic terror-related charges, led the manhunt for Clayton Lee Waagner, 48, of Kennerdell, Pa. Waagner was convicted in December of mailing hundreds of threat letters containing bogus anthrax to abortion clinics in 24 states. During his trial in Philadelphia, prosecutors documented Waagner's ties to the Army of God, an extremist group that believes violence against abortion providers is an acceptable way to end abortion.

'A very serious threat'

"There's been a very, very heavy focus nationally on foreign terrorism since 9/11," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which has tracked hate groups since 1971. "The reality is that, meanwhile, domestic terrorism has hummed along at quite a steady clip. It ... still poses a very serious threat."

Among the incidents since 9/11:

• Last month in Tennessee, the FBI arrested a man who agents say hated the federal government and was attempting to acquire chemical weapons and explosives to blow up a government building. Demetrius "Van" Crocker, 39, of McKenzie, Tenn., pleaded not guilty Nov. 5. His attorney, public defender Stephen Shankman, did not return calls.

• In May, Krar, 63, of Noonday, Texas, was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison after he stockpiled enough sodium cyanide to kill everyone inside a 30,000-square-foot building. Krar, described by federal prosecutors as a white supremacist, also had nine machine guns, 67 sticks of explosives and more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Investigators and the federal prosecutor said they didn't know what Krar intended to do with the potentially deadly chemicals. Krar's common-law wife, Judith Bruey, 55, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal weapons and was sentenced to nearly five years.

• Last month in Utah, two men described by the U.S. attorney there as "domestic terrorists" pleaded guilty to setting separate arson fires related to eco-terrorism. Justus Ireland, 23, admitted starting a fire that caused $1.5 million damage at a West Jordan lumber company and spray-painting "ELF" at the site. The Earth Liberation Front has been connected to dozens of acts of vandalism and arson around the country since 1996. Joshua Demmitt, 18, of Provo, pleaded guilty to starting a fire at Brigham Young University's Ellsworth Farm, where animal experiments are conducted, in the name of the Animal Liberation Front. A third man, Harrison Burrows, 18, also of Provo, pleaded guilty earlier.

• In May, the FBI's domestic terrorism unit charged seven members of an animal rights group with terrorism after investigating what they said was a marked increase in crimes to stop the use of animals for product-testing. The activists, arrested in New York, New Jersey, California and Washington state, are members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. The group seeks to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a New Jersey product-testing company.

Prosecutors allege that the activists set fire to Huntingdon employees' cars, vandalized shareholders' homes and threatened their families. They are charged with conspiring to commit terrorism against an enterprise that uses animals for research and could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

• In May, a Brookfield, Wis., man labeled a domestic terrorist by federal prosecutors received an eight-year prison sentence for interfering with Madison police radio frequencies. Rajib Mitra, 26, had blocked police radio signals and later broadcast sex sounds over police radios. His attorney argued that the transmissions were an accident.

Mitra was one of the first defendants sentenced under guidelines changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The changes, effective Nov. 5, 2003, impose stiffer penalties for domestic terrorism. Under the previous sentencing guidelines, Mitra probably would have been sentenced to 18 to 24 months.

Mitra's attorney, Chris Van Wagner, says his client was not a terrorist and should have received a lesser punishment. "It's clear that (the guidelines) were put in place to punish those who seek to subvert our government and not intended to increase the punishment for people who simply engage in criminal mischief but had no terrorist angle or connection whatsoever," Van Wagner says. "He was just a dolphin caught in a tuna net."

Mitra was charged under provisions of the Patriot Act that make it a crime to cause such public-safety problems, even if there were no monetary damages. "This is a vivid example of how the Patriot Act has been used in cases that clearly have nothing to do with terrorism and that are far removed from what Congress was concerned about when it passed the Patriot Act," says Timothy Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites).

'Black helicopter' crowd

During the 1990s, anti-government groups sprang up all over the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism and now monitors hate groups. Many formed militias to prepare for large-scale resistance to the government, which the groups blamed for the Randy Weaver siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and the Branch Davidian confrontation in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

Many of these group members believed the federal government was secretly setting up concentration camps for dissident Americans and was planning a takeover of the United States by United Nations (news - web sites) troops as part of a "new world order." Many also said that mysterious black helicopters were conducting surveillance in the West, according to the ADL.

"The 'black helicopter' crowd is still out there," says Wisconsin federal prosecutor Tim O'Shea, referring to extremists who distrust and abhor the federal government.

Potok says the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 751 hate groups last year, a 6% increase over the 708 such organizations it counted in 2002.

Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League, says incidents of domestic terrorism often don't get much media coverage beyond the local areas where they occur. He says he was surprised that the Krar case did not get wider attention. "This was the only case in U.S. history where we had a person in the U.S. building an actual chemical weapon," he says.

He cites two other cases. In 1997, militia members gathered in central Texas allegedly to plan to attack a military base on Independence Day. They were arrested the morning of July 4 near Fort Hood. Three years later, he says, three heavily armed people described by federal investigators as anti-government extremists shot down a California Highway Patrol helicopter near the California-Nevada border during a standoff with police.

Potok, director of the center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, says, "I don't mean to minimize the work of groups with ties to al-Qaeda. Obviously, there's a huge external threat as well. But there's a tendency to want to externalize the threat and say the people who want to hurt us don't look like us, they don't worship the same god and don't have the same skin color."

Earlier this year, the National District Attorneys Association, which has about 7,000 members, held a first-ever conference on domestic terrorism in Washington, D.C., to help local prosecutors identify potential terrorist groups.

"It was very well received," says the association's vice president, Robert Honecker, a prosecutor in Monmouth County, N.J. "They were appreciative of getting the information and the knowledge so they would be prepared should something happen in their jurisdiction."

Man sought nuclear materials

Some of the alleged efforts by domestic terrorists are chilling.

According to an FBI affidavit in the Tennessee case, Crocker had inquired last spring about where he could obtain nuclear waste or nuclear materials. An informant told the FBI that Crocker, who had "absolute hatred" for the government, wanted "to build a bomb to be detonated at a government building, particularly a courthouse, either federal or state."

In September, according to the affidavit, Crocker told an undercover FBI agent "it would be a good thing if somebody could detonate some sort of weapon of mass destruction in Washington, D.C.," while both houses of Congress "were in session." Crocker allegedly told the agent he admired Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. He said "establishing a concentration camp for Jewish insurance executives would be a desirable endeavor."

Crocker later bought what he thought was Sarin nerve gas and a block of C-4 explosive from the undercover agent, the affidavit says.

Authorities arrested Crocker last month. Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League says such arrests thwart possible attacks and show that U.S. law enforcement is effectively fighting domestic terrorism.

"One of the measures of this is that the number of people arrested for (plotting) terrorist acts is far greater than the number of people arrested for carrying out such attacks. So we're arresting them before they can carry out these acts, which is very important. 9/11 raised awareness generally among law enforcement."