WASHINGTON — Fearing a tragedy of the magnitude of the Oklahoma City bombing, federal law enforcement officials over the last 14 months had grown increasingly worried about--and had begun monitoring--a number of weapons-oriented extremist groups, including one in Michigan whose meetings a figure in the case had attended.
But the monitoring failed to prevent perhaps the worst terrorist disaster in American history. And as the fast-moving case developed This story was reported by Times staff writers David Willman in Washington, Richard A. Serrano in Oklahoma City and Ralph Frammolino, Paul Feldman and Eric Lichtblau in Los Angeles. It was written by Willman and Frammolino.
Friday, America began to confront the likelihood that the horrific destruction in Oklahoma City came not from abroad, but from within the United States.
With the arrest Friday of one Midwesterner and the questioning of two others who have possible links to a self-styled militia, the spotlight swung away from international terrorist groups and was thrown on domestic hate groups--a fragmented network of people united in their love of guns and their loathing of taxes and big government.
Federal law enforcement officials confirmed that they were concerned in recent months that at least some members of the militia groups were growing increasingly radical in their statements and more likely to commit violent acts. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stepped up its monitoring of militia groups last October, officials said. The sources also said that they were actively investigating possible links between the bombers and militia groups in Michigan and elsewhere,
The exact linkage, if any, between the bombing suspects and paramilitary groups remained unclear Friday night. In Oklahoma, authorities said that they had found strong ties linking Thomas James McVeigh, the suspect arrested in the case Friday afternoon, with the Michigan Militia--one of the paramilitary groups.
Spokesmen for the militia, however, denied any link to McVeigh and officials in Washington cautioned that the issue remained under investigation.
In the past, the militia has denounced Jews, the news media and the federal government, particularly the Internal Revenue Service and the ATF, both of which had offices in the now-destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
"The individual arrested by the Highway Patrol in Perry (Oklahoma) is tied into the Michigan Militia by family and other social relationships," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who has been briefed by federal authorities on the case and is a former FBI agent.
"The relationships are strong, and that's the way it all pieced together," Keating said.
In Michigan, federal and local law enforcement officials raided a house in a rural section of the state belonging to James Nichols, apparently searching for evidence connected with the bombing. Nichols and his brother, Terry Lynn Nichols, who turned himself in to authorities in Kansas, were being questioned, officials said, but had not been arrested. The Nichols brothers had attended meetings of the Michigan Militia but spokesmen for the group insisted they were not members.
As investigators sought to sort out leads in the case and determine possible motivations for the bombing, experts on extremist groups said that the reality of domestic terrorism could have a profound impact.
"I think this is really going to cause a rethinking in terms of what terrorism really is," said Jeffrey Simon, a Santa Monica author on terrorism in America. "If these are the homegrown groups and if the terrorists are right among us, brought up in our own civilization, where do we put the blame?"
Spokesmen for militia organizations, however, insisted that they were being unfairly targeted. "We don't believe in violent means or violent acts," said Samuel Sherwood, director of the U.S. Militia Assn., based in Blackfoot, Ida., with chapters in 10 states. He denounced more militant groups as "gangs of guys with guns."
Homegrown, right-wing political extremists, ranging from citizen "militias" to outright Aryan Nation hate-mongers, are growing increasingly angry, dangerous and sophisticated, according to hate-crime experts. At the same time, they are spreading their message to wider audiences through the mass media and the Internet, the burgeoning web of computer networks.
"These groups have access to millions of people through the vehicle of talk radio and talk TV shows and that's a method they've discovered to gain adherents," said David A. Lehrer, Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "They also have easy access to weapons, explosives and the technology to use them."
Hate crime experts cautioned that far-right extremist groups encompass a wide gamut of causes and influences--some having tax resistance as their central focus, some ethnic hatred, others the right to bear arms. The tie that binds, observers said, is a common hatred of Washington.