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'90s-style extremism withers

Anti-government violence has waned since 9/11, its leaders dead, disillusioned, imprisoned or inept.

March 11, 2008|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

RENO — Three years after foreign terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in the Sept. 11 attacks, Steve Holten left the San Francisco Bay Area, drove east through the Tahoe National Forest, skirted the Truckee River and settled himself in Reno. Here he proclaimed himself a lieutenant colonel of the local chapter of Aryan Nations. He sent an e-mail to area newspapers declaring war on the federal government, the media and the Jews.

But no war came. Holten's career as a domestic terrorist was short and uneventful. FBI agents promptly arrested him, and a federal grand jury indicted him for transmitting a threatening e-mail. He pleaded guilty and served four months in prison. After getting out he contracted the AIDS virus, and he was rearrested, this time for soliciting a man for sex in a nearby city park.

With shaved head and Nazi lightning-bolt tattoos on his neck, Holten is emblematic of how far the anti-government terrorism movement has sunk in the years since the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Richard Butler was a lion of the movement. He built the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations from a barbed-wire-encircled compound in Hayden, Idaho, into a hate empire. But when he died in September 2004, at age 86, he left a depleted organization with two factions feuding over the detritus.

John Trochmann, once an omnipresent face of hatred for the government, still has the iron-gray beard and fiery eyes from the days when he helped found the Militia of Montana. Today he drives a 13-year-old black Suburban to gun shows in the Pacific Northwest to hawk anti-government pamphlets or sell log cabins to get by. He still believes, but at 64, he doesn't act.

"9/11," he said in an interview at his home near Montana's Bitterroot Mountains. "Boy, did it ever change things."

Though violent extremist groups have been around in America for decades, they surged in the 1990s, a decade of spectacular domestic mayhem -- at a cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho; on a compound outside Waco, Texas; in downtown Oklahoma City. Their heroes were men like Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph.

Today the groups are shadows of themselves, with many of their leaders dead, imprisoned, disillusioned or just inept.

Many observers attribute that to Sept. 11, for diverting the rage of disaffected Americans away from the U.S. government and toward foreigners, and for fueling the subsequent Patriot Act-driven crackdown. Others say the movement began to crumble earlier, when the Y2K disaster, a favorite prediction of conspiracy theorists, failed to materialize.

And part of the collapse may have just been human nature. "Many of the people had such huge egos that they didn't know how to work together and keep the movement going," said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at the liberal Political Research Associates think tank who specializes in the study of right-wing networks. "So it basically unraveled."

In contrast to the 1990s, this decade has seen only a smattering of arrests of isolated plotters, caught before they could act. Syracuse University tracked domestic terrorism prosecutions over the last five years and found them down by 47%. California and Oregon were the leading states for prosecutions in 2006, with eight each.

In some cases those fomenting hate have directed their vitriol at immigration across the Mexican border. There also are environmental and animal-rights extremists, and in the first months after Sept. 11 there was a spike in racial attacks against Muslims.

The Department of Justice recently compiled a summary on foreign and domestic terrorism for 2002 through 2005. They found that 23 of the 24 attacks committed by domestic groups were perpetrated by "special-interest extremists active in the animal-rights and environmental movements"; the other was a white supremacist's firebombing of a synagogue in Oklahoma City. None was carried out by the traditional anti-government elements popular in the 1990s.

The report was filled with details of plots in three dozen major cases of foreign terrorism operations in the U.S. All drew intense public scrutiny: Jose Padilla was arrested in Chicago, Al Qaeda cells were dispersed in the Pacific Northwest, and in upstate New York half a dozen men were prosecuted for attending an overseas Al Qaeda training camp.

The domestic cases were generally much smaller matters that garnered few headlines and, like the Holten arrest in Reno, did not nearly approach the potential danger posed by foreign conspirators.

The FBI remains vigilant, said Assistant Director John J. Miller, against terrorists of all stripes. "Not every terrorist needs to be linked to an organized group like Al Qaeda to kill the innocent."

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