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Taking the pulse of extremist groups

Is domestic terrorism on the rise? Is there a trend in the recent violence? Experts on the subject disagree.

June 12, 2009|Bob Drogin

SILVER SPRING, MD. — A day after an anti-Semite allegedly shot and killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, experts disagreed about whether it was an isolated event or the latest sign of a growing threat by domestic hate groups.

The danger appeared to come from two directions: far-right fanatics who feed on domestic conspiracy theories and Muslim extremists who oppose U.S. policies abroad. Both have launched deadly attacks in recent weeks.

But the number of incidents and the death toll are lower than during the early 1980s and early 1990s, when white supremacists, armed militias and other extremist groups attacked government offices, law enforcement officers, banks and other targets.

Domestic terrorism peaked in April 1995, when militia movement sympathizer and Gulf War veteran Timothy J. McVeigh set off a truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding at least 800.

The resulting federal crackdown, which intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, pushed most domestic extremist groups into the shadows. Since that time, experts said, disturbed individuals have conducted mostly random and uncoordinated attacks.

"There's no indication there's an uptick in violence," said Leonard Zeskind, a researcher who has written extensively on white nationalist groups. "White nationalists periodically go out and shoot people. . . . As of yet, I'm not seeing anything new."

Incidents of violence against Jews have actually fallen in recent years.

The Anti-Defamation League reported June 1 that vandalism, harassment and assaults against Jewish people, property and community institutions had dropped for the fourth straight year.

The league counted 1,352 such incidents last year, including vandalism against the San Francisco Holocaust Memorial and the desecration of graves at a Jewish cemetery in Chicago. That's down from 1,821 incidents in 2004.

Other experts, however, see a mounting danger as the nation grapples with recession.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said the nonprofit group had tracked more than a 50% increase in what it considered right-wing hate groups over the last eight years -- to 926, from 602.

A "confluence of factors," Potok said, appeared to be fueling the growth -- including anger about nonwhite immigration, concern over the deteriorating economy, fears of new restrictions on firearms, and the election of the first African American as president.

"We may well be seeing a perfect storm of factors that favor this movement," Potok said.

David Neiwert, a Seattle-based writer who has studied armed militias, said he found it "very disturbing" that some cable news and talk radio hosts were "publicly validating" the angry rhetoric that he heard at militia meetings in the 1990s.

"We're seeing the temperature bubble back up again, and it may be higher than before," Neiwert said. "I pay attention to the chatter on the ground, and it's very ugly right now."

Supporting that argument was a nine-page report issued by the Department of Homeland Security in April, then retracted after intense public criticism.

Titled "Right-Wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," the report argued that President Obama's election and the recession presented "unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment."

The most controversial paragraph warned that "the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks."

Work began on the report before the 2008 election. It had a similar analysis of left-wing extremism. But political leaders in both parties, veterans organizations and civil rights groups excoriated the report for casting aspersions on veterans. Some argued that the report equated conservatives with terrorists.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized to the American Legion and told a House committee last month that the report would be "replaced or redone in a much more useful and much more precise fashion."

Mike German, a former FBI agent who is policy counsel in the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report wrongly focused on political beliefs rather than criminal conduct.

"It painted everyone with such a broad brush that it was of little use to investigators," he said. "It obviously didn't stop any of the recent attacks."

Police have charged James Wenneker von Brunn, a self-described white supremacist, with murder in the shooting of the security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

On June 1, authorities said, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot and killed a soldier and wounded another outside an Army recruiting booth in suburban Little Rock, Ark. Muhammad, a recent convert to Islam, told police that he targeted soldiers because of U.S. policies toward Muslims, court documents said. He has pleaded not guilty.

On May 31, a prominent late-term abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, was gunned down in his church in Wichita, Kan. The suspect in the killing, Scott Roeder, apparently acted alone, authorities said. But he had ties to a militant antiabortion group, and was involved in the 1990s with an anti-government group.

On May 20, the FBI arrested four men in a suspected plot to bomb two New York synagogues. A paid FBI informant who met the men in a mosque had supplied dummy bombs, authorities said, as well as weapons the men allegedly sought to shoot down military aircraft. The group has no known ties to Al Qaeda, authorities said.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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