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I'm Afraid of Americans: Understanding the New Threat of Domestic Terrorism

America’s National Security Strategy is changing.

Last week the New York Times published an article detailing the Pentagon’s plan to shift focus away from international terrorism, known under the previous administration as the Global War on Terror, towards larger strategic threats to the United States such as destabilized governments and mass refugee crises provoked by climate change. Most in the defense establishment welcome this shift in strategy, but the threat from terrorism still remains.

This time, however, there is a difference. The terror threat comes largely not from foreign nationals but from Americans.

In 2009 almost 70 Americans, including police officers and medical personnel, have been killed by domestic terror attacks. This is a breathtakingly sharp rise from 2008, when only two people lost their lives, both of whom died at the hands of anti-Liberal terrorist Jim D. Adkisson in Tennessee. The first attack in 2009 was in Samson, Alabama, when Michael McLendon went on a cross-county shooting rampage that killed 11 people including himself. The most recent was on June 10, when James von Brunn opened fire inside the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, killing one guard and wounding several others.

While each of these attacks is unique, they can be roughly broken down into a handful of categories. In this piece, we will explore these terrorist archetypes, the ecosystem that produced them, as well as common tactics, both harmful and helpful, used to counter them. The intention is to provide students, analysts and researchers, with a sound and coherent image of the domestic terror threat facing the United States.

A Brief History of Killing Each Other

The United States has considerable experience dealing with domestic terrorism throughout its history. In the 19th century, militias and terrorist groups were responsible for everything from razing Mormon outposts (and massacring the inhabitants) to bloody commando raids by extremist Abolitionists on plantations and other elite southern institutions. Following the Civil War, terrorism shifted to the domain of racial supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan, who launched a series of brutal attacks on Reconstruction governments in a (successful) bid to re-instate segregation, as well as carrying out the infamous public lynchings of countless innocents.

Anarchists bomb Wall Street Gallean Anarchists bomb Wall Street in 1920

In the 20th century, newly naturalized cells of anarchists, Galleanists, and hyper-conservatives unleashed waves of bombings against Wall Street and other major financial interests. Incidentally, one of these terrorists, Mario Buda, is credited with the invention of the modern-day car bomb. Later in the century, these tactics would be further evolved into the full-on asymmetric warfare carried out by insurgent groups like the Weather Underground, the American Indian Movement, and the Black Panthers.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the modern day domestic terrorist archetype took shape in the form of Anti-Abortion bombers and Anti-Government “Freeman” militias. Their reign of terror culminated with one of the most spectacular and devastating terrorist attacks on American soil, the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City which left 170 dead and many others wounded. With the foreign-borne attacks of September 11, 2001, most domestic terror groups quietly dropped into torpor. That is, until the catastrophic collapse of the US economy and the election of President Obama in 2008.

Asylum Of the Inmates, By the Inmates, and For the Inmates

America is an extremist country. Similar to its allies Israel or Pakistan, America perceives itself, true or not, as having faced the brink of total obliteration several times in its relatively short existence. This has led to not only a reflexive reliance on violence and violent imagery to make its voice heard, but has also combined with indigenous cultural strands of alienation, paranoia, and apocalypticism to form a permanently deranged opposition class, a mass movement of citizens opposed to anything and everything outside of their delusional ideological boundaries, regardless of how it may benefit them.

Rick Perlstein vividly describes this effect on the contemporary debate on health care reform in a column for the Washington Post. He writes:
So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers -- these are "either" the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? … They are both. If you don't understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can't understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

It is within this garden of culture-wide delirium and fanaticism that domestic terror takes root. In this regard it should be considered as a side effect, albeit malignant, of normal American life. The domestic terror groups are not dangerous for their extremism, their paranoia, or their particular calibration of ideology. Rather, the danger lies in their imminent potential to separate themsevles from normal political discourse, adopting violence, terrorism, and murder.

This detail may seem obvious, but it is a factor of American life most often misunderstood by analysts and observers, and it should be considered integral to any accurate debate on domestic terror. Be wary of serious research being overwhelmed by the obfuscation of hysteria, it’s a simple mistake to make.

“Pro-Life” Abortion Activists

By far the most well-organized of American domestic terrorists, the radical anti-abortion movement is dedicated to the eradication of all family planning services in the United States, seeing it as an affront to their religious beliefs sanctifying the life of the unborn.

Randall Terry, Operation Rescue Randall Terry, Operation Rescue

They maintain vast networks of sympathetic volunteers and church workers who funnel a wide range of support to terrorist cells across the country. This support includes financing, propaganda, and even emotional support for imprisoned members of the movement. Much like transnational jihadist terrorism, convicted or slain anti-abortion terrorists are elevated as heroes or “martyrs” of the movement.

Typical anti-abortion terrorist attacks target medical facilities that provide family planning services, as well as the personnel of these facilities. Tactics include daily physical harassment, threatening communications, vandalism, bombings, and assassination.

The most recent victim of these terrorists was abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was shot in the head while attending church services by Scott Roeder on May 31. Roeder is connected to several extremist groups, including a few militias, but most notably to Operation Rescue, headed by religious extremist Randall Terry.

Terry’s history includes disowning his son for homosexuality and expulsion from a New York church for abandoning his wife and children for a much younger bride. In a recent public appearance broadcast on CSPAN, Terry overtly warned that if Obama is successful with his legislative agenda, America would suffer more violence and terrorist attacks at the hands of abortion activists.

Sovereign Citizen Patriot Militias

Claiming that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution allows for organized citizen militias, these groups fund, equip, and train citizens in modern asymmetrical warfare and survival techniques, presumably to be used against government and law enforcement agencies.

Timothy McVeigh, OK City Bomber Timothy McVeigh, OK City Bomber

Members of these militias are opposed to nearly all taxation by the federal government, any immigration policies which they claim weaken the nation, as well as any movement at all by the government to regulate the sale of weapons and firearms. They also traffic heavily in pedestrian conspiracy theories, such as the responsibility of the Bush administration for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the coming establishment of a tyrannical global government headed by the United Nations and foreign banking interests (often referred to as the New World Order), and the notion that Mexican immigration is a covert plot to re-conquer the southern United States by Hispanics.

At the height of their popularity in the 1990s, these groups were estimated to have some 40,000 members operational in all 50 states. Citing law enforcement sources, the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that since the election of President Obama, more than 50 new militia training centers have been established in the United States. Without a doubt the most numerous of terrorist groups, militias are also the best trained, often drawing their membership from former law enforcement and military personnel.

While no recent attacks have been directly connected to militia activities, the Department of Homeland Security has warned of a “Second Wave” of militia attacks in response to the election of President Obama and other contentious political issues of the day.

Culture Warrior Phantom Cells

Richard Poplawski, Mass Murderer Richard Poplawski, Mass Murderer

Most of the domestic terror attacks in 2009 would fall under this category, being committed by individual, independent actors with no apparent material support from wider networks. These terrorists are similar to so-called Lone Wolf killing sprees by sociopathic and/or psychopathic individuals (such as the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre), but nevertheless qualify as terrorism due to the deliberate targeting of victims of a particular political or cultural persuasion, such as the previously mentioned attacks on a Unitarian Church in Tennessee and the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Invented by white supremacist Louis Beam, the idea of “Leaderless Resistance” is that a motivated individual should handle of the responsibility for supplying, planning, and carrying out terrorist attacks entirely by himself (all known cases of domestic terrorism have been carried out primarily by males) so as to completely avoid the vulnerabilities of a group-endeavor, like snitching and infiltration. These terrorists are far and away the most difficult for law enforcement agencies to monitor, given the near-absence of public information and warning signs.

Since the election of President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has launched what it calls its “Lone Wolf Initiative” aimed at pre-empting such attacks. However, given that security services were unable to locate past Culture Warriors like Theodor Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and Eric Rudolph for years (or decades in Kaczynski’s case), there is little evidence that contemporary law enforcement efforts will be any more successful than in the past.

The Wrong Way to Fight

The domestic terror attacks of 2009 have been high-profile affairs, widely publicized across television, print, and the internet. Understandably, American citizens have reacted against the terrorists with a fierce backlash. However, these reactions have often been counter-intuitive and, in some cases, directly harmful to counter-terrorism efforts. It is important for both lay observers and dedicated analysts to understand what works and what does not against domestic terrorism.

Anti-Obama Propaganda Poster Anti-Obama Propaganda Poster

Partisan Politics – With few exceptions, the great majority of domestic terrorism in the United States since the 1970s has been carried out by individuals who are politically conservative, libertarian, or Republican. However enlightening this might first appear, there are absolutely zero conclusions one can draw from this in the fight against terrorism.

As a democracy, the US often vacillates wildly between conservative leadership and that of a more liberal or progressive persuasion. With the current administration being avowedly liberal, it is logical that any major domestic opposition groups, including terrorists, would come from the opposite political persuasion, the right wing. It is as offensive and outrageous to politically attack Conservatives for domestic terror as it is to attack all Muslims or Arabs because of attacks by Transnational Jihadists.

Quite simply, the politics, religion, or cultural disposition of a person has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. This is never a useful identifying feature.

Repression – The instinctive reaction of many opponents of domestic terror has been to viciously and systematically attack the freedom of expression of anyone who references or publishes material that could be linked to domestic terror. Victims of this scapegoating include media mega-stars Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs, not to mention the countless others too unpopular to withstand such attacks. In the fight to counter domestic terror, this is madness.

The tactic allows terrorist entities to feel victimized, which perversely empowers their rhetoric. It can also drive them underground, making their activities even more difficult to track – and exploit. Most importantly, free speech in the US acts as a “free marketplace of ideas” in which hate and fear-based arguments like those of the terror organizations will wither into dust when faced with the “competition” of rational and reasoned arguments from the populace at large. This can not happen while left-wing groups assail their opponents’ very right to express themselves.

The Right Way to Fight

The siren song of American partisan lunacy can be highly seductive, but it is important to remember the practical skills the US has developed in countering domestic terrorism. As a free democracy, the country is easily susceptible to radicalism and rancor, but as a nation of laws, it is also equipped to prevent it. Now that we understand the history of domestic terrorists, their specific makes and models, and the ways in which they are often empowered by efforts to undermine them, the image of a successful counter-terror campaign should begin to come into focus.

It is recommended these actions are carried out under the authority of older laws, such as the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act), as opposed to newer anti-terror legislation like the Patriot Act. This will prevent unproductive controversy on the constitutional legitimacy of Federal counter-terror operations.

The Blind Sheik, convicted in US Courts The Blind Sheik, convicted in US Courts

GWOT Remix – While the garish and gratuitous Human Rights violations of the George W. Bush administration tend to overshadow its counter-terrorism efforts, it has quietly developed a host of tactics and best practices for countering Transnational Jihadist terrorism, tactics which could easily be adapted from battling Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qa’eda to battling Randall Terry and Operation Rescue.

One of the most powerful techniques for countering terrorism has been attacking them at the source of their financing. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has all the capabilities required to freeze, capture, and dismantle the entire financial infrastructure of terror cells. Combined with standard law enforcement tactics like surveillance, infiltration, and sabotage, a coordinated assault by the FBI on domestic terrorist infrastructure could weaken, if not permanently damage, these groups’ ability to carry out terrorism.

Devilish Details – In the 1920it s, Al Capone ran one of the widest reaching and most sophisticated organized crime elements in the history of the United States. In 1931, he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Not on charges of racketeering or murder, but rather income-tax evasion. The lesson here is that direct combat against criminal elements is unwise when you can easily dismantle them with smaller regulations. This is a strategy that has been used against domestic terrorists before, and it is also the most likely to yield immediate results.

Rather than full paramilitary assaults on domestic terrorists, such as in 1993 with the tragic massacre in Waco, Texas, law enforcement would be better served by chipping away at organizations for smaller legal violations. Has the suspect paid their taxes? Do they have licenses for their firearms? Do they have the right credentials for purchase and possession of dynamite, blasting caps, or controlled fertilizing substances which could be used to produce an improvised explosive device? These questions are easy to answer, and will lead to much cleaner convictions than more ethereal charges of “terrorism” which have produced little to zero legitimate convictions in American courts.

The Consequences of Violence

While the predictions and warnings in this text may seem dire, there is very little evidence of successful terror campaigns in the United States. If anything, terror attacks usually have the opposite reaction, pushing the country and its culture away from whatever values are being espoused by radicals and extremists. Veteran American activist Bob Morris wrote about this tendency on the blog Politics in the Zeros [Disclosure: I am a Contributor to Polizeros]. Recalling the left-wing terror campaigns of the 1960s, he writes this:
[In] the 60s Jerry Rubin said “kill your parents.” Things got quite radical then. But within a few years, the right wing was ascendant and the left mostly in tatters. That’s because the middle class got turned off by leftie howlings and went rightward. The right saw this as a huge organizing opportunity and took full advantage of it. It wasn’t until the past couple of years that the pendulum started moving leftwards again.

This is not to excuse the violent actions of domestic terrorists, but to illustrate that the battle against terrorism is not a hopeless or impossible task. With a clear understanding of the threat and a sober, determined strategy for dealing with it, the United States can easily withstand whatever the radicals may throw at it.

However, if the debate over domestic terrorism continues along hysterical, partisan, and sometimes downright tyrannical lines, the threat of domestic terror will go unchecked, and many innocent Americans will lose their lives. And they may die at the hands of terrorists, but the incompetence and negligence of those in the political and security establishment will surely bear a great deal of responsibility as well.

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Reader Comments (13)

"Most importantly, free speech in the US acts as a “free marketplace of ideas” in which hate and fear-based arguments like those of the terror organizations will wither into dust when faced with the “competition” of rational and reasoned arguments from the populace at large.

"This can not happen while left-wing groups assail their opponents’ very right to express themselves."

Yes, that's the current USA problem.

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOrdinary American

"As a free democracy, the country is easily susceptible to radicalism and rancor,.."


But less so than what we see in the political spectrums of continental Europe -- i.e. France, Austria. Such countries take rather extreme measures when dealing with their minority groups, and we don't see Jean-Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Jorg Haider counterparts in the US and UK. These political figures have all basked in the public sunlight. We don't see that kind of thing in the US.

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

The shooter of George Tiller is not truly pro life, because pro life individuals dont promote murder and violence. There are people out there misrepresenting the pro life cause, but the truth is that for every violent "pro life terrorist" there are countless peaceful americans who wish for abortion's end for the betterment of america. Those who beleive that the pro life movement is made of violent radicals who wish nothing more than death to their opponents can go to for an outstanding list of quotes from national pro life organizations condemming the actions against abortionist George Tiller. I have also featured a couple of statements from more pro life leaders not mentioned in the article:

"The pro-life leadership has gone out of its way – and rightly so – to condemn the violence that took the life of abortionist George Tiller on Sunday. I join with those voices, as I always have done, that declare that the end never justifies the means, and that violence has no place in the effort to end abortion."
-Father Frank Pavone, national pro life leader & founder of Priests for Life

"Stand True does not believe in aborting abortionists and denounces this violent act. Answering the violence of abortion with more violence will not serve the babies or help the pro-life movement in any way. We are praying for the family of George Tiller and those in his church while he was shot."
-Bryan Kemper, founder of pro life organization Stand True

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShea

Well put, Shea. And that is also the difference when comparing them to Islam and jihadist violence. Jihadists (and radical clerics) are the loudest voices in Islam today and not the moderates. Violent anti-abortionists are NOT the loudest voices in the pro-life movement. That is why there is a crisis in Islam today. Islam has a silent majority and tribalism keeps them that way.

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Thanks for an excellent & timely article. I plan to do some mulling & rereading.

Ordinary American & Josh,
The current situation in the US clearly calls for reasoned debate. I don't have a TV, but I read news & blogs. I don't see "left-wing groups assail their opponents’ very right to express themselves.” I do see people angry that free speech is obstructed in public meetings when people or groups start yelling and chanting so nobody can ask or answer questions. I see people banging & kicking on closed doors, saying their 1st Amendment rights are violated because they can't go into a room that's already packed well over the fire code limit. Violation of free speech happens when people scream to prevent other people from hearing or speaking-- I don't care which side is doing it. It's not speech-- it's the equivalent of blowing air horns throughout the meeting. On the other hand, the people running the meetings have a responsibility to enforce rules of orderly discourse. It's one thing if someone raises his/her voice when asking a question or making a statement, but people who yell when other people try to talk should be dealt with according to rules of order. That way, all views can be heard.

Opposing this behavior hardly qualifies as assailing people's "very right to express themselves.” Things seemed quieter this past week... here's hoping for a more balanced debate, though it's more likely to be the calm before the storm...

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy


Thanks very much for your kind words. The "left wing groups assailing free speech" is a reference to the professional campaigns demanding the boycott/firing/removal of mainstream media figures like Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, etc. It's a completely separate issue from the town hall disruptions over the health care reform debate.

Try as I might, and oh boy did I try, I could NOT link the Town Hall disruptions, FreedomWorks, Koch industries, or any other right wing lobbying organization to the issue of domestic terrorism. There is simply no evidence for it, period.

On the other hand, I fully agree that the town hall disruptions run totally counter to the reasonable and informed debate that should be expected of American politics.

It may seem like I'm giving a pass to the lobbyists and right wingers who seek to sabotage the public debate, but once I brushed all of the politics aside, it allowed for a much more focused and coherent examination of the bona fide domestic terrorists. I wanted to be able to legitimately call a spade a spade, and to do so, I had to draw a thick red line between domestic terrorists and those organizations who are merely partisan operators.


August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Mull

Dave- Sadly, I think we are seeing a UK equivalent of Haider, Le Pen etc- the BNP recently had their Holocaust-denying leader Nick Griffin, as well as former National Front leader Andrew Brons, elected to the European Parliament.

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Dunn

Great article. You have a talent for taking tangled politics and explaining them in a straightforward way.

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristopher Reisz

So, what is the definition of terrorism, anyway? Does a weapon have to be fired? I feel terrorized just reading about it...

A man toting an assault rifle was among a dozen protesters carrying weapons while demonstrating outside President Barack Obama's speech to veterans on Monday, but no laws were broken. It was the second instance in recent days in which unconcealed weapons have appeared near presidential events." rel="nofollow">Man carries assault rifle to Obama protest -- and it's legal

If it's OK for 12 people to to strut around with weapons at Presidential events, why not 50 or maybe 200? WTF is going on here?

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

[...] writing in Enduring America. The domestic terror groups are not dangerous for their extremism, their paranoia, or their particular calibration of [...]

domestic terrorists have been in america since day 1- go look it up in any american history book before 1978.

the radical left has been instigatiing treason on america for approximately 80 years. they have changed their tactics from rioting in the streets to hurling verbal insults threats and lies and intimidation for years now. they blame others to get the blame off of themselves- this is one of their intimidating tactics. a normal person wants to have peace, sanity, friends, get along with others,go to a place of worship and worship their religion freely, have a job, and prosper without being greedy about it.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersio

"domestic terrorists have been in america since day 1- go look it up in any american history book before 1978."

Or you can just scroll up and read the article.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Mull

“This can not happen while left-wing groups assail their opponents’ very right to express themselves.”

Yes, that’s the current USA problem.

Yeah. Look how the leftists are treating Rifqa Bary. They ignored her testimony.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

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