this was from the November|December 2005 issue of legal affairs magazine. it seems that the legal community this magazine caters to thinks that anyone with a gun is a crackpot criminal.
The Enemy Among Us
They have grown smaller and quieter over the past decade, but citizen militias are still locked and loaded in rural America. Is the FBI paying attention?
By Geoffrey Gagnon
THE SERIOUS ARRIVED AT DAWN, painted their faces green, and began drilling while the grass was still cool and moist. Others drove in just before the mid-morning June sun climbed above the trees. They paused over the trunks of their cars and the backs of their trucks and checked their Saturday-morning gear, as if it was golf clubs or fishing rods. But the men of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militiaclicking magazines into assault rifles, thrusting pistols into holsters, shifting knee pads and helmets into placewere truly weekend warriors.
Once a month, in the middle part of southern Michigan, they come to ready for battle. Their base of operations is Camp Stasa, a family farm outside the tiny town of Bancroft, Mich. It's owned by a World War II veteran named Frank Stasa who, the militiamen say, served as a guard at Nuremberg during the Nazi trials. A decade ago, when the Michigan Militia imagined itself an army, one of about 800 similar groups across the country, Stasa offered up his cornfields for training. These days the movement is almost quiet, in Michigan and elsewhere; the old leaders have scurried underground, and those who remain have adopted a lower profile. At most, 150 groups are active, experts say, and the ones in Michigan hardly constitute an army. Still, this group of several dozen men, most of them blue-collar workers approaching middle age, gathers at Stasa's farm. They drive from suburban Detroit, down a rutted dirt road that runs between flat pastures a half hour east of the state capital in Lansing. They pass by the remains of kitchen appliances and onto Stasa's spread. It's hardly in the open, but it's not difficult to spot if you know what you're looking for, a lot like the militia that trains there.
Nearly two dozen militiamen were scattered about Camp Stasa that day when a pack of six began to march. They followed a sandy two-track road around the perimeter of Stasa's fields, clad in camouflaged fatigues that they said were required by the Geneva Conventions. Each man was loaded down with a closet full of military miscellany. Some hauled glow sticks and radios with attachable throat mics. Others carried flashlights with red lenses and parachute cord and zip ties, which, they explained, would be helpful in securing prisoners. Everyone carried loaded guns, two or three each.
In front, at the point, trudged a thick militia member who goes by the call sign Corporal Punishment. He wore dark sunglasses and, sheathed on his hip, a six-inch knife that tapped against a canteen and kept time with every stride. In his gloved hands he held a black, military-style AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with a grenade launcher attached beneath the barrel. His chest pocket held pistol slugs. He said he'd come that morning from Bay City, an hour away, to help maintain the country's security. Behind his left shoulder marched Mad Hatter, who had slung across his forearm the barrel of a WASR-10, a semiautomatic sibling of the AK-47. On his chest he carried several 30-round magazines for the gun. He also had a black .40 caliber pistol and a smaller nine-millimeter handgun, with extra ammunition for each. Mad Hatter said he'd spent the last six months training to keep his family safe.
Over the clank and rattle of metal, the conversation was taken up by Rancher, marching to Mad Hatter's right. He'd been with the militia for only six months, but his conversion to the cause seemed complete. His recent sojourn in Arizona to help militia-types corral Mexican border-crossersa "peace-keeping mission," Rancher called itmade him the envy of the group. These days illegal immigration is near the top of the list of perceived threats that keep militia members on edge, along with national identity cards, and government land seizures. In Rancher's mind, the arch-villain behind the threats is the United States government, which, he's convinced, brought down the World Trade Center to provoke a war that would allow the feds to impose martial law as a pretext to seizing guns. "Buildings don't fall down like that unless they're hit from the inside," he said.
Sweat-soaked and sucking warm water from canteens, the men lumbered to the end of a two-mile march. None of them seemed to notice the dark pickup truck that rolled to a muffled stop 30 yards behind them. Out of it stepped a square-jawed, rope-muscled man, lean and quiet. In his mid-30s, he was younger than the rest. He paused to light a cigarette. Without a word, he strapped on his gear, gripped his rifle, and in the hottest moments of the day, set out alone along the dirt road. He seemed to like it that way.
Corporal Punishment, Mad Hatter, Rancher, and the others flopped down at picnic tables, scattering their weapons and gasping like winded horses. Before them on a shooting range, a group of eight militiamen who'd been drilling since dawn flashed hand signals and worked ambush techniques in the tall grass. Their faces were streaked with green and black paint, and they listened closely to their training instructor, Super Six, an infantry veteran of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, who motioned them off the range. Moments later, the now-rested marchers took their positions at the range, and Six sat back beneath a tree to watch. "For some of these guys it's just fun and games; they just aren't serious," Six said, idly thumbing rifle rounds and snickering at the gaudy firearms and projectile launchers fastened to a few of the shooters' guns. "Scopes are fine for hunting, but for shooting people, they're distracting," he said. "They keep you from seeing the guy sneaking up beside you."
Six, who grew up in West Virginia in a family fond of homemade guns, seemed genetically wired for warfare. He earns a living selling military supplies, and he recently complained on the Michigan Militia website that turning swords into plowshares would not stop plow thieves from making weapons. Pulling a slow drag on a smoke, he worried that a battle could reach his doorstep soon. "This country's in trouble," Six said. "When it all goes to shit, what's gonna happen then?"
As Six spoke, the square-jawed man who had set off on his own rounded the cornfield and came back into view. He was still smoking, still silent. His fatigues were crisp, the Army Ranger and U.S. Army patches sewn onto them line-straight. When he passed in front of Six and claimed a spot on the left side of the shooting range, a couple of heads turned. Around him rose the rapid pop and blast of bullet spray. He squeezed the trigger of his gun at a slow, deliberate pace. Six watched for a moment, then raised his hand to point. "Guys like that," he said, "are going to make this thing work."
A DECADE AFTER GRABBING THE NATION'S ATTENTION, the so-called citizen militias, if they're recognized at all, are composed of blustering and ostentatiously armed figures more likely to provoke curiosity than fear. A rite of spring at Camp Stasa known for years as "tax blast" reinforces the stereotypea family-friendly day of fun and guns when the uninitiated can take aim at IRS forms and tax booklets. But a militia group can also inspire disaffected members to dangerous action, and it is the loner among them, the laconic man in the shadows, who has always unnerved the government.
In 1983, before there was a militia movement, Randy Weaver hunkered down in the wilds of Idaho to prepare for the end of the world. Eight years later, he was busted for selling guns, and when he skipped his court date, U.S. Marshals went looking for him. As they conducted surveillance on his cabin, shots rang out, and the marshals began trading fire with the cabin's inhabitants. After two days, a U.S. Marshal and Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son were dead. A nine-day standoff ensued, and gun-owning sympathizers across the country painted Weaver and his family as martyrs. A year later, after federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., and President Bill Clinton signed the Brady gun-control law, the radical right had all the evidence it needed to conclude that the government was conspiring to make war on its own citizens. The battle cry went out, and militias sprang up seemingly wherever angry gun owners came together.
The Michigan Militia flourished under the leadership of Norm Olson, a pastor and former high-school teacher with a booming voice. In 1994, on a 120-acre compound in Northern Michigan, Olson went into the business of training "guerrilla fighters to be ruthless, merciless," he said. He armed them, too, opening the Alanson Armory, a no-frills gun shop and militia supplier built off the side of his garage. The place was crammed with rifles and military supplies, as well as militia patches and flags. "We wanted to be visible," Olson said, "to put the government on notice." For a time, Olson was the public face of the national militia movement. During a 1995 Senate committee hearing on domestic terror, the sleeves of his battle dress uniform rolled up and a camouflaged militia hat on his head, Olson launched into a tirade about government corruption and encroachment into citizens' lives. The next day's national newspapers were full of his incendiary statements, including his suggestion that militias needed to provide government with "a good spanking to make it behave."
Olson's rhetoric might have gained little notice had it not been for a notorious loner linked to the Michigan Militia. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh mixed two tons of fertilizer with fuel oil to detonate a Ryder truck in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day care center. Foreign terrorists were initially suspected, but police charged McVeigh with the crime two days later. The case prompted terrorism experts to develop a more nuanced theory of why militias were dangerous. For all their tough posturing, the experts concluded, militia leaders were mostly talk. But their rhetoriccalls to urgent and armed resistance against apocalyptic government conspiraciescould push a member to strike. "It was never the militia leader actually bombing or killing," said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-find-ing at the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that monitors extremists. "But they coax the others to violence." When police pulled McVeigh over for driving without plates hours after he bombed the Murrah Federal Building, he was no ranting militia leader. He was a former Army private, passed over by a Special Forces unit, disaffected and deranged on a diet of militant, racist rhetoric. "McVeigh was a nobody who was inspired by what others told him," Pitcavage said. "It's the nobodies that scare us."
AS MILITIAS INSPIRE LONERS LIKE MCVEIGH TO ACT, they try to instill an understanding that anyone arrested for committing violence will deny a militia connection. The idea is to protect others in a militia cell, to make it appear that the so-called lone wolf is an unallied loon. But those who plot terror rarely get there alone. "The leaders of these groups create a justification for action and urgency," said Michael German, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism instructor for the bureau. "They say, 'Here's what you should do and here's how you should do it.' And then they stand back, they create space, and they say, 'I had no idea this guy wanted to blow up buildings.' " What often pushes loners away from the group is the realization that an attack may never come, that all the talk and training may be for naught. So the loner splinters off and prepares to attack on his own. "It's the meet, eat, and then retreat phenomenon that makes these people break apart from the groups," Pitcavage said. "A lot of these places are finishing schools for people of a certain ideology. With all those weapons and all that talk, they feel that something has to happen."
In 2003, Norman Somerville, loaded with weapons and seething with militant urgency, was prepared to make something happen in rural Northern Michigan. A Special Forces veteran linked to militia cells, Somerville was fed up and itching for a showdown. Police had recently killed Scott Woodring, a fellow militia member, in a shootout as they attempted to arrest him for the killing of a state trooper. Woodring's death touched off angry web-postings among militia sympathizers and galvanized Somerville to strike at police. On a 40-acre compound outside the hamlet of Mesick, he plotted what prosecutors would later describe as "a violent militia conspiracy" to avenge Woodring's death. Somerville fortified his property, built an underground bunker, and collected machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. He kept photographs of President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with the crosshairs of rifle scopes drawn over their faces. Above the ground, hidden by tree limbs, Somerville positioned a massive anti-aircraft gun that he trained on the approach to his property. And he readied the pride of his arsenalvehicles he referred to as the twin "war wagons." Somerville had outfitted his Jeep and van with M1919 .30 caliber machine guns capable of emptying 550 rounds in a minute. The Jeep, with its passenger seat removed, boasted a mounted gun turret. Somerville planned to use the Jeep to cause a traffic accident and then to open fire on police when they arrived at the scene. In late 2003, authorities learned that Somerville was about to carry out his plan, and they moved in. He was convicted on weapons charges and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. In court, prosecutors called the rural handyman a "psychologically deranged man who was armed to the teeth, filled with hate, high on dope and had his finger on the trigger." After his arrest, Somerville said he had handed out or traded illegal machine guns to others, and he warned authorities of a network of "shadowy rebels" preparing for "a quiet civil war" in rural Michigan.
ON THE FIRING LINE, MAD HATTER SPRAWLED IN THE DEEP GRASS at the back of the shooting range, his big belly to the ground and the business end of his rifle pointed down range. Rancher lay to his left, wearing a camouflaged T-shirt that he had picked up while searching for illegal immigrants in Arizona. Behind them, sitting in the shade and smoking a cigarette, was the man with the square jaw and precise aim. He called himself Razor and said it was his second time at a militia event.
The three were the newest members of the group, but each said he had trolled militia websites for years. "I watched the militias when they got really popular a few years back, and I didn't think it was for me," said Rancher. But September 11 got him thinking hard about the movement. "When those towers came down," he said, "I saw the writing on the wall. I thought, 'Bad things are coming.' " For Mad Hatter, the impetus wasn't much different. He explained that vague terror warnings got him thinking about ways to protect his family. Mad Hatter wants to be ready for thieves, or terror, or even a repeat of the power outage that stretched from New York to the Midwest two summers ago. He's filled his basement with provisions for survival, and he's saving up for more guns and a lot more ammo, which he stores in green canisters like the ones that rattle in the back of his work van. "You can never ever have too much," he said. From 25 yards, he squeezed a dozen or so rounds from his .40 caliber pistol.
Razor watched with an idle stare. He had stopped shooting and put his rifle down, mentioning that he had left his favorite gun in his truck. When asked to see it, he smiled for the first time that day and headed for the pickup. From the floor near the passenger seat, Razor produced a soft black case from which he pulled a shiny .45a pistol with a long barrel the color of motor oil. With the weight of the big gun collected in his hand, Razor beamed before tucking it back into the truck. Still, he wouldn't say much. A few cigarettes later, he offered only that he'd thought about joining the militia for years. "I looked around for a long time, and when I came out here I found out I agreed with a lot of what these guys say," he said, dodging questions about what he agrees with. "I just think it's important to train, to stay sharp."
MICHAEL GERMAN HAS A SCHOOLBOY'S HEAD OF WISPY BLOND HAIR and an aw-shucks grin. His appearance belies the street-tough attitude he cultivated while working undercover as an agent for the FBI. German's specialty was infiltrating dangerous extremist groups, including militia cells. In 1996, he assumed the persona of Rock, a thuggish gun supplier, and slipped into the Washington State Militia in time to hear talk of assassinations and bomb-building. The militia was convinced that United Nations troopsthe harbingers of what militia members called the New World Orderwere preparing an invasion from nearby Canada, and the militia readied for battle. As its members practiced building pipe bombs in a warehouse in Mount Vernon, Wash., Rock documented the government's case. When he had enough evidence, Rock arrived at a meeting with a box of hand-cuffs and a promise: He'd teach the guys how to escape from locked cuffs without using a key. It seemed like something worth learning. After the militia members cuffed themselves out of reach of their guns, FBI agents stormed the building and arrested the bomb makers without firing a shot. German, at the front of the room, held up his FBI badge.
His experience with extremist groups made German valuable to agents with militia questions in bureaus across the country. And in 2002, German got a call to lend a hand with an investigation, reportedly centered in Tampa, Fla. He wouldn't offer specifics about what the FBI had uncovered. "I can only say that there was an ongoing case with an international component," he said. "And it was a mess, organizationally."
According to stories published in The New York Times, the case involved an Islamic terror organization suspected of joining forces with a domestic militia group. "I told people at the FBI that this case is going to be on the front page of the paper," German recalled. "It's either going to be good for us, or bad for us." When the FBI didn't commit more resources to the investigation, German said he grew confused. He said he also noticed that the bureau had created what he believed were false documents concerning the case, and when he raised his voice to protest, the FBI effectively benched him. "Over the next four or five months, the work just stopped," he said.
After 16 years in the FBI, German resigned in the summer of 2004, saying the FBI froze him out for raising a warning flag about domestic terror. Today, German's complaints are at the center of an internal investigation, about which German and the FBI are mum. But he paints a picture of a bureau gone soft on domestic terror, charging that investigations, warnings, and reports of threats get bogged down in paperwork and ignored.
German acknowledges the bureau's myriad priorities, but cautions that the FBI isn't taking homegrown extremist factions seriously enough. "These groups are clandestine, criminal operations. They're a part of an ongoing conspiracy," he said. He believes the threat of homegrown terror requires the relentless building of criminal cases against pipe-bomb builders, illegal-gun dealers, and the like. It requires agents on the ground and an appreciation for a network that inspires violence. "[Law enforcement officials] say we're looking for a needle in a haystack when it comes to these guys," German said. "But we need to quit searching the haystack and start going after the needle factories."
Experts who track militias stress that while visible numbers are down, members today appear more committed to their cause. "If anything, the people who have stayed with the militias have gotten more militant and dedicated," said Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door, a respected account of the antecedents to the militia movement. "Judging by their rhetoric today, they're more aggressive in their embrace of destruction." A report released in 2004 by the Anti-Defamation League claimed evidence of "a quiet attempt to revive the antigovernment movement." Despite the militias' deep distrust and fear about operating in public, outfits around the country, the report said, are putting out the call for "like minded folks." The ADL cited newly vigorous recruitment campaigns in West Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and Washington.
In his annual threat assessment delivered to Congress last February, FBI Director Robert Mueller characterized the danger posed by militia groups as a "continuing threat." And John Lewis, a 28-year veteran of the FBI and now its deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said the bureau is mindful of the dangers posed by far-right militia outfits. "The shock and awe of Oklahoma City still permeates this building," he said, sitting at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We're minding the store." Lewis said he was unaware of German's public allegations to the contrary, and unfamiliar with the case that put German and the bureau at loggerheads. He also dismissed the former agent's criticism of the FBI for taking homegrown terror too lightly: "I don't know how he can say that without the top-down view that I have. I run counterterrorism off this desk, and we're using every arrow in our quiver." Lewis said he believed that the FBI was not shortchanging the fight against domestic terror. "We think we've got the right ratio here," he said, "when it comes to [international terror] and [domestic terror]."
But fighting international terror has become the bureau's highest priority since September 11, Lewis explained. While the FBI has poured more money and manpower into counterterrorism efforts generally, the global war on terror has absorbed most of the resources.
He acknowledged that his resources for dealing with home-grown terrorists are limited. "This is a huge country," he said. "Do we have everyone covered? I wouldn't bet my last 20 on it." Making the challenge more difficult is the FBI's obligation to balance the rights of militia members under the First and Second Amendments with the need to stop terror before it strikes. "There's nothing wrong with collecting weapons and explosives," Lewis explained. "There's nothing wrong with collecting lots and lots of weapons. Some could say that these people are dangerous, and they'd be right. But until a line is crossed, we have to stand back."
Most FBI critics don't quibble with its decision to make international terror a higher priority than extremists at home. But many find the bureau's domestic choices confusing. In May, Lewis told a Senate hearing that groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front had become the bureau's chief domestic priority. According to the FBI, in the last 15 years, over 1,000 attacks against property have been documented and attributed to radical left-wing groups. "It shouldn't come as a surprise," Lewis said, "that these groups rank higher [in priority] than militia groups."
But militia expert Daniel Levitas was surprised. "I find that both laughable and terrifying," Levitas said of the bureau's emphasis on eco-terrorists. He's among the critics who say the FBI's soft stance on militia groups may have already had consequences.
IN JANUARY 2002, WITH THE NATION'S ATTENTION ON FOREIGN TERROR and anthrax mailings, a curious package arrived on the doorstep of a Staten Island family. It had come from Tyler, Tex., and contained a stash of fake identification documents, including a social security card, a birth certificate, and a United Nations ID card. Included was a note from the package's sender, William Krar. "We would hate to have this fall into the wrong hands," Krar wrote to the intended recipient, New Jersey Militia member Edward S. Feltus.
A longtime player in the New Hampshire Militia, Krar was a weapons salesman who also made guns. Federal authorities first noticed him in 1995, after a foiled plot to kidnap a television newscaster in retaliation for media coverage that criticized the Oklahoma City bombing. One of the plotters, Sean Bottoms, told investigators that Krar was active in the militia movement and was an explosives expert who dealt in ammunition and military supplies. About the same time, according to the FBI, an informant told the bureau that Krar was a "good source of covert weaponry."
After the terrorists struck on September 11, police in New Hampshire were warned that Krar was engaged in "suspicious activity." An employee at a self-storage facility told authorities that Krar claimed he knew about the attacks before they occurred and knew about future attacks. Police noted in their report that Krar was storing "army-type equipment."
As it turned out, the trove of fake documents had shown up in Staten Island by mistake. The family who received it passed it along to local police, who handed it over to FBI agents in Newark, N.J. Seven months after the intercept, the FBI spoke with Feltus, who revealed that he had ordered the phony documents from Krar, hoping they would help him travel in the event of a disaster or government siege. Feltus also told agents that he and another militia activist had stockpiled more than 100 guns in Vermont.
Three months after their interview with Feltus, FBI agents in Texas drove out to have a look at Krar's home. Still unaware that he had come to the FBI's attention seven years before, agents decided they'd monitor Krar's mail. Nothing happened for three months, until January 2003a full year after the FBI received his package of bogus IDswhen police in western Tennessee pulled over a rental car driven by Krar.
The officers found marijuana and syringes containing atropine, an antidote for nerve gas. They also found documents with vague titles (one was called "procedure") that the FBI said "appear to be instructions for executing a covert type plans/operations." Over the following month, FBI agents put the pieces together, and a picture of Krar finally emerged. That's when field offices in New England and Texas shared information related to the militia connections, the September 11 complaint, and the investigation into the 1995 plot. They requested a warrant to search Krar's property, and in Krar's east Texas storage locker, agents found an arsenal that included a hydrogen cyanide bomb capable of killing thousands of people. Among other things, Krar had been hoarding blasting caps, detonators for military devices, trip wire, grenades, pipe bombs, machine guns, half a million rounds of ammunitioneven a landmine. Krar, 63, was convicted and sentenced in May 2004 to 11 years in prison.
When asked this past summer about the Krar case, Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Lewis said he was familiar with it and believed the bureau had acted promptly. When refreshed on the chronology of the case, he expressed skepticism. "I can't believe a scenario in which we'd sit on something like that," he said. "But again, I don't know about the details of that case."
AS THE DAY SLID AWAY, THE GROUND BEHIND THE ROW OF SHOOTERS working the range filled with shell casings. Gun grease, juice boxes, AR-15 magazines, and Coco-Puff cereal bars covered a nearby picnic table, making it look as if a SWAT team had gone to grade school. The portions of Super Six's neck not lathered in paint or covered by his camouflaged shirt had grown red from the sun.
Unlike most others in the militia, Six had seen real combat. Beneath his pant leg he hid a pink scar that he had earned in a firefight in Iraq. "I came around in the mid-'90s and checked the militia out," he explained. "What I saw was a joke." Six said he decided that when the militias in Michigan got serious, he'd join. Three years ago, he did. This year, he began a training program that he hopes will produce tough, self-reliant militia leaders, and he wants to grow its ranks swiftly. He calls it a "force multiplier school." "This country's bankrupt. Everyone knows that," he said.
Before the sun dipped below the trees at Camp Stasa, Six and the men engaged the safeties on their weapons and began to pack their equipment into pouches and bags. They peeled off their gloves, packed up the trunks of their cars, and slipped off one at a time. On the summer Saturday at Camp Stasa, there was no grand dismissal, no concluding remarks. Some men had reason to stay and keep shooting into the evening and some camped overnight. Eventually they all left as Razor had arrivedalone.
Geoffrey Gagnon is the managing editor of Legal Affairs.