WASHINGTON – Militia groups with gripes against the government are regrouping across the country and could grow rapidly, according to an organization that tracks such trends.
The stress of a poor economy and a liberal administration led by a black president are among the causes for the recent rise, the report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says. Conspiracy theories about a secret Mexican plan to reclaim the Southwest are also growing amid the public debate about illegal immigration.
Bart McEntire, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told SPLC researchers that this is the most growth he's seen in more than a decade.
"All it's lacking is a spark," McEntire said in the report.
It's reminiscent of what was seen in the 1990s — right-wing militias, people ideologically against paying taxes and so-called "sovereign citizens" are popping up in large numbers, according to the report to be released Wednesday. The SPLC is a nonprofit civil rights group that, among other activities, investigates hate groups.
Last October, someone from the Ohio Militia posted a recruiting video on YouTube, billed as a "wake-up call" for America. It's been viewed more than 60,000 times.
"Things are bad, things are real bad, and it's going to be a lot worse," said the man on the video, who did not give his name. "Our country is in peril."
The man is holding an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, and he encourages viewers to buy one.
While anti-government sentiment has been on the rise over the last two years, there aren't as many threats and violent acts at this point as there were in the 1990s, according to the report. That movement bore the likes of Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.
But McEntire fears it's only a matter of time.
These militias are concentrated in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and the Deep South, according to Mark Potok, an SPLC staff director who co-wrote the report. Recruiting videos and other outreach on the Internet are on the rise, he said, and researchers from his center found at least 50 new groups in the last few months.
The militia movement of the 1990s gained traction with growing concerns about gun control, environmental laws and anything perceived as liberal government meddling.
The spark for that movement came in 1992 with an FBI standoff with white separatist Randall Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Weaver's wife and son were killed by an FBI sniper. And in 1993, a 52-day standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, resulted in nearly 80 deaths. These events rallied more people who became convinced that the government would murder its own citizens to promote its liberal agenda.
Now officials are seeing a new generation of activists, according to the report. The law center spotlights Edward Koernke, a Michigan man who hosts an Internet radio show about militias. His father, Mark, was a major figure in the 1990s militia movement and served six years in prison for charges including assaulting police.
Last year, officials warned about an increase in activity from militias in a five-year threat projection by the Homeland Security Department.
"White supremacists and militias are more violent and thus more likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks on the scale of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing," the threat projection said.
A series of domestic terrorism incidents over the past year have not been directly tied to organized militias, but the rhetoric behind some of the crimes are similar with that of the militia movement. For instance, the man charged with the April killings of three Pittsburgh police officers posted some of his views online. Richard Andrew Poplawski wrote that U.S. troops could be used against American citizens, and he thinks a gun ban could be coming.
The FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, Michael Heimbach, said that law enforcement officials need to identify people who go beyond hateful rhetoric and decide to commit violent acts and crimes. Heimbach said one of the bigger challenges is identifying the lone-wolf offenders.
One alleged example of a lone-wolf offender is the 88-year-old man charged in the June shooting death of a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.