Contemporary Domestic Terrorism

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Home Up Executive Summary Military Personnel and Domestic Terrorism Historical Review Contemporary Domestic Terrorism Rising Trends of Concern Conclusion Bibliography



From LCDR Steven Mack Presley, MSC, USN, Rise of Domestic Terrorism and Its Relation to United States Armed Forces (April 19, 1996)

Although terrorism has plagued governments, and public and private institutions for centuries in one form or another, its application and the strategies associated with it have evolved as surely as the societies upon which it is imposed. Technological advances, particularly in the transportation, communication and weapons fields, have facilitated the abilities of modern-day domestic terrorist groups to get their message out and has improved their capacity to take violent action to achieve their goals. Recent incidents, particularly the Weaver family incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the incident at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, have brought into question the extent to which government interdiction of armed citizen groups is actually legitimate before it violates their Constitutional civil rights. Additionally, to what extent is the use of force against these groups acceptable? In February of 1995, President Clinton introduced a counterterrorism bill into the Senate and House of Representatives. Among other extremely controversial proposals in the bill, the Department of Defense would be assigned an increased role in assisting in the investigation of domestic terrorism incidents in which chemical and biological agents were used (currently the military can be utilized in cases of terrorism in which nuclear weapons or devices are suspected or confirmed).(22) Although the increased role for the military would be very limited, requiring further amendment to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, civil liberties experts warn that it would violate the tenants of "civil supremacy over the military" and would further kindle the animosities and anti-government sentiment of the citizen-militias and conspiracy theorists.(23) Additionally, many Congressmen, law-enforcement officials and some military advisers agree that such uses of the military would be an extremely dangerous avenue of approach to combating domestic terrorism. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Democrat from New York) responded to questions as to whether the use of the military, in an expanded role, should be a part of the counterterrorism package, saying: ". . . the military defends the nation and does not involve itself in internal affairs."(24)

Incidents and Implications

There has been a clear and continuous decline in the number of terrorist incidents in the United States during the past two decades. Table 1 illustrates the number of suspected, prevented and actual incidents of domestic terrorism during the period 1977 through 1994. To more clearly delineate the trend of decline over time, a comparison of the average number of incidents per year during each of three, six-year periods is useful. During the six year period from 1977 through 1982, there was an average of 59.0 incidents/year; from 1983 through 1988 an average of 15.7 incidents/year were recorded; this compared to an average of 5.3 incidents/year investigated during the period from 1989 through 1994 (Table 1).(25) Complete and current data on the number and characteristics of incidents of domestic terrorism for 1995 are not yet available, but based upon the events that have received high visibility from media sources, the decade-long trend of declining incidents may have abruptly ended.

TABLE 1. Incidents of suspected, prevented and actual terrorism occurring in the United States during the 18-year period 1977 - 1994.(26) (Table Omitted)

Apparent Motivation

There are basically four categories into which groups that are regarded as domestic terrorists can be distinguished currently existing in the United States. These groups can be generically delineated as being either motivated by: (1) religious convictions, (2) racial prejudice and supremacist goals, (3) anarchistic/anti-government/ politically motivated, or (4) in pursuit of unique special interests. These categories are derived from a conglomeration of the categorization and delineation of extremist and terrorist groups by two respected subject-authorities, Stephen Segaller and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice. Segaller, in his book Invisible Armies, categorizes domestic terrorism in the United States into four groups as well, but lists them as being: (1) Cuban infighting (political), (2) "backwoods terrorism" (a combination of religious, racist and anarchistic), (3) violent Puerto Rican independence groups (political), and (4) a handful of domestic revolutionary Marxist groups (anarchistic/anti- government and racist).(27) The Department of Justice classifies domestic terrorist groups into six categories as indicated in Table 2, segregating further the religiously-motivated groups.

TABLE 2. Terrorist incidents differentiated by the classification of the group claiming responsibility, during the 13-year period 1982 - 1994.(28) (Table Omitted)

Philosophically, the motivations for the formation and continued existence of extremist and terrorist groups can be directly related in many instances to ethnic, cultural, religious, and racial feelings of superiority. An appropriate illustration of the continuum formed by these supremacist attitudes, and how they propagate further tensions, is presented by Frank G. McGuire, when he states:

As long as Christians feel superior to Jews (or is it actually vice-versa?) and Catholics feel superior to Protestants (or is it actually ... ?) and Ashkenazic Jews feel superior to Sephardic Jews (or is it ... ?) and men feel superior to women (or ... ?) and whites feel superior to blacks/browns/yellows/reds and so on ... the phenomenon will be with us.(29)

These cultural, racial, gender, and vast myriad of other differences that exist among the people of a large society, particularly one as diverse as the United States of America, must be recognized and appreciated, but not viewed as a hindrance to peace and harmony within the society. Nor should these differences be viewed as totally benign in their impact on the functioning of the society as a whole. Tibor Machan, a social and political commentator, presents a timely treatise on the fallacies associated with viewing multiculturalism as simply a difference in dress, music, dance, and customs. Dr. Machan concludes that cultural differences, whether a result of race, gender, religion, or whatever, impacts both negatively and positively on other cultures within the society.(30) Attitudes of cultural-superiority and intolerance are directly related, and incorporated into many of the extremist views and motivations that are plaguing America today.

The targets of domestic terrorism during the period from 1982 through 1994 were predominately commercial establishments (Table 3). The majority of incidents directed against commercial establishments were perpetrated by animal-rights and/or anti-abortion extremists, either attacking stores that sold fur, or clinics that performed abortions or provided abortion advice, respectively.(31) A listing of some of the terrorist and extremist groups operating within the United States during the past decade is provided in Appendix B.

Table 3. Terrorist incidents differentiated by the classification of the target attacked during the 13-year period, 1982-1994.(32)(Table Omitted)


Religious and Racial Supremacy/Intolerance. Religious intolerance based upon fundamentalist views has been the impetus for acts of terrorism throughout history, and has involved Orthodox Jews, Moslems, Catholics, and Protestants. There is probably no issue or conviction among mankind that is as inflammatory as that of religious beliefs. Fortunately, thus far in the United States, wholesale terror motivated by religious intolerance or hatred has not been as significant a threat as in other parts of the world, such as in Africa, the Middle East or Bosnia. The following statement was made in direct reference to Mormon fundamentalism and summarizes the very ideologies upon which this country was founded, and also provides an insight into the potential dangers that exist with religious extremist groups:

America is a unique nation in that it guarantees the freedom of religion with the First Amendment and the right to [keep and] bear arms with the Second Amendment. This means that people can believe whatever they want, and they can buy the guns to protect that belief. ...(33)

There has, however, recently been rhetoric and open threats of violence by various extremist groups that characterize themselves as being motivated by religion, but have unquestionably revealed racial supremacist and hate-mongerer views. The leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, preaches a mixed rhetoric of black supremacist views and religious ardor. He claims to have a following of some four million people.(34) Additionally, various white-supremacist groups, including some of the numerous Christian militia factions, espouse extremely caustic and hate-filled threats as well; seemingly an endless, ages-old game of "I call you a name, you call me a name." The relationships common among some of the more well-known right-wing extremist and terrorist groups operating within the United States is provided in Appendix C. Strangely enough, two racial supremacist groups representing opposite extremes, the Nation of Islam and the Posse Comitatus, have agreed to an ultimate endstate segregation of the United States into regions of "pure" racial integrity. Appendix D is a reproduction of the proposed division of the country into Whites-only, Blacks-only, and Jews-only territories that was obtained by law enforcement authorities during an investigation of the Posse Comitatus group.

Another group within the United States that has historically blended a racist agenda with religious rhetoric, and was truly terroristic in its actions and goals, is the Ku Klux Klan. They have, however, declined significantly in both their membership numbers and "invisible" power-base in recent years, and although there are still very vocal individuals appearing from time to time, the threat posed by the Klan these days is basically limited to localized regions, in the form of parades and rallies. As the Klan has faded in its activities and numbers, it has been replaced by the extremely violent and rapidly growing racist movement known as the Aryan Nations, which is associated with the "Identity Church" and proclaims Anglo-Saxons to be "God's chosen people."

The fundamentalist Mormons are another religiously-motivated group within the United States that are drawing the attention and concern of law enforcement and other government officials. As discussed previously, this group has been at odds, to some extent, with the government since its creation in the early 1800s. Many of these fundamentalist Mormons are well-armed conspiracy-minded survivalists who have retreated to the mountains of central Utah to await Armageddon, which they believe will occur on April 6, 2000. Believing in their gifts of prophecy and revelation, and fired-up by heavenly visions and doctrines of blood atonement and oaths of vengeance, they have isolated themselves awaiting the end of the world and fearing that the government is about to take away their freedoms.(35)

A particularly sensitive and volatile issue to a large segment of the American people, regardless of their individual convictions, is the classification of specific abortion clinic-related violence as domestic terrorism. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994 in conjunction with the Attorney General Guidelines (AGG) on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Domestic Security/Terrorism Investigations, directed the formation of the Department of Justice Task Force on Violence Against Abortion Providers to investigate conspiratorial acts of violence against abortion clinics and personnel as domestic terrorism.(36) Even though personal views on the moral dimensions associated with abortion, whether for or against, are not strictly limited to religious convictions, the most vocal and visible anti-abortion advocates are directly allied with religious organizations. Abortion rights continues to be one of the most divisive issues among Americans, and stimulates extremely passionate and emotional rhetoric and reactions from people on both sides of the issue. During the period between 1982 and the end of 1984 there were a total of 220 separate acts of violence, including 89 cases of bombing, arson and other serious incidents, conducted against clinics where abortions were performed or abortion-advice offered.(37)

An issue which merits some consideration is the involvement of active-duty military personnel in organizations or groups that are directly related to anti-abortion (pro-life) militant groups that have used violence or destroyed property while expressing their opposition to abortion, which as stated previously could, and should be considered terrorism.(38) The use of threats of violence and/or sabotage to accomplish political objectives, whether "justified" by religious convictions or the most noble of humanitarian reasons, is still simply terrorism, and no degree of 'pseudo-legitimization' can alter that designation. The irony of, and obvious logical contradiction associated with anti-abortion extremism can be compared to the Shiite Muslim suicide bombers, and their actions against Israeli police buildings or public buses. Both groups conduct their efforts in the name of well-respected cosmopolitan religious values, and both claim to "oppose the violence of the system," but in actuality they are both employing terror to gain their desired endstates.

It should be acknowledged that the majority of anti-abortion, or pro-life proponents are non-violent and limit their active participation to public demonstrations and vocal opposition to abortion, however they may be indirectly supporting the more extreme elements of the movement through financial contributions, or by assisting in fund-raising activities. The real crux, or interpretive dilemma posed by this specific issue is whether a military service member can freely exercise their moral convictions without "actively" being involved with such groups. Involvement in churches or through monetary contributions to such groups based upon religious or moral convictions could be interpreted as being "actively" involved in the issue, and could potentially effect the service member's attitudes toward others within the military working environment. Although the solution of the dilemma is beyond the scope of this paper, I do submit it as a point for consideration by the reader as it relates to the "Constitutional freedoms" for citizens, whether in the military or a civilian.

Racially and ethnically motivated prejudice, hatred and violence are as much a part of human history as any other characteristics of mankind, and have at least to some degree influenced the cultural and social identities of essentially all civilizations to date. From the enslavement of Hebrews by ancient Egyptians, to the current situation in the Balkans, racial and ethnic differences have caused immeasurable amounts of suffering and death. The history of racial and ethnic turmoil in the United States is no different, and we seem to be experiencing an increase in such activity recently. Even though the scope of this paper is not such as to allow an amplified discourse on the sociological impact of racism and ethnicism on our history, it is important to note that as a nation of immigrants we have, ironically, struggled with this issue since our initial breaths as a nation. Racially-motivated extremist and terrorist groups in the United States, especially those of today, tend to utilize religious justifications and "teachings" for their violent actions, and all indications are that this trend will continue at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future.

Anarchistic / Anti-government / Political. Terrorist groups of today that are actually anarchist, anti-government or political in their motivations are mostly associated with the growing self-determination, radical citizen-militia movements, or have been around a relatively long time, such as the Puerto Rican "freedom" fighters. The former has drawn considerable attention, and elicited wary concern from law-enforcement and civil-rights groups due to the bombing in Oklahoma City, and their rapid and continuing growth in numbers and visibility. A few of the more extreme citizen-militia groups, often motivated by "New World Order" conspiracy theorists and anger over a belief that government has become too large and repressive in everyday life, are openly soliciting and calling for the overthrow of the United States government. These groups, when allied with the self-described "Constitutionalists", are being considered as extremely dangerous by many law-enforcement and "watchdog" groups.(39) The Puerto Rican terrorist groups have been almost exclusively limited in their actions to operating within Puerto Rico against local and federal targets of opportunity.

Unique Special Interests. Within this designation of domestic terrorist groups are those of relatively recent creation, or at least they have relatively recently gained high public visibility through their actions. Groups such as the extremist animal-rights groups, environmental extremist groups and homosexual-rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Earth Night Action Group, and Act Up, respectively, have emerged within the past two decades and have actively used violence, destruction and intimidation to gain recognition, and to further their respective political agendas.(40)

Again, as with religiously motivated terrorist groups, initial contact and association with members of such organizations based upon a shared belief or personal conviction does not necessarily infer approval or even knowledge of their often "hidden" agendas and tactics. Oftentimes well-intentioned people, including active-duty military personnel, can inadvertently join or participate in activities sponsored by such groups, and unknowingly become indoctrinated with extremist and activist views. These viewpoints, along with peer-pressure from within the organization, can lead to active participation in furthering the "noble" objectives of the group through violent and/or destructive actions. Additionally such attitudes can be reflected in how the service member views national policy, and interacts with others in their unit(s) that may hold and express an opposing viewpoint.

The following diagram (Fig. 1) illustrates some of the existing and emerging extremist groups and organizations within the United States that are of concern to law enforcement authorities and political leaders.

Figure 1. Existing and emerging extremist groups within the United States that are of growing concern.

Criminal Association with Extremist/Terrorist Groups

The potential danger posed to society by many of the extremist and terrorist groups and organizations that exist today can be directly assessed from their links to convicted criminals, and their associations with organized crime. There are two principle associations between domestic terrorist groups and the criminal subculture within the United States; the first and most obvious being the use of crimes such as robbery, theft and drug trafficking as a means to accumulate funding to achieve their "higher" goals, and secondly as a population and environment from which to recruit "willing and able" members. There are several recent historic examples of both of the above associations, however the scope of this study will limit its focus to the correctional institution recruiting-grounds of both the Aryan Nations and the Black Guerrilla Family.

Pastor Richard Butler, the designated leader of prison ministries for the Aryan Nations, actively recruited from and maintained liaison with the prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood was first formed in the early 1960's in San Quentin, and is composed predominately of outlaw bikers, and the rest are from the ranks of the American Nazi Party and other groups. Additionally, Gary Yarbrough, a leader of what was one of the most dangerous terrorist group in the United States, The Order, formed an alliance between his group and the Aryan Brotherhood while he was in prison. On the other extreme end of the racial hate-group spectrum, the Black Liberation Army terrorist organization maintains an affiliation with, and recruits from, its in-prison component, the Black Guerrilla Family. The Black Guerrilla Family was originated in the mid-1960s by the former Black Panther Party member George Lester Jackson while serving time in San Quentin as well. After Jackson was killed, James "Doc" Holiday, a former member of the central committee of the Symbionese Liberation Army, took command and formed additional alliances between his group and the New World Liberation Front, and the Weather Underground.(41)