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American Militant Extremists United States, radicals

Do homegrown terrorists pose a threat to the United States?

Yes. The September 11 attacks-the biggest and deadliest terrorist plot ever executed in the United States-were carried out by foreigners, but Americans were responsible for about three-quarters of the 335 incidents between 1980 and 2000 that the FBI has classified as suspected or confirmed terrorism. The most notorious example of domestic terrorism is the April 1995 truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

Is domestic terrorism a new phenomenon?

No. It has existed for more than a century and even resulted in the assassination of an American president. Extremists across the political spectrum-including white supremacists, Puerto Rican separatists, abortion opponents, and environmentalists-have used a variety of terrorist tactics to pursue their goals. Experts say domestic terrorism is becoming more dangerous as groups adopt looser organizational structures similar to that of the al-Qaeda network, plan larger attacks, and consider turning to weapons of mass destruction.

What is domestic terrorism?

Just as differing definitions of terrorism are offered by government agencies and other experts, so the meaning of domestic terrorism is also hard to pin down. The FBI, the lead federal agency dealing with domestic terrorism, has defined it as "the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or its territories without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

The U.S.A. Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, defines domestic terrorism as criminal acts that are "dangerous to human life" and seem to be meant to scare civilians or affect policy. Civil rights groups have expressed concern that this definition is overly broad.

Not all politically motivated violence qualifies as terrorism (for instance, the FBI and some terrorism experts did not regard the Unabomber, who says his antimodern beliefs were behind a 17-year mail-bombing campaign, as a terrorist), nor do all groups that espouse extremist ideas turn to terrorist acts. Experts do not consider all political assassinations or hate crimes to be terrorist attacks, and some critics note that politics often helps determine what gets labeled domestic terrorism as opposed to criminal activity.

What types of domestic terrorism are there?

The FBI classifies domestic terrorist threats mostly by political motive, dividing them into three main categories: left-wing, right-wing, and special-interest. Religious sects have also been connected with terrorist incidents.

What is left-wing domestic terrorism? Terrorist activity by anticapitalist revolutionary groups. In the late nineteenth century, immigrants from Eastern Europe sympathetic to the international anarchist movement launched what historians consider the first wave of domestic terrorism in the United States. Anarchists tried to kill the steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick in 1892 and bombed Chicago's Haymarket in 1898. In 1901, an anarchist sympathizer named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York.

Another wave of left-wing terrorist activity began in the 1960s. Far-left groups such as the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Armed Forces for Puerto Rican National Liberation (FALN) used bombings and kidnappings to draw attention to their radical causes. By the mid-1980s, however, left-wing terrorism had begun to wane.

Are left-wing domestic terrorists still active?

The only such groups still active, experts say, are Puerto Rican separatists, but even their activists have been scaled back. In its heyday, the FALN tried to kill President Truman, stormed the House of Representatives, and set off bombs in New York City, but Puerto Rican extremists today tend to confine their activities to Puerto Rico. On another front, the FBI warns that anarchist and socialist groups, which have seen a revival since the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, represent "a latent but potential terrorist threat."

What is right-wing domestic terrorism?

Terrorism motivated by opposition to federal taxation and regulation, the United Nations, other international organizations, and the U.S. government itself, as well as by a hatred of racial and religious minorities. This type of terrorism, which has roots in the activities of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and antigovernment groups, flourished in the 1980s. FBI officials say right-wing militants-including skinheads, neo-Nazis, militia members, and the so-called Christian Patriot movement-now pose America's most serious domestic terrorist threat.

What attacks have been conducted by right-wing terrorists?

Examples of right-wing domestic terrorism include:

* the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing;
* the July 1996 bombing at Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympics, which killed one person and injured more than 100;
* the summer 1999 shooting sprees by lone gunmen targeting minorities in the Chicago and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, which left three people dead.

Law enforcement officials have prevented planned attacks on government offices and other right-wing terrorist plots.

What is special-interest domestic terrorism?

Unlike left-wing and right-wing groups, which have broad revolutionary agendas, special-interest terrorists focus on single issues such as abortion, the environment, or animal rights. Eco-terrorism, perpetrated by supporters of animal rights and environmental safeguards, arrived in the United States after cropping up in England in the early 1990s and accounts for the majority of domestic terrorist incidents in the past five years. The FBI has classified many violent attacks on abortion providers as criminal events, but not terrorism.

What targets have been chosen by eco-terrorists?

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) has claimed responsibility for setting several fires, including a July 1998 fire on a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, that caused $12 million in damage. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has been connected to break-ins, thefts, and vandalism at animal-research laboratories on the West Coast and to a March 1999 firebombing of circus trailers in Franklin Township, New Jersey. Most of the 600 crimes that the ALF and ELF are suspected of committing since 1996 have not been classified as acts of terrorism. These crimes, which include vandalism and theft, have resulted in some $43 million in damages, according to the FBI.

Have domestic terrorists used weapons of mass destruction?

Yes. In 1984, followers of the Indian-born guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon tried to disrupt a local election by poisoning salad bars with salmonella bacteria. No one died, but 751 people became ill. And some experts speculate that the fall 2001 anthrax letters were sent by an American scientist. Domestic terrorists have become increasingly interested in obtaining weapons of mass destruction, experts say, and right-wing extremists have been prosecuted for possessing ricin, a biological toxin derived from the castor-bean plant.

How dangerous is domestic terrorism?

It's difficult to say-especially since experts worry more about small groups than large ones. An estimated 10,000 to 100,000 people belong to right-wing militia groups, but their level of involvement varies, and the extremist core of this movement is smaller. Although experts think only a fraction of animal-rights and environmental activists would turn to terrorism, nobody knows how many autonomous cells of eco-terrorists there are or how many people might be involved.

Law enforcement has monitored, infiltrated, and prosecuted hierarchical organizations, and, officials say, thereby prevented some terrorist attacks. But it's much harder for law enforcement to anticipate attacks planned by small groups, like the one behind the Oklahoma City bombing, or by individuals such as the Minnesota college student Lucas Helder, who conducted the May 2002 pipe-bomb spree. To avoid discovery, many militants have gone underground and adopted "leaderless resistance."

What is "leaderless resistance"?

Leaderless resistance-a strategy first articulated at a 1992 convention of right-wing groups-entails a general endorsement of terrorist violence by movement leaders but leaves planning and executing operations to individuals or small groups. Eco-terrorists follow a similar model, encouraging new adherents to start their own violent cells rather than join existing ones. Experts say leaderless resistance has parallels to the way Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network operates. Under leaderless resistance, autonomous attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the ALF's circus-trailer attack form part of an uncoordinated but essentially united campaign.

How does the United States government combat domestic terrorism?

In 1982, the FBI was named the lead federal agency for combating terrorism that takes place in the United States. (This mandate included attacks by both Americans and foreigners and was later expanded to include terrorist attacks on Americans abroad.) Many FBI field offices lead local Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), through which the bureau coordinates its counterterrorism efforts with those of local police and other federal and local bodies. By the end of 2003, the FBI plans to have a JTTF in each of its 56 field offices. The U.S.A. Patriot Act expanded the FBI's ability to collect information and conduct surveillance on individuals thought to be involved in terrorist activities.

Can the FBI use informants to combat domestic terrorism?

Yes, but its powers are limited by rules similar to those that govern other criminal investigations. The FBI's ability to infiltrate suspect domestic groups was constrained in 1975 after revelations that FBI espionage programs to monitor antiwar activists, black nationalists, and other groups violated constitutional rights.

Private civil rights groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reportedly use informants to gather intelligence on right-wing terrorist groups and may share this information with government agencies.

Does the United States keep a formal list of domestic terrorist groups?

No. While the State Department publishes a "Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations" list, no U.S. government agency maintains a formal list of domestic terror groups.

Do different types of domestic terrorist groups have ties with one another?

It's hard to know. Leaderless resistance has made it difficult to track ties between, say, one suspected far-right terrorist and another. There are no known operational links across ideological lines-between far-left and far-right terrorist groups, for instance. But some domestic-terrorism watchers note that left-wing and right-wing extremists share an opposition to globalization. Also, experts note that anarchist and left-wing rhetoric has begun to emerge in eco-terrorist propaganda.

Do domestic terrorist groups have ties to foreign terrorist organizations?

Usually not. But eco-terrorism is also a phenomenon in Canada and Europe, and groups such as the ALF and ELF have ties not only with each other but with their foreign counterparts.

Do domestic terrorist groups have ties to al-Qaeda?

There are no known operational links between domestic terrorist groups and al-Qaeda, but monitoring organizations have noted that both American right-wing extremists and Islamist militants spread similar theories about Jews, Freemasons, and other groups conspiring to control the world. Moreover, some white supremacists applauded the September 11 attacks. "Anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is alright by me," said one leader of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group based in West Virginia; "I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude."

Have domestic terrorists changed their behavior since September 11?

Since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent anthrax letters, any terrorism-related lead-international or domestic-receives increased scrutiny. As a result, American extremists have been lying low, experts say. Nonetheless, eco-terrorists firebombed a Bureau of Land Management wild-horse corral in Nevada and targeted several university research facilities. And antigovernment messages accompanied the pipe bombs left in mailboxes in the Midwest, Texas, and Colorado in May 2002.

Copyright 2002 The Council on Foreign Relations