The Secret World of Extreme Militias

On the Web and in militia groups, antigovernment extremism is on the rebound. A special investigation

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Ty Cacek for TIME

ODF militiamen Frank Delollis, right, signals for a patrol party to turn around while searching the Old Roseville Prison property in Roseville, Ohio for enemy combatants during the Ohio Defense Force's annual FTX on Aug. 21, 2010.

Camouflaged and silent, the assault team inched toward a walled stone compound for more than five hours, belly-crawling the last 200 yards. The target was an old state prison in eastern Ohio, and every handpicked member of Red Team 2 knew what was at stake: The year is 2014, and a new breed of neo-Islamic terrorism is rampant in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio... The current White House Administration is pro-Muslim and has ordered a stand-down against Islamic groups. The mission: Destroy the terrorist command post — or die trying. The fighters must go in "sterile"—without name tags or other identifying insignia—as a deniable covert force. "Anyone who is caught or captured cannot expect extraction," the briefing officer said.

At nightfall the raiders launched their attack. Short, sharp bursts from their M-16s cut down the perimeter guards. Once past the rear gate, the raiders fanned out and emptied clip after clip in a barrage of diversionary fire. As defenders rushed to repel the small team, the main assault force struck from the opposite flank. Red Team 1 burst through a chain-link fence, enveloping the defense in lethal cross fire. The shooting was over in minutes. Thick grenade smoke bloomed over the command post. The defenders were routed, headquarters ablaze.

This August weekend of grueling mock combat, which left some of the men prostrate and bloody-booted, capped a yearlong training regimen of the Ohio Defense Force, a private militia that claims 300 active members statewide. The fighters shot blanks, the better to learn to maneuver in squads, but they buy live ammunition in bulk. Their training—no game, they stress—expends thousands of rounds a year from a bring-your-own armory of deer rifles, assault weapons and, when the owner turns up, a belt-fed M-60 machine gun. The militia trains for ambushes, sniper missions, close-quarters battle and other infantry staples.

What distinguishes groups like this one from a shooting club or re-enactment society is the prospect of actual bloodshed, which many Ohio Defense Force members see as real. Their unit seal depicts a man with a musket and tricorn hat, over the motto "Today's Minutemen." The symbol invites a question, Who are today's redcoats? On that point, the group takes no official position, but many of those interviewed over two days of recent training in and around the abandoned Roseville State Prison near Zanesville voiced grim suspicions about President Obama and the federal government in general.

"I don't know who the redcoats are," says Brian Vandersall, 37, who designed the exercise and tried to tamp down talk of politics among the men. "It could be U.N. troops. It could be federal troops. It could be Blackwater, which was used in Katrina. It could be Mexican troops who are crossing the border."

Or it could be, as it was for this year's exercise, an Islamic army marauding unchecked because a hypothetical pro-Muslim President has ordered U.S. forces to leave them alone. But as the drill played out, the designated opponents bore little resemblance to terrorists. The scenario described them as a platoon-size unit, in uniform, with "military-grade hardware, communications, encryption capability and vehicle support." The militia was training for combat against the spitting image of a tactical force from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), FBI or National Guard. "Whoever they are," Vandersall says, "we have to be ready."

As militias go, the Ohio Defense Force is on the moderate side. Scores of armed antigovernment groups, some of them far more radical, have formed or been revived during the Obama years, according to law-enforcement agencies and outside watchdogs. A six-month TIME investigation reveals that recruiting, planning, training and explicit calls for a shooting war are on the rise, as are criminal investigations by the FBI and state authorities. Readier for bloodshed than at any time since at least the confrontations in the 1990s in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the radical right has raised the threat level against the President and other government targets. With violence already up on a modest scale, FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state agencies point to two main dangers of a mass-casualty attack: that a group of armed radicals will strike out in perceived self-defense, or that a lone wolf, trained and indoctrinated for war, will grow tired of waiting. Even the most outspoken militia commanders worry about the latter scenario. Kevin Terrell, a self-described colonel who founded a group of "freedom fighters" in Kentucky and predicts war with "the jackbooted thugs" of Washington within a year, says he has to fend off hotheads who call him a "keyboard commando." Some are ejected from his group, he says, and others are willing to wait a little longer. "You have to have the right fuel-air mixture, the piston has to be in the right position, the spark has to be perfectly timed," he says. "The day will come—sooner than later."

Twisted Patriots
Within a complex web of ideologies, most of today's armed radicals are linked by self-described Patriot beliefs, which emphasize resistance to tyranny by force of arms and reject the idea that elections can fix what ails the country. Among the most common convictions is that the Second Amendment—the right to keep and bear arms—is the Constitution's cornerstone, because only a well-armed populace can enforce its rights. Any form of gun regulation, therefore, is a sure sign of intent to crush other freedoms. The federal government is often said in militia circles to have made wholesale seizures of power, at times by subterfuge. A leading grievance holds that the 16th Amendment, which authorizes the federal income tax, was ratified through fraud.

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