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.

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In a reversal of casting, the armed antigovernment movement describes itself as heir to the founders. As they see it, the union that the founders created is now a foreign tyrant. "It's like waking up behind enemy lines," says Terrell. He says he smelled a setup when the FBI arrested nine members of Michigan's Hutaree militia in March and charged them with plotting to kill police. (Their trial is set to begin in February.) Terrell and other leaders put their forces on alert, anticipating a roundup. "There was a lot of citizens out there in the bushes, locked and loaded," he says. "It's only due to miracles I do not understand that civil war did not break out right there."

Some groups, though not many overtly, embrace the white-supremacist legacy of the Posse Comitatus, which invented the modern militia movement in the 1970s. Some are fueled by a violent stream of millennial Christianity. Some believe Washington is a secondary foe, the agent of a dystopian new world order.

A small but growing number of these extremist groups, according to the FBI, ATF and state investigators, are subjects of active criminal investigations. They include militias and other promoters of armed confrontation with government, among them "common-law jurors," who try to make their own arrests and convene their own trials, and "sovereign citizens," who respond with lethal force to routine encounters with the law. In April, for example, Navy veteran Walter Fitzpatrick, acting on behalf of a group called American Grand Jury, barged into a Tennessee courthouse and tried to arrest the real grand-jury foreman on the grounds that he refused to indict Obama for treason. In May, Georgia militia member Darren Huff was arrested by Tennessee state troopers after telling them that he and other armed men intended to "take over the Monroe County courthouse," free Fitzpatrick and "conduct arrests" of other officials, according to Huff's indictment and his own account in an interview posted online. Investigators are keeping a wary eye on a related trend, which has yet to progress beyond words, in which law officers and military service members vow to refuse or resist orders they deem unconstitutional. About a dozen county sheriffs and several candidates for sheriff in the midterm elections have threatened to arrest federal agents in their jurisdictions.

Group distinctions are seldom clear because of overlapping memberships and alliances. The Ohio exercise, for example, included a delegation from the 17th Special Operations Group led by Colonel Dick Wolf, a former Army drill sergeant who previously took a unit to join Arizona militia leader Chris Simcox in armed patrols along the Mexican border. Wolf travels around the country to train other groups in such skills as knife fighting and convoy operations. He does not ask about their philosophies. "That's their business," he says.

The Obama Factor
None of these movements are entirely new, but most were in sharp decline by the late 1990s. Their resurgence now is widely seen among government and academic experts as a reaction to the tectonic shifts in American politics that allowed a black man with a foreign-sounding name and a Muslim-born father to reach the White House.

Obama's ascendancy unhinged the radical right, offering a unified target to competing camps of racial, nativist and religious animus. Even Patriots who had no truck with white supremacy found that they could amplify their antigovernment message by "constructing Obama as an alien, not of this country, insufficiently American," according to Michael Waltman, an authority on hate speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Perennial features of extreme-right scare lore—including imagined schemes to declare martial law, abolish private ownership of guns and force dissidents into FEMA concentration camps—became more potent with Obama as the Commander in Chief.

Threats against Obama's life brought him Secret Service protection in May 2007, by far the earliest on record for a presidential candidate. At least four alleged assassination plots between June and December—by militiamen in Pennsylvania, white supremacists in Denver, skinheads in Tennessee, and an active-duty Marine lance corporal at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune—led to arrests and criminal charges before Obama was even sworn in.

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