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"We call it somewhat of a perfect storm," says a high-ranking FBI official who declined to speak on the record because of the political sensitivities of the subject. With an economy in free fall and rising anger about illegal immigration, Obama became "a rallying point" for dormant extremists after the 2008 election who "weren't willing to act before but now are susceptible to being recruited and radicalized."
Theirs is not Tea Party anger, which aims at electoral change, even if it often speaks of war. In the world of armed extremists, war is not always a metaphor. Some of them speak with contempt about big talkers who "meet, eat and retreat." History suggests that even the most ferocious, by and large, will never get around to walking the walk. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center observes that "there are huge numbers of people who say, 'We're going to have to go to war to defend the Constitution or defend the white race,' but 'That will be next week, boys.'"
And yet there are exceptions, and law-enforcement officials say domestic terrorists are equally the products of their movements. Those most inclined toward violence sometimes call themselves three percenters, a small vanguard that dares to match deeds to words. Brian Banning, who led local and interagency intelligence units that tracked radical-right-wing violence in Sacramento County, Calif., says, "The person who's interested in violent revolution may be attracted to a racist group or to a militia or to the Tea Party because he's antigovernment and so are they, but he's looking on the fringe of the crowd for the people who want to take action."
One such man was James Von Brunn. On June 10, 2009, he pulled up to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, raised a .22-caliber rifle and shot security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns in the chest. Part of Von Brunn's story is now well known, but police, FBI and Secret Service investigators held back a startling epilogue.
Von Brunn was an avowed white supremacist with a history of violence that reached back decades. He had spent six years in prison after an attempt to take hostages at the Federal Reserve in 1981. After finding only disappointment in organized groups, Von Brunn retreated to his website and railed against passive comrades. "The American Right-wing with few exceptions... does NOTHING BUT TALK," he wrote. At 88 and hospitalized with a gunshot wound he suffered at the museum, Von Brunn did not loom large in the public eye as a figure of menace. He was profiled as a shrunken old man, broke and friendless, who ended another man's life in an empty act of despair. He died seven months later in prison before he could be tried.
What authorities did not disclose was how close the country had come to a seismic political event. Von Brunn, authoritative sources say, had another target in mind: White House senior adviser David Axelrod, a man at the center of Obama's circle. The President was too hard to reach, in Von Brunn's view, but that was of no consequence. "Obama was created by Jews," he wrote. "Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do."
The episode sent a jolt through the FBI and DHS. Von Brunn had demonstrated motive, means and intent to kill one of the President's closest aides. The Secret Service assigned Axelrod a protection detail and took other, undisclosed steps to broaden its coverage. The DHS put out bulletins to state and local law-enforcement agencies on the tactics, warning signs and other lessons of the case. FBI agents need to understand, a senior supervisor says, that "it isn't just the threat from Islamic extremists but also from homegrown or domestic terrorists" with antigovernment agendasas the bureau had already seen in a small town in Maine.
The Dirty Bomber
The first thing Jeff Trafton noticed at 346 High Street was a "big swastika flag in the living room." Upstairs, where a man lay dead in his bedroom, there were photographs of the victim posed in a black Gestapo trench coat. Any murder was unusual in Belfast, Maine, a town of 7,000 where Trafton is chief of police. This one kept getting stranger.
Who did it was not a mystery. Amber Cummings, then 31, shot her husband James, 29, to death, dropped the Colt .45 revolver and walked to a neighbor's to dial 911. Evidence of her torment at the dead man's hands during years of domestic abuse would later persuade a judge to spare her a prison sentence.