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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On the day of the shooting, Dec. 9, 2008, the story she told and an initial search of the house brought an FBI forensic team running. James Cummings appeared to have accumulated explosive ingredients and radioactive samples. He had filled out an application to join the National Socialist Movement and declared an ambition to kill the President-elect.

It was hard to tell how seriously to take that threat. On Jan. 19, 2009, WikiLeaks made public the FBI search inventory, which was distributed to security planners for Obama's Inauguration. State police assured reporters, in response, that the Cummings home lab had posed no threat to public safety.

A much more sobering picture emerged from the dead man's handwritten notes and printed records, some of which were recently made available to Time. Fresh interviews with principals in the case, together with the documents, depict a viciously angry and resourceful man who had procured most of the supplies for a crude radiological dispersal device and made some progress in sketching a workable design. In this he was far ahead of Jose Padilla, the accused al-Qaeda dirty-bomb plotter, and more advanced in his efforts than any previously known domestic threat involving a dirty bomb. Cummings spent many months winning the confidence of online suppliers, using a variety of cover stories, PayPal accounts and shipping addresses. He had a $2 million real estate inheritance and spent it freely on his plot.

"He was very clever," says Amber Cummings, who until now had not spoken publicly about her late husband's preparations. "There's a small amount of radioactive material he can legally buy for research purposes. He'd call those companies, and he had various stories. He'd claim he was working as a professor."

On Nov. 4, 2008—Election Day—Cummings placed his last two orders for uranium, at a total cost of $626.40, from United Nuclear Scientific Equipment & Supplies. The Michigan-based company, which declined to answer questions, offers uranium for sale online in "medium, high, super high and ultra high radiation" blends. In an ironic twist on customer service, United Nuclear wrote with regret to inform Cummings that one of the samples he ordered that day "was already purchased by Homeland Security for training purposes." By way of apology, the company sent a larger quantity, in two chunks.

A vendor in Colorado sold Cummings radioactive beryllium. Cummings produced a third radiation source at home. From standard references and technical manuals, Cummings learned how to extract thorium from commercially available tungsten electrodes by soaking them in a peroxide bath.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, all three metals—uranium, thorium and beryllium—are highly toxic when ingested and cause cancer if inhaled as fine airborne particles. Cummings had none of them in large quantity, and none had the high output of gamma rays that would make for the most dangerous kind of dirty bomb, but he was looking for more-lethal ingredients. A shopping list, under the heading "best for dirty bombs," named three: cobalt-60, cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Cummings made his best progress on high explosives. He bought large quantities of 3% hydrogen peroxide, which is commonly sold in pharmacies, then concentrated it on his kitchen stove to 35%. With acids on hand, Cummings had a recipe and all the required ingredients for TATP, a hellishly energetic explosive favored by Middle Eastern suicide bombers.

In 2001, when shoe bomber Richard Reid came close to downing American Airlines Flight 63, he had several ounces of TATP in his hiking boots. Cummings had the ingredients to make many times that much, as well as aluminum powder, thermite, thermite igniter and other materials used to detonate the explosive and amplify its effects. Crude designs Cummings sketched on lined paper suggest that he had a lot to learn about efficient dispersal of radioactive particles. Even so, he was aware of the gaps in his knowledge. "His intentions were to construct a dirty bomb and take it to Washington to kill President Obama," Amber Cummings says. "He was planning to hide it in the undercarriage of our motor home." She says her husband had practiced crossing checkpoints with dangerous materials aboard, taking her and their daughter along for an image of innocence.

Maine state police detective Michael McFadden, who participated in the investigation throughout, says he came to believe that James Cummings posed "a legitimate threat" of a major terrorist attack. "When you're cooking thorium and uranium under your kitchen sink, when you have a couple million dollars sitting in the bank and you're hell-bent on doing something, I think at that point you become someone we want to sit up and pay attention to," he says. "If she didn't do what she did, maybe we would know Mr. Cummings a lot better than we do right now."

Who Would They Fight?
The abandoned state prison in Roseville, with its broken cinder-block walls and crumbling stairwells, made a suitably apocalyptic set for the Ohio militia's August exercise. In the officers' ready room, where back issues of Shotgun News and Soldier of Fortune lay on folding tables, an ancient graffito reading "KKK" had been painted over by one of Kenneth Goldsmith's men. "The Klan in this area, they don't like me at all," Goldsmith says. "They came to me a few years ago to join forces... I told the guy, 'You think you are from a superior race, is that it?' He said yes. I said, 'You don't look so superior to me.'"

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