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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
US radical right remains a threat
By Kevin Anderson
BBC News

Newspaper headline: Timothy McVeigh Guilty
Timothy McVeigh shared militias' anti-government views

The Oklahoma City bombing shocked the United States in 1995 and brought to light the shadowy world of radical rightwing paramilitary groups known as militias.

Militia members considered themselves a citizens' defence force against a government tilting towards tyranny and a sinister global conspiracy.

Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols had attended militia meetings, hoping to find allies in the anti-government paramilitaries, but they were never members.

However, following the bombing, the media and law enforcement suddenly focused on the armed and virulently anti-government subculture of the militias.

Ten years on, militias are just a shadow of what they were at their height in the mid-1990s but experts and law enforcement say that while the militias may have waned, the radical rightwing movements that spawned them have not.

The rise

Exact numbers are difficult to come by but at their peak in 1995 and 1996, militias were estimated to have some 25,000 members and a larger number of sympathisers, Mark Pitcavage, who tracks extreme rightwing groups for the Anti-Defamation League, told the BBC News website.

Fire at Branch Davidian compound
The fiery end to the Waco siege incensed McVeigh

From their peak in late 1996, today membership in the militias is only a few thousand, he said.

The radical right in the US has always had a fascination with paramilitary organisations dating back to the secretive, anti-communist Minutemen in the 1960s, Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, told the BBC News website.

But beginning in the 1980s, so-called new world order conspiracy theories spread throughout the extreme right in the US, he said.

"They asserted some nebulous conspiracy was on the threshold of seizing all power in the US and dismantling the constitutional system," Mr Barkun added.

It is not that the extreme right has ceased to exist or that the potential for violence has disappeared
Michael Barkun
Syracuse University

The fear of a globalist, socialist tyrannical conspiracy became an article of faith in the radical right, according to Mr Pitcavage.

And militias sprang up to face what they saw was an imminent threat, with sightings of ominous black helicopters and reports of foreign forces in the US on secretive manoeuvres.

The conspiratorial speculation reached a fever pitch with an unwitting reference by former President Bush to a "new world order" in a 1991 speech to Congress marking the end of the Gulf War.

Mr Bush was simply noting the shift in geo-politics as the Soviet Union crumbled and suddenly the bi-polar world of the Cold War melted away, potentially giving rise to a new international strategic alignment.

But the militias took this as a brazen confirmation of their worst fears by no less than the former head of the CIA, a member of the secretive Skull and Bones society, and now president of the United States.

Their suspicions were reinforced with anger at the election of Bill Clinton, the passage of the assault weapons ban in the US and the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And what drove Timothy McVeigh and others over the edge was the government raid at Ruby Ridge Idaho in 1992 and a standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, ended in tragedy on 19 April 1993 with the death of more than 80 men, women and children.

McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma to mark the anniversary of the government raid in Waco.

The fall

The rise of the militia movement happened without the awareness of most Americans.

The damaged Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City
The Oklahoma bomb killed 168 people including children and infants

And actually, even the militias were not keen to have Timothy McVeigh around.

"They saw him as not controllable, as an unguided missile," Mr Barkun said, adding: "Clearly, he saw himself as a member of this kind of militantly anti-government subculture."

But suddenly with this greatest act of terrorism on American soil - until 11 September 2001 - these radical rightwing paramilitary groups were thrust into the media spotlight.

Law enforcement also took a keen interest in the militias and increased their surveillance of the groups.

Law enforcement reached out to those in the militias that it could, telling them they could carry on as long as they did not break the law and asked if they did hear of anything illegal or potentially violent to let them know, Mr Barkun said.

The extreme right is never terribly organised, he said, and the bombing caused further fractures.

Some militia leaders tried to enter mainstream politics while others became even more extreme, dropped out of the militias and went underground.

The militias' conspiracy theories also included Y2K.

They thought the shadowy forces of the conspiracy would use the mass computer failure predicted by some to declare martial law.

Some militia members sold everything they had, bought a year's supply of dried food and enough weapons for a small army and prepared for Armageddon.

When 1 January 2000 dawned bright and shiny and everyone's computers still worked apart from a few slot machines in New Jersey and some trains in Sweden, more militia members abandoned the movement.

The continuing threat

But the decline in the militias should not be read as an overall decline in the radical right in the US, experts are quick to add.

Mr Barkun said: "It is not that the extreme right has ceased to exist or that the potential for violence has disappeared."

The militias were fashionable for a brief period, and they will doubtless be replaced by something else, although it is not clear what that might be or who would be the leader.

Major leaders of the radical right are either in jail as is the case with white supremacist Matt Hale or dead as in the case of National Alliance leader William Pierce.

Mr Pitcavage saw a slight increase in militia activity as of late with increased activity on message boards on the internet.

But they have learned the lessons of the 1990s, he added.

They are much less public about their activities and some have tried to recast themselves as supporting homeland security efforts in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Defiant McVeigh dies in silence
11 Jun 01 |  Americas
Oklahoma plotter given life term
09 Aug 04 |  Americas

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