Watch out for America's own extremists

As the United States puts in place stringent new security measures, the nation must also watch for a possible unintended consequence: Domestic extremist groups may be inflamed by the new laws, inciting them to violence as well.

There are already ominous rumblings. In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, one extremist Christian group posted a warning to America on its website: "You have sought to use these events of destruction, to further your agenda and feign your image of justice and freedom fighter to the world. I have not sent you but I shall drag you in a bed of afflictions that you shall not recover from again."

This may be just rhetoric, but the chance that there are disaffected Americans who harbor intense hatred for their own government and are willing and capable of committing violence against national targets must not be ignored. Remember Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

Given the existence of these groups, speculation that one or more may have been involved in the spate of anthrax-filled letters going to prominent American targets has some credibility.

The number of such groups active in the US is much higher than many people realize. While the number of groups peaked at about 800 in the mid-1990s, there are still almost 200 known groups that actively seek independence from the Union or a forcible change in the way this country is governed.

Domestic extremist groups appear to have just as much, if not more, interest in unconventional weapons as their Middle Eastern counterparts. In the mid-1980s, a Christian survivalist group known as The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, hatched a plan to carry out a mass-casualty attack on major American cities by poisoning water supplies with potassium cyanide. In the early 1990s, members of an antigovernment militia group, the Minnesota Patriots Council, acquired the deadly toxin ricin.

In 1995, antigovernment activist Larry Wayne Harris was arrested for possession of a strain of anthrax that turned out to be nonlethal. He had previously been caught with the bacterium that causes the plague, and had written a self-published book on how to create and use biological weapons.

The ideology of antigovernment militants telegraphs the possibility of a backlash against heightened security, post-Sept. 11. These militants often embrace white-supremacist, apocalyptic, or extremist Christian identity beliefs. They view the federal government as an enemy of the people, depriving US citizens of their civil rights and pandering to interests suggested by vast global-conspiracy theories such as the "New World Order," under which United Nations-led foreign troops will impose a despotic rule over the US.

Such extremist groups may therefore feel affronted if the FBI is granted more extensive powers of surveillance and detection. Ditto, the increase of federal law-enforcement and military personnel at airports, sporting events, metro stations, and other public venues. They may believe that the proposed plan for a system of national identification cards is just another way for the government to subjugate US citizens to its "oppressive" rule. The plan for NATO surveillance planes to patrol American skies will only further cement the beliefs of these groups that the government is illegally imposing its "tyrannical" rule on the people.

America, of course, needs to increase its security. But new measures do raise the specter of a possible backlash from US extremists. Continued attention to these groups is called for. While fighting the enemy without, we must not forget the enemy within.

Gary Ackerman and Cheryl Loeb are research associates at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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