Joseph Konopka has no reported links to Islamic fundamentalists. He comes from Wisconsin, not the Middle East. But when police arrested him last Saturday in a utility tunnel next to Chicago's subway, they say he was carrying a vial of cyanide.
And they say they quickly discovered Mr. Konopka had stashed more than a pound of similar material in an underground storage area. While no one was harmed and his intentions aren't clear, experts say the material could be used to create a highly toxic cloud of gas in a confined area. It's a timely reminder that, for all the attention now directed to international terrorism, the threat from domestic groups and individuals remains as potent as ever.
Perhaps more so.
Already responsible for most of the terrorist incidents in America, home-grown extremist groups appear to be growing in number, says a new report. And at least one watch-dog group says they may be forming links with Islamic extremists. Thus, federal authorities shouldn't get so wrapped up in battling Al Qaeda that they miss threats closer to home, terrorism experts say.
"If we are not careful, we could open up a little slice of heaven for these guys," California's new homeland security chief, George Vinson, warned high-tech executives in December.
Until Sept. 11, the biggest terrorist attack came from domestic extremist Timothy McVeigh, whose bomb killed 168 in Oklahoma City.
Between 1980 and 2000, three-quarters of the nation's 335 suspected terrorist incidents came from domestic groups, not foreign ones, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In the current anthrax investigation, authorities are increasingly focusing on domestic scientists rather than foreign operatives as the prime suspects.
Domestic right-wing groups are conducting the most visible activities. Despite America's hardening attitude toward terrorism, for example, two neo-Nazi leaders in the US lauded the Islamic terrorists in the World Trade Center, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a hate-group watchdog based in Montgomery, Ala.
Earlier this month, the SPLC issued a new report showing that 676 extremist groups operated in the US last year, a 12 percent increase from the year before, which had also seen a similar jump.
"Not since the early decades of the 20th century has the extreme right done so well across so much of the Western hemisphere," writes Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC's new report. "The spread of multicultural ideology, the diminishing percentage of whites in the world, major waves of immigration into the United States and Europe, and the long march of globalization have all contributed to the historic crossroads where we now find ourselves:"
And there's evidence they're forging links with Mideast fundamentalists, the SPLC says. White supremacists and Muslim extremists share some of the same agenda, says Stephen Gale, University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in terrorism. Al Qaeda wants to disable the US so it can't influence the Islamic world while the US groups hope to bring down the US government and create three racially segregated parts.
In Mr. Konopka's recent case, what his motivation was. According to authorities, he calls himself "Dr. Chaos" and is suspected of heading a group called the "Realm of Chaos." He's wanted in Wisconsin for various acts of vandalism, including igniting chemicals under a gas pipe and vandalizing an electric-power substation.
Nine months ago, with those charges pending against him, Konopka, 25, said goodbye to the grandmother who helped raised him and disappeared until his arrest Saturday. Police at the University of Illinois-Chicago discovered that Konopka was apparently exploring the tunnels underneath the campus that lead to the Chicago Transit Authority system. Police say he was carrying equipment allowing him to pick locks and replace them with his own locks.
The Chicago Transit Authority, which had already tightened security after Sept. 11, vowed to strengthen it further and examine the warren of little-used tunnels and storage rooms that make up part of the city's transit system.