It was a bright spring morning when Timothy McVeigh drove a rental truck into Oklahoma City, parking it in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and walking to his yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis nearby.
Minutes later, at 9:02 am, the fuse he had lit sputtered into the truck’s deadly cargo – nearly 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel – causing a massive explosion, which set off seismometers and could be heard 50 miles away.
There among the dust and rubble were the tragic details of what remains the most costly domestic terrorist attack in US history: 168 people killed, including 19 children at the federal building’s America's Kids Day Care Center. Nearly 700 people were injured. The Oklahoma City Police Department reported 324 buildings damaged including 10 structures collapsed and 13 condemned, 86 cars burned or destroyed, and an estimated 50,000 people evacuated from the downtown area.
That was 20 years ago Sunday, and April 19 – the day “the shot heard round the world” launched the American Revolution in 1775 – likely had some significance for Mr. McVeigh, who had deep anti-government beliefs. It was also the date two years earlier when the federal siege of the religious group Branch Davidians at Waco, Tex., ended in a shootout and fire – like the deadly siege by federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Id. in 1992, a spur to anti-government thinking and organized activity, including McVeigh's.
When he was pulled over less than two hours after the blast – his car had no license plate – he was wearing a T-shirt reading Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants"), and he had with him pages from “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about white supremacists who start a race war and revolution by blowing up FBI headquarters with a truck bomb.
McVeigh was tried and convicted of murder and conspiracy, and he was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001. Two co-conspirators were convicted: Terry Nichols, sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and Michael Fortier, who served a 12-year sentence before being released into the federal Witness Protection Program and given a new identity.
In the months and years after the Oklahoma City bombing, investigators and journalists began following anti-government extremist groups and individuals much more closely, including militias, white supremacists, the “sovereign citizen” and “patriot” movements.
In northern Idaho, Aryan Nations leader Pastor Richard Butler attracted racist skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members to the group’s compound at a former summer camp, where they cranked out hate literature on old mimeograph machines, sending much of it to like-minded individuals in prisons they hoped to recruit. Pastor Butler preached a “Christian Identity” theology, which taught that ''Adam is the father of the white race only,'' and that ''there are literal children of Satan in the world today” – Jews and nonwhite races.
The year after Oklahoma City, FBI and ATF agents spent weeks surrounding self-declared “freemen” at a ranch in Jordan, Mont. Three years later, agents arrested “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski at his remote Montana cabin, where bomb-making materials and his 35,000-word manifesto were found. His homemade bombs, sent through the mail, had killed three people and injured 23 others.
Three months after McVeigh’s execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., three skyjacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon, killing 2,996 people, including the 19 Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Fifteen of the attackers were from Saudi Arabia, the rest from Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.
At this point, public and official interest turned largely from home-grown militias, “freemen,” and the like to foreign terrorists – for the most part Islamist radicals bent on attacking American and other western targets. Other attacks were attempted, and a few succeeded – including the massacre at Ft. Hood, Tex., where US Army major and psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who had been in touch with Islamist militant Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, shot and killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others.
But what of domestic terrorists since the Oklahoma City bombing 20 years ago?
Some US citizens who are converts to Islam and terrorist wannabes – often young men sounding off on the Internet – are tracked and then led to plot attacks (illegally entrapped, their defenders say) by federal agents posing as members of foreign groups.
At the same time, say those who closely follow anti-government radicals in the US, domestic extremism remains a serious concern.
A new report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) notes that extreme right-wing movements tend to be cyclical, surging at such times as the Great Depression, the era of desegregation, the early Cold War, and the early-to-mid 1990s. As the communist bloc collapsed, anger and suspicion shifted to a shadowy “New World Order.” To some extent, new gun control legislation (the Brady Law of 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 fed into such conspiracies.
The ADL and other tracking organizations say another surge in anti-government extremism began with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 – the nation’s first African-American president, whose place of origin is still suspect to many “birthers.”
“Anti‐government extremists quickly linked Obama to their ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theories about American concentration camps, martial law, and gun confiscation,” ADL reports.
To a lesser extent, anti-immigrant activity, the growth of the Tea Party movement, and property rights disputes – Cliven Bundy’s disputed cattle ranch in Nevada – reflect opposition to government polices and institutions as well.
The number of active militia groups tracked by the ADL grew from around 50 in early 2008 to more than 250 by 2010, though most of these groups were small. Militia‐related plots and conspiracies began to emerge again, typically targeting law enforcement, government officials, or government buildings.
“The growth of the sovereign citizen movement, fueled by the recession and the mortgage crisis, was even more spectacular, with resulting violence, scams and frauds, and ‘paper terrorism’ retaliatory tactics occurring all across the country,” reports the ADL. “A 2014 survey of law enforcement officers revealed that the sovereign citizen movement was their highest extremist‐related concern.”
Meanwhile, sporadic anti-government and anti-Semitic attacks continued, often carried out by “lone wolves” hard to detect and thwart. Among them: an attack on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the murder of two Arkansas police officers, attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan., the assassination of two police officers in Las Vegas, a shooting rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin (six dead), and the deliberate crash of a light aircraft into IRS offices in Austin, Tex.
Right‐wing extremism was a major threat at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, “targeting minorities, the government, and anybody who did not subscribe to their fringe ideologies,” the ADL reports. “In 2015, the situation is the same. In both eras, right‐wing extremists have been responsible for the majority of extremist‐related violence in the United States.”
Reporting last year for CNN, Peter Bergen and David Sterman cited a New America Foundation calculation that right-wing extremists had killed 34 people in the US for political reasons since 9/11, compared with 21 killed by terrorists motivated by al Qaeda ideology.
“Moreover,” Bergen and Sterman wrote, “since 9/11 none of the more than 200 individuals indicted or convicted in the United States of some act of jihadist terrorism have acquired or used chemical or biological weapons or their precursor materials, while 13 individuals motivated by right wing extremist ideology, one individual motivated by left-wing extremist ideology, and two with idiosyncratic beliefs, used or acquired such weapons or their precursors.”
Writing in Politico magazine this week, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks radical groups, concurs:
“Twenty years after Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and much of downtown Oklahoma City, the American radical right is again large and dangerous, comprising close to 1,700 groups and hundreds of thousands of individuals,” Mr. Potok writes. “Terrorism has risen again to the levels of the 1990s, with many afraid that the next attack on the scale of Oklahoma City could come at any time. And radical ideas have permeated much of our increasingly polarized political process, distorting our thinking and deflecting efforts to make ours a better country.”
Today, the Oklahoma City National Memorial stands where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. It includes 168 empty chairs made of glass, bronze, and stone, each inscribed with the name of one of those killed there on April 19, 1995.