WASHINGTON, D.C. - The number of militias in the U.S. has surged in the last few years, jumping from 43 groups in 2007 to more than 300 in 2010. These grassroots groups draft armed members for reasons ranging from survivalism to political convictions.
Despite the surge, they have failed to grab much interest from the bureaus that monitor domestic terrorism, some security analysts say.
“We literally have a domestic terrorism incident, suspected incident or related arrest almost every month now and I think that this threat is being ignored by people in government,” says Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security senior analyst who now owns his own security consulting firm in the Washington Metropolitan area.
But in northern Michigan, various militia members gather in the woods for a practice exercise that seems as innocent as the classic summer camp activity it is based on—capture the flag.
Suited up in full fatigues with guns hoisted on their backs, these members learn how to survive on basic necessities and hunt for enemies. The militia members we spoke to said their training was solely reactionary.
“If the dollar gets to the point where it tanks and all hell breaks loose … then at least we have the skills in order to survive,” said “Bubba,” an organizer of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia who did not want to be identified by his real name. His militia has 217 members including a handful taking part in this weekend exercise.
“We are not active, we’re reactive. If something happens, we’ll react to it -- mainly protect ourselves, our families and what is ours,” said Bubba’s son, Tom Morse.
Many militias disbanded after the 1995 truck bombing of Oklahoma City’s federal building, which killed 167 people. They tried to distance themselves from the likes of Timothy McVeigh, a militia sympathizer who raged against the federal government’s handling of a siege in Waco, Texas, that led to 76 deaths. McVeigh was convicted in the Oklahoma City attack and later executed.
Other militias simply rebranded themselves as “volunteers” or “rangers.”
But Mark Potok, who studies militias at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil rights organization, says militias are on the rise again, and some are dangerous.
“We’re going through a period of enormous change,” Potok says.
And as the stigma of the word dwindles away with time and as dissatisfaction with Congress and the economic situation soars, militias have been making a comeback.
In March, five members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia were arrested in Fairbanks for allegedly plotting to harm law enforcement officers and local judges.
“The biggest concern is that we find ourselves looking at another Oklahoma City,” Potok says.
Johnson, the former Homeland Security analyst, says he’s “actually very concerned.”
His company, DT Analytics, tracks and studies militias nationwide. He warns about the rise of extremism and complains of a lack of involvement by Homeland Security.
“What we’re lacking is strategic analysis,” Johnson says of the Federal Government’s efforts to thwart domestic terrorism.
Johnson spent six years at the department investigating domestic extremism. But two years ago, after a series of political mishaps, he says the agency nearly stopped monitoring non-Islamic domestic terrorism.
“It got progressively worse and more constraining,” Johnson says. “We couldn’t even do our jobs effectively.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defends her department, saying DHS examines all threats, domestic and international.
“We maximize our opportunity to intercept and prevent violence and minimize its possible effect,” Napolitano says.
Homeland Security, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives all investigate domestic non-Islamic terrorism. But Johnson says DHS is the only agency that doesn’t need a criminal cause to investigate -- giving it a unique position.
“We were the guard on that watchtower looking at the threat out there,” Johnson says of Homeland Security.
Such threats come from individuals as well as groups. Lone-wolf attackers -- people carrying out a terrorist act alone -- often have strayed from militias, Johnson says. “They are people who have been either a member of a group or around other groups on the radical right who have grown frustrated.”
Frustration perpetuates the dramatic growth of militias, Johnson says.
“When you have groups or individuals amassing those amounts of weaponry or explosives, that’s (a) concern. It’s a public safety concern, it’s a terrorism concern.”
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