“The consequences of a prolonged economic downturn (and the election of the first African-American President) could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.”
-Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, DHS, April 7, 2009
I wrote those words nearly seven years ago, while working as the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, as a warning to law enforcement of a dramatic change in the domestic threat environment. The current standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon is the latest manifestation of the right-wing extremist threat that has engulfed America since 2008. It clearly shows that this statement was, unfortunately, accurate and prescient.
Historically, spikes in right-wing extremist violence have followed high-profile confrontations involving the federal government and extremists, such as the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992), and Waco, Texas (1993).
In April 2014, we witnessed such an event between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and an anti-government extremist rancher named Cliven Bundy in Bunkerville, Nevada. Culminating a decades-long legal battle, a federal judge issued a court order for the BLM to seize Bundy’s cattle, which had been illegally grazing on federal land. Now, in Oregon, Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ryan and Ammon, are stoking the fires of anti-government hatred as they call for their fellow extremists to mobilize and defend what they perceive as big government’s encroachment on the Constitutional rights of land owners.
After a decade-long legal battle over grazing rights on federal land, a federal judge finally ordered the BLM to raid Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch and seize all of his cattle. When federal law enforcement officers attempted to serve the judge’s order in April 2014, a heated confrontation ensued between BLM Rangers and Bundy’s family members. This clash, recorded on video, rallied hundreds of armed “Bundy supporters” (i.e. militia members, sovereign citizens, Oath Keepers, III Percenters and other antigovernment extremists) who descended upon Bundy’s ranch. They rallied to defend the Bundy family and to repel what they perceived as a tyrannical government.
But the story, in a very real sense, only begins here. As with Waco and Ruby Ridge, the Bundy standoff, and now the take-over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, both serve not only as a way to recruit more people into right-wing extremist causes, but also a radicalization facilitator. Why? Because extremists have been allowed to take up arms against the federal government, take over a federal facility and threaten law enforcement officers without suffering any legal consequences. Such events, in turn, embolden extremists to take further drastic actions with additional frequency. (During 2015, we saw similar extremist calls to mobilize in order to protest the relocation of illegal immigrants from Texas to California, protect the surface rights of mine owners in Montana and Oregon, provide security at so-called “Muslim-Free Zones” in Oklahoma and Florida, and defend a rancher in New Mexico who owes back taxes.)
Among the radicalized individuals from the 2014 Bundy standoff were Jerad and Amanda Miller, who stood “side by side” with Bundy supporters. Two months later, in June 2014, the Millers stormed into a Cici’s Pizza where they fatally shot two police officers on their lunch break. The Millers draped the officers’ dead bodies with the flag of the Gadsden Minutemen, which reads “Don’t Tread on Me,” and is now used as a defiant symbol of anti-government hatred. The Millers then fled to a Las Vegas Walmart store armed with multiple weapons. They killed a civilian before engaging police in a violent shootout. They ultimately died for their cause.
Like the Millers, many other extremists who stood with Bundy and his family at their ranch standoff are back in their communities, angry over what they perceive as government oppression and tyrannical law enforcement practices, and they are plotting retribution. Some of them are now on their way to Burns, Oregon, to join the latest Bundy-orchestrated standoff. As is the case with Islamic revolutionaries, there is no absence of events certain to polarize and enflame them towards more violence – whether it’s Planned Parenthood funding, illegal immigration, gun control legislation or disputes over land rights.
As we saw with last year’s Charleston massacre, the Lafayette theater mass shooting and the Colorado Planned Parenthood attack, America finds itself overwhelmed with domestic terrorism, increased terrorist plotting and the continual emergence of newly polarizing political issues. However, the U.S. government has failed to implement an effective strategy to combat domestic terrorism. The government seems hesitant to even raise the subject in public for fear of political backlash. For example, my team of six analysts working domestic terrorism issues at the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis was pared down to a single analyst in 2010. Now, there are no domestic terrorism analysts working at DHS, despite the tremendous growth in domestic extremist attacks.
Today’s domestic terrorists are not even bothering to hide. They potentially number in the tens of thousands and are extremely well-armed. The political apparatus and media are deliberately turning their heads, refusing to recognize the danger. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, the system made its efforts, but failed. In this case, the system isn’t even trying, and by doing nothing, may even be enabling the threat to spawn and grow.
The jihadists who brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers nearly fifteen years ago, along with those who flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon and those who died near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, had no domestic constituency. Their acts weren’t glorified instantly on social media or obliquely heralded by duly elected officials like U.S. Congressman Steve King (R-IA) and State Representative Joann Windholz (R-Adams County). Nor were their actions rationalized by media ideologues set on preventing a political backlash. Yet the domestic terrorists I have dedicated my life to stopping have had all that going in their favor. This is more than a formula for disaster. It virtually invites the disaster upon us.
Daryl Johnson was the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security from 2004 to 2010. He now owns DT Analytics, a private law enforcement consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area, and author of “Rightwing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat Is Being Ignored.”