Why armed militia groups are surging across the nation

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today is the 22nd anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing; 168 people died in that attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh.

McVeigh sympathized with armed right-wing militia groups. These groups are still active, gaining members online, and honing their combat skills in training camps.

The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia went inside one of these camps to produce this report.

P.J. TOBIA: This is the kill house, part of a training ground for a right-wing militia in the American South.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL, Georgia Security Force: It's for conducting military operations in urban terrain. We want to practice and rehearse moving out to these structures, covering each other, taking cover and concealment everywhere we can find it.

P.J. TOBIA: These men and women call themselves the Georgia Security Force.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: Our common goal is to provide for security for ourselves, our friends and our families, and the other people in our states, if and when the need should arise to do so.

P.J. TOBIA: Their leader, Chris Hill, A.K.A. Blood Agent, says the need could arise at any time.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: I think, what the government gives, the government can take away. If they're providing the security for us, they can take it away.

P.J. TOBIA: They're part of the 3 Percent Militia, one of the nation's largest armed right-wing groups. They believe only 3 percent of colonial Americans fought the Revolutionary War, yet were able to overthrow British rule.

Historians say the number of male colonists who fought in the conflict, closer to 25 percent. According to the Anti-Defamation League, more than 10,000 people identify as 3 Percenters. They have a presence in nearly every state. Their ideology? A mix of anti-government conspiracy theories.

CHAD "KILL ZONE" LEGERE, Georgia Security Force: It could be our own government overreaching. If we end up with a tyrant in office, no one knows what could happen in 15 years, but at least we're going to be prepared.

P.J. TOBIA: 3 Percenters suspect Islam and foreigners. Recent refugees represent both.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: It's an unarmed invasion.

P.J. TOBIA: And some militia have answered with violence.

Recent, militia members have allegedly participated in high-profile felonies, from plots to bomb federal buildings, attacks on immigrant communities and murders.

J.J. MACNAB, Author, "The Seditionists": Yes, they pose a big threat to public safety.

P.J. TOBIA: J.J. MacNab is an expert on these groups. She travels the country, leading training seminars for law enforcement on militia and other right-wing extremists. She says the groups have committed or planned hundreds of violent attacks.

J.J. MACNAB: They range from plots to kill cops, for example, blow up a police headquarters. There's a lot of resisting arrest. They don't believe that cops have any authority over them.

MAN: Two at a time, two at a time.

P.J. TOBIA: There are more than 500 militia groups in the U.S., more than double the number in 2008, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Most of them are right-wing and anti-government.

In addition to the 3 Percent Militia, there's the Oath Keepers, formed in 2009. They're primarily current and former law enforcement and military personnel. Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests in the summer of 2015. They said they were there to help keep the peace and protect reporters working for the conspiracy-fueled Web site Infowars.

Meanwhile, thousands have flocked to older groups like the Sovereign Citizens Movement, tax resisters who deny the legitimacy of the American government.

J.J. MACNAB: There's a lot of attempts to bomb, a lot of attempts to build bombs. Some of them have dabbled in biological weapons, such as ricin.

P.J. TOBIA: The Georgia 3 Percenters say they are strictly a defensive force. In our time together, they repeatedly renounced violence and criminality.

Chris Hill says his group is careful about who they accept and train.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: Well, we go through a vetting process. Each member has to be interviewed by a board of no less than four to five ranking members from several different states. We look for red flags. If an individual seems radical or they're missing some screws, then we're going to keep that person to the side. They're not going to be cleared hot.

P.J. TOBIA: These men claim their militia gives them a sense of shared identity.

DEVIN "BOOGEYMAN" BOWEN, Georgia Security Force: We have basically built it as a family. I don't have a lot of family, so it's family that I don't have, a lot of like-minded people, but yet we also stand for the same cause.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: I'm seeing a conflict in morals and values in the country that make me question, is this really happening? Crybabies are going to demand transgender bathrooms. At the end of the day, your rights end where mine begin. You know, don't push your belief on me.

P.J. TOBIA: Especially if those beliefs are Islamic.

CHAD "KILL ZONE" LEGERE, Georgia Security Force: Any terrorist organization cannot be trusted. And, unfortunately, a lot of them, you know, are stemming off from the Muslim religion, you know, from Islam.

P.J. TOBIA: In the last year, the FBI has disrupted major planned attacks against Muslims by men affiliated with militias. The FBI is the lead agency in these kinds of investigations.

Militias have long been active in the U.S., but they have been recently energized by two key events: last year's occupation of an outside wildlife refuge in Oregon by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, and the 2014 standoff in Nevada, where Bundy's father, backed by militiamen, squared off with federal officials over grazing rights on public lands.

Chris Hill was one of those militiamen at Bundy ranch.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: I was pissed off. I was angered seeing peaceful people being pushed around, and this bureaucratic agency is training their weapons down on a family because maybe they owe taxes because the cows eat corn.

P.J. TOBIA: For the Georgia 3 Percenters, Donald Trump's election sends a signal.

CHRIS "BLOOD AGENT" HILL: With a Trump victory, that gives me a little bit of hope, where I had none, that we can turn the tide against these communist, Marxist, socialist ideas of governing.

P.J. TOBIA: J.J. MacNab says Trump's presidency also changes the target of militias' rage. They can no longer focus on President Obama or candidate Clinton.

J.J. MACNAB: I don't have a good feeling about where this is going. What happens right now when Trump paints targets on people, when he paints targets on the press?

He went off about a state senator who did something a sheriff didn't like in Texas. Well, let's take him down. He says he's joking, but this movement doesn't have a sense of humor.

P.J. TOBIA: Despite the FBI's recent arrests, MacNab says federal law enforcement isn't doing enough.

J.J. MACNAB: They have done almost nothing to monitor and counter this movement. It started in 2009, right after Obama took office.

P.J. TOBIA: In that year, DHS released a memo to law enforcement, detailing the threat posed by right-wing extremists.

J.J. MACNAB: But because it had a line saying that veterans returning home from war were at risk of being approached by this movement, Homeland Security disavowed it, and they terminated the division that tracked this movement.

P.J. TOBIA: The man who led that division of DHS is Daryl Johnson.

DARYL JOHNSON, Former Department of Homeland Security Official: There was basically a political firestorm that erupted.

P.J. TOBIA: And you lost your job.

DARYL JOHNSON: Pretty much.

P.J. TOBIA: Johnson says he was forced to resign and now runs a consulting business with government contracts.

What kind of capabilities for monitoring these groups does the DHS Have now?

DARYL JOHNSON: Yes, so, since I left in 2010, Homeland Security had one analyst that was looking at these problems, these domestic terrorist issues, and, eventually, that lone, single analyst left. And so today they have no — no one looking at this threat.

P.J. TOBIA: In response to NewsHour's questions about militia groups, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said that, since 2009, they have improved their analysis of domestic terrorism and continue to work with the FBI to investigate these groups.

The spokesman denied that Johnson was forced out of the agency, adding that Johnson's 2009 report was withdrawn because of incomplete sourcing and poor analytic tradecraft.

But J.J. MacNab says the lack of federal law enforcement attention has had deadly consequences, like when two Arkansas police officers were gunned down by tax-resisting Sovereign Citizens in 2010.

J.J. MACNAB: A police chief in West Memphis, Arkansas, had two of his officers killed by a Sovereign Citizen and two others shot. He reads all the things that he got from the FBI, and while they had told him in incredible detail what the risks of al-Qaida were, they had never mentioned any homegrown extremism that wasn't Islamic.

P.J. TOBIA: Both Johnson and MacNab say that militia have successfully recruited police and active military personnel.

DARYL JOHNSON: We have a lot of returning veterans, military members who have fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they bring that mentality with them, that training that they had in the military, that kind of desensitized, dehumanized Muslims in these war zones and in these conflicts.

And so, when they come home, a lot of them carry that sentiment with them, and it reflects itself in the modern-day militia today.

J.J. MACNAB: With law enforcement, that's particularly problematic, because if, for example, an agency wants to investigate someone they suspect of building a bomb, will one of their members, one of the police officers who is part of that group tip off the criminal?

There's a recent leak that came out of an FBI manual that talked about how there were white supremacists, for example, in certain police departments, but the FBI couldn't tell the police departments that it was a problem, because they were worried that that would tip off the white supremacists they were investigating.

P.J. TOBIA: We asked to speak to the FBI about the monitoring of domestic militias and militias recruiting veterans. The bureau declined, but a spokesperson said, "Our focus is not on membership in particular groups, but on criminal activity."

The FBI added that they want to protect the rights of all Americans.

Members of the Georgia Security Force claim that they, too, are committed to protecting those rights by any means necessary.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia in Monroe County, Georgia.

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