Decade After OKC Bombing, Domestic Terrorism Threat Still Looms

  • April 6, 2005

Ten years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the threat to the United States from domestic extremists is still a serious one.  On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a massive truck bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 men, women and children, and injuring hundreds more.  It was the second most deadly terrorist act to occur on American soil.

The bombing shocked Americans, most of whom had little idea that fellow citizens harbored intentions so murderous.  McVeigh (and his accomplice, Terry Nichols) had an intense hatred of the government stoked by fuels ranging from militia videotapes asserting government plots to kill the Branch Davidians during their 1993 standoff with the government to neo-Nazi leader William Pierce’s novel The Turner Diaries, a fictional blueprint for a white revolution.

Moreover, McVeigh and Nichols were not alone, but just part of a significant resurgence of right-wing extremist activity in the United States in the 1990s.  Anti-government extremists formed militia groups and vigilante courts, backed up by large arsenals of weapons, to challenge a government they believed was controlled by a “New World Order.”  Meanwhile, white supremacists plotted revolutions of their own, while targeting Jews, African-Americans, and other religious and ethnic minorities in deadly hate crime sprees.

Decade of Danger:  American Extremists After OKC

Domestic extremists still threaten the United States.  In recent years, right-wing extremists have plotted to kill judges and other public officials, attacked targets ranging from synagogues to abortion clinics, and even built chemical weapons.  Since the 1995 bombing, 15 law enforcement officers in the United States have been killed by white supremacists and anti-government extremists.

However, the domestic extremist threat is not the same in 2005 as in 1995.  Some significant differences have emerged in the ten years since the Oklahoma City bombing.  These include:

  • The extreme right is more disorganized and less stable than in 1995.  In recent years, many long-established white supremacist groups have suffered severe disruptions due to the death or incarceration of leadership figures—especially the National Alliance, Aryan Nations and Creativity Movement.  These disruptions have made such groups less effective, but have increased the chances of “lone wolf” actions—criminal activity undertaken by extremists who do not necessarily belong to any organized group.   Heightening this threat is a recent rise in racist skinhead activity, accompanied by a rise in skinhead-related violence.  Racist skinheads, loosely organized at best, increase the risk of violence by unaffiliated extremists.
  • The tactics of many extremist groups are not the same as in 1995.  Many of the tactics promulgated by extremist groups in the 1990s were eventually abandoned as being counterproductive.  For example, the anti-government sovereign citizen movement frequently formed vigilante “common law” courts in the 1990s and used them to threaten public officials and law enforcement officers.  These were abandoned as extremists found them a quick route to prison.  Similarly, militia groups in the 21st century tend to be smaller, more security conscious, and far less public than their 1990’s counterparts. 
  • The Internet plays a key role for most extremist movements today.  In 1995, the World Wide Web had only just begun to be widely accessible; during the ensuing ten years it would transform the world, including most extremist groups and movements.  Now, such groups depend on the Internet for recruitment, for fundraising, for propaganda purposes, and for event organization and mobilization.  Extremist tactics such as Project Schoolyard a recent attempt to distribute 100,000 white power music CDs to American schoolchildren, would not have been possible ten years ago, before the prominence of the Internet.
  • The domestic terror threat is wider today than in 1995.  Throughout the 1990’s, the domestic terror threat faced by Americans came largely from right-wing anti-government and white supremacist groups.  Today additional threats have emerged.  These include left-wing radicals such as animal rights extremists and environmental extremists.  Moreover, they also now include a threat from domestic radical Islamists.  Some American citizens have trained with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, or have plotted acts on behalf of radical Islam ranging from assassinations to providing support to terrorists.

Lessons For Law Enforcement:  Combating Domestic Terror After OKC

Although the United States had faced domestic terror threats for decades, it is true that law enforcement had grown somewhat complacent in the early 1990’s.  The bombing of the Murrah building served as a stark reminder that domestic terrorism could not be ignored. 

In the wake of the 1995 bombing, government at the federal, state, and local level took steps to combat domestic terrorism.  The FBI, for example, added hundreds of new agents to its domestic terrorism squads.  However, the growing realization of three key factors proved to be the most important lessons of the OKC bombing:

  • State and local law enforcement play a crucial role in combating—and preventing—domestic terrorism.  It was an Oklahoma State Trooper who arrested Timothy McVeigh, not an elite federal counter-terrorism squad.  Similarly, it was a small town police officer from Murphy, North Carolina, who arrested terrorism suspect Eric Rudolph.  After the Oklahoma City bombing, the Justice Department established training programs to help educate state and local law enforcement agencies on domestic terrorism issues.  State and local agencies themselves frequently set up counterterrorism sections or added domestic terrorism to their criminal intelligence responsibilities.
  • Communication and cooperation between different law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions is vital.  The Oklahoma City bombing played an important role in increasing communications between different levels of law enforcement—federal, state, and local—as well as between different jurisdictions.  One key tool that received a significant boost after the bombing was the concept of the Joint Terrorism Task Force—a multijurisdictional task force consisting of representatives from a number of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, brought together to pool resources and expertise in order to better fight terrorism.
  • Because prevention of acts of terrorism before they can occur is so crucial, intelligence is key.  A variety of information-sharing resources and tactics, from intelligence working groups to criminal intelligence databases appeared after the Oklahoma City bombing, all designed to put key information in the hands of the people who can use it to prevent acts of terrorism.

Law enforcement took these lessons to heart, and became much more effective in combating domestic terrorism in the years after the Oklahoma City bombing.  Perhaps the best evidence of this is that, to date, there has not been a successful sequel to the bombing itself, though not for lack of trying on the part of extremists.  In the past ten years, there have been numerous acts of domestic terrorism prevented, from bombing conspiracies to assassination plots.  It is largely thanks to the vigilance of law enforcement, at all levels, that domestic extremists have not perpetrated another Oklahoma City-type bombing.