In 2014, militias from around the country rallied to support the Nevada ranching family in the biggest armed standoff against the government in decades. In the desert town of Bunkerville, they saw themselves as part of a brand-new movement, united in defiance of the federal government.
But the patriots, as they call themselves, have roots in an anti-government militia movement that emerged in the 1990s from bloody confrontations with federal agents. Today, the movement has evolved: they’re savvier, better organized — and they’ve stepped into the mainstream, with websites, Facebook pages and public events.
The new militias have filled their ranks by drawing on populist anger toward the government, which escalated with the inauguration of Barack Obama, as well as on anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiment. The number of anti-government militias more than doubled between 2009 and 2010, to 330.
“There’s been a smarter approach in terms of taking the ideology and moving it out of the shadows,” said Ryan Lenz a reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “And I think it is consistent with a migration we’ve seen in a lot of extremist ideologies, including racist ones … And the political environment, such as it is, has proven to be marvelously, marvelously accepting of these ideas.”
Law enforcement sees them as a serious threat. Nearly 74 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies in a 2015 survey said that anti-government violent extremism is the biggest threat they face in their communities — far higher than the threat from Muslim extremists, white supremacists, eco-terrorists or other politically motivated violence. These incidents don’t always make headlines. But between 1990-2014, there were actually more deadly attacks by far-right extremists than by Islamic extremists in the U.S., according to data from a government-funded database that tracks incidents.
Part of the reason is that these individuals are well-armed and well-trained, and it’s not always easy to predict when — or even if — they’ll turn to violence. “Not every single [militia] group is hell-bent on overthrowing the government or wanting to instigate terrorism,” said Daryl Johnson, the former head of the Homeland Security department’s domestic extremism program. “[But] you’re always running that risk of someone coming into contact with your group being exposed to these, I would say, radical extreme far-right beliefs … then going out and doing something criminal.”
For the FBI, which takes the lead on domestic terrorism investigations, that’s one of the biggest challenges, and dangers, in dealing with the movement. Here’s a quick guide to how they got started — and where they may be headed.
Posse Comitatus, 1969-1980s
What it means
Latin for “power of the county.”
How it spread
Members of the Posse Comitatus considered sheriffs to be the highest law enforcement power in the county, with the right to ignore federal officials or directives they deem unlawful.
The first known Posse Comitatus formed in Oregon in 1969. But the ideology was promoted most heavily by William Potter Gale, a retired Army colonel and self-described minister in the Christian Identity Church. The faith maintains that the Israelites of the Bible were white, that Jewish people are descendants of Satan and that people of color are subhuman “mud people.” Gale combined these teachings with anti-government sentiment, and called on vigilante groups to oppose and even lynch federal officials who upheld laws the posse deemed unconstitutional, such as desegregation or tax laws.
Where it led
By injecting strains of anti-government sentiment into his platform, Gale created a powerful message designed to appeal to a broader swath of Americans who might have otherwise been turned off by the purely racist ideology. Posse Comitatus would go on to influence white supremacist extremists, anti-government militias and the Sovereign Citizen movement, which believes that their followers are exempt from federal law.
Militia Movement, 1992-2001
What it is
A diffuse collection of armed men and women who believed their own government had turned against them. The movement overlapped heavily with white supremacists and the anti-tax philosophy of the Sovereign Citizen movement.
How it started
In 1992, the nation was just emerging from a recession, which had deepened economic instability for many Americans. Then, the botched siege of a white supremacist and his family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and a deadly raid on a compound of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas the following year enraged those who were already mistrustful of the government. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill, the first major piece of modern gun control legislation.
The moves seemed to confirm what those with anti-government sentiment already suspected: that the federal government was against them — and seeking to keep them from fighting back. Militia groups proliferated across the country, and their members engaged in paramilitary training, wilderness survival and other skills. Some of these groups contained violent extremists who engaged in criminal activity and violence.
Where it led
Iraq war veteran Timothy McVeigh took the ideology to the extreme in 1995 when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including several children in the building’s daycare center. McVeigh wasn’t affiliated with a specific militia group, but he later said the bombing was done in retaliation for the deaths at Ruby Ridge and Waco.
There was one final standoff in 1996, by a group called the Montana Freemen, which ended peacefully after 81 days, with several arrests.
Then the movement began its slow decline. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, the federal government cracked down on militia groups, infiltrating their membership and making arrests. As the year 2000 approached, militia geared up once more, anticipating a societal collapse brought on by the Y2K computer bug. But when the millennium dawned like any other day, the movement petered out. “People got bored of the revolution that never came,” Johnson said.
In 2007, as the presidential campaign got underway, the militia movement flickered back to life. “The same narratives we saw in the 90s – a fear of a Democratic president coming into power, theories there may be gun control legislation – started resonating with some people,” Johnson said.
Hundreds of paramilitary training videos started popping up online, featuring tips on weapons handling, survival skills and medical training. Militia groups swapped information on upcoming field training exercises. They also released propaganda videos that discussed attacking the federal government, and lynching judges and other government officials. Unlike in the 1990s, when militias gathered in person or networked by phone, recruitment and radicalization was increasingly happening on YouTube or through social media. That made it easier for militia groups to proliferate — and for dangerous lone wolves to emerge.
In 2008, the housing bubble popped, plunging many Americans into economic peril. Then, Barack Obama was elected. The first black president, a Democrat, re-ignited concerns that the federal government was on the wrong side of issues important to the movement: land rights in the West, immigration and the Second Amendment — along with the fear of Islamic extremism.
The new movement still draws on old militia ideas like the Posse Comitatus, but it has explicitly tried to distance itself from white supremacy. Some groups put disclaimers on their websites, disavowing the old militias’ anti-Semitism and anti-black racism, and welcoming minority members. They focused on disaster preparedness and serving their community, which has drawn many current and former military and law enforcement members into their ranks.
The Three Percenters
“The Three Percent of today declare: We will not disarm. You cannot convince us. You cannot intimidate us. You can kill us if you think you can but remember, we will shoot back.”
Founded by the late Mike Vanderboegh, a longtime militiaman in Arkansas, the Three Percenters was the first national militia group to emerge in this new movement. The group takes its name from the disputed notion that only three percent of the colonists fought in the American Revolution, and their members vow to fight the federal government if it fails the people. The Three Percenters are decentralized, with no formal organizational structure or chain of command. Members were involved in both the Bunkerville standoff and the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon two years later.
The Oath Keepers
“The oath is to the highest law of the land. In this country, the Constitution reigns, not some man or woman.”
The Oath Keepers emerged on April 19, 2009 with a rally in Lexington, Massachusetts — a deeply symbolic date and location for the movement. The American Revolution began that day in Lexington in 1775. April 19 is also the date of the final, deadly raid in Waco, and the date Timothy McVeigh chose to retaliate two years later in Oklahoma City.
Founded by Stewart Rhodes, a military veteran and Yale graduate, the Oath Keepers recruit current and former military and law enforcement officers — anyone who took an oath to defend the country. It’s a registered non-profit association, but despite its national umbrella, regional groups call their own shots. Members participated in both the Bunkerville standoff and the Malheur occupation.
Today, its website boasts members from 44 military divisions and state and local police departments, including three Navy SEAL teams, the California Highway Patrol, Maryland State Police and the Chicago Police Department.
The Constitutional Sheriffs
“The president of the United States cannot tell your sheriff what to do. …But when [the president or federal agents] are in his sovereign jurisdiction, he can tell them what to do. The question is, will he?”
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association was founded by Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who has a long history in the militia movement. He also sits on the Oath Keepers’ board of directors. The group is based on the ideas of Posse Comitatus. Within a few years, more than 200 current or retired military and law enforcement officers had signed a petition pledging support for the group, but the names are no longer public. Mack was inspired by Jack Lamb, a former police officer who founded the group Police Against the New World Order, which rallied around the conspiracy theory that the federal government will one day cede control to the United Nations. Mack, too, showed up at the Bundy ranch in Nevada.
What Comes Next
The two big showdowns between these militia groups and federal agents in Bunkerville and Malheur ultimately led to arrests and federal charges for nearly 40 people. The verdicts so far have been mixed – acquittals of the main figures in Oregon, and a hung jury for four defendants in Nevada. Even so, some of the militias’ momentum seems to have waned.
Last year, the SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center counted 165 militias, a 50 percent decline since their peak in 2010. The election of President Donald Trump also may have contributed to that decline. Militias’ energy tends to subside during Republican administrations, which tend to be supportive of gun rights and other issues important to the movement. But today’s militias still have established social media presences and an active following, so it’s hard to predict what might happen next.
Today, the militias are still looking for a new cause to unify behind. Lately, some have focused on countering left-wing protesters. In April, the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters showed up to oppose protests against Milo Yiannopoulos, then an alt-right media darling, and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who planned to appear at the University of California at Berkeley. Then, earlier this month, Oath Keepers in Louisiana “deployed” to New Orleans to protect a Confederate monument in the name of free speech. Last week, Oath Keepers showed up in Boston to protect a free-speech rally by Trump supporters.
But fewer public shows of force may make it harder for law enforcement to single out those of most concern: violent individuals who exist on the movement fringes, out of sight of leaders who might alert police or temper their impulses. That’s why Johnson likens militia groups to a cocked and loaded gun.
“Fortunately a large number of them just prepare to defend their families and property, and wait for a provocation,” he said. “But that gun sitting on the table could be picked up and the trigger pulled at any point.”