Radical right-wing groups who refuse to recognize the authority of the federal government, like those who flocked to Bundy Ranch and now parade around the U.S.-Mexico border, represent the clearest threat to their communities, even more so than Islamic terrorists or white supremacist groups.
That’s the takeaway from a new landmark study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START). The group surveyed hundreds of law enforcement officials and over 170 agencies across the United States in an effort to understand how the people tasked with stopping terrorism view the threats on the ground.
What the team discovered was that the notion of Islamic extremists plotting to blow buildings was far less likely than homegrown so-called “Sovereign Citizens” who stockpile weapons and hold a seething resentment towards the federal government. Consequently, 86 percent of those interviewed agreed that this movement posed a “serious terrorist threat,” the highest of any group inquired about.
Compare that to just 8 years earlier in a similar questionnaire found that nearly every agency was still thinking about Islamic extremism.
What’s changed in the time between 2007 and now? The most obvious thing is the nation got its first African American president with the election of Barack Obama. Fueled by racism, conservative fear mongering and the threats of “socialism,” the sovereign citizen movement has seen its membership explode in the last few years. It’s no coincident that two of the biggest sovereign citizen groups The Three Percenters and The Oath keepers were both founded around the time Obama was first elected.
As the Anti-Defamation League explains:
Formed in March 2009 and led by Stewart Rhodes, a Nevada lawyer, the Oath Keepers encourage members of the military and law enforcement to pledge not to follow certain hypothetical “orders” from the federal government. These “orders,” including one “to put American citizens in detention camps,” and another “to disarm the American people,” echo longstanding conspiracy theories embraced by anti-government extremists, who claim that the U.S. government is creating a police state. The Oath Keepers try to appeal to military and law enforcement personnel by reminding them that they swore an oath to defend the Constitution “from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and suggesting that now is the time to live up to that oath by resisting an allegedly tyrannical government.
The Three Percenters, formed in late 2008, are a loosely organized movement centered around an obscure, and not particularly accurate, Revolutionary War “statistic” that claimed that only 3% of the American population during the Revolutionary War participated as combatants in the war. The group asserts that they are a modern counterpart to that mythical 3% of American Revolutionary-era patriots and also represent the three percent of the population of American gun owners “who will not disarm.”
The idea that Obama (who many view as a black, Islamic foreigner) is coming to take their guns and their rights resonates with a certain type of paranoid person. Situations like Cliven Bundy’s cattle ranch standoff only reinforce their sense that it’s them against the government. It’s no surprise then that law enforcement officers are extremely worried about what kind of violent, drastic plans these people are cooking up to fight their perceived oppression.
This isn’t just an intellectual exercise, either. In June, a husband and wife killed three people in a shooting rampage based in part around the idea that they were kicking off an anti-government “revolution.”
Forbes gives a chilling account of their final moments:
On June 8, 2014, Jerad Dwain Miller, 31, and his wife Amanda Woodruff Miller, 22, entered a Las Vegas pizzeria and without any provocation or warning, shot and killed two police officers sitting in a booth eating lunch. The pair dragged the officers to the floor, took their weapons and ammunition, and draped a yellow flag over one of the bodies. They placed a swastika-stamped manifesto on top of the flag, and pinned a note on the other officer’s body that read, “This is the start of the revolution.”
The couple continued their spree in a nearby Wal-Mart. Jerad wore military-style clothing and body armor and he yelled to the Wal-Mart shoppers, “Tell the police the revolution has begun.” To emphasize his announcement, he fired a round into the ceiling, while Amanda shot and killed a brave bystander who tried to stop them. They engaged the police in a shootout for roughly fifteen minutes while hiding in a shopping aisle in the back of the store. Amanda aimed her weapon at her husband, but he had already been hit by a bullet from a police rifle, so she turned the gun on herself and pulled the trigger while the police watched the couple through a security camera.
Just weeks before, the two had been seen at Bundy’s ranch parading around the premises with weapons daring police officers to try to take them.
It’s examples like that which may explain why sovereign citizens are one of the few potential terror groups that didn’t see a decline in their perceived threat. As their numbers swell and their anger rises, the odds of a major act of terror occurring would seem to rise.