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Militia Groups Gaining Members

In the months before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a new kind of protest movement was just beginning to find its voice in America's heartland.

Militias and patriot groups burst into the vanguard of a seething anti-government campaign, fueled by anger over the Clinton administration's push for landmark gun-control legislation and federal officers' aggressive tactics in high-profile standoffs with groups such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

On April 19, 1995, that anger erupted: Militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh detonated a 5,000-pound truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. At that time, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The controversial militia movement waned in the wake of the bombing, as groups sought to distance themselves from McVeigh. Fifteen years later, though, analysts say the militia movement is back, using some of the same, ominous anti-government rhetoric that preceded the Oklahoma City assault and first raised the specter of a larger domestic terror threat.

"It feels a lot like the run-up to Oklahoma City," says Mark Potok, Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks U.S. hate groups. "Will we see another Oklahoma City? Nobody can really say."

Hair-trigger issues

Since 2008, Potok's group has reported dramatic growth in anti-government patriot groups and their militia organizations. Last year, those groups increased to 512 from 149 in 2008, the law center says.

"This is a broader-based and deeper kind of movement. Today, their ideas have penetrated into the mainstream," Potok says, adding that the groups have drawn strength in their call for tough enforcement against illegal immigration.

Last month, federal prosecutors charged nine members of an anti-government Christian militia group in Michigan, called the Hutaree, with plotting to kill a police officer and then attacking other officers who would gather for the funeral.

One of the leaders of the early anti-government movement, John Trochmann, whose Militia of Montana was formed in the early 1990s, says fresh domestic worries have led to a resurgence that has grown even stronger than the campaign of the '90s.

Trochmann says the financial crisis and related government bailout of the banking industry, passage of the Obama administration's controversial health care legislation and the United States' recent nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia have brought a mass of "new faces" into the movement.

"Health care was one more straw in the camel's back," Trochmann says. "Perhaps it's the one that breaks it."

Trochmann does not advocate violence, including the threats against lawmakers after the $940 billion health care law passed last month, but he believes the U.S. government is now working against its own citizenry.

"People are going to have to unite to save their own lives," he says. "We believe the federal government has a great plan afoot to bring us to the standard of a Third World country."

Anger is 'eerily similar'

Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, whose defense of McVeigh delved deeply into the anti-government movement and its influence in his client's life, agrees the movement is gaining strength.

Yet he says it lacks the "galvanizing events" that inspired violence 15 years ago.

The most significant of those events, Jones says, were the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound that left more than 80 people dead, including four federal agents, and the federal government's 1992 standoff with Ruby Ridge, Idaho, white separatist Randy Weaver. Weaver's wife and son died in a shootout with FBI agents.

"I haven't seen the temperature rise like in the spring of 1995," Jones says. "I tend to think that the threat of international terrorism tends to (temper) some of the dissatisfaction that drives the patriot and militia groups" by unifying the country.

Not everyone agrees in Oklahoma City, where the site of McVeigh's attack has been transformed into a moving memorial.

Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, says the current political climate is "eerily similar" to what preceded McVeigh's assault 15 years ago.

"There is a similar frustration with government at all levels," Watkins says. "There is some of the same anxiety. Our challenge is settling that anxiety down."

Watkins says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to address those concerns during the commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the bombing on Monday.

"I'm very anxious to hear what the secretary will say," Watkins says. "Because if we don't figure out a way to join together, we can't stop (terrorism). Nothing in this world would justify what happened here."

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