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An expert on right-wing terrorism explains the militia movement behind the Oregon takeover

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

A group of armed activists calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on Saturday, saying they were protesting the tyranny of the federal government.

The militants have called for others throughout the US to join their fight. They're tapping into a growing trend: The number of unorganized militias in the US has increased 37 percent in the past year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Daryl Johnson saw this coming. In 2009, as an analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, Johnson wrote a report arguing that the economic downturn and the election of the first black president could fuel a new wave of anti-government violence from extreme right-wing groups.

His report was later leaked, provoking widespread outrage from conservatives. Johnson left DHS in 2010. But his analysis proved correct. The number of anti-government militias grew ninefold between 2008 and 2011, and after a brief period of decline is now growing again.

I talked with Johnson, now an independent security consultant, about the militia movement in the US, whether the popular comparisons to terrorists are fair, and how the federal government may have emboldened the movement in its response to the situation at the Bundy ranch in 2014. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Libby Nelson: Where does the militia movement stand in the US today?

Daryl Johnson: The militia movement in the United States is part of a broader movement of right-wing anti-government extremists. So we categorize the three main, primary categories as militia extremists, sovereign citizen extremists, and we also have white supremacists that are on that spectrum.

The militia movement got its start in modern-day America in the aftermath of the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992. We had a lot of anti-government reaction to that event because of the government's overzealous, heavy-handed tactics that were used that resulted in the death of civilians.

And so in 1992, a group of people gathered together in Estes Park, Colorado, to discuss that standoff and what their response would be to another type of standoff. John Trochmann, out of Montana, was at this conference and introduced the idea of forming private citizen armies or militia groups.

It wasn’t until the Waco standoff in 1993, in February, which culminated in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound, that we actually saw this idea that John Trochmann had introduced put into action. And the first two modern-day militias were the Michigan Militia and the Militia of Montana.

LN: What were those militia groups like?

DJ: The Militia of Montana was more of a mail-order militia; they were like the Publisher’s Clearinghouse for militia groups to get videos, you know, manuals on how to set up your militia.

The Michigan Militia, in contrast, was a true paramilitary organization that had upward of, claims of, 50,000 members at its height. And they had a military structure, where they had local units that were formed at the county level and they reported through a chain of command, and they wore military uniforms and all that stuff.

That’s where the root of the modern-day militia comes from. Of course they liken themselves to the Minutemen of the American Revolution, and they see themselves as the modern-day Minutemen. Rather than standing up to the British Redcoats, they’re standing up to the perceived tyrannical government of the Obama administration.

LN: So militias were big in the 1990s, correct?

DJ: Militias peaked around 1995. When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, we had a backlash against the militia because of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols's loose ties to the Michigan Militia. They were both from Michigan and had hung out at gun shows with the militia and stuff like that.

So we saw the militia groups start to decline soon after the Oklahoma City bombing. This was because of a law enforcement crackdown on militia groups. Some people were fearful of the terrorism that it was allegedly inciting, so they left militias.

There were 22 states that passed laws banning paramilitary training activity within their state borders. So there were a lot of factors that played into the demise of the militia movement, and it went from having hundreds of groups at its peak in 1995 to less than 100 groups by the time we reached the year 2000.

LN: Why did militias make a comeback recently?

DJ: We really see the militia movement on its last dying breath into the 2000s, until we reached the year 2007. And that’s the year Barack Obama announced his bid for the presidency. And at that point, a lot of propaganda started being put out about the 2008 election, and how if a Democrat becomes president it’s going to lead to gun control legislation and gun seizures and all this stuff.

So that — the 2008 election and the buildup to that — really resuscitated the militia movement and breathed new life into it. Soon after the election, we saw the formation of dozens of militia groups throughout the country. They were down under 80 groups, we see them balloon up to about 150 groups by the end of 2008, and by 2010, we had over 300 militia groups operating in the US.

LN: Were these mail-order militias?

DJ: No, these are true paramilitary organizations. The only mail-order militia that ever existed was the Militia of Montana. All these other groups we're talking about, they vary in size; they could have a half a dozen members, all the way up to hundreds of members.

LN: Is there overlap among militias, sovereign citizens, and white supremacists, or are these separate threads of the right-wing extremist movement?

DJ: We treat them as separate because the belief systems differ quite a bit.

But we do see crossover. Back in the '90s, we did have racists militias which were called white militias that had KKK members, Aryan Nation members.

But really, the militia kind of learned after Oklahoma City when it was demonized by the media and had this public backlash, one of the key points was the racism. So the new militia that formed in 2008 tends to be more multicultural, or has the disclaimers that we don’t endorse racism or anything like that.

So we’ve seen them keeping an arm's distance away from that. But we will see sovereign citizens and militia members even today cross over into their groups.

LN: What about newer groups?

DJ: Two new anti-government movements that have emerged since 2008 that feed into the militia are the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.

The Three Percenters, they’re a separate movement, but they have adopted the militia model. And, like I said, they have brought out the narrative likening themselves to the Minutemen of the American Revolution.

The reason they call themselves Three Percenters is they believe only 3 percent of men took up arms against the British during the American Revolution, and won that revolution. And so they liken themselves to that 3 percent. That they would be the 3 percent today that would take up arms against the tyrannical federal government and overthrow it.

LN: And how do they differ from the rest of the militia movement?

DJ: Well, they differ in the fact that not all members of the Three Percenters engage in regular firearms training activity, even though they’re very passionate about their Second Amendment rights. They accept members and don’t require the members to actually go out and conduct paramilitary training.

And also I think the Three Percenters try their best to steer away from a lot of the anti-government conspiracy theories that have plagued the militia movement. So they try to appear a little more mainstream and a little more educated.

LN: What about the Oath Keepers?

DJ: The Oath Keepers were formed in April 2009. They announced their presence at a well-planned speech and ceremony at the Lexington Green in Massachusetts. Basically they're an organization that recruits current and former military and law enforcement officials.

Their main points is they want to have these public servants that have taken their oath of office to defend America against all enemies foreign and domestic, and actually apply that to the federal government and its overreaching authority that they perceive.

They have chapters throughout the United States, claim to have tens of thousands of members. And basically they don't conduct any type of paramilitary training, but they're targeting specifically military and law enforcement officials to join their movement and to take an oath to defend the Constitution against any federal encroachment on their rights.

So they’re more of an insider threat because they’re recruiting people in law enforcement who may have knowledge of law enforcement investigations or operations that are pending against militia members or other extremists for weapons violations or whatever. These people have taken an oath, and they have, on their website, 10 orders they refuse or will not obey. And one of those is any order to arrest an American on a firearms offense.

The other interesting thing about the Oath Keepers is once again you have people, in their 10 things they refuse to obey, acknowledge the government would put concentration camps in America and put Americans there and seize their guns and all this stuff, which is pure nonsense. But that’s part of their doctrine.

You’ll find Oath Keepers that are members of the militia, but the group itself is not a militia.

LN: How much of a threat are militias? I know you wrote that report that was very well-publicized in 2009, but what's your take on it now?

DJ: What’s very concerning about them is they are the most well-armed extremist group we have in the United States. To illustrate this point, there was a case in Michigan in March of 2010. We had eight militia members, part of a group called the Hutaree, and they were charged with various firearm violations and plotting to kill police officers and bomb their funerals.

Well, a federal judge actually acquitted seven of these militia members on the grounds of free speech because they actually had not compiled the names of the people they were going to kill. Two members were charged with federal firearm violations, one of which … he had more firearms in his possession than all 232 Muslim extremists that have been arrested in the US arrested on terrorism charges since 9/11.

So that’s the scary thing, and the fact they have these conspiracy theories that incite people toward paranoia and criminal activity.

LN: There are jokes online calling the Oregon militants "Vanilla ISIS" and "Y'all Qaeda." Is terrorism a fair description of the situation in Oregon right now, or is that going too far?

DJ: I think that's going too far. It’s definitely a radical action that I would characterize as sedition, but because there has been no violence associated with it at this point, we can’t call it terrorism. You’ve got the ideology there, but it’s missing the violent action piece.

LN: We've seen two conflicts in two years over federal land use: the Bundy ranch controversy of 2014, and now the Oregon occupation. Is federal land use a core issue for the militia movement?

DJ: I think it’s one of many issues they embrace. The Second Amendment is the core issue. The right to bear arms, to own as many weapons as you want, to use them for hunting or self-defense or sport or collecting — that’s the main issue. But there are some secondary issues they have, and I would think the federal land issue is one of those.

LN: How should the federal government handle the unfolding situation in Oregon?

DJ: Well, obviously there's no immediate danger to anybody. There's no hostages, for example.

So I think they need to have a more wait-them-out type of approach, which they’ve shown great restraint in past standoffs — the Montana Freedmen standoff in '96, they waited the extremists out for 81 days and had a peaceful resolution.

So that’s what the government, I think, needs to do, because if you try to confront them or try to remove them forcibly, it plays into their extremist message, but it may also get someone hurt, which can only hurt the government’s perception.

The one thing they need to do, though, is I think they need to come up with a very strong counter-message and get that out publicly: that what these people are doing is wrong and it’s not the way to address their perceived grievances. And also point out the flaws in their logic, to bring out the facts, and to refute any mischaracterizations of the situation or the grievances they have.

That’s an important thing the government needs to do this time around that they didn’t do in past standoff situations. This is the second standoff that we’ve had involving these people, the other in 2014, and I think there’s a perception within these extremist movements that the government is kind of turning a blind eye and letting them get away with things.

It emboldens them and feeds into getting more recruits and radicalizing people. They think they can escalate the tactics.

One thing I think is very unusual and interesting is it’s a new tactic. The fact that they used this rancher’s protest as a ruse to cover the planned takeover — they went in there and had supplies nearby, they had people nearby already, it was premeditated and well-planned and thought out. It wasn’t just some spontaneous thing that happened. The fact that they used the protest as a cover for this planned takeover is something that shows a level of sophistication that we haven’t seen in the past.

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