Officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans never saw it coming.
The white minivan over on Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Ark., in 2010 came back registered to a church in Ohio. Inside the vehicle were a Bible and some documents quoting Scripture.
Minutes later, Evans lay dying in the ditch and Paudert was sprawled on the roadway, their bodies tattered by two dozen bullets from an AK-47.
The killers: members of the sovereign citizen movement, which the officers had never heard of.
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“They didn’t realize that there are people at war with this country who are not international terrorists,” said Bob Paudert, then West Memphis police chief and father of one of the slain officers.
“These people are willing to kill and be killed for their beliefs. And they are more dangerous to us in law enforcement than international terrorists.”
Domestic terrorism used to be a major focus for police and federal agents, especially after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people 20 years ago Sunday.
But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led to a dramatic change: Law enforcement shifted its focus from domestic to foreign terrorism.
And today, while the number of violent incidents committed by domestic extremists is actually increasing, the holes in the net to catch them are growing larger, The Kansas City Star found in a one-year investigation.
A network of centers set up to detect and deter terrorism has done little of either, while at the same time federal funding to train law enforcement officers has been drastically slashed.
Authorities and others are beginning to raise the alarm – the same one raised after Oklahoma City.
“Domestic terrorism was the focus after the Oklahoma City bombing,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. “Then when 9/11 happened, it became way too focused on al-Qaida and its affiliates.”
Now, in a period of increasing extremism, the domestic danger is greater than ever, Johnson said.
“Our leaders don’t seem too concerned about the threat from within,” he said. “My fear is that there will be some kind of mass-casualty attack, with more people dying needlessly at the hands of domestic extremists. That’s what keeps me awake at night.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, federal agencies seem to have done well at protecting American soil from Islamic terrorists. At the same time, though, domestic extremists have killed more than 50 victims, many of them police officers, in dozens of attacks.
The impact of an act of terrorism extends far beyond the immediate victims.
The Kansas City area experienced that first-hand a year ago when a man shot three people to death outside two Jewish sites in Overland Park. Avowed white supremacist F. Glenn Miller Jr., also known as Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., was taken into custody at a nearby school shortly after the rampage, shouting “Heil Hitler” as he was loaded into a police car.
“It affected the entire community,” said Rabbi Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park.
“It could have been any of us. And it alters lives forever.”
But as Islamic extremists continue to wage attacks, the focus and funding for preventing terrorism at home has dissolved:
▪ The 78 “fusion centers” promoted by the Department of Homeland Security to be the centerpiece of terror intelligence in the wake of 9/11 disrupted a system of police work that previously had been effective.
▪ Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars pumped into them, the centers are largely autonomous and operated by disparate agencies that sometimes don’t even cooperate with one another.
▪ The fusion center victories the DHS touts often have little to do with domestic terrorism. In fact, many of them involve drug busts, fugitive apprehension or natural disaster responses.
▪ The FBI, which operates more than 100 terrorism task forces, also has struggled tracking domestic terrorism for a variety of reasons, including clashes with fusion centers, critics say.
▪ Congress has eliminated funding for a Justice Department program that provides anti-terrorism training and resources to thousands of law enforcement officers.
The FBI acknowledges the agency turned its attention to foreign terrorists after 9/11.
“Our efforts today remain very heavily focused in the area of the international terrorism threat, but we have an active domestic terrorism program as well,” said spokesman Paul Bresson. “Over the course of time, it has been critical for the FBI to be agile to respond to all emerging threats regardless of where they originate. And that is what we have done extremely well over our 107-year history.”
A DHS spokesman said his agency, too, was continuing to give domestic terrorism the attention it needs.
Homeland Security “protects our nation from all threats, whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” S.Y. Lee said in a March e-mail.
The agency “does not concentrate on any particular group or ideology,” Lee said.
Those who monitor domestic terrorism say the threat continues to mount.
“We are five years into the largest resurgence of right-wing extremism that we’ve had since the 1990s,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, which trains more than 10,000 law enforcement officers a year about domestic terrorism, extremism and hate crimes.
From 2009 through July 2014, Pitcavage said, authorities were involved in 46 shootouts with domestic extremists.
“When it comes to domestic extremism, what tends to happen is that a lot of it goes under the radar, and a lot – including murders and what you would think would be major incidents – only gets reported locally and regionally,” Pitcavage said.
“So unless it happens in your backyard, the average American doesn’t quite realize how much of this is happening.”
Some incidents do capture national attention.
Last June, anti-government extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two police officers and another man in a Las Vegas shooting rampage.
But did you hear about the Florida man with anti-government views who set a house on fire in November so he could shoot the first responders? He was able to kill a sheriff’s deputy and wound another.
Or the two sheriff’s deputies in Louisiana who were ambushed and shot to death by sovereign citizens in 2012 when they went to a trailer park to investigate an earlier shooting?
The relative invisibility of domestic terrorism means that the public puts little pressure on politicians to push for increased law enforcement efforts.
Not that the threats have gone entirely unnoticed by some congressional committees, think tanks and scholars.
A 2012 study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found a “dramatic rise” in recent years in the number of attacks and violent plots originating from what it described as “individuals and groups who self-identify with the far right of American politics.”
From 2000 to 2011, the study found, the average number of attacks per year was more than four times the number of attacks in the 1990s, a decade when anti-government groups began to flourish.
Some experts say those figures seem inflated, and conservatives say the West Point report perpetuates the liberal myth that right-wingers are terrorists.
But an intelligence assessment issued in February by the Department of Homeland Security in coordination with the FBI warns of continued threats from anti-government sovereign citizen extremists and notes 24 violent attacks across the U.S. since 2010 that it attributes to such groups. And a DHS report last summer said its analysts had seen a spike within the past year “in violence committed by militia extremists and lone offenders who hold violent anti-government beliefs.”
Monitoring and understanding these domestic extremists is critical, experts say. Failure to do so can be deadly.
“There’s a need for the information to get out,” said Bob Paudert, who retired as West Memphis police chief after his son’s death and now goes around the country teaching law enforcement officers about extremist groups.
“When my officers were killed, they did not have the information. If they did, they would still be with us.”
The two undercover officers couldn’t believe what they were hearing as they sat in a Towanda community center in 1997.
While armed guards with infrared detectors stood watch outside, about 30 people discussed setting up their own government and kidnapping a public official.
Over several meetings, the Missouri Highway Patrol officers listened to militia leader Brad Glover and his comrades talk about raiding military installations. Their ultimate plan: to attack Fort Hood at its annual Freedom Fest celebration on the Fourth of July.
The violent plot was foiled when FBI agents arrested Glover and an accomplice at a campground 40 miles southwest of Fort Hood before dawn on July 4, 1997. The men possessed an automatic weapon, explosives, a silencer, 1,600 rounds of ammunition and bulletproof vests. Glover and his comrade were each sentenced to five years in federal prison.
The case was a prime example of law enforcement cooperating post-Oklahoma City to conduct preemptive strikes against domestic terrorists.
A decade later, that same concept was a key element in the creation of the fusion center network.
Fusion centers were established to strengthen law enforcement efforts against terrorism. Today, there are fusion centers in almost every state and many major cities.
Operated by state and local agencies, the fusion centers work with federal authorities in a national network that shares terrorism-related information. DHS authorizes the centers, and the federal government provides grant funding and some personnel.
The centers don’t have the power to conduct investigations. Instead, they receive reports of suspicious activity, analyze them and determine whether to forward them to agencies such as the FBI that can investigate.
But many of the centers aren’t living up to their mission – indeed, some critics say, they’re downright ineffective.
“I think they’re an absolute waste,” said former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who retired in January.
“I don’t have any problem with the federal government working with local governments on organized crime and drugs and terrorism, too,” said Coburn, who had been a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which extensively studied fusion centers. “But I don’t think you need a fusion center.”
Coburn initiated a two-year, bipartisan study that resulted in a scathing congressional report released in October 2012. Some of the criticism was echoed by others in later studies.
The report, conducted by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, identified problems “with nearly every significant aspect of DHS’s involvement with fusion centers.”
The information put out by the fusion centers, the report said, was “oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely,” and “more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”
The report also said DHS could not provide an accurate accounting of how much it had given in taxpayer dollars to states and cities to support their fusion centers. The agency estimated that the total amount of federal dollars spent on fusion center efforts from 2003 to 2010 ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion.
In 2011, San Diego’s fusion center spent about $75,000 on 55 flat-screen TVs but never purchased the intelligence training program for which the TVs were intended. When the subcommittee asked what the TVs were actually being used for, officials said “open-source monitoring” – which they defined as “watching the news.”
A DHS spokesman criticized the subcommittee’s report when it was released, calling it “out of date, inaccurate and misleading.”
“In preparing the report, the committee refused to review relevant data,” said Matt Chandler, then a spokesman for DHS, in a statement.
Lee, the current DHS spokesman, did not address specific questions about the report. He said the agency “routinely shares information” with its partners.
Fusion centers, he said, “play a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America.”
‘Complete mission creep’
Michael German, a former FBI special agent who spent 16 years working on domestic terrorism and covert operations, said the fusion centers have lost sight of their main focus, which was supposed to be counterterrorism.
“Almost immediately, the fusion centers – or the state and local entities that were involved in the fusion centers – sort of began resisting that idea,” said German, who turned whistleblower and is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “They wanted it to go to an all-crimes, and ultimately to an all-hazards, mission.
“There’s been complete mission creep.”
The fusion centers don’t even fuse communications very well, German said, citing the Boston Marathon bombing.
At a congressional hearing in 2013, a DHS official said the Commonwealth Fusion Center wasn’t told of an FBI investigation into Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected mastermind of the attack, even though numerous fusion center personnel were assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Such lack of communication angered Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“The whole point of having fusion centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces is to share information and coordinate,” said the Texas Republican. “Here we are, 12 years later; we put billions of dollars into this. Why are we still having problems connecting the dots?”
Reach Judy L. Thomas at 816-234-4334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.