NIKISKI, Alaska — Norm Olson's genial tone belies his reputation as a radical militiaman, yet here he is, at 63, an affable grandfather explaining why Americans should arm themselves against their government.
Walking stick in hand, clad in military fatigues, he strolls a trail in the woods near his home, located on 22 acres near Nikiski, a small, unincorporated community with isolated roads and no local government. The nearest state trooper post is two towns away.
A fellow militiaman, armed with an assault rifle, walks along as Olson — a man whose conspiracy theories were so extreme that he was kicked out of the group he founded, the Michigan Militia, 15 years ago — discourses on the need for a paramilitary Alaska Citizens Militia.
He lays out his ideas about imminent economic collapse and social chaos incited by federal bailouts and other forms of intrusion by a tyrannical government.
Never miss a local story.
Olson's militia is minuscule at the moment, but there has been a resurgence of the militia movement nationwide, in part coinciding with the advent of the Obama administration. At least 50 new right-wing militia groups have been identified by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization. All have formed within the past two years, many spreading their speeches and combat exercises on YouTube.
"It's the response to fear," Olson says.
Olson lets that sink in. Then he adds: "The federal government can roll into your driveway in the middle of the night and snatch you up and take you away and you'll never be seen again."
If the words sound familiar, there is good reason. It is rhetoric that was typical of the so-called patriot movement of the 1990s, amid similar circumstances: A Democrat, Bill Clinton, was in office. There was heightened interest in gun control legislation. Veterans were returning from the first Gulf War. Elaborate conspiracy theories were spreading.
Today's troubled economy and the perception that other countries are rising in influence might also be fueling activity among white supremacist and militia groups, according to an intelligence assessment by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
A significant difference this time, according to the April analysis, is that the nation has its first black president. "Right-wing extremists," the report says, "are harnessing this historical election as a recruitment tool."
There is a violent edge to this movement. Lone wolves and small groups who are "embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat," according to the report.
In the first five months of Obama's presidency, racist right-wing extremists killed at least nine people, according to Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass., think tank.
Such attacks are a vent for racial anxiety and outrage at the perceived liberal government by people who feel powerless to reach the political elites, according to Berlet. Instead, they target those within reach.
"It's a perfect storm for violence," Berlet said. "You ignore it at our peril."
But Jonathan White, a professor at Allendale, Mich.-based Grand Valley State University who has done extensive research on violent extremism and terrorism, says most militia members are "rhetoric only" — and that's where he puts Olson. The danger comes, he said, when these ideologies prompt paranoid "Alamo" groups to gear up for a standoff with the perceived enemy.