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More in the militia movement are finding a new target: American Muslims

The revelation of an alleged domestic terrorism plot to kill Somali immigrants in southwest Kansas serves as a glaring illustration of what experts say is a growing concern.

Across the country, they say, anti-government extremists are shifting their sights from federal agencies to Muslim people at an alarming rate.

“The Kansas case exemplifies how the militia movement is increasingly targeting Muslims,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Not only is there more of it, but it’s growing more intense.

“And it’s the growth of the intensity that concerns me more than the growth in general, because mild bigotry spread thinly is not necessarily going to result in people blowing things up. But intense bigotry, concentrated, can.”

The irony, Pitcavage said, is that after the Oklahoma City bombing catapulted the militia movement into the national spotlight two decades ago, its leaders spent years trying to distance the movement from white supremacy.

“But within the past five years, they have openly embraced extremely bigoted attitudes toward Muslims,” he said. “They are totally blind to the notion that bigotry against Muslims is just as bad as bigotry against blacks and Jews and anyone else.”

A new study by researchers at California State University-San Bernardino found that anti-Muslim hate crimes are at the highest level since the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The study, which examined hate crimes in 21 states and the District of Columbia — 56 percent of the U.S. population — found that hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 jumped more than 86 percent over the previous year, from 114 to 213.

That makes 2015 “the worst year for anti-Muslim hate crime that we’ve seen since 2001 and the second-worst that we’ve seen since records have been kept,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. “We’re now about nine times more than the numbers we saw pre-2001.”

The increase is due to a combination of factors, Levin said, including an escalation of terrorist attacks in the United States and overseas and the existence of a galvanized national political movement that uses anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“We have charismatic political leaders unifying and coalescing this,” he said. “The alt-right didn’t start this, nor did Donald Trump. But they certainly have amplified it and mainstreamed it.”

The statistics don’t indicate how many of the hate crimes were committed by anti-government extremists, but experts say the number is significant. And Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said the political rhetoric has played a key role in the surge.

“You have politicians talking about deporting Muslims and saying that the vetting process isn’t good enough,” he said. “So people start thinking that ISIS is around every corner.”

While the militia movement has typically targeted the government as well as federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Johnson said, the Kansas case highlights how the movement has expanded its targets.

“They justify targeting Muslims because they believe that Muslims are connected to ISIS and every mosque is an indoctrination center,” he said. “So they stereotype and broad-brush every Muslim as a threat and sympathizer with ISIS.”

Fueling the anti-Muslim attitudes, Johnson said, are terrorist attacks such as those in Orlando, Fla., and San Bernardino.

“It spins these people up, thinking that ‘there’s ISIS in my town,’ ” he said. “And the paranoia gets ratcheted up.”

Because most militias are defense oriented, Johnson said, they’re preparing for the next ISIS attack.

“So they’re going to start gearing up, they’re going to be locked and loaded to be ready to take out the ISIS terrorist and be a hero,” he said. “But now, instead of targeting government officials, they’re starting to go after innocent civilians.”

Levin said that although violent jihadis inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaida remain the most prominent terror threat in the U.S., “we now face a multifaceted terrorism risk.”

“Once extremism gets out of the bottle, it’s not restricted to any one ideology,” he said. “I am extremely concerned not only about a mass terrorist attack by violent (foreign terrorists), but we’re additionally concerned about mass attacks against places where Muslims live and gather, whether mosques or events or residential areas.”

Levin said it was chilling to hear about the Kansas arrests.

“Thank God it was intercepted,” he said. “What I’m worried about is that the next time, these domestic terrorists will pull it off.”

‘Wake people up’

Federal authorities disclosed the alleged southwest Kansas plot at a news conference Oct. 14 in Wichita, saying the men planned to detonate bombs at an apartment complex in Garden City, Kan., where Somali immigrants live and worship.

Curtis W. Allen and Gavin W. Wright, both 49, of Liberal, Kan., and Patrick E. Stein, 51, of Wright, Kan., were charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in connection with the plot.

The criminal complaint said the defendants were key members of a militia group that called itself the Crusaders. A fourth member contacted the FBI early this year after becoming concerned about “the heightening discussion of violence within the organization,” according to a document filed Thursday in federal court.

The FBI persuaded the fourth member to become a “confidential human source” and later introduce an undercover FBI employee to the militia group.

According to the complaint, the three men stockpiled weapons, ammunition and components to make explosives, conducted surveillance to identify possible targets and talked of distributing a manifesto to coincide with the planned attack — which they allegedly said was intended to “wake people up.”

The three asked the undercover FBI employee to provide explosives and automatic weapons to use in their attack, court documents say.

The criminal complaint said the men talked about filling four vehicles with explosives and placing one at each corner of the apartment complex that houses up to 150 members of the Somali community, many of them children.

Authorities arrested the three men after Allen’s girlfriend contacted Liberal police. She reportedly said Allen had beaten her during an argument and fled. She showed officers a room in their home that allegedly contained ammunition and “components and tools for use in the manufacture of ammunition and firearms.”

Attorneys for Stein and Wright did not respond to requests for comment last week. Allen’s attorney, Melody Brannon, declined to comment.

In revealing the alleged terror plot, acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall said that “many Kansans may find it as startling as I do that such things could happen here.”

But watchdog groups say signs of anti-government extremists’ mounting contempt of Muslims have been cropping up around the country.

In September, plans for the first mosque in Newton County, Ga., hit a snag when members of the Georgia Security Force III% militia threatened to hold an armed protest outside the meeting where county commissioners were expected to take a vote that would clear the way for the project to proceed. Commissioners canceled the meeting, citing safety concerns, but some militia members showed up to protest outside the courthouse the next day. One wore a yellow T-shirt with a slogan on the back that said, “Islam is of the Devil.”

In August, authorities arrested a Massachusetts man who they said threatened to kill President Barack Obama and torch a mosque after chaining its doors shut. Investigators found handwritten notes threatening violence against Muslims, along with assault rifle ammunition and materials that could be used to make explosives, court documents said. Authorities said the man also had purchased a chemical for making grenades that he planned to use to kill law enforcement officers when martial law was declared.

In March, the Islamic Society of Wichita canceled an event at its mosque after controversy arose over the invited speaker and organizers learned that a militia network called the Kansas Security Force planned an armed protest.

And last year, Jon Ritzheimer, one of the militants involved in the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge in January, organized an armed protest outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix.

“We’re certainly seeing an increase in those kinds of things,” said Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “It’s the traditional scapegoating kind of thing, to say that we didn’t have any problems until they came here.

“It’s very easy to target people who are a small number, who are visibly different, who speak a different language, who don’t understand the system. It’s a way of proving your superiority. But who’s the real threat here? Is it these immigrants who’ve come there to work hard to make a better life for his or her family? Or is it these guys who are actually doing the bad things?”

Pitcavage said this month’s arrests are reminiscent of a 1997 sting operation in which authorities infiltrated a small Kansas militia that broke off from a larger gathering in Missouri and planned an attack on Fort Hood, Texas, at its annual Freedom Fest celebration on the Fourth of July. The violent plot was foiled when FBI agents arrested the militia leader, Brad Glover, and a comrade at a campground 40 miles southwest of Fort Hood before dawn on July 4, 1997.

Authorities began clamping down on militias after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, but domestic terrorism eventually got placed on the back burner after 9/11  as the focus turned to foreign terrorism. Last October, however, the Department of Justice announced it was creating a new office to once again make domestic terrorism a priority.

The announcement bolstered findings earlier last year by The Kansas City Star that law enforcement had shifted its attention from domestic to foreign terrorism. As a result, the newspaper investigation found, federal authorities had lost sight of domestic extremists.

Pitcavage said the Kansas plot could have been devastating if carried out.

“They were choosing a target expressly for the purpose of killing specific people, and they were fantasizing about using truck bombs to do it,” he said. “That’s really serious. A truck bomb could bring down a whole building and kill everybody inside — men, women, children. They do not seem to have been daunted at all at the prospect of killing children.”

He noted that the criminal complaint said officers found and seized an estimated metric ton of ammunition in Allen’s home in Liberal.

“A metric ton is 2,205 pounds,” Pitcavage said. “That’ll last you through a standoff or two.”

In Wright’s home, authorities said they found 12,158 rounds of ammunition, 34 weapons and $5,000 in cash.

Cries of entrapment

Some leaders in the militia and “patriot” movements say the government’s case against the Kansas men reeks of entrapment.

“I think the feds went in and they found three (idiots) so they could have enough people to make it a conspiracy,” said Bob Wright, commander of the New Mexico Militia. “Then they got the fed guy to go in and get them talking ridiculous scenarios. ‘We now have them on conspiracy.’ And that’s all this is. This is going to turn out to be utter bull crap.”

Wright said the militias in the U.S. are not religiously motivated.

“Now, are they very much afraid of radical Islam?” he said. “Of course they are. Any sane person is.”

David Codrea, a Second Amendment advocate and field editor of Guns Magazine, questioned the FBI’s tactics.

“You’ve got to kind of wonder what kind of provocateurs were in their midst, what set these guys up to do stuff like this?” he said. “Every time these kinds of guys get in trouble, you’re talking about low-hanging fruit, you’re talking about people that talk to people they shouldn’t be talking to, making noises they shouldn’t be making. It’s just stupid.”

Others in the “patriot” movement denounced the Kansas suspects.

“I find this very shocking, I find it very revolting, and I find it running contrary to everything that I have said publicly concerning violence and this intent,” said Ernest Lee, co-founder of the Liberty Restoration Committee, a new group that says it is seeking to restore the Constitution as the founders originally intended. Both Allen and Stein promoted Lee’s group on their Facebook pages.

Lee told The Star that he met the men in Liberal in early June.

“Some of the guys wanted to come and meet me because they had been following my videos and this kind of stuff,” he said. “I had some conversations with Patrick, and I actually spent some time around Curtis, but very limited exposure. As far as my contact or involvement with the guys, it was very minimal.”

Lee said when he heard about the arrests, “I was jaw-dropped about some of the information that came out, because the only thing I ever talked to the guys about was the legal, lawful, constitutional way for us to be able to restore our republic.”

Community in shock

As the case starts winding its way through the courts, Liberal residents are still trying to figure out how a plot so horrific could have been hatched in their backyard.

“I’ve talked to different community members about it, and just like me, they’re sad that some people felt like this is what they needed to do,” said state Rep. Shannon Francis, a Republican from Liberal. “We’re a welcoming community, and we’ve dealt with immigrants moving in and out of our community for a number of years now. I think there was just a lot of shock that someone felt like this was an appropriate action.”

The revelation about the alleged plot has given residents a lot to think about, Francis said.

“Sometimes, people start talking and don’t really think through what the consequences of their actions are,” he said. “It’s like there’s this moral disconnect between what happens on Facebook and the blogosphere versus their real relations with real people.

“We have to understand that our words have consequences, and we need to watch what we say in an offhand manner. Because sometimes people take actions that we would never dream that they would.”

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

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