Over the past several years the lives of all American have been dominated by the threat of foreign inspired terrorism. Today it sits at the top of our government’s national security agenda and remains an intractable problem for US policy makers.
We do not have look far for the reasons behind these fears. Last November we were saturated with reports from Paris of ISIS maniacs murdering hundreds of spectators at a soccer match and evening diners at a sidewalk café. Then there was alarming news of an ISIS inspired attack on our homeland. From San Bernadino, California came word one afternoon of a quiet couple leaving their infant child with a babysitter while they casually slaughtered dozens of innocent people before dying in a shootout with the police. Most recently, Americans woke up one morning to news from Brussels of coordinated suicide bombings at a subway station near the European Union headquarters and at the city’s main airport leaving thirty – two dead (including an American couple) and hundreds more injured.
But this essay is not about foreign inspired terrorism. It’s a reminder of a different time not so long ago when ISIS didn’t exist. A moment in history when Americans faced a new home-grown form of political mass murder. One we should continue to worry about today.
This month marks the twenty-first anniversary of the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. On April 19, 1995 at 9:02 a.m. a Ryder truck carrying a deadly seven – thousand pound mixture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nitro methane racing fuel packed in thirteen plastic barrels erupted in a violent fire – ball in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In an instant, the entire center section of the building cratered killing one hundred and sixty – eight people (including eighteen children) and injuring more than six hundred. Three hundred cars were incinerated and another three hundred buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The bomber was Timothy McVeigh, an American and a Gulf War army veteran who was just four days short of his twenty-seventh birthday. His motive that morning was simple – hatred for the government. His fury started in 1992 with the FBI’s handling of the siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho that led to one death. A year later, on April 19, 1993, he watched in horror as the FBI once again violently ended a fifty–one day stand-off at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas with the resulting deaths of seventy-six men, women and children.
As McVeigh’s radicalization grew, he began denouncing government officials calling them “fascist tyrants” and “storm troopers”. The Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms, he threatened, “will swing in the wind one day for (your) treasonous actions against the Constitution of the United States”. He ended his tirade with the ominous warning to “Remember the Nuremberg Trials.”
From rhetoric McVeigh moved to action. He started with large bulk purchases of ammonium nitrate which he then resold to survivalists following rumors of government plans to ban the product. Soon he was experimenting with pipe bombs and ammonium nitrate as a weapon.
After parking the truck in the driveway fronting the building, McVeigh walked to a nearby parking lot where he got into his Mercury Grand Marquis getaway car. Moments later, as the sound of the explosion echoed in the background, he headed out of downtown Oklahoma City on to Interstate 40 and freedom. A few hours later an Oklahoma State trooper, on routine patrol, pulled the car over for an expired license plate. When McVeigh revealed that he was carrying a hidden weapon the trooper arrested him and locked up the car on the side of the road.
Amid the desperate efforts then underway to recover trapped victims the FBI criminal investigation had already begun. A stroke of luck quickly led to the discovery of the truck’s rear axle containing the vehicle identification number. Hours later FBI agents found themselves at an auto repair shop in Junction City, Kansas, a tiny town two hundred and seventy miles northeast of Oklahoma City. The owners recalled renting the truck to two white males. An artist sketch produced immediate results when local hotel workers recognized one of the images as similar to a guest named Timothy McVeigh. On April 21st, two days after the bombing, FBI agents checked the name with the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information System in West Virginia. To their surprise they learned that the mass murderer was locked up in an Oklahoma jail.
As agents began peeling back the layers of McVeigh’s life one name kept popping up – his close friend, Terry Nichols. A search of Nichols’ Herington, Kansas home uncovered compelling evidence of his involvement in the crime. Twenty – pound bags of ammonium nitrate, blasting caps, detonator cords, and fuses were discovered. Scattered around the house were reams of anti-government literature. Later it was determined that Nichols had helped McVeigh build the bomb. The FBI also identified a third suspect named Michael Fortier. He knew about McVeigh’s plan and had assisted him in scouting out the site. Nichols, Fortier and Fortier’s wife, Lori, were quickly arrested by the FBI.
As for Michael and Lori Fortier, they later testified against McVeigh and Nichols as government witnesses in exchange for twelve years in prison for him and immunity from prosecution for her. After ten and a half years in prison, Fortier entered the federal Witness Protection Program under an assumed name disappearing from public view.
A federal jury convicted Nichols in 1997 of seven counts of involuntary manslaughter (for each federal officer killed) and one count of using a weapon of mass destruction. On June 4, 1998, a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison to run concurrently for each manslaughter count and life in prison without parole for the Use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Today, he is confined at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, at Florence, Colorado
Curiously, this was not the end of Nichols legal saga. In an interesting twist the State of Oklahoma demanded its own justice in 2004 by charging him with one hundred and sixty – one counts of first degree murder. The jury found him guilty on all charges – but deadlocked on the death penalty.
There was no wavering on McVeigh’s fate. On June 2, 1997, a federal jury found him guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and the murder of eleven federal officers. Following the exhaustion of his appeals the nation’s greatest domestic mass murderer died by lethal injection at the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana on June 11, 2001 – three months to the day before the 9/11 attack.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Congress passed a series of laws designed to strengthen victims’ rights and terrorism prevention efforts. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). It included provisions for restitution and assistance to victims of terrorist acts as well as strengthening criminal laws involving terrorist or explosive related offenses. A year later the Victims Allocution Clarification Act allowed victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and any future acts of violence the right to observe the trials and offer impact testimony at sentencing hearings.
Americans must remain alert to foreign terrorists and their relentless efforts to worm their way into this country. At the same time, however, while the government continues strengthening our borders, there is an equally serious domestic terrorist threat lurking in our midst that demands our attention.
Last June Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans including the senior pastor and a state senator during worship services at a Charleston, South Carolina church. Investigators later discovered his website called The Last Rhodesian containing neo-Nazi symbols along with a racist manifesto outlining his attitudes towards blacks. Five months later three people including a police officer were killed, and nine others wounded (including five police officers) by Richard Lewis Dear at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood medical center. In a telephone call from jail to a local radio station Dear claimed that his radicalization started with the Branch Davidian siege. ‘I’m a Christian,” he told the reporter, “and so when they burned up those Christians and 17 little kids and everything else I was pretty upset about it.”
These violent acts are not mere anomalies. For some insights we have only to turn to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization which studies terrorism in the United States. In 2015 the SPLC published A Study of the Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism, a detailed report on recent terrorist attacks on US soil. Sixty acts of radical right and homegrown jihadist violence between April 1, 2009 and February 1, 2015 were examined. The results were sobering. An attack or foiled attack, on average, occurred every thirty-four days. A lone-wolf, a single person acting alone, planned or carried out more than seventy-four percent of the incidents. And finally, reflecting back on McVeigh and Nichols, the study found that one or two persons planned ninety percent of the incidents.
Foreign terrorism is a serious concern. But, if McVeigh and Nichols are examples of American terrorists, don’t we have more to fear from homegrown fanatics bent on murder and mayhem.