In April, as Baghdad fell and American soldiers began searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, federal officials uncovered a cache of deadly chemicals much closer to home — in the eastern Texas town of Noonday. The stockpile included a fully functional sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing hundreds, as well as neo-Nazi and antigovernment literature, illegal weapons, half a million rounds of ammunition, and more than 100 explosives, including bombs disguised as suitcases.
William Krar, a 62-year-old manufacturer of gun parts and a right-wing extremist who had rented the storage locker in which the cache was found, has pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing a chemical weapon and faces a possible life sentence. Two others — Judith L. Bruey, Mr. Krar's companion, and Edward Feltus, a member of a parmilitary group called the New Jersey Militia — are awaiting sentencing.
An isolated incident involving a few Americans on the far-right fringe? Most people probably assume so, but federal authorities served more than 150 subpeonas in the case, and are still searching for others who may have been involved.
The Noonday case shows just how serious a threat we face from domestic terrorists. Consider this year's other high-profile incident involving rightist causes: the arrest of Eric Rudolph, accused of bombing abortion clinics and the 1996 Olympics. During his five years in the wilderness, he was often viewed by the public and press as a lone fugitive. But law enforcement officials have linked him to two national movements: the Army of God, a biblically inspired underground network of anti-abortion extremists; and the Christian Identity movement, whose members believe that Jews are the literal children of Satan, nonwhites are sub-human, and that Anglo-Saxon Christians are the true descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
The examples keep coming. James Kopp, who was found guilty earlier this year in the 1998 shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo was also affiliated with the Army of God. Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, a white-supremacist group, was arrested in January in Chicago on charges of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. In February, federal officials arrested Rafael Davila, a former Army National Guard intelligence officer from Washington State; they say Mr. Davila and his former wife planned to distribute highly classified documents to white supremacists and antigovernment groups in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia.
Americans should question whether the Justice Department is making America's far-right fanatics a serious priority. And with the F.B.I. still struggling to get up to speed on the threat posed by Islamic extremists abroad, it is questionable whether the agency has the manpower to keep tabs on our distinctly American terror cells. There is no accurate way of analyzing the budgets of the F.B.I., Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to discern how much attention is being devoted to right-wing extremists. But in light of the F.B.I.'s poor record in keeping tabs on the militia movement before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, one wonders whether the agency has the will to do so now.
"Unfortunately, keeping track of right-wing and neo-Nazi hate groups isn't necessarily a path to career advancement in the Bureau," a Justice Department official told me not long after the Oklahoma City attack. "Agents get ahead by solving real crimes, like bank robbery, espionage and murder."
Not all these recent arrests were the result of sophisticated sleuthing. Mr. Rudolph was apprehended by an alert rookie police officer. The arrests of the three in the Texas case were flukes: the investigation began earlier this year when Mr. Krar sent a package of counterfeit identification cards to Mr. Feltus in New Jersey that was mistakenly delivered to a man in Staten Island, who opened it and called the police.
It is also worrisome that the discovery of lethal chemicals in President Bush's home state was not deemed occasion for a high-profile announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft or other officials trumpeting the arrests of Mr. Krar and his compatriots. This stands in stark contrast to the department's news media onslaughts whenever alleged operatives for Al Qaeda have been apprehended in the United States.
No, the domestic terrorists of the radical right will never realize their fantasies of "Aryan Revolution." But they do remain ready, willing and able to kill for their causes. As we saw in Oklahoma City and on 9/11, it takes only a handful of committed zealots to wreak havoc. Given the violent track record of America's hate groups, the F.B.I. and the public would do well to pay closer attention to our home-grown version of Al Qaeda.
Daniel Levitas is author of "The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company