New Details Emerge As FBI Probes Christian Militias In Mich.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we'll hear from our Money Coach Alvin Hall about yet another effort by the Obama administration to fight the foreclosure wave, this time for homeowners who have lost their jobs. We'll ask if the substance lives up to the headlines. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about that alleged plot by a group of people in the Midwest to stage a massive attack on law enforcement officials. Nine suspects were indicted by a federal grand jury yesterday. Government investigators say they uncovered plans to murder a Michigan police officer and then attack the officers who would gather for the funeral.
The nine allegedly belong to a militia group of Christian extremists who, according to the indictment, have been plotting since 2008 to overthrow the government. Joining us to talk more about this are Niraj Warikoo, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, who's been covering this story. And Heidi Beirich, she's the director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of these kinds of extremist groups. And I welcome you both. And thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. NIRAJ WARIKOO (Reporter, Detroit Free Press): Thank you. Great to be here, Michel.
Ms. HEIDI BEIRICH (Director of Research, Southern Poverty Law Center): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Niraj, could you just tell us a bit more about the indictment - how this group came to the attention of law enforcement, for example.
Mr. WARIKOO: Well, that's unclear. Some of the evidence has yet to be sealed, so it's unclear why the Feds focused on this group specifically. There may be an informant that was used. Some legal analysts are saying that's how they may have got on their radar screen. We do know that the group has been out there for a few years. They're known to other militia groups, for example. So they weren't entirely underground. However, in the past year or so, according to other militia leaders, they became increasingly secret about their activities.
MARTIN: And they're called, just - what's the name of this group, Hutaree?
Mr. WARIKOO: Yeah, they're called...
MARTIN: The Hutaree militia?
Mr. WARIKOO: Yeah, Hutaree. And it stands for Christian warrior. Their belief system is centered around Christianity, or their idea of Christianity. They had this idea for fighting for Jesus in the end of times and also fighting the Antichrist. And it seems that for them the Antichrist was the government. On their page they have photos and videos of burning United Nations flags, which they then take down or replace them with the CCR flag, which for them stands for Colonial Christian Republic. So this idea of creating a Colonial Christian Republic seems to have been one of their motivating ideologies.
MARTIN: And Hutaree, where does that come from? Is that what is that word?
Mr. WARIKOO: That's unclear. There's been a lot of talk about that. They may have just made that up. There was one linguistic expert and the University of Pennsylvania who suggested it was just some sort of, almost like a Pokemon language where they just, literally just made up some words because phonetically that doesn't make sense in some ways, but it may be just their own sort of code language that they try to use.
MARTIN: Now, Heidi, tell us a bit more about when this group came to the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Your group specifically keeps track of groups like this. What do you know about that them?
Ms. BEIRICH: Sure. Yeah. We monitor militias and antigovernment patriot groups and put out an annual list of those groups. And we ran across the Hutarees in sort of the late spring in our normal course of business where we look at, you know, militia Web sites and so on. And they obviously fit the mold for a militia. They were a paramilitary organization. They're extremely antigovernment. But they also have this kind of different take, you know, related to Christianity, which is not necessarily so typical of militias in general.
MARTIN: What do you know, or what do you know of their core beliefs?
Ms. BEIRICH: I think that the core beliefs were already stated here. I mean, basically they thought there was an end times coming, and that an Antichrist that had to be defeated. They believe that they had to be well-armed to defeat that Antichrist, which takes the form of the federal government. In other words, they were preparing for war and that's actually what the indictment says.
MARTIN: Now, in your report posted on March 29th, you write that the arrests again show the growing danger from America's radical right, where a pervasive rage against the government has become red hot. Why do you say that?
Ms. BEIRICH: We saw a huge jump in the number of these kinds of extreme anti-government groups between 2008 and 2009 from 149 to 512. These are groups that are so angry at the government that they believe such things is that Obama's going to round up American citizens and put them in FEMA camps, that an imminent threat exists vis-a-vis the federal government. And that kind of anger is stoking domestic terrorism, just like what happened with this Hutaree group.
We've had several instances of domestic terrorism, including the guy who tried to fly his plane into the IRS office in the last year or so. And it's the result of this kind of hot rhetoric.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you a bit more about Niraj, can I ask you about the part of the indictment says there was the attempted use of weapons of mass destruction. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Mr. WARIKOO: Well, the federal government has been unclear about that. It appears it might have been pipe bombs or some sort of IEDs or improvised explosive devices centered around making pipe bombs that they were going to use to attack law enforcement with. But that's unclear. One thing I would say is interesting is that in their ideology, we were just saying earlier, comes out of this there's attrition in Michigan sometimes of alternative belief systems that can be extreme at times.
You know, whether it's sort of like militia or white nationalism, and on the other side sort of black nationalist philosophies that can sometimes be extreme. So there's this sort of this mix in Michigan that's interesting that can result in some cases like this that can lead to violence. But obviously, most of the time it does not, but sometimes it does.
MARTIN: But, Heidi, can I press you again on this question of whether there's an increase in this kind of activity? We know that there's a lot of anger at the government right now by some people. I mean, we've seen, you know, demonstrations. We saw, you know, what happened in Washington around the time that the Congress was voting on the health care overhaul bill. There was a lot of acting out, I think it's fair to say, you know, acting out, a lot of yelling and so forth.
But how do we know that there has been an increase in this kind of activity where people seem to be willing to take up arms and so forth? They're not just, just for one of the better word, blowing off steam or blowing hot air, if I can call it that.
Ms. BEIRICH: Sure. Well, look, we have a list of domestic terror incidents from Oklahoma City until this past, just a few months ago. And if you'd look at that list, you see that the number of domestic terror incidents has dropped really heavily in the sort of 2006, 2007. And then the moment of the election, almost literally right around that, we have seen a rash of domestic terrorist incidents from people coming from the radical right from these anti-government reaches or from white supremacists.
Those are just facts on the ground. We had a guy shoot three cops in his front yard in Pittsburgh. We had the Holocaust Museum shooting. I already mentioned Joseph Stack with the IRS building and several others. I mean, that is where, you know, rhetoric and hatred of the government has literally been transformed into taking violent action. Those aren't plots, those are things that were actually carried out. And the fact that we have so many more militias training, paramilitary training, those are also facts on the ground. These people are preparing for some kind of imminent threat.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Detroit Free Press reporter Niraj Warikoo. And we're talking about the indictment of nine members of an alleged Christian militia on a number of charges. It's believed that they were attempting to plan an attack on law enforcement officials in Michigan in hopes of sparking some larger confrontation.
So, Niraj, perhaps you want to take this question. Is there, you know, Heidi pointed out that there's sometimes there's a connection with these white supremacist groups. Is there any evidence of that - that there's also a racial factor at work here?
Mr. WARIKOO: I should say in this case, this group was not really a racial group. It was more religiously based. In fact, they go out of their way to state that they're a supporter of Israel and of the Jewish people and they have on their Web site, for example, reasons why Christians should support Israel. And they don't really have this sort of anti-African-American rhetoric that you may find in other militia groups or extremist anti-government groups. So in fairness to them, you know, they don't seem to be a racially based group.
However, they were really big on Christianity and that led them to at times have some, maybe some anti-foreign beliefs, this obsession with foreigners taking over their country. So, race in a general sense may play a factor, but not in (unintelligible) they were racist. But they were obsessed, you know, with this idea of fighting for Jesus or fighting for Christ. The idea that you're supposed to be a warrior for Christ and that's your duty on earth. And so this idea of creating this Colonial Christian Republic was a big thing for them.
MARTIN: And, Heidi, how can I put this, I get the impression that your group is concerned, or are you concerned that the pattern of behavior is not being taken seriously? Or do you think it's being taken seriously?
I mean, clearly, you know, law enforcement indicated, the U.S. attorney in this case indicated that the reason they moved when they did is that they felt an attack was being planned. That they needed to disrupt the attack and, you know, and so forth. But do you feel that this pattern of conduct as you see it is being taken is viewed in the same way by U.S. authorities, and are they taking it seriously?
Ms. BEIRICH: Yeah. I mean, I can't repeat exactly what the quote was from the FBI agent in the press release that went out with the indictment yesterday, but it basically reflected what I'm saying, which is this incredible anger out there is being translated, unfortunately, into action in some cases. And I think the federal authorities are actually very much on top of this kind of far right extremism.
They know where it can lead. They knew in Oklahoma City. And they're putting a lot of resources into it. They put a new threat center for threats against judges by sovereign citizens together. The Joint Terrorism Task Force are very much aware of this. So, yeah, I think they are taking it very seriously.
MARTIN: And, Niraj, a final word from you, what is next in this case as you follow this? What are the next steps that we should be looking forward to? And you've also told us there are number of things that law enforcement hasn't disclosed at this point. Do you think we'll find out more about what motivated these people and how they got started. And one of the things that was interesting to me is that four members of this group four of the nine are family members are related to each other. I think that's also an interesting thing. So, what else is going to happen next?
Mr. WARIKOO: Right, exactly. There's been some talk or brainwashing that the young kid who was kind of going to be a leader and making his weapons was apparently, allegedly brainwashed by his father, according to his ex-wife. That came out yesterday. Joshua Stone is going to appear in court today, so there might be more information coming later. But as these - some of the evidence is unsealed, I think we'll get some more clues as to how they were operating and how they got on the radar screen of the feds.
But it does appear that, you know, their faith or their interpretation of their faith did play a big role, this end of times ideology, which actually is popular in America. Obviously, the majority who believe it are not advocating violence. But, you know, Tim LaHaye's novels on the end of times are bestsellers in America. So, but when people take that in a violent way, obviously that's a problem.
MARTIN: And, also, perhaps the use of - I'm also interested in how these groups organized themselves. How did they connect with each other?
Mr. WARIKOO: Right. It appears to be somewhat of a low-key operation in a sense that they operated out of a trailer park. I mean, you know, my colleague was out there at the scene. It was a rusted trailer with a messy lawn with rusted stuff in the lawn. So, it wasn't as if it was some sort of big operation, it appears. It may be bigger, maybe evidence will come out, but right now it appears that this 45-year-old guy David Stone was sort of running the show with the help of some family members and neighbors.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, keep us posted, if you would.
Mr. WARIKOO: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Niraj Warikoo is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. We're also pleased to be joined by Heidi Beirich. She's the director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center and she joined us from her office in Montgomery, Alabama. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. BEIRICH: Thank you.
Mr. WARIKOO: Thank you. Great being here.