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There is a new study out today that describes a big rise in hate groups across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center says by its count there are now more than 1,000 active extremist groups in the U.S. Experts say the largest increase comes from militias that consider the federal government their enemy. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Mark Potok has been studying hate groups for a long time. But Potok says even he was surprised when he started counting extremists for his annual report.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): Well, we have absolutely explosive growth of these groups. We have a higher hate group count than we've ever had, there are over a thousand groups out there.

JOHNSON: The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that tracks extremist movements, says there are three major reasons for the increase. The bad economy, the wide reach of the Internet, and changing racial patterns in the U.S. Experts say the most negative energy seems to be coming from people who think the federal government is conspiring to take away their freedom. Here's Potok.

Mr. POTOK: It is not, you know, harmless in the sense that the patriot movement has produced a great deal of criminal violence. There were an enormous number of plots that came out of the patriot movement, particularly in the late 1990s, and we're beginning to see that again.

JOHNSON: Jim Cavanaugh is a retired federal investigator. He's built cases against a lot of extremists.

Mr. JIM CAVANAUGH (Retired Investigator, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives): You know, it's the challenge of American law enforcement to see through the smoke and try to get to the people who are really going try to hurt somebody.

JOHNSON: In many cases, that means people at the fringes of organized groups who carry out plots on their own. Take the police blotter in January, for instance. That month, authorities arrested a neo Nazi headed for the Southwest border. He was carrying a dozen homemade grenades.

Police hauled in another man in Dearborn, Michigan. He had parked near a crowded mosque and he had explosives in his car. The FBI and local authorities are still trying to find out who put a bomb on the parade route in Spokane, Washington just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. day.

Cavanaugh says he thinks more people need to start talking about hate groups because, he says, a movement gets stronger when it hides in the shadows. Today's report might help jump start that discussion.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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