Remembering The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center about the bombing and the threat of domestic terrorism today.

Remembering The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later

Remembering The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years Later

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NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center about the bombing and the threat of domestic terrorism today.


Twenty years ago today, Florence Rogers was back on the job after a vacation in the Caribbean. She was the head of the Federal Employees Credit Union, holding a morning meaning in her office at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. Here is Rogers in an interview recorded by the FBI.


FLORENCE ROGERS: I had just turned around in my chair when the bomb went off. And they - all the girls that was in the office with me - had disappeared. Realization set in somewhat, and I realized that I don't know where they are. They're gone.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's been some kind of explosion downtown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can you give me a location?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've had an explosion. We need help.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Adam, 38, are you on the north side of the Federal Building with people buried?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Is there someone there?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: My daughter's one, and she's in there.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They pulled five little kids out and couple of little - couple of ladies.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Incredible. The Alfred Murrah building - it's almost gone completely. Half of it has collapsed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Let's move out.

RATH: April 19, 1995 - the Oklahoma City bombing, the most destructive act of homegrown terrorism in our nation's history.



A massive implosion ripped apart the main federal office building in Oklahoma City today.

RATH: That evening on All Things Considered, NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with reporter Mark Woodward of member station KGOU.


SIEGEL: And, Mark, what can you tell us about the scene so far?

MARK WOODWARD: Rescue workers are having to crawl on their stomachs, crawling over corpses to get to the people that they can hear crying and screaming for help in different parts of that building. And they're doing everything they can right now to get to those people.

RATH: A fertilizer bomb hidden in a rental truck was behind the devastation. The blast, equal to 4,000 pounds of TNT, killed 168 people, including 19 children. Mark Potok was in Oklahoma City reporting for USA Today just hours after the blast. He says immediately after, people were speculating who was behind this attack?

MARK POTOK: Well, almost universally, the speculation was this was a jihadist attack. And certain commentators went on national television and made very strong statements suggesting that that was what, in fact, it was, based on no evidence whatsoever.

RATH: Potok says those kind of statements put more lives in danger.

POTOK: There was an Iraqi refugee, a woman, near Oklahoma City at home with her two-year-old child, when suddenly a whole shower of bricks were thrown right through her windows. She heard screeching tires outside, went running into a bathroom with her child, locked herself in, and there she began to miscarry. And, in fact, her husband very quickly raced off with her to the hospital to try and save the child. On the way, he actually asked her to please take off her veil. He was afraid that she would suffer even more abuse at the hospital. You know, the tragedy of it, of course, is that, in fact, that child - that baby - was stillborn.

RATH: Then Attorney General Janet Reno announced an arrest. It wasn't a Muslim suspect. Here she is on C-SPAN.


JANET RENO: Timothy McVeigh, age 27, who we previously called John Doe Number One, the man with the light brown crew cut, was arrested by local authorities on a traffic violation about 60 miles from Oklahoma City on Wednesday morning.

RATH: A white, American-born terrorist. McVeigh's accomplice, Terry Nichols, another white American who helped build the bomb and arrange McVeigh's getaway car, surrendered to police soon after. Twenty years after reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing, Mark Potok is now with the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he monitors extremist groups. He says the bombing in 1995 was a wake-up call. Homegrown extremist militia groups were a real threat to the security of the nation.

POTOK: I think it was real loss of innocence for Americans and America, as a nation. It had been considered more or less inconceivable in many quarters that a kind of blue-eyed American boy could be behind an incredible atrocity like this. So I think it affected all Americans, but it affected law enforcement, in particular.

RATH: So talk about how government shifted law enforcement resources post-Oklahoma City to prevent these kind of attacks.

POTOK: Well, what happened in the aftermath of the massacre was that President Bill Clinton authorized the hiring of 500 more FBI agents to be tasked to domestic terrorism. At the same time, in the next year or two, all kinds of federal agencies developed capabilities for dealing with terrorism or, at least, analyzing it because it became very clear rather quickly that the entire federal government was under attack, in a sense. So you even had agencies like the U.S. Forest Service developing intelligence capabilities.

RATH: Can you run through some of the plots in the '90s that were disrupted or even some that weren't?

POTOK: In 1997, for instance, there was a Klan plot in central Texas to blow up a particular natural gas refinery. These three Klansmen and a Klanswoman had the very bizarre idea that if they did this, they could get all law enforcement and EMTs and so on to rush to the site of this disaster. And they would, meanwhile, travel to the other side of the county and rob banks, in order to fund the coming race war and all that kind of thing. The plot was, in fact, disrupted by the FBI. And at the time of the arrests of these people, the authorities announced that had they succeeded, they would have murdered between 10 and 30,000 people.

RATH: Obviously, attention shifted more to international based plots after 9-11. In terms of specifically what happened with U.S. law enforcement, can you talk about what happened with domestic terror - with the monitoring of domestic terror groups. Were there are fewer agents, resources - you know, that kind of thing?

POTOK: The attention of law enforcement, especially top policy-making levels, I think, is still overly focused on jihadist terrorism. Obviously, that is an incredibly real threat and has to be paid very close attention to. But the fact is there are an enormous number of these plots unfolding still today. And in fact, we've seen a kind of speeding up of domestic terrorism in the last five or six years, in particular, since Barack Obama took office. Just a couple of years ago, four North Georgia militiamen were convicted, for instance, of a plot to attack four southern cities, including Atlanta, with ricin, the deadly biological toxin. So there's an awful lot of this kind of thing going on out there, and we need to pay attention to it.

RATH: Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., where he monitors extremist groups.

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