24 August 2017

The Wary Eye Of The FBI Watches For Homegrown Terrorism


Shortly after midnight on Aug. 12, Jerry Varnell slid behind the wheel of a stolen van and headed for his chosen target, the BancFirst building in Oklahoma City. As he drove toward the bank, he nervously watched for police along his route, fearing that the 1,000-pound bomb in the back of the van would be discovered and his attack thwarted. However, Varnell's drive went without incident and he was able to park the van at a loading dock next to the bank and leave the area on foot without detection.

He checked the device, armed it and then quickly walked to the parked car where an associate was waiting. After they had driven a safe distance away, Varnell used his partner's burner cellphone to dial the number that would activate the bomb and leave the bank building a smoldering pile of rubble. But to his disappointment, the device did not detonate after the first call, so Varnell dialed the number a second and then a third time - after which he was arrested. To Varnell's surprise, he learned that his associate was a member of the FBI and the huge bomb he had assembled in the back of the "stolen" van was an elaborate fake that was part of a sting operation.

Such sting operations are not unusual; the FBI has conducted dozens of them since 9/11. In this case, however, Varnell was not a grassroots jihadist radicalized by al Qaeda or Islamic State, or even an anarchist; he was a member of the anti-government militia movement, which has a long and deadly history of violence.
Echoing Other Stings

From the recorded conversations Varnell had with the FBI informant, it was clear that that he was a right-wing anti-government extremist who sought to damage the current political order and foment a revolution. This is very similar to the motive that drove Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. Varnell even told the informant that he wanted to bomb the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C., as McVeigh had bombed the Murrah building. The FBI asserts in the criminal complaint against Varnell that this statement is what caused the informant to report Varnell to the FBI in December 2016.

From the criminal complaint it becomes readily apparent that Varnell was far more aspirational than capable. Indeed, this case has many parallels to the sting operations that have often been used to ensnare grassroots jihadists. Varnell was radicalized by material he was reading on the internet rather than interaction with competent individuals who possessed the terrorist tradecraft for such a complex attack. This dynamic is not at all unusual for the right wing. Indeed, it is important to remember that right-wing extremists embraced the leaderless resistance model of terrorism long before jihadists did. Figures such as Louis Beam and William Pierce began advocating leaderless resistance shortly after the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988. This means that right-wing extremists have long struggled with the paradox created by the leaderless resistance model - it offers increased operational security but often radicalizes operatives with little terrorist capability.

Like many grassroots jihadists, Varnell sought to conduct a spectacular attack that was far beyond his capability rather than conduct a simple attack using the weapons he had readily at hand. Because of this, he had to seek help, and this led him to the FBI informant and ultimately the sting operation launched against him.

Mental Illness

While many have criticized the FBI's use of sting operations, it is clear that had Varnell succeeded in contacting a genuine terrorist facilitator with access to explosives rather than an FBI informant this case could have ended far differently - we could have witnessed a sequel to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. While Varnell clearly stated that he wanted to destroy a building connected to the government as a symbolic attack rather than to cause mass casualties, when asked by the informant about the possibility of killing or injuring innocents in the bombing of the bank building, he replied, "You got to break a couple of eggs to make an omelet."

Like many grassroots jihadists, Varnell has a prior criminal record. He was arrested and charged in 2013 with domestic assault and battery by strangulation for an assault on his then-wife. He also appears to suffer from mental health problems, which is also not uncommon with grassroots jihadists. In past cases, such as the September 2012 sting operation that ensnared Adel Daoud in Chicago, the suspects had significant mental problems. However, like Varnell, Daoud attempted to activate the device and would have killed people had he met a real terrorist facilitator. Radicalism and mental illness are not mutually exclusive, and mentally disturbed individuals can and do kill people. Terrorist facilitators have a long history of preying on such people.

To counter defense charges that Varnell was a mentally ill patsy unduly influenced or entrapped by the government, he was provided several opportunities to back out of the plot. For example, on July 13, an undercover FBI employee met with Varnell for pre-operational surveillance of potential targets in Oklahoma City. During their conversation the FBI employee asked Varnell if he was sure he wanted to go through with the attack and Varnell said that he didn't think the undercover FBI employee understood the depth of his hatred for the government. Varnell was also concerned about the Islamic State or another group attempting to take credit for his attack and wanted to produce a statement explaining the reason for the attack so its purpose would be clearly stated.

Threats From the Fringes

The Varnell case doesn't just present parallels to jihadist cases; it also echoes other domestic terrorist cases in the United States. For example, he told the informant that he identified with the ideology of the Three Percenters militia movement and criticized others in the movement for "lacking the balls" to conduct anti-government attacks. This sentiment is common among far-left and far-right extremists who grow dissatisfied and frustrated with the lack of progress through demonstrations and advocate more forceful action. This call for violence often isolates them and propels them further from the mainstream. It also moves them further along the road to violence because they are no longer constrained by associates in their movement who oppose violence.

Indeed, this is an established pattern among left-wing extremists in the United States. It is what caused the Weather Underground Organization to break away from Students for a Democratic Society. More recently this dynamic has been evident in the anarchist movement and other left-wing elements.

On the right wing, activists have also long been frustrated that all the white supremacist movement does is "meet, greet, eat and retreat" rather than engage in violent, aggressive activism that results in actual change. This frustration has led some radicals to strike out.

Ebb and Flow

As mentioned in previous columns, domestic terrorism has a cyclical nature with discernible ebbs and flows. Perhaps the highest levels of both left- and right-wing domestic terrorism ever seen in the United States happened in the 1970s and 1980s. There was also a significant spike in both far-left and far-right violence in the late 1990s. The summer of 1999 was labeled "the summer of hate" by the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations that monitor hate groups. The Nov. 30, 1999, meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle were met with an extensive show of anarchist violence that became known as the "battle of Seattle."

The 9/11 attacks seemed to take much of the wind out of the sails of the far right and far left for a short period, but over the past few years there have seen signs that both extremes are once again gaining momentum. Police officers have been attacked and even killed by both far-left-wing black separatists and far-right-wing sovereign citizen extremists. The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the violent black bloc protest in Washington during the inauguration are further evidence of this trend. More recently, the June 14 attack against the House Republican baseball practice and the vehicular assault in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.

We are sure to see more domestic terrorist attacks in the near future as this cycle continues. These attacks pose a continuing threat to targets in the United States. The Varnell case demonstrates that the FBI is well aware of the threat posed by these various domestic actors and will continue to proactively target them just as they do plots involving jihadists.

"The Wary Eye of the FBI Watches for Homegrown Terrorism" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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