Wolverine Watchmen: Militia or terrorists?

Ten of 13 suspects accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. (Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting the kidnapping and likely murder of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, are members of or affiliated with, armed militias. Like the ones I’ve written about frequently in this space.

What they were planning were acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. JJ McNabb, of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why:

Oh good grief. “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is.

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

According to militia expert Amy Cooter, of Vanderbilt University, militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories:

Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action. 

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed anti-lockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the later kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude.

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our fuckin’ state down. I don’t give a fuck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

I can see several states takin’ their fuckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the US government.

I’ve written at some length before about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish then using either label alone.

Red Devils over the Baltics

107th_Fighter_Squadron_emblem-300x308While it may be an overstatement to call the current tension between NATO and Russia a new Cold War, whatever it is, Michigan is out on the front lines.

A-10 “Warthogs,” ground-attack warplanes from the 107th Fighter Squadron Michigan Air National Guard, the Red Devils, based out of Selfridge Air Force Base, were participating in NATO’s Saber Strike exercises in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Those exercises, involving approximately 4,500 troops from 13 countries, wrapped up this week, and came on the heels of the much larger Polish-led Anakonda 16 exercises in which 14,000 American troops participated earlier in the month.

Four of those Michigan A-10s landed on a highway near Jägala Estonia, about 100 miles from the Russian border, as part of Saber Strike. You can see a video below. This recreates a feat last done in 1984 when some 400 US warplanes landed on the West German Autobahn over several days as part of a Cold War demonstration of American tactical flexibility.

For real analysis of what all this might mean, let me direct you to my friend, Steve Saideman’s, blog where he regularly writes about NATO, though given that he now lives and teaches north of the border you have to wade through more discussion of Canada’s role in the alliance than most actual Americans could ever care to read.

For my part, I was more intrigued to come across the reference to a military unit based so close to home. I’ve had many students over the last several years associated with Selfridge, both as active-duty military and reservists, and the fate of the base and its squadron of A-10s has recently been in question as the Air Force has sought to retire its aged fleet of ground-attack warplanes.

Back in February the Pentagon announced that retiring the Warthogs, which entered production in 1976, will now wait until 2022 when they are due to be replaced by the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This came as good news for Selfridge and its squadron of 21 A-10s, which in 2015 did a six-month forward deployment to Iraq flying combat missions against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

Unfortunately, given the state the world, this is unlikely to be the last time Michigan’s Red Devils will see action in the skies over some trouble spot.

Fear over compassion

snyder syria

It didn’t take long for fear to triumph over compassion in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.  Two examples, first from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder:

Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents. Given the terrible situation in Paris, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.

And now from his counterpart, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley:

After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way.

Those announcements were made Sunday. This morning, four more governors, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Greg Abbott of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Mike Pence of Indiana, followed their lead. Not to put a partisan edge to this, I will simply note that all six are Republicans.

*UPDATE* OK, maybe I will put a partisan edge on it after all. As of 3 pm today as many as 13 Republican governors had either specifically said they would bar Syrian refugees or that they are considering such a move. But two states, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, have gone the other direction, reaffirming their commitment to resettle Syrian refugees in their states. Both governors, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, are Democrats.

My focus, though, will mostly be on Snyder, my governor, who claims to be acting in the interests of my safety and the safety of my family and friends.

In barring the door to refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria, Rick Snyder is reversing course only two months after announcing that Michigan would work with the federal government to welcome refugees from the Syrian and Iraqi warzones.  Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the state’s largest refugee resettlement agency, has in the last year helped between 1,800 and 2,000 refugees relocate to Michigan, about 200 of them from Syria. More were expected in coming months, but Snyder’s decision now casts that in doubt.

In the name of keeping his fellow Michiganders safe, Snyder is turning the state’s back on people like the Al Zoubi family, who fled their home in Daraa at the beginning of the war and spent years as refugees in Jordan before being resettled in Michigan about six months ago.  The video below tells their story.

Bentley, Alabama’s governor, is closing the door preemptively. No Syrian refugees have been resettled in his state, and while it is theoretically possible that some might have been settled there in the future (one of the State Department’s nine domestic refugee processing centers is in Mobile) that likelihood is remote given the State Department’s policy of settling new refugees in communities where other Syrian immigrants are already established. That means places like Dearborn, MI, where refugees have already arrived and been welcomed into the community.

Both governors cite security concerns as justification for their decisions, driven by fear that ISIS terrorists could infiltrate the United States by hiding amongst the flood of refugees fleeing Syria, as may be the case with at least one of the Paris attackers. But the reality is that the United States has taken so few Syrian refugees compared to our European counterparts, only 1,800 between 2012 and September of this year, because of the intense security screening that they have to go through before being admitted to the US.

As the New York Times detailed back in October, refugees trying to reach the United States have to first apply through the United Nations, and before being accepted are screened by the FBI and then through databases maintained by the Defense Department and other federal security agencies. Meanwhile, 18,000 Syrians have already been referred to the US for refugee status by the UN and additional referrals from UN-run refugee camps are piling up at a rate of 500 to 1,000 a month.

The Obama administration says it remains committed to bringing as many as 10,000 additional Syrian refugees to the US in the coming months. But its hard to see how that can happen in the climate of fear to which our elected leaders have succumbed.