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.

The militias are ready for Nov. 9

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Michigan’s militias are ready for Election Day, and what comes after.

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins next Tuesday, the militia movement isn’t waiting to prepare for what comes next. They’re ready now.

The Reuters news agency today reported on a Georgia group called the Three Percent Security Force* which was conducting training operations in the woods near Jackson, a small town southeast of Atlanta near the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.

As the most divisive presidential election in recent memory nears its conclusion, some armed militia groups are preparing for the possibility of a stolen election on Nov. 8 and civil unrest in the days following a victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton.

They say they won’t fire the first shot, but they’re not planning to leave their guns at home, either.

In a video that accompanies the Reuters report (unfortunately I cannot embed it here) the leader of this particular group, a paralegal named Chris Hill who goes by the codename “Bloodagent,” said his group expects violence whatever happens on Election Day.

Back in Georgia, the Three Percent Security Force wrapped up rifle practice in the midday sun. They then headed further into the trees to tackle an obstacle course with loaded pistols at their sides, ready for whatever may come.

“We’ve building up for this, just like the Marines,” he said. “We are going to really train harder and try to increase our operational capabilities in the event that this is the day that we hoped would never come.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, at least two Michigan militia groups — the Michigan Militia Corps Wolverines and the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia — have scheduled a training day for this coming Saturday in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive from where I live.

The second group, SMVM, has scheduled a meeting for Nov. 9 to “discuss the next 90 days after the election and the future of this nation.” Or, as their promotional material puts it, “The 9th of November: A Perfect Storm Arrives in 2016.”

I’ve been writing about these groups a lot lately. Like here. And here. And here. And again here. There’s good reason for it. They are an increasingly visible part of this deeply disturbing election season.

But most importantly, while few in number, they are more than enough to cause a lot of mayhem. And some of them are itching for the opportunity.

*Some militia groups include the phrase “Three Percent” in their name, or describe themselves as “Three Percenter” militias in reference to their claim that during the American Revolution only three percent of colonists took up arms against the tyranny of British rule. They see themselves as the equivalent today. They maintain a robust online presence which you can look up for yourself. The Anti-Defamation League first wrote about them in 2009, about a year after the first Three Percenter groups emerged on the militia scene.

Some afternoon reading on America’s ‘patriot’ right

Members of a "Three Percenter" militia on winter maneuvers.
Members of a “Three Percenter” militia on winter maneuvers.

 

You may have noticed a theme here at the blog over the last couple of weeks. I have become particularly interested of late in America’s armed, anti-government far right. You can read some of my recent thoughts on the matter here, here, and here.

In part this is because I’m currently teaching my course on terrorism, and we explore some of the ideologies that motivate such groups both here in the United States and their counterparts abroad. Some of these groups are the focus of a couple of my students’ case study research projects.

But I’ve also become interested as a consequence of the toxic rhetoric that has emanated from Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House and the way that parts of his message are being embraced by some individuals and groups that make up the armed anti-government far right.

With that in mind, here are links to and short excerpts from two articles that I’ve run across in the last couple of days. The first is an excellent, and disturbing, inside look at a border operation mounted by militia groups loosely affiliated under the Three Percent United Patriots banner.

The piece, by Shane Bauer, appears in the November/December issue of Mother Jones. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Bauer’s report:

Members of 3UP view their border operations as an opportunity to serve the nation while putting their training to the test and honing their skills for the battle to come. Like most militiamen, they believe societal collapse is imminent. There are many theories about what will make the “Shit Hit The Fan.” Some believe it will be economic collapse. It could be civil unrest provoked by Black Lives Matter. It could be a natural disaster. It could be a government attempt to disarm gun owners and impose martial law. While many in the broader “patriot” movement prepare for that day to arrive, members of 3UP see themselves as men of action, sheepdogs in a nation of blind, ignorant sheep.

For more on the Three Percenter movement go to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s profile of one of its founders here. You should also check out the SPLC’s state-by-state breakdown of active anti-government groups, including more than 200 militia groups, here. For the record, SPLC identifies 32 anti-government groups in my home state of Michigan, including seven militias.

The second article that’s worth a little bit of your time is by Zack Beauchamp at Vox. He lays out an unlikely but all-too-plausible scenario whereby armed Trump supporters engage in election day intimidation and post-election violence. Here’s a taste:

Indeed, some of Trump’s supporters — especially from the loose-knit network of far-right political groups and militias — are now openly talking about post-election bloodshed. According to a January count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 276 such militias operating in the United States. A review of 240 militia group Facebook pages by researcher Jonathon Morgan found a spike in their online activity in recent months — with some members openly warning of the need for violence if Clinton wins.

“If she wins … it’s over, time for a revolution,” one militia member writes, according to Morgan. “Enough of being tough on the blogs, be tough in real life.”

Trump and his aides consistently and angrily deny using irresponsible language that raises the risk of civil unrest. The problem is that violence could erupt all the same because of the atmosphere of paranoia that Trump has helped create.

I have argued for a long time on this site that the greatest terrorism threat America faces comes from within, not from newly arrived immigrants nor from refugees acting as an ISIS Trojan horse.

I sincerely hope that in two weeks time, and in the days that follow, we don’t see that point driven home again, and in horrifying fashion.