WASHINGTON — As 13 anti-government militia members await trial on charges related to a kidnapping plot against the governor of Michigan, leaders of an Oklahoma memorial to domestic terrorism victims have publicly denounced the extremist group.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum released a statement commending authorities for foiling the kidnapping plot and condemning the Wolverine Watchmen.
“From a community who has experienced domestic terrorism and violence, we applaud the efforts of the local law enforcement and the FBI in putting a stop to the terrorism plot in Michigan,” the statement read. “As Americans, we must unite together and condemn hatred and the rise of the extremist groups we came to know 25 years ago.”
The memorial, located in downtown Oklahoma City at the site of the destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, honors the victims and survivors of the April 19, 1995, bombing by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The terrorist attack killed 168 people, including 19 children.
Kari Watkins, executive director of the memorial and museum, said she drafted the statement after realizing the severity of the kidnapping threat.
“You don’t want the statements to always just say ‘thoughts and prayers,’” Watkins said. “You want them to be meaningful statements on behalf of the institution. And you want to make sure, whatever the issue, whatever we do, that it would do nothing to distract from our own mission.”
Watkins presented what she had written to members of the memorial’s executive committee and board of trustees, who she said enthusiastically approved the statement and its release.
“I felt like we had to make a statement because we’ve lived through it,” Watkins said. “And the ties were back to the same area in which our perpetrators had begun to grow their extreme theories, their extreme views.”
The earliest stages of planning for the Oklahoma City bombing occurred at a farm just outside Decker, Michigan, where former soldiers and roommates McVeigh and Nichols began practicing with explosive chemicals in 1993.
‘These extremist groups are threatening everything we celebrate’
The Wolverine Watchmen, the anti-government group born out of the present-day boogaloo militia movement, had initially discussed storming the Michigan State Capitol using 200 recruits, before deciding on the plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was also discussed as a possible target, according to the FBI.
The “dark irony” of the Michigan setting for the abduction conspiracy this year and the Oklahoma City bomb planning 25 years ago was not lost on retired Justice Steven Taylor, who presided over the state trial against Nichols and sentenced him to prison for 161 consecutive life terms.
“This democracy we have and that we celebrate is really not very old, in terms of all of the civilizations on Earth,” Taylor said. “And if we profess to love it, we’ve got to continue to nurture it, respect it, and protect it, and these extremist groups are threatening everything we celebrate and love.”
In a Sept. 17 House Homeland Security Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said “the greatest threat we face in the homeland” is by lone actors with easy access to weapons, motivated by “a mix of ideological, sociopolitical, and personal grievances,” targeting public places.
“2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing,” Wray said. “The spate of attacks we saw in 2019 underscore the continued threat posed by anti-government violent extremists and perpetrators of hate crimes.”
Anti-government violent extremists, who often overlap with white supremacist groups but also, like the “boogaloos,” consider themselves patriots fighting tyranny, have been trying to exploit recent protests against police brutality and coronavirus restrictions as acceleration for a civil war, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
“Accelerationism relies on a spiral of violence, and law enforcement must redouble efforts to ensure that white supremacists do not fan the flames,” said Daniel L. Byman, an expert in terrorism and extremism at Brookings. “This involves increased efforts to disrupt white supremacist networks, monitor their activities to the extent the law allows, and ensure that resources and legal authorities are sufficient.”
Wray also said the FBI thwarted potential terrorist attacks in various cities, including Oklahoma City.
On March 23, Jerry Drake Varnell received a 25-year prison sentence for his unsuccessful 2017 attempt to blow up the downtown branch of BancFirst, mere blocks away from where the Murrah Federal Building once stood.
Watkins said the memorial will be expanding the schedule for its Better Conversations sessions, the lead program since the bombing’s 25th remembrance, with online discussions and resources equipped to help people “look back and think forward.”
“There is some good law enforcement happening, and we should recognize that, and we should acknowledge that we are stronger together as a country than we are being divided,” Watkins said. “And in the midst of the election, we’re torn apart, but we’ve seen ourselves time and time again come out better when we’re together.”