Foreign terrorists now the focus

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

NEW YORK -- The arrest of Eric Rudolph has rekindled concern about the elusive, unpredictable nature of so-called "lone wolves," but counterterrorism experts say the threat from homegrown extremists seems to be waning even as international terrorism spreads.

Investigators have yet to determine if Rudolph -- the only suspect in four bombings, including one at the 1996 Olympics -- had any organized support. But experts liken his case to those of other loners, such as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who lived on the margins of society and acted without known links to extremist groups.

"It's much easier to avoid detection if you do not have support," said Bob Ricks, who headed the FBI's Oklahoma office during the McVeigh investigation and is now Oklahoma's homeland security director.

"We're a country in which you can get lost easily if you're willing to give up your identification and disavow your former connections," Ricks said.

Mark Potok, who monitors hate groups and domestic terrorism for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., described "lone wolves" as "the most serious danger on the domestic terror front -- they're almost impossible to prepare for."

However, he said Rudolph's arrest -- after five years of eluding manhunts -- was the latest in a series of developments that have demoralized racist and anti-government extremist groups.

"Eric Rudolph was the Butch Cassidy of the radical right -- the guy who defied the entire apparatus of the state," Potok said. "His arrest is very disheartening to many people in this movement."

Radicals in disarray

Citing other recent events -- arrests, deportations and the death last year of white supremacist leader William Pierce -- Potok said that "the radical right is in disarray."

Potok suggested that Rudolph "acted almost entirely alone," although he had some links before his disappearance to Christian Identity, a movement which believes whites are God's chosen people.

Michael Barkun, a counterterrorism expert who teaches political science at Syracuse University, said extremist groups were experiencing "a leadership deficit."

"I don't see domestic terrorists as posing a significant danger -- I don't see any compelling evidence of growth," Barkun said.

Melt into the background

"That isn't to minimize the need to reduce it further," he added. "With the organized groups, it was often a lot easier to know who they were and what they were doing. The lone wolves can melt into a background."

Among those at least partially fitting the "lone wolf" profile was anti-abortion militant James Kopp, recently convicted of the sniper slaying of a New York obstetrician-gynecologist.

"The consensus of opinion of a wide range of investigators was that Mr. Kopp, if he was aided, was aided by a very small group of individuals," said Paul Moskal, an agent at the FBI's office in Buffalo, N.Y. "There was no wide-ranging conspiracy."

While on the run, Kopp "does not work, does not stay in hotels, uses no credit cards, has no cadre of friends or support group," Moskal said. "He is comfortable living out of a backpack."

After the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in which 168 people were killed, federal anti-terrorist investigators shifted much of their energy into pursuit of domestic extremists, Ricks said.

"Because of the devastation of Murrah, I thought the focus was put too much on those groups and not enough on international terrorists, who always were the significant threat," Ricks said.

Investigators "thought they were going to find a coordinated, well-financed systematic approach," Ricks said. "But it became apparent pretty quickly that that was not the case."

In the post-Sept. 11 era, the threat posed both at home and abroad by al-Qaida and its allies is the unquestioned priority for America's anti-terrorism forces. Yet Moskal stressed that security agencies cannot afford to focus their efforts too narrowly.

"There are many splinter and fraction groups, and law enforcement is very concerned about that," he said. "Large groups of people come to the forefront much more readily than small groups or lone wolves."

"What we fear isn't what we know but what we don't know," Moskal added. "By definition, with terrorism, whether it's domestic or international, you don't know who, you don't know when, often you don't know why."

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