TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The alleged foiled plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor is a jarring example of how the anti-government movement in the U.S. has become an internet-driven hodgepodge of conspiracy theorists who have redirected their rage from Washington toward state capitols.
That's in contrast to the self-styled “militia” movement that took shape in the 1990s — loosely connected groups whose primary target was the federal government, which they considered a tyrannical force bent on seizing guns and imposing a socialist “new world order.”
Deadly standoffs between FBI agents and extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, stoked those groups' anger. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, were reported to have met with Michigan paramilitary activists.
Public revulsion over that massacre damaged the movement, which largely faded from public view. But recent protests over racial injustice, the coronavirus and other turmoil during the Trump administration have fueled a resurgence, with paramilitary groups blending into a mishmash of far-right factions that spread their messages on websites and social media.
In many ways, their focus is unchanged, including contempt for authority, reverence for the Second Amendment and backwoods military-style training exercises.
But the plot targeting Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer illustrates one stark difference: Nowadays, much of the anger focuses on state officials whom extremists accuse of denying rights and freedoms.
"And this is largely due to the fact that Donald Trump, who the militia movement supports, is at the head of the federal government,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
“But they can much more easily be angry at state governors, especially Democratic ones, but sometimes even Republican ones, who are involved with gun-control efforts or lockdown or anti-pandemic measures," he added.
Whitmer told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that extremism targeted at state officials is “a very real threat to democracy.”
“There’s no question that these hate groups are domestic terrorists and I think we need to call them that,” Whitmer said while greeting voters in Traverse City. “We need leadership who steps up and takes it on. We need it coming out of the White House, we need it coming out of all of our statehouses as well.”
Six men were charged in federal court Thursday with conspiring to kidnap the governor in retaliation for what they viewed as her “uncontrolled power," according to a criminal complaint. Seven others, charged in state court for allegedly seeking to storm the Michigan Capitol, are linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen, a state affidavit said.
The Wolverine Watchmen used Facebook to recruit members and communicated on an encrypted messaging platform, the affidavit said.
Joseph Morrison, 42, a founding member, used the screen name “Boogaloo Bunyan.” Group members gathered for training and drills as they prepared for the “boogaloo,” an anti-government, pro-gun extremist movement that has been linked to a recent string of domestic terrorism plots, the affidavit said.
Supporters have shown up at protests over COVID-19 lockdown orders and demonstrations over racial injustice, carrying rifles and wearing tactical gear.
The kidnapping plot wasn’t the only violence planned by Wolverine Watchmen members, according to investigators. The State Police affidavit says the group was training for an attack on the Michigan state Capitol, targeting police officers and threatening violence “to instigate a civil war leading to societal collapse.”
The group’s other founder, Pete Musico, posted a warning on YouTube that thousands of people were willing to arm themselves and march to Washington, “to take our country back and hang every one of you traitors for treason,” the ADL said.
Brandon Caserta, one of the suspects arrested on federal charges, posted on Facebook that the COVID-19 pandemic is “a lie,” the ADL said. It said another suspect, Eric Molitor, posted an image associated with the Three Percenter anti-government movement on his Facebook page and wrote, “When tyranny becomes law, resistance becomes duty."
Molitor also reportedly used Facebook to promote the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump is waging a secret campaign against “deep state” enemies and a child sex-trafficking ring run by Satan-worshipping Democrats.
“We proactively reached out and cooperated with the FBI early in this ongoing investigation,” a Facebook spokesperson said Friday.
The ADL said it wasn’t immediately clear if the suspects had extensive ties to other self-styled militia groups.
“This appears to have been a sort of a more informal group or you might call it a militia cell" that formed recently and was not “outward or public-facing,” Pitcavage said.
But its alleged ties to those charged in the kidnapping plot illustrate how modern extremist organizations can make connections online and in person, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Some of those charged with joining the plot met at a Second Amendment rally at the state Capitol in Lansing, a federal affidavit said.
Such gatherings are “great recruiting events” for paramilitary groups, MacNab said. “People get off their computers, go to the Capitol, carry guns, protest and have their voices heard in person.”
Greg Stejskal, a retired FBI agent who investigated Michigan militia groups in the 1990s, said their ire was directed largely at the federal government because members considered its authority illegitimate and dictatorial. White nationalism also was a strong influence, he said.
Their more recent focus on state governments makes the job of monitoring them and preventing terrorist activities harder, he said.
“It’s like being a goalie on the hockey team,” Stejskal said. “We can’t afford to miss any of these and all they have to do is get one through and into the net.”
Trump could help by giving stronger support to governors facing threats and protests for trying to control the coronavirus, he said.
“He knows the people vote for him,” Stejskal said. “When he demurs from denouncing them, he encourages them.”
Whitmer said Trump and other Republicans should do more.
“I think that the president has given safe harbor to hate organizations and domestic terror organizations. He has done it in the middle of debates," Whitmer said.
“I have asked specifically from this White House to bring the heat down. I have asked the Republican leaders in our state legislature to bring the heat down. I have asked for their help and none of them have done a darn thing.”
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press writer Angie Wang contributed from Atlanta. AP researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed from New York.
This story has been corrected to clarify that that only six charged in federal court in alleged kidnap plot and seven charged in state court on other charges, rather than all 13 charged in the kidnapping plot.