With the presidential election only days away, federal officials are looking closely for any uptick in threats to presidential candidates from white supremacist or other extremist groups. But in contrast to the pre-election atmosphere of four years ago, U.S. agencies have picked up little "chatter" about looming Islamic terror plots—and scant indications of any imminent pre-election messages from Al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden.
Earlier this week, authorities announced they had busted up a far-fetched plot directed at Democratic candidate Barack Obama by two young "skinhead" racists in Tennessee. That case, along with a similar extremist plot broken up before the Democratic Party convention in Denver and the recent arrest of a neo-Nazi leader in Virginia, have pointed up the extent to which the government is paying attention to the threat to Obama from far-right extremist factions. "I don't know that we're seeing a resurgence of these groups," Michael Ward, deputy assistant FBI director for counterterrorism, told NEWSWEEK. "But we are seeing an increase in rhetoric."
Ward says the increasing anger of white supremacists has manifested itself in Internet postings and threats reported to law-enforcement agencies. What worries the FBI most, he says, are "lone wolves" who might be seething with anger and armed to the teeth but who do not show up on any government radar screens.
Since last February, a presidential-campaign-threat task force created by the FBI and Secret Service has conducted more than 650 "threat assessments" to evaluate reports that could involve threats to presidential or vice presidential contenders or any others connected to the election. About 100 of those threats have been assessed to be "racially motivated" and are thought to be directed at Obama. Another 100 of the reports received since last winter are deemed to be "political" and come from across the ideological spectrum. They include pro-gun groups and anti-abortion extremists. Other categories used by the task force to track threats don't breakdown along ideological or political lines.
A similar interagency group was put together four years ago when U.S. agencies were anxious about the possibility of a pre-election attack by Al Qaeda or its affiliates. Ward said concerns about an attack by Al Qaeda or other Islamic extremists haven't evaporated. But this year, concerns about white-supremacist threats have grown. "They're both high on the radar screen and they're of equal concern," he said.
At least three lurid right-wing-extremist threats directed at Obama have come to light through government court proceedings since the end of last summer. First, as delegates and journalists were arriving in Denver in late August for the Democratic National Convention, three alleged white supremacists were arrested by local and federal authorities on drug and gun charges. In court papers, the Feds said that the three, who had access to a rifle with a sniper scope, had discussed their hatred for Obama and the possibility of shooting him from a "grassy knoll." However, investigators said that most if not all of this lurid conversation took place while the suspects were addled by methamphetamines; the suspects were never actually charged with threatening Obama, which in itself is a possible federal crime.
Two weeks ago, in Roanoke, Va., Bill White, a notorious neo-Nazi leader, was arrested on charges of threatening the "use of force" against the foreman of a Chicago jury which had convicted another white supremacist leader in 2004. In an affidavit submitted to a court to request a warrant for White's arrest, an FBI agent included graphics from a purported "National Socialist" magazine White was about to publish, which prominently featured a death threat against Obama. According to the affidavit, White in the past often issued death threats through a Web site he edited; one posting said that "all Jews and Marxists (including their fellow traveling neo-cons, neo-liberals, Zionists and Judaized-Christians in both the Republican and Democratic Parties) should be shot rather than debated …"
Then, earlier this week, agents of the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested two alleged white supremacists, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, on firearms and possible presidential-threat charges. According to an ATF court filing, the two, who shared "White Power" and "Skinhead" enthusiasms, met via the Internet about a month ago and began discussing how they would embark on a "killing spree" that would include killing 88 people and beheading 14 African-Americans. (Experts who monitor right-wing groups say the number 88 is a code for "Heil Hitler," H being the eighth letter in the alphabet.). According to the ATF complaint, the two suspects' discussions eventually led them to a Tarantino-like fantasy plot in which they would shoot Obama from a car with a rifle while dressed in white tuxedos and top hats.
Despite these well-publicized cases, Mark Potok, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center—an Alabama group that monitors racist and neo-Nazi activities—says that most ultra-right-wing extremists have been very careful recently about circulating death threats, which can be attributed to them publicly. "We've seen very little of that on white supremacist Web sites," Potok said. The reason: they fear it will give the Secret Service, FBI and other government agencies an excuse for cracking down on them aggressively, Potok says.
Meanwhile, U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that while they remain wary of possible Islamic terrorist-attack plots, they have no specific and credible information to indicate that a pre-election plot directed at targets inside the United States is in the works. (That, of course, does not rule out the possibility that such a plot is indeed afoot and the U.S. authorities just don't know about it yet.) The officials also said they had no specific indication that Osama bin Laden or one of his principal associates, such as Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, were planning in the next few days to circulate a message related to the U.S. presidential election similar to the message from bin Laden that surfaced just prior to the 2004 election.
Recently, persistent attacks by computer hackers have disabled some key Web sites used by Al Qaeda supporters to circulate propaganda and exchange messages. One of the main sites used by Al Qaeda leaders in the past to circulate video and audio messages remains operative, however. There is no indication that the site expects such a message before next Tuesday, said several government and private experts, although this does not rule out the possibility. Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism expert who monitors Al Qaeda Web sites, he says that the terrorist group still could attempt to use the pre-election period as an opportunity to "grab media headlines."
Terror Watch appears weekly on Newsweek.com.