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Lone wolves

Solitary threats harder to hunt

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

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U.S. authorities claim Rudolph was a lone wolf -- a domestic terrorist who largely worked independently.
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(CNN) -- Wolves run in packs. They hunt that way. They live that way. The lone wolf is the exception. When it comes to the world of domestic terrorism that might not be the case.

Who are we referring to when we talk about a lone wolf domestic terrorist? Someone who operates alone or with the help of one or two other people.

Someone like Tim McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing.

Later this spring, the U.S. government will try to prove in court that Eric Rudolph was another such lone wolf, as he faces his first trial in a string of bombings in Birmingham and Atlanta, including the one during the 1996 Olympics.

We in the media have tended to place more attention on international than domestic terrorism since September 11. But the threat hasn't gone away.

The FBI still tracks it. So do the folks at places like the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Mark Potok works as director of the organization's Intelligence Project.

His message is blunt: "It's not only Osama bin Laden out there, it is not only people with turbans who are capable of blowing you and your family up. It's Americans, people who are your neighbors, capable of doing things like this."

Need any convincing? Here are a few items you may have missed since 9/11:

  • William Krar now sits in a federal prison, convicted of possessing sodium cyanide. Investigators say they discovered evidence of militia ties when they seized his belongings.
  • Stephen Jordi has been sentenced to five years in federal prison plus five years probation, busted after he boasted of plans to firebomb abortion clinics and to become the next Eric Rudolph. The government wants to increase his sentence using the Patriot Act, according to his attorney.
  • Sean Gillespie faces federal charges in Oklahoma City, of all places, for allegedly firebombing a synagogue there. The government says he boasted of plans to commit more violent acts.
  • Then, of course, there is the anthrax killer, the one who began terrorizing America a month after September 11.

    Ask Potok and the folks at the SPLC and they will tell you they believe the anthrax killer is a lone wolf -- and probably not an Islamic terrorist, despite the letters that were sent in late 2001 containing the anthrax, which seemed to signal this was an al Qaeda-style attack. Potok and company base this belief in part on how the killer has gone quiet since the flurry of letters in late 2001 -- and that there have been no claims by international terror groups.

    You might be noticing the pattern by now. Lone wolves are typically Americans with an extremist agenda, usually anti-government. They are certainly not the only domestic terrorists (we'll deal with the animal rights and eco-terrorists at a later date), but they are scary nonetheless.

    By the way, those on the extremist fringe don't call themselves lone wolves. They like to use the term "leaderless resistance," which was coined by a guy from Texas named Louis Beam, a former Aryan Nation and Ku Klux Klan militia leader who has since advocated a more independent approach.

    Beam's idea was that groups could be penetrated by government agents, so it was better and more effective to act for the cause by going it alone or trusting only a couple of your closest friends.

    That seems to have been the course of action Tim McVeigh took.

    Why might we now be seeing more of this leaderless resistance, these lone wolves?

    McVeigh's actions show that terrorists don't have to belong to large groups to be dangerous.

    Some of it, ironically, comes from success. The largest extremist groups, including the National Alliance and the Aryan Nation, have collapsed, according to both the SPLC and FBI, and their members drifted from membership in groups.

    This happened as some of their older leaders, including William Pierce (the man who wrote the book that inspired Tim McVeigh) of the National Alliance, died off and a younger generation fought amongst itself.

    But when the groups go away, it makes it harder for the FBI and groups like SPLC to track the threats. FBI officials who oversee domestic terrorism investigations say lone wolves are a top priority.

    They can point to results -- including the arrests and convictions of Krar and Jordi, for example.

    Precisely because they are lone wolves, it is hard to quantify the threat or how it compares to that from al Qaeda.

    Still, Mark Potok believes the lone wolf isn't going away.

    "Luckily for all us, at least to this point they have not been as sophisticated or as well organized as al Qaeda."

    That, of course, excludes Oklahoma City, which showed just how dangerous a lone wolf could be.

    And the problem is, in the world of counterterrorism, lone wolves are harder to hunt.

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