Michigan's attorney general told a congressional hearing in written testimony Wednesday that this state has long been "ground zero" for anti-government militias. In a statement to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is examining a rise in right-wing extremism, she calls for more federal resources to address domestic terror threats.
Here are excerpts from her five-page statement, with subheads added.
By Dana Nessel
Michigan is the original home of the militia movement and no stranger to the threat of domestic terrorism by violent militia extremists.
Just last year, my office charged eight leaders and associates of the anti-government extremist militia, Wolverine Watchmen, with supporting a terroristic plot to kidnap and kill the governor of our state; to hold members of our state legislature hostage in our state Capitol for days before ultimately destroying it; and, planning to harm law enforcement officers who protect and serve our state residents. The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged another six individuals stemming from the same investigation.
In the same month [last October], my office charged members of "The Base," a white supremacist militia that conducts paramilitary training in preparation for starting a race war in the United States. Its name derives from the literal translation of AlQaeda. Under Michigan law, this extremist militia is a gang, and my office charged them as such when the gang provided the motive, means and opportunity to commit felonies in Michigan.
Some extremist militias are driven by white supremacist ideologies, others are inspired by far-right ideologies. Regardless of motivation, combatting violence is the goal and bipartisan solutions must be achieved.
'A clear and present danger'
My state has served as ground zero for anti-government militia extremism since the 1990s, when it was discovered that the Michigan Militia had ties to Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who murdered 168 people on April 19, 1995.
Within months of the bombing, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism held hearings to examine the militia movement's ties to the bombers. ...
I bring up this historical context to point out that Congress "examined" extremist militias 25 years ago, but failed to follow that examination with concrete, measured steps to abate a clear and present danger.
Legitimizing militias, combined with the toxic partisan rhetoric of today and fed by misinformation and disinformation, has led to a marked rise in militia extremism. It has helped to create a climate that nurtures and fosters the deep sense of grievance that extremists hold, which often manifests in violence.
In my home state we saw this when politicians held closed-door meetings with extremist militia members and stood with them on stages at rallies.
Then, in April of 2020, some of the very same militia members who aided in the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan conducted a dress rehearsal for what we saw at the U.S. Capitol in January of this year. They entered the Michigan Capitol during protests of the governor’s pandemic orders in full body armor with assault weapons and attempted to intimidate our state legislators. Even after this, our Legislature did not ban guns from the Capitol building.
No definition or unity
What concerns me is the current inability of our national leaders to come together during times of crisis. ... When facing the bipartisan problem of homegrown violent extremism, we cannot even agree to call it domestic terrorism, let alone reach consensus on ways to solve it.
We have seen militias act to foment and organize far-right extremist coalitions. Social media and online networking put like-minded extremists together and allow them to network and organize "in real life" activities.
The same ideology that existed with the militia movement of the '90s is present today in the Boogaloo movement: an inherent distrust of government, a misunderstanding of the Constitution, a belief that there is no other option but violence, and justification of civilian deaths. The movement calls for the collapse of society through violent revolution, akin to a second American Civil War. This is domestic terrorism.
Current circumstances serve to heighten extremists’ fears – pandemic-related restrictions, a narrative of a stolen election, states adopting red-flag laws, and mobilization of the military to act as riot control. ...
This year, I expanded my Department’s Hate Crimes Unit to now include Domestic Terrorism because of the overlap of extremist ideologies. I have also directed my department to work with FBI and Michigan State Police and to prioritize these cases for prosecutorial review.
Luckily, Michigan is uniquely situated to address domestic terrorism because of the Michigan Anti-Terrorism Act. This act went into effect with bipartisan support in April of 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
'This ... will not be tolerated'
Our Legislature recognized that laws should be enacted to adequately address the threats of terrorism against targets in our state. These statutes criminalize committing domestic terrorism as a life offense and provides state prosecutors with the tools to prosecute other acts of domestic terrorism as 20-year felonies:
- Providing material support or resources for terrorism
- Hindering prosecution of terrorism
- Communicating true or false threats of terrorism
- Surveilling vulnerable targets
- Disrupting telecommunications
In addition to the Michigan Anti-Terrorism Act, my office has utilized Michigan gang statutes to charge individuals acting on behalf of an organized group. Changing our thinking to explicitly label extremist militias as gangs is important and sends a strong message that this kind of extremism will not be tolerated in Michigan. If you organize in Michigan to commit felonies, you are a gang.
Michigan also can utilize statutes that criminalize the impersonation of a police officer and training with firearms and explosives in furtherance of a civil disorder. ...
Because we are on the frontline of this battle, federal funding is needed for state law enforcement offices – like mine – so that we can dedicate staff and resources to this cause.
'It boggles the mind . . .'
If states are doing the heavy lifting, they must be adequately resourced. They must be supported in establishing domestic terrorism task forces, providing training to state law enforcement to identify and train subject matter experts, and building liaisons within state law enforcement agencies.
Simply put, there are no existing domestic terrorism federal laws or task forces to deal with the problem, and our citizens have an expectation that we stop attacks before they happen. It boggles the mind that if the Wolverine Watchmen had simply decided to kill Gov. Whitmer instead of kidnap her, there would have been no violation of federal law. The lack of proper laws and dedicated units is
a glaring gap in security across the U.S. which should not be acceptable to Michigan or U.S. citizens. ...
My experience in Michigan has demonstrated that acts of domestic terrorism are not focused on one political party or even one branch of government, and that the threat they present is ever rising. Combatting this common threat will require bipartisan support, aggressive solutions, and ample funding.
Finally, and most importantly, we must acknowledge the impact of the problem: acts of domestic terrorism do not just harm the target of the crime, they threaten the very foundations of our democracy.