TSC IntelBrief: The Oklahoma City Bombing 2.0
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On the same day that a white supremacist murdered a woman during a racist protest in Virginia, the FBI arrested a man in Oklahoma for attempting to blow up a bank.
• Jerry Drake Varnell, who espoused anti-government and pro-militia ideology, constructed and attempted to detonate what he believed to be a 1,000-pound explosive device in a van parked in front of his target.
• The muted public reaction to such a serious terrorist plot shows how the threat of anti-government and racist groups is systemically underestimated even as it is nationally surging.
• Armed violent anti-government and white supremacist groups represent one of the greatest security threats inside the United States.
On August 12, hours before a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent, and a 20-year-old man with a long history of racist ideology murdered a woman with his car, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested a man in Oklahoma for domestic terrorism. The crimes are unconnected in that the two were not planned or coordinated together, but they are linked by their shared connection to anti-government militia and white supremacy movements that have been on the rise in recent years. Despite the high level of attention understandably directed at groups like the so-called Islamic State, within the United States, these violent anti-government and racist groups represent one of the most serious national security threats.
In Oklahoma City, the FBI had been working with a confidential informant to investigate Jerry Drake Varnell, a 23-year-old man who had said he wanted to blow up a Federal Reserve Bank or some symbolic federal building. Over several months, Varnell discussed the possibility of bombing computer server farms before settling on the BancFirst in the city’s downtown. The targeted bank is a half-mile from the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah building and murdered 168 people. The terrorist in the 1995 bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was also inspired by violent and racist anti-government ideology. Varnell stated in one meeting with the informant that he wanted to build the same sort of bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing.
As the affidavit shows, Varnell went far beyond talking and plotting; on August 11, he, along with an undercover FBI agent, built what Varnell believed was a working 1,000-pound improvised explosive device; the FBI agent had provided inert materials. Varnell then loaded what he believed to be a bomb into a van, drove it to Oklahoma City after midnight on August 12, and as Timothy McVeigh did 22 years ago, parked the van next to his target and walked away. He then dialed the cell-phone attached to the inert bomb that would ignite the device three times before being arrested.
The muted public reaction to such a serious terrorist plot—especially from the White House, which has repeatedly seized on the slightest hint of radical Islamist terrorism, whether domestic or international—shows how the threat of anti-government and racist groups is systemically underestimated even as it is nationally surging. Varnell expressed support for the armed militia group “III%” (three percenters), a nationwide anti-government militia whose members were seen in Charlottesville during the violent protests. These militias are heavily armed and present serious challenges to law enforcement trying to maintain the peace in situations such as Charlottesville, where the Virginia governor made note of just how heavily armed the groups were.
On May 10, 2017, in a Joint Intelligence Bulletin titled White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned of the growing threat of violence from white supremacist organizations. The report noted that such groups “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement,” and that more violence is expected in the year ahead. With such groups reaching the zenith of their power in the twenty-first century, combined with the growing radicalization on both sides of the American divide, the threat of political violence in the U.S. is likely to increase.
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