The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 triggered an explosion in the number of militias and so-called patriot groups in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in its annual tally of such anti-government organizations.
There were 149 militias and patriot groups when Obama took office, compared to more than 1,200 today — an increase of 755 percent, the nonprofit civil rights organization reported.
"The increase has just been astounding," said Mark Potok, editor-in-chief of the SPLC report. "The reality is that many of these groups are becoming more and more fearful that Barack Obama will win the re-election. You can see the anger rising along with that fear."
The SPLC defines the "patriot" movement as made up of conspiracy-minded individuals who see the federal government as their primary enemy. The movement includes paramilitary militias as well as groups of "sovereign citizens," who believe they are not subject to federal or state laws, nor obligated to pay federal taxes, according to SPLC.
The center also reports a steady rise in the number of hate groups in America — from 604 in 2000, to more than 1,000 last year. Those include anti-gay groups, anti-Muslim groups, black separatists and "Christian Identity" groups, which hold racist and anti-Semitic views that overlap with neo-Nazi beliefs.
The spike in these groups can be attributed to a combination of factors, including the sluggish economy, radical propaganda and anxiety over the election of a black president, Potok said.
Potok said although many individuals involved in patriot militias are not criminals, a handful of these groups have been responsible for a significant amount of violence in recent years.
Government employees targeted
SPLC provides one of the few annual reports on militia or anti-government groups. The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not track militia groups unless they are alerted to violent or extremist activity, according to an agency spokesman.
"Some of these groups veer into violent extremism," said Frank Harrill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Spokane, Wash., and spokesman for the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Where hate and ignorance and violence collide, that is where our interests lie."
Two militia groups have made headlines in recent years for allegedly hatching violent plots to target government employees.
Seven people from the Michigan-based Hutaree Christian militia are on trial for allegedly conspiring to ambush and kill a police officer. They allegedly plotted to follow up the ambush with an attack on the officer’s funeral procession in the hope of killing more officers, and thus sparking a revolt against the U.S. government. Recent evidence presented in trial included a recording made by an undercover FBI agent in which the militia’s leader, David Stone, 47, says he is going to "start huntin'" police soon. The seven have pleaded innocent, and argue that the "plot" was nothing but talk, protected by the First Amendment.
And in November four members of a Georgia-based militia, all in their 60s and 70s, were charged with plotting to buy explosives and the ingredients to make a deadly toxin to attack government officials. They are in custody awaiting trial.
But members of other militias say that exercising their constitutional right to bear arms does not mean they are committed to revolution.
Spokane-based militia member Ed LeStage, 59, denied that his group, the 63rd Battalion of Lightfoot Militia, which was listed on as an active militia group in the SPLC’s report, was a danger — unless, he said, "you're a communist or socialist who attacks us."
LeStage, a veteran to the patriot movement, said he believes the increased number of militias comes from U.S. citizens’ desire to restore the country to its constitutional roots. He also said that what he called President Obama’s intrusion on personal liberties also has driven growth in the movement.
"He’s been after our guns," LeStage said. "Obama’s been the best gun salesman there ever was."
From his home in eastern Washington, LeStage broadcasts weekly training videos to militia members across the country. Those videos — which include instruction on such things as drinking one’s own urine and scavenging for food — are meant to help members survive anarchy or economic collapse.
LeStage said he has been involved in militias and related groups for more than 20 years, including the Idaho Mountain Boys, a member of which was arrested in September 2002 for plotting to kill a federal judge and a police officer.
That member, Larry Raugust, served 77 months for possession and production of pipe bombs. Today, Raugust has a member profile on LeStage’s militia website, which has added more than 1,000 members since its launch last fall.
"(Raugust) is just a friend," LeStage said. "He doesn’t belong to our unit. He is a convicted felon."
LeStage explained that his militia requires each member to obtain a concealed weapons permit. As a felon, Raugust is not allowed to carry weapons, LeStage said.
The patriot movement first peaked in 1994, said Potok, the author of the SPLC report, in the aftermath of deadly confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993, where anti-government groups came under siege by federal authorities.
Membership then dropped sharply during President George W. Bush’s two terms before rebounding in late 2008 after the election of Obama, which created a backlash that included "several plots to murder Obama," according to SPLC.
The numbers of those groups have continued to grow, jumping from 824 in 2010 to 1274 this year, the SPLC said.
'Sovereign citizen' movement
The ailing economy also helped fuel a huge expansion in a subset of the larger Patriot movement — the so-called "sovereign citizens" movement. Followers generally believe they do not have to pay federal taxes or follow most laws. The SPLC estimates some 300,000 Americans are involved in the movement.
In September, the FBI issued a bulletin to law enforcement officials that called "sovereign citizens" a growing domestic threat due to some members’ belief that they can use armed force to resist police.
The bulletin noted that sovereigns have killed six law officers since 2000. In one of the more deadly clashes, a shootout in West Memphis, Ark., in 2010 left four people dead including two officers. Terry Nichols, convicted as a conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing, was a sovereign citizen.
In 2010, a shootout with a member of the group in West Memphis, Arkansas ended with four people dead, including two policemen.
Last month, a Texas man who said he was a sovereign citizen was sentenced to 35 years in prison for repeatedly firing at a police officer trying to arrest him.
A Washington state man, David R. Myrland, was sentenced in December to 40 months in prison for threatening to "arrest" the mayor of Kirkland and other local officials "with deadly force."
Investigators said Myrland sent an e-mail to the mayor warning that "50 or more concerned Citizens will enter your home and arrest you. Do not resist, as these Citizens will be heavily armed."
"As sovereign citizens' numbers grow, so do the chances of contact with law enforcement and, thus, the risks that incidents will end in violence," the FBI said at the time.
From LeStage’s point of view, though, the risk comes from the top of government.
If Obama is re-elected this year, "we will probably lose our republic," he said. "We will probably turn into another socialist country."
On his websitewww.modernmilitiamovement.com, some forum members have raised even more dire concerns about the fall's elections.
"Nov. the 8th should be the start of the next civil war," a member with the username "Thunder" wrote in January. "May GOD guide us safely."
The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Msnbc.com’s James Eng and Kari Huus, and NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.