The White Christian Nationalism Behind the Worst Terrorist Attack in American History

Spencer Ackerman on the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Media’s Islamophobic Response

The city of God lay deep in the Ozark hills of northeastern Oklahoma, at the end of six miles of dirt road. Young men in thrown-together fatigues guarded the gates to the domed church of Elohim City. The church was the center of community life for the isolated settlement, host to charismatic morning prayers and evening assemblies. It flew Christian banners and Confederate flags. Many of Elohim City’s roughly one hundred residents were transients, who drove their mobile homes onto its four hundred acres for as long as they needed refuge from an iniquitous world. Polygamy was encouraged and patriarchy enforced. Non-domestic work for women was forbidden.

“Elohim” is a Hebrew word for God, but those who lived in Elohim City preferred to call God “Yahuah,” owing to something a resident once uttered while speaking in tongues. They considered themselves the real Israelites, not those descendants of the devil who called themselves Jews. That was what Christian Identity, the religion practiced at Elohim City, instructed.

No one at the compound ate pork, and children at its school learned Hebrew. Knowledge of Hebrew was valuable for demonstrating that the different words for “man” in the Bible proved that Yahuah created races of people, some superior, others inferior. Their faith ordained that the chosen people—descended from the northern European countries that these true Israelites settled—separate themselves in preparation for the reckoning to come. A monstrosity called the Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG), a cabal of Jews, had subverted America, the intended home of the chosen, and empowered their subhuman puppets. A local boy sang visitors a song about murdering Barney the dinosaur. Underneath his costume, the boy explained, Barney was a “ni**er.”

The patriarch of Elohim City was an elderly Canadian named Robert G. Millar. Millar said that a vision from Yahuah had led him on the path to both America and Christian Identity. A polygamist known to his followers as Grandpa, Millar had founded Elohim City in 1973, and about half its populace at any given time were members of his extended family. “Any equality at all” among races was “against the Bible,” Millar explained to a Dateline NBC reporter. Yet he refused to label himself a white supremacist: “Let’s put, ‘We’re separatists.’” Asked to account for his racism, Millar replied, “The truth is often offensive.” When he died in 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center ranked Millar among a generation of men “who have led the American radical right for some 30 years.”

Christian Identity did not accept the Rapture foretold in Revelation. The Second Coming would instead result from struggle—an armed struggle to racially cleanse the world, probably after an economic collapse that would bring down this mongrel civilization. The heavily armed residents of Elohim City meant to triumph in the rough life to come. Under the tutelage of a German Army veteran named Andreas Strassmeir, they drilled in marksmanship and repurposed old ammunition crates into building materials. That established the community as a safe haven not only for Christian Identity believers but for fellow-traveling neo-Nazis, as well as violent criminals. These included members of a gang called the Aryan Republican Army, which aimed to finance the white revolution by robbing banks across the Midwest while wearing Point Break-inspired masks of ex-presidents. Another was the leader of a white supremacist militia, the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA), which had forced law enforcement into a three-day standoff in Arkansas in 1985. Two years earlier a CSA member had plotted an attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh sent the Ku Klux Klan twenty dollars for a trial membership and a white power T-shirt.

According to an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a wiry former soldier, firearms enthusiast, and white revolutionary named Timothy McVeigh was present at Elohim City in July 1994. An infantryman from Buffalo, McVeigh had already begun preparing for the revolution by the time he enlisted in the army in 1988. He called Black soldiers by slurs, perceived their insolence everywhere, and seethed that the army was too politically correct to discipline them. At the same time, McVeigh flagrantly violated army regulations by smuggling at least twenty guns into his Fort Riley barracks. Guns were the nonbelieving McVeigh’s religion. He spent his spare time at gun shows, which were not only a means to amass his arsenal but a way to make money.

At the gun shows, McVeigh sold copies of a white-supremacist propaganda novel called The Turner Diaries, the story of a gun confiscation by the government’s Black enforcers and Jewish puppeteers that prompts a white militant vanguard to begin a firestorm to purify America. Service in the initial 1991 ground invasion of Iraq—where he earned a Bronze Star and even a Combat Infantryman Badge—taught McVeigh that the corrupted government would rather use the army to enforce the globalist agenda of the United Nations than to protect America’s borders from invasion. While in uniform, McVeigh sent the Ku Klux Klan twenty dollars for a trial membership and a white power T-shirt. His army evaluations described him as an “inspiration” to younger soldiers.

McVeigh left the army in 1992, a time when he thought the United States was sending signals of an intensifying persecution of whites. In August the ZOG’s ATF and FBI goon squads shot it out at Ruby Ridge, in the northern Idaho mountains, with the white patriot and ex-Green Beret Randy Weaver, leaving his wife and 14-year-old son dead, as well as a US marshal. Not long afterward the new president, Bill Clinton, introduced a regime of background checks for gun purchasers and then a ban on semiautomatic rifles and other weapons of the sort McVeigh stockpiled.

Barely six months after Ruby Ridge, the FBI and ATF besieged an armed religious compound in Waco, Texas, for 51 days before a fire consumed 76 Branch Davidians inside. April 19, 1993, became a martyrs’ day for those dedicated to resisting ZOG tyranny. McVeigh, working as a security guard in Buffalo, told a colleague that he had driven to Texas to support the doomed Branch Davidians. He was openly talking about avenging them.

Along with his army buddy and lackey Terry Nichols, McVeigh constructed a plan strikingly similar to the CSA’s 1983 plot to hit ZOG in its Oklahoma City redoubt. By purchasing massive amounts of ammonium nitrite, McVeigh could construct a 4,800-pound bomb. He and Nichols would steal blasting caps from a construction site, rent a Ryder truck, assemble the bomb, and drive it to the Murrah building for detonation.

The historian Kathleen Belew, in her book Bring the War Home, observed that McVeigh’s plan followed “a very specific example of a truck bombing” from The Turner Diaries. To prevent any confusion about why the attack was perpetrated, McVeigh chose April 19 as his day of reckoning. With another army friend, Mike Fortier, McVeigh performed reconnaissance on the Murrah building in December 1994. He would later claim that the evening darkness prevented him from seeing that the building housed a day care center on its second floor.

McVeigh didn’t plan to die in the bombing. Two weeks before the attack McVeigh placed a phone call to Elohim City. A biography with which he cooperated stated that he was trying to determine if Millar’s compound would give him shelter. His other option was another white-supremacist training camp, this one belonging to the National Alliance, the party founded by Turner Diaries author William Pierce. He was unable to reach either of them. But McVeigh considered whatever happened to him to be less important than his ability to inspire the revolution that would follow. He left in his car propaganda extolling “the motto of many American militias . . . ‘Don’t tread on me.’”

Rescue workers who found Daina had to amputate her leg to extract her before the rubble shifted and killed them all.

It was 9:02 on a clear Tuesday morning when the bomb sheared the façade off the Murrah building. While the blast killed some instantly, many more were crushed and buried alive. Twenty-year-old Daina Bradley was running an errand at the Social Security office when the ground floor caved in. Rubble pinned her arm and her leg as frigid water pooled beneath her. For hours she stared up at a concrete slab whose fall had stopped just short of crushing her skull. Rescue workers who found her had to amputate her leg to extract her before the rubble shifted and killed them all. Bradley’s three-year-old daughter, Peachlyn, her four-month-old son, Gabreon, and her 48-year-old mother, Cheryl Bradley Hammons, were among the 168 people McVeigh killed. Nineteen of the victims were children. It was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Journalists and their law-enforcement sources immediately knew the culprits of the Murrah bombing: Muslims. Only two years had passed since Ramzi Yousef set off an explosive at the World Trade Center; Oklahoma City must have been a follow-on attack. CNN reported, then retracted, that Middle Easterners were under immediate law-enforcement suspicion. A respectable-sounding conspiracist who saw American Islam through the lens of foreign subversion, Steven Emerson, told CBS that Oklahoma City was “probably considered one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East,” an assessment never to reappear. Former representative Dave McCurdy, an Oklahoma Democrat who had recently chaired the House intelligence committee, stated that there was “very clear evidence” that “fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups” were involved.

With culpability established, commentary turned to what action needed to be taken. In the New York tabloid Newsday, columnist Jeff Kamen typified the public appetite for a response to jihadists. Foreign students, diplomats, and other “threatening people,” he declared, ought to be placed under surveillance, with Navy SEALs and other elite military units dealing with those revealed to be dangerous. “Shoot them now,” Kamen wrote, “before they get us.” Mike Royko, a titan of Chicago journalism, wrote in the Tribune that the country was in denial about the “act of war” launched against it. Treating the bombing as merely a crime would only encourage further attacks. “Because we are so open a society, terrorists can be sent here almost as easily as shipping a package,” lamented Royko, who called on the government to “stop admitting people who come from countries that are hostile.” Right-wing radio host Cal Thomas agreed that the danger from Muslims proved the larger point that “illegal immigrants are a threat to our democracy.”

The presumption of Muslim guilt had consequences. Ibrahim Abdullah Hassan Ahmed, an Oklahoma City man born in Palestine, attempted to fly to Jordan and was questioned by police at his connection in Chicago. When he had to rebook after missing his flight, officials intercepted him in London and sent him back to Oklahoma City. False reports circulated that he had bomb-making equipment in his luggage; the FBI insisted he was never a suspect. Ahmed, the Los Angeles Times explained, “had too many similarities to the sort of person the police thought they were seeking.”

Elohim City was part of the broad infrastructure of militant white supremacy in late-20th-century America.

In the wake of Oklahoma City, law enforcement nationwide received 227 reports of harassment against Muslims, The Christian Science Monitor reported, ranging from “verbal threats to assaults.” Fear gripped Muslim communities far from Oklahoma City. A restaurant owner in Orlando told the paper, “We all phoned each other for support. I’ll never forget it.”

*

Several Elohim City residents, including security chief Andreas Strassmeir, whose card McVeigh carried in his wallet, reportedly decamped from the compound ahead of April 19. Grandpa Millar was in Arkansas to witness the execution of the CSA militiaman who plotted the original attack on Oklahoma City. If they feared arrest, it never came.

The need for a successful prosecution after the Murrah bombing—as well as a strong FBI/ATF desire to avoid another Waco—ultimately drove a narrow investigative focus onto McVeigh and Nichols. An ATF informant, Carol Howe, told a grand jury that Strassmeir discussed taking “direct action” against the government in Oklahoma City. But investigators were unable to substantiate her tip that the compound possessed an illegal M60 machine gun, which was the likeliest way to charge Strassmeir with a crime. McVeigh, to the frustration of his attorneys, insisted that he acted alone, and his plan to decamp to Elohim City was the limit of the community’s involvement in the plot. The compound faced little post-Oklahoma City scrutiny beyond the occasional visit from journalists and academics. Whatever his views on the tyranny of ZOG’s police, Millar liked to tell reporters about the warm relationship Elohim City had with the local sheriff.

Whether or not anyone at Elohim City had specific foreknowledge of McVeigh’s plot—a supposition that remains unsubstantiated 25 years later—the compound was part of the broad infrastructure of militant white supremacy in late-20th-century America. Belew writes that Oklahoma City was “the culmination of decades of white-power organizing.” Along with the CSA’s Arkansas base, the Aryan Nations’ Idaho headquarters, Jack Oliphant’s Hephzibeh Ranch in Arizona, and other white supremacist warrens, Elohim City provided a haven, ideological and spiritual strengthening, connections to people and groups with proven track records of violence, and access to a bounty of weapons. The infrastructure was loose by design, rather than organized into a coherent network. That suited people and groups who preferred living in the rugged country, as far as possible from the reach of the government. It also reflected the influence of Louis Beam.

Beam, an influential KKK grand dragon from Texas, put forward in the 1980s a theory of “leaderless resistance.” It envisioned “survival” camps for militants where autonomous patriots could prepare for the coming guerrilla war against a government that had turned hostile to white interests during the 1960s. Its goal was the reconquest of America. Until victory came, these compounds would be microcosms of the “Racial Nation of and by ourselves” they sought to establish.

Beam drew on his Vietnam service not only for militancy and authority but to construct what Belew calls a narrative of “stymied grief, constant danger, fixation on weapons and betrayal” by elites whose horrific war had become a “catalyst for American decline.” Remaining leaderless was both a tactical necessity and a key component of their political strategy. It would allow for a broad disavowal of any individual act of violence, particularly from their politicians, whose objective was to enter “mainstream ‘kosher’ associations that are generally seen as harmless.” Accordingly, even after McVeigh’s conviction, Grandpa Millar “conjecture[d]” to a reporter that the bombing was a government attempt “to frame Christian Identity.”

But even if the white supremacists’ connection with McVeigh was more ideological than operational, the public discussion of Oklahoma City obscured any association between them. As with Ruby Ridge, the press reported McVeigh’s “survivalism” as his most salient feature, and his motivations “anti-government.” Both characterizations made McVeigh’s mission seem politically agnostic. You didn’t have to be a white supremacist to consider the government tyrannical—you didn’t even have to be right wing.

A poll taken barely a week after the bombing found that 45 percent of respondents believed the government was a “threat to the constitutional rights enjoyed by the average American.” Survivalism sounded defensive in nature. Journalists typically waited until the later paragraphs of their articles to identify McVeigh as a white supremacist, if they did at all. The Baltimore Sun asked if the “American love affair with the strong silent type” like the “loner” McVeigh would come to an end. A Washington Post profile portrayed the 27-year-old McVeigh as an “Ordinary Boy” who had “lived the divorce revolution” and turned to guns to fill the void left by his absent mother.

In his interviews with journalists, McVeigh stressed themes that had broad purchase with Americans who might have benefited from white supremacy but did not aver it as a creed. He had acted, he insisted, in the traditions of the Founding Fathers. The guns he’d accrued, as so many Americans had, were his protection against tyranny. America had lost its way in a globalizing world, its government having become alien to the people whose liberty it was supposed to protect. McVeigh, the decorated Gulf War veteran, was disgusted by all the foreign wars his corrupted government was waging. “I don’t like going to other nations. I thought the principle was defending yourself,” he told reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck. McVeigh’s arguments were enough to make him seem almost mainstream.

In describing his time in the army, the reporters’ biography could hardly ignore McVeigh’s racism, but they explained it away. “McVeigh’s enemies weren’t blacks, they were the politicians who were pushing more gun laws,” they wrote, concluding that McVeigh “was looking for a way to get to patriotism.” There were no calls from newspaper columnists to send elite commandos into places like Elohim City. Shooting suspected white supremacist guerrillas on sight, deporting them, seizing whites from their airplane seats for the misfortune of being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time were unthinkable options. Yet white supremacist terrorism was the oldest, bloodiest, and most resilient terrorism in the history of the United States. Its justifications and its symbolism were rooted in the American national heritage, making its appeal to Americans orders of magnitude larger than Islamic terror could ever claim.

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From REIGN OF TERROR by Spencer Ackerman, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Spencer Ackerman.

Spencer Ackerman
Spencer Ackerman
For nearly the entire War on Terror, Spencer Ackerman has been a national-security correspondent for outlets like The New Republic, WIRED, The Guardian and currently The Daily Beast. He has reported from the frontlines of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. He shared in the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism for Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to The Guardian, a series of stories that also yielded him other awards, including the Scripps Howard Foundation’s 2014 Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and the 2013 IRE medal for investigative reporting. Ackerman’s WIRED series on Islamophobic counterterrorism training at the FBI won the 2012 online National Magazine Award for reporting. He frequently appears on MSNBC, CNN, and other news networks.





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