FIFE LAKE, Mich. - Nearly 10 years after Sept. 11, security analysts say new threats are emerging from modern-day militias, whose members pack rifles and practice survival tactics preparing for eventual battle right in our own communities.
“The militias in effect are the … people (who) really specialize in engaging in paramilitary training in the woods and those kinds of things,” said Mark Potok, who studies militias for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Ala.
Experts say these militias -- groups of ordinary citizens who form their own military force without government help -- are an increasing danger to national defense efforts.
In 2010, the law center tracked 330 active militias in the U.S., up from 43 in 2007. In 2010, there were 13 reported militia groups in Ohio, along with 27 "Patriot" groups and 18 antigovernment groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center .
But members of the handful of groups that Scripps Howard News Service interviewed insist they have good intentions.
“In a disaster situation, we’d be looking to help people -- help them clean up, recover, bring them medical assistance, food,” said Tom Morse, 25, one of a dozen men from five Michigan militias gathered here for a group exercise.
On this summer weekend, Morse and fellow militia member Daniel Ziemba hoist rifles over their camouflaged backs to hike in the woods and hunt their “enemy”: Morse’s father, Tom, code-named “Bubba.”
Armed with rifles and scopes, the key is to keep quiet.
“This type of exercise is preparing me for the ability to hide from forces who might be looking for me,” Morse says. “The purpose is to sneak in, observe, watch, listen, learn.”
Morse, a Marine Corps veteran, joined the militia because of his father. Bubba organizes monthly meetings.
“The skills that I’m learning here I hope I never have to use,” Bubba said
Each team sets up camp and uses radios to communicate. They track footprints in the mud and squint through binoculars to keep watch for an enemy attack.
“Militia is the people’s way of defending themselves,” said Fids Hartgers, who’s been a militia member in Michigan for two years.
Potok, of the law center, says he’s “seen explosive growth” recently in homegrown military groups.
“Things have very definitely gotten hot in just the past couple of years,” Potok said.
The secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, also says that violence in this underground world is escalating.
“We see the rise of home-grown extremism -- some inspired by al-Qaida, some inspired by other ideologies,” she said.
These groups are “committing violence in the name of an ideology and trying to disrupt and kill,” Napolitano added.
Militia groups contacted for this story say they’re practicing survival skills and mastering battleground weapons more as a recreational activity than a terrorist operation.
Back at the field exercise, Lou, who did not want to give his last name, said in the past five years his Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia has grown to 217 members.
“We got Muslim members. We got people who are of Buddhist beliefs. We have people who have no beliefs whatsoever,” he said.
Lou and other militia members at the field exercise say they’re open to anyone -- regardless of race, religion or political beliefs.
Both Homeland Security and the law center say that such groups may be the exception and that several radical militias with strict anti-government beliefs have sprouted in the U.S.
“We’ve seen a couple different plots to murder large numbers of police officers, coming out of militia groups in the last year and a half,” Potok said.
For Bubba, it’s not about violence, but about survival. Back in the Michigan woods, he discovers the other team’s flag completely unprotected. He plucks it from the ground, ending the exercise with a victory.
For him, militia training isn’t about breeding terrorism, but being prepared to combat it.
“My biggest fear,” Bubba said, “is that all hell does break loose.”
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