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Michigan Domestic Terror Plot Sends Shockwaves Through Militia World

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech Thursday in Lansing. Thirteen members of two militia groups face criminal charges after allegedly plotting to kidnap Whitmer.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech Thursday in Lansing. Thirteen members of two militia groups face criminal charges after allegedly plotting to kidnap Whitmer.

The news raced through the encrypted chats of leaders in the far-right militia movement: The Feds got Barry Croft.

Croft, one of 13 men charged Thursday in connection with a domestic terrorism plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, was a visible figure on the message boards and Facebook pages of the so-called Patriot Movement. NPR interviews with associates who know him from that world portray a power-hungry figure whose angling for stature was unsettling at times. Now that Croft is in custody and his connections under scrutiny, their fear is: Who's next?

"He was very out and open in the movement," one militia leader said.

The leader said that around two years ago Croft, a Delaware resident, made waves as an unknown who tried to streamline national leadership of the Three Percent, a fragmented movement of loosely affiliated armed groups. But regional Three Percent leaders began to question Croft about his motives, the leader said, and weren't satisfied with the answers. A separate account from another state leader described Croft as "radical" even within the heavily armed Patriot milieu.

Last year, Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, pardoned Croft for chargesfrom the 1990s, including possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, assault and burglary, according to documents obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal.

The militia leader said he's never heard Croft talking about violence. For him, the red flag was more mundane – it was when Croft allegedly moved to buy one of the biggest domain names associated with the national Three Percent movement. The leader, a self-described "true believer," saw it as an attempt by Croft to buy his way into a senior role in the movement. The leader distanced his organization from national ties and said he has no idea whether Croft eventually took the reins.

"I've seen them come and go, the ones who want some sort of title," he said.

None of Croft's associates agreed to speak on the record for fear of retaliation from the authorities or people within the movement, and they didn't have information about the others charged in connection with the alleged kidnap plot. The leader of a self-proclaimed national Three Percent umbrella organization didn't return messages seeking comment. The case has sent armed Patriot groups across the country into damage-control mode, worried that the unusually high number of arrests in a months-long domestic terrorism investigation means more are coming.

If so, it's about time, according to Mary McCord, a former head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, in a New York Times op-edabout the Michigan case. McCord wrote that federal and state laws, upheld in court, exist to address the paramilitary threat but are rarely enforced.

"All these laws point to a single conclusion: There is no right in any state for groups of individuals to arm themselves and organize either to oppose or augment the government," McCord wrote. "Now, more than ever, state and local officials must enforce these statutes."

NPR couldn't reach an attorney for Croft, and it was impossible to verify the militia members' accounts independently. Croft's social media presence backs up their descriptions of him as an avid President Trump supporter and an activist for right-wing causes. In one photo, Croft is wearing an American Revolutionary tricorn and a green hoodie with a Three Percent logo. SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist propaganda, posted a video that purportedly shows Croft, speaking from his garage, mocking people who dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist.

"Well, it's factual now," Croft says on camera, again wearing a tricorn. "They're coming for your freedom. They're coming for your religion, and they're not going to stop. Period."

In the charging documents, Croft is portrayed as laying the early groundwork for what would snowball into a plot to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home as a symbolic stand against tyranny before the November election. The investigation began early in the year when the FBI was alerted to social media forums that were discussing attacks on law enforcement and the "boogaloo" trend calling for the violent overthrow of government.

Prosecutors zeroed in on Croft and a co-defendant, Adam Fox, who "agreed to unite others in their cause and take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution." Charging papers put Croft at key planning meetings throughout the summer in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. At one gathering, Croft displayed his "chemistry set," components for a homemade bomb.

"During the exercise, the group set the device in a clearing surrounded by human silhouette targets, and Croft detonated it to test its anti-personnel effectiveness," court documents said.

Croft also participated in a nighttime surveillance of Whitmer's vacation home and was so eager to attack that he advocated an operation that night and had to be dissuaded, according to prosecutors. The documents include a chilling conversation between Fox and Croft that evening about the governor, who's a target of nonstop misogynistic and political attacks from the right, including from Trump.

Fox: "She has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now."

Croft: "All good things must come to an end."

Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who's conducted extensive field research with Michigan militia groups, said the core of the militia movement is law-abiding "in normal times" and isn't known for staging big, premeditated plots such as the alleged one against the governor. She said the scope of this case makes it an outlier even at a time when militia rhetoric is increasingly fiery, with guys getting together to "talk about how big and bad they are."

"It's really rare that they actually take steps to put those things into action," Cooter said. "And even when they're standing around and talking, a lot of it doesn't go this far."

The Michigan case offers a rare look inside the kind of fringe paramilitary organizing that extremism researchers have been warning about in an ugly election season that's further inflamed by tensions over the pandemic, a dismal economy and racial justice protests. The court papers reference several meetings and trainings attended by the suspects and other far-right extremists from around the country. So far, 13 suspects have been identified – six facing federal charges, and seven facing prosecution under Michigan's state terrorism laws. J.J. MacNab, an extremism researcher who closely follows militia activity, tweeted Thursday: "I don't think this is over, in terms of arrests and indictments."

Throughout the summer, there was chatter in the militia world about clandestine meetings going on to discuss "constitutional flashpoints" – when and how the various factions might take a coordinated stand on pet issues such as gun rights, lockdowns and mask mandates, or the imagined invasion of leftist "looters and rioters." But the movement is diffuse, and rife with infighting and suspicion. One militia leader said he stopped attending big gatherings because they often turned into "bravado" about revolution in a room that's likely under surveillance.

"They fancy themselves some kind of Continental Congress," the leader said, with sarcasm.

One prominent militia figure, texting in response to NPR's questions about how the Michigan case was playing within the broader movement, wrote that it's a "reminder that Patriots are being monitored." He said he issued a message to his own group saying that "we are not vigilantes" and that they don't support anti-government activity.

"This is a reminder that comments can get you in trouble," he wrote. He added the names of other Patriot figures who served time because "friends" surveilled them. "Plans or acts against the government will definitely put you in prison and hurt the rest of the movement."

Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago history professor and an expert on far-right paramilitary groups, argues that leaders' attempts at such distinctions should be taken with a grain of salt. Days before news of the Michigan story broke, Belew said on Twitter that it was dangerous to start a sliding scale of evaluating militia extremism.

"I worry that the push to qualify definitions might create the idea of good, or neutral militias that ARE legitimate," Belew tweeted. "These are not. They are not neutral observers. They are not keepers of law and order. They are paramilitary groups."

Extensive recordings and surveillance described in the court papers show how deeply the FBI had infiltrated the alleged plotters – sometimes with more than one informant or undercover operative at the same event. Investigators were inside encrypted chats where the suspects allegedly communicated in code, using "baker" and a "cake" in reference to an explosives provider and a bomb. They were along for a car ride to case the vacation home where the suspects allegedly planned to kidnap the governor and spirit her to Wisconsin for a "trial."

In June, at a meeting site in Grand Rapids, Mich., court documents said, the suspects entered a basement through a trapdoor hidden by a rug. Once inside, the men were ordered to turn over their cellphones, which were placed in a box and taken upstairs as a security precaution. But one of the people present was an informant wearing a device.

Prosecutors said that meeting, too, was recorded.

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Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.