WASHINGTON - They called themselves "crusaders" for a reason.
The three Kansas militiamen planned to blow up an apartment complex housing Somali refugees during the 2016 presidential election, unleashing what one of them called "Crusades 2.0."
But their plan was foiled after their arrest just weeks before the election, highlighting the changing enemy list of a movement founded on the back of anti-government activism a generation ago.
And with the election of a president whose policies many militia members support, the urge to confront the government appears to have lost some of its urgency. Instead of railing at the government, they have in recent years turned their venom against new-found foes: Muslims, immigrants, the Antifa.
"Some of the militia groups have been refocusing their attention on secondary enemies for the movement," said Mark Pitcavage, who researches extremism at the Anti-Defamation League civil rights group.
Often lumped together with other right-wing groups, the anti-government movement comes in different forms.
There are the "preppers," so called because they stockpile water, food and other essentials in preparation for civil unrest.
There are the "survivalists," people who learn skills to “live off the land” in case of a disaster.
There are “sovereign citizens” such as the suspect in the recent shooting at a Waffle House in Tennessee who are opposed to paying taxes and believe they should decide which laws to follow.
And then there are the militiamen who conduct regular military-style training to resist a government they see as engaged in a global plot to take away their guns and constitutional rights.
Start of modern militia
The modern militia movement dates back to a series of events in the early 1990s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Among them: the 1992 election of Democratic President Bill Clinton and an FBI attack the following year on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, an event seen as "evidence of an out of control government willing to attack citizens."
Under Clinton, the number of anti-government groups soared but it fell during President George W. Bush's two terms before peaking at 1,360 under President Barack Obama.
In 2016, there were 689 anti-government groups active in the country, including 273 militias, according to SPLC. Today, membership estimates range from under 10,000 to tens of thousands, with the vast majority believed to be non-violent.
The militia movement’s antipathy toward Muslims was spurred in part by the 2008 election of Obama, the country’s first African-American president.
Conspiracy theories that Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya and a liberal bent on taking away citizens’ guns galvanized the movement.
Adding fuel to anti-Muslim sentiment was a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, including mass shootings carried out by Muslim extremists in Chattanooga, Tennessee;
San Bernardino, California; and Orlando, Florida.
Law enforcement takes notice
The FBI was alarmed. As early as May 2015, the bureau warned that militia extremists were "expanding their targets to include Muslims and Islamic religious institutions in the United States."
Marked as it was by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant vitriol, the 2016 election campaign spurred some militiamen into action.
It was in this climate that Curtis Allen, Patrick Stein and Gavin Wright began plotting to blow up the Somali housing complex in Kansas.
The trio were members of a militia group called the Kansas Security Force, which in turn was part of a national umbrella organization called the "Three Percenters."
Along with a few other militiamen, they began meeting on weekends to discuss ways to rid the country of “cockroaches,” their term of choice for Muslims.They formed a group on Zello to communicate and shared anti-Obama, anti-Clinton, and anti-Muslim memes on Facebook.
Using Google Earth, the Kansas militiamen mapped out Muslim targets in the state, dropping “cockroach” pins across Garden City, zeroing in on the Somali housing complex and mosque.
To underline just how extreme the three were, prosecutors called in other members of the Kansas Security Force. One testified that he quit after hearing about the plot, worried that their “banter” was “turning into something more serious and concrete.” Another said she objected to the plan even though she abhorred Muslims.
Defense lawyers painted the Crusaders' plot as “bluster,” influenced by anti-Muslim rhetoric. And they unsuccessfully sought to have Vanderbilt University sociologist and militia expert Amy Cooter testify.
After reviewing transcripts and social media records shared by the defense team and interviewing one of the three men, Gavin Wright, Cooter concluded that Wright was more of a “prepper” than a militiaman, finding little evidence that he actively engaged in firearms training.
Cooter said Wright told her that “things spiraled out of control without him realizing what was happening.” But the jury didn’t buy the argument that all the men were doing was vent, convicting them last week of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. They face up to life in prison.