An FBI investigator collects evidence at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. (FBI photo)

25 Years After McVeigh, Propaganda Accelerates Domino Effect of Domestic Terror

Last summer, a meme circulated using the text for Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad — “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” — along with the shoe company’s trademark swoosh and slogan “Just do it.”

Instead of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, though, the photo was of Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government extremist and domestic terrorist who was executed in 2001 for killing 168 people in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh wouldn’t be the only terrorist to be associated with the “Just do it” meme last summer by online propagandists hoping to spur extremists into violent action. Another featured late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with his quote, “The war is between us and the Jews. Any country that steps into the same trench as the Jews has only itself to blame.” This was followed by, “Just do it.”

And yet another Nike-themed meme featured Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant and an “accelerationist” line from his lengthy manifesto, in which he stated his attack was intended “to create an atmosphere of fear and change in which drastic, powerful and revolutionary action can occur.”

Terrorists often cite specific events as their reasons for committing deadly acts, often drawn from a pool of incidents used for incitement by like-minded extremists. McVeigh went to the site of Waco siege to show support for the Branch Davidian compound and used it as a springboard into anti-government extremism. McVeigh noted movement from the propaganda phase to the action phase in crafting his plot to blow up the federal building, deciding it would be more of a statement target than assassinating federal officials involved in the Waco siege.

A white nationalist propaganda producer last summer distributed an image portraying the Waco compound burning, with FBI agents in the foreground, and the words, “April 19, 1993 – And we did FUCKING nothing.”

Twenty-five years after the Oklahoma City bombing, extremists are lifting up McVeigh as an example for other would-be terrorists — and, not foreign to any extremist streams in the world of online propaganda, the minutiae and bullet points of his ideology are less important to those crafting incitement than lifting up the fact that he created chaos and just did it.

A meme posted on a white nationalist Telegram channel last summer portrayed a masked individual walking away from a parked Ryder van — the same rental company used by McVeigh in his truck bomb — with the words, “America is dead! Long live America!”

According to Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism Senior Research Fellow Mark Pitcavage, accelerationists — white supremacists who believe “a complete societal collapse… will allow them to build a white supremacist civilization from the ashes” — have adopted McVeigh among their “saints,” a title they have bestowed upon killers Tarrant, Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.

“’Saint Tarrant is fresh in our minds,’ one 4chan user posted in April 2019, ‘…but let us not forget the martyrs of yore. Remember Saint McVeigh the Martyr,'” Pitcavage wrote. “In an undated ‘Timothy McVeigh appreciation thread’ on the Zig Forums, one poster wrote, ‘people praise Tarrant or Breivik, but McVeigh is the real MVP.’ A few more like him, the poster added, ‘…would destroy the current world order.’”

One report of accelerationists’ hero worship for McVeigh came after the 2017 arrest of neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division founder Brandon Clint Russell, a member of the Florida National Guard who founded the group in 2015. He pleaded guilty to possessing an unregistered destructive device and unlawful storage of explosive material, and was sentenced to five years behind bars in January 2018. Police reported finding a framed photo of McVeigh on his dresser, along with other neo-Nazi and white supremacist propaganda as well as weapons.

And last month Jerry Drake Varnell, 26, of Sayre, Okla., was sentenced to 25 years in prison for plotting to blow up BancFirst in downtown Oklahoma City with a truck bomb. Government officials said Varnell liked anti-government groups on Facebook and messages referencing McVeigh, and investigators found on the day of his arrest a speech written by Varnell that included conspiracy theories about McVeigh.

Domestic terrorists continue to cite other figures as their inspiration, as well: “I scorched a mosque in Escondido with gasoline a week after Brenton Tarrant’s sacrifice and they never found shit on me,” stated an online manifesto attributed to alleged Poway synagogue shooter John Earnest, also citing Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers as an inspiration. Tarrant cited Roof and Breivik among his influences. Breivik cited McVeigh in his own quest to build a fertilizer bomb. John Russell Houser, who opened fire on patrons in a Louisiana theater in 2015 and declared “a global rearrangement comes soon,” praised Roof in his journal, stating “thank you for the wake up call Dylann.”

Online propaganda, including memes, manifestos, videos and chat forums, allows terror to easily feed off of predecessors, and incitement featuring anointed accelerationist figureheads like McVeigh underscores why “we are at the doorstep of another 9/11, maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers, but that we can see it building and we don’t quite know how to stop it,” in the words of Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy in the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the Department of Homeland Security.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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