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On April 19, 1995, a federal building in Oklahoma City was attacked using a homemade truck bomb. This attack “killed almost 3,000 people, wounded hundreds, and caused $10 billion in property damage” (Corman, 2016, p. 9). It was the deadliest and most notorious terrorist act on the U.S. ground before the September 11 attacks of 2001 (Sloan, 2016). Timothy McVeigh, the primary perpetrator of the attack, was a decorated American Gulf War veteran who became radicalized after his service. McVeigh and his few accomplices aligned themselves with the far-right Patriot Movement, which believed that the U.S. government had usurped power contrary to the Constitution (Corman, 2016). They were spurred to act by the Ruby Ridge incident of 1992 and the Waco Siege of 1993, in which government attempts to confiscate firearms resulted in civilian deaths (Hofmann, 2020). In a parallel to later Al Qaeda terrorists, the attackers justified their resort to terror through reference to incorrigible government violence (The Al Qaeda manual, 2002; Simon, 2016). The bombing occurred within the terrorists’ framework of revolutionary warfare against oppressive state authority.
Target, Tactics, and Tools
Multiple factors informed McVeigh’s decision to target the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Having decided to strike back against the government, he considered several options, including assassinations against elected officials (Simon, 2016). However, attacking a federal building seemed to offer a more substantial propaganda impact due to its visuals. The specific complex was a prominent symbol of federal authority (Sloan, 2016). Although McVeigh later expressed regret for the “collateral damage” (Simon, 2016, p. 47) he inflicted, including the deaths of children, it seems implausible that he was unaware of the likely damage. High civilian casualties served his purposes by drawing more attention to his message. The federal building housed the offices of various government agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which was directly involved in the Waco debacle. McVeigh believed that the order to invade the Branch Davidian compound at Waco came from the facility (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). The Turner Diaries, a far-right novel that described a similar attack, may have also influenced his choice (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). Thus, McVeigh picked his target based on considerations of symbolism, propaganda, and revenge.
The Oklahoma City bombing is regarded as a classic example of a lone wolf terrorist attack. Although McVeigh recruited acquaintances Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier as his accomplices, he did not operate as part of a larger organization (Hofmann, 2020). His small, loose personal network helped him research his target, plan his approach, and steal or buy the necessary materials. In another touch possibly inspired by The Turner Diaries, McVeigh’s weapon of choice was a homemade bomb made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil placed in a rented Ryder truck (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). At around 9 AM, McVeigh parked the vehicle in front of the building, lit two fuses, and left in another car. The explosion leveled one-third of the federal building, destroyed several nearby structures, killed numerous civilians, and caused a panic exacerbated by the media (Sloan, 2016). Shortly afterward, McVeigh was arrested for carrying concealed firearms, which he could have used to set off the explosion if his detonator failed. One way or another, the bombing was going to be a one-off attack.
Terrorists’ Expectations and Outcomes
While in prison, McVeigh repeatedly stated that his objective was to send a message. Believing that the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco marked the beginning of a crackdown on firearm owners, he sought to intimidate it into relenting (Simon, 2016). In his words, “the only way they’re going to feel something, the only way they’re going to get the message is a quote, with a body count” (Simon, 2016, p. 47). More ambitiously, he sought to inspire a revolutionary movement against the U.S. government through his actions and subsequent martyrdom (Corman, 2016). By drawing attention to the government’s handling of the incidents that led to his attack, he hoped to galvanize dissent among the public and inspire like-minded individuals to take action. If viewed as part of revolutionary warfare, this objective corresponds to the initial step of guerrilla operations outlined by Mao (1937): “arousing and organizing the people” (What Is Guerrilla Warfare, para. 5). Although McVeigh’s attack compelled the intended recipients’ attention, that did not guarantee his message’s success.
From the perspective of McVeigh’s objectives, the outcomes of the event were mixed. While the attack did contribute to scrutiny over government actions at Waco, it also brought increased attention to far-right anti-government movements. The resulting public backlash and enhanced government vigilance significantly hindered those movements’ growth in the late 1990s (Hofmann, 2020). If McVeigh genuinely expected to initiate a large-scale revolutionary movement, he seriously overestimated the support for his ideas among the public. Since most American citizens did not perceive the U.S. government as fundamentally illegitimate and hostile, the conditions for guerilla warfare did not exist (Mao, 1937). On the other hand, McVeigh succeeded in inspiring other far-right terrorists, such as Eric Rudolph (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). Overall, the attack arguably succeeded in attracting public attention but failed to create a revolutionary movement that could beyond the level of lone-wolf terrorism.
Addressing Revealed Vulnerabilities
McVeigh’s act played a crucial role in the evolution of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism paradigm. After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, government agencies and the public alike focused on the threat posed by international Islamist terrorism (Sloan, 2016). The Oklahoma City bombing temporarily shifted attention towards the dangers posed by domestic terrorism and far-right extremism (Simon, 2016). It also underlined the possibility of attacks carried out by small groups or individuals causing comparable damage to the acts of terrorist networks. The government responded by creating a Domestic Counterterrorism Center, employing thousands of new officials to address different types of terrorism, and reinforcing security measures and requirements at federal buildings (Simon, 2016). Studying McVeigh’s preparations enabled the FBI to carry out sting operations that prevented numerous potential lone-wolf attacks (Hamm & Spaaij, 2017). The essential insight derived from the case was that lone-actor terrorists did not act alone, relying instead on support networks that could be exploited (Hofmann, 2020). Nevertheless, the unique challenges posed by this hard-to-detect variety of terrorism remain.
The Oklahoma City bombing remains the most lethal act of domestic terrorism in the United States. McVeigh targeted the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to avenge perceived government abuses and galvanize a revolutionary movement with a symbolic strike. A small number of accomplices from among his acquaintances helped McVeigh prepare the homemade truck bomb used in the attack. They did not plan for a sustained campaign and were arrested soon after the event. The attack allowed McVeigh to send a message to the government and the public. He hoped to intimidate the former and inspire the latter to rebel. Although his actions resulted in some increased scrutiny of government actions and inspired other lone wolf far-right terrorists, the revolutionary movement he anticipated failed to manifest. Instead, far-right extremist movements were hampered by the ensuing backlash, while the government introduced new counterterrorism measures. Despite this failure, McVeigh’s actions illustrate the difficulties and dangers posed by lone-wolf terrorism.
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Hamm, M. S., & Spaaij, R. (2017). The age of lone wolf terrorism. Columbia University Press.
Hofmann, D. C. (2020). How “alone” are lone-actors? Exploring the ideological, signaling, and support networks of lone-actor terrorists. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43(7), 657-678. Web.
Mao, T. (1937). On guerrilla warfare. Mao Tse-tung Reference Archive. Web.
Simon, J. D. (2016). Lone wolf terrorism: Understanding the growing threat. Prometheus Books.
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