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Oregon Militants’ Pasts Collide With Vows Of Peaceful Resolve

Leader Ammon Bundy says the militants with him in Oregon are not about "fear or force or intimidation." His members have burned bacon-wrapped Qurans and threatened to shoot Hillary Clinton in the vagina

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No fear, force or intimidation? — (Reuters)
Jan 06, 2016 at 9:36 PM ET

Before Blaine Cooper took up arms to defend liberty in rural Oregon, he used bacon to insult Muslims around the world. In a YouTube video from 2014, the self-described patriot ripped pages from a copy of the Quran and wrapped them around the slabs of pork. One by one, he tossed the greasy hunks into a patio fire pit.

“Say bye-bye to your little holy book, you mother f——,” Cooper said. After declaring that the Quran should be outlawed worldwide, and later hurling expletives directed toward President Obama and “liberals,” he finished the spectacle by brandishing a hunting bow and firing arrows into the book.

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Now part of the armed occupation at an Oregon wildlife refuge, Cooper is one of a handful of hardcore militants there who has embraced the use of extreme rhetoric and actions to convey their radical beliefs. Their past statements and provocations, often colored with violent innuendo, offer a stark contrast to the softer image that’s been peddled by Ammon Bundy, the group’s frontman and de-facto leader. “We’re not about fear or force or intimidation. That’s not why we’re here,” Bundy told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the group wanted to privatize federal land in the state.

The remarks expressed a point of view not shared among other militants in the group. “I came here to die,” one member told a reporter with OPB News. Even Ryan Bundy, who joined his brother Ammon in Oregon, said he was willing to kill or be killed before taking a more toned-down stance a couple of days later.

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Those who have followed members of the militant group prior to their occupation, which began Saturday, said that threat they pose should not be underestimated. “Some of these people are downright scary,” said JJ MacNab, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center on Cyber & Homeland Security. “There are guys among them who want to be martyrs.”

MacNab, who has written a book on anti-government extremism in the U.S., said she has spent almost two years monitoring these militants through social media, militia message boards online and right-wing media channels. Most met for the first time during the armed standoff between anti-government activists and federal officials inspired by Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who is the father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, she said. That showdown emboldened right-wing militants across America and became a powerful symbol of antigovernment sentiment.

Though they’ve now followed Ammon Bundy out to Oregon, MacNab believes that few are as committed to the plight of ranchers as their leader. The rest “want to pick a fight with the federal government,” she said. 

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To further their agenda, these militants have repeatedly relied on the kinds of actions that Bundy now says do not define his group. One of the men at the Oregon refuge, Ryan Payne, has repeatedly boasted that he organized the civilian sniper squads at the Bundy ranch that kept federal agents in their crosshairs. Pete Santilli, a right-wing radio host and constant presence at the compound, drew the attention of the Secret Service in 2013 after he claimed to want to shoot Hillary Clinton in the vagina.

Then there is Jon Ritzheimer, who became a cause celebre on the far right after he organized armed protests against Muslims in Arizona last year. The former Marine, who regularly appears in videos with an AR-15, later landed on the FBI’s radar after he allegedly began driving around the country with the stated purpose of confronting members of Islamic organizations. Two days before he joined the occupation outside of Burns, Oregon, Ritzheimer issued a tearful goodbye to his family on YouTube in which he said he planned to die “a free man.”

“Are these people dangerous? Yes.” said Brian Levin, the director of California State University’s Center for Hate and Extremism. “When you have people who are armed, hunkered down and making demands that likely won’t be met, it’s problematic.” 

But Levin added that law enforcement’s low key approach to the occupation, which has included calls for the militants to go home but no signs of a physical force or presence, had de-escalated the situation. “There is a great potential for this to resolve itself peacefully and quietly after some time elapses and nerves are calmed,” he said.

Should that happen, MacNab said she believes it will only be a matter of time before militants like this hatch the next armed showdown. “They’re not going to stop at this,” she said. “This is a movement that glorifies confrontation.”