APR 20 2015

20 Years Ago: The Oklahoma City Bombing: A Profile in Domestic Terrorism



A close examination of the actions culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing posits that it was an act of terrorism insofar as its agents attempted to use tactics and strategies primarily grounded in the employment of fear, possibly including threats, as a predominantly asymmetric and violent means to catalyze political change within its intended audience (ultimately, a pro-gun, white-dominated America) and without regard for its victims.


Twenty years ago, on the morning of April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh[1] parked a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives mainly composed of a mixture of about 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate[2] and nitromethane[3] in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a federal governmental complex containing the regional offices of the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and other agencies located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  At 9:02 a.m., an explosion occurred which destroyed the north side of the building and killed 168 people.[4] It has been called the worst terrorist attack on United States soil before September 11, 2001; but was the Oklahoma City bombing a massive multiple homicide or a terrorist act?  This essay explores the events surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing in light of this question and posits that this event was an act of domestic terror.

Terrorism Defined

Terrorism can be defined as “a ‘tactic’[5] and ‘strategy’[6] primarily grounded in the employment of fear[7] (including threats) as a (predominantly asymmetric[8] and violent[9]) means to catalyze (economic, social, political or religious) change[10] within its intended audience[11] (without regard for its victims.[12])”  This definition seeks to logically, unambiguously and clearly define terrorism in terms of its temporality, persistency, uniqueness, purpose, and targets.

Purposely in its effort to be “universal,” this definition minimizes aspects of terrorist acts that describe terrorism in terms of specific social norms, legal frameworks, or other political constraints.  Once a national or other organizational perspective and its characteristics overlay this general definition, a functional definition of terrorism emerges.  A functional definition of terrorism is flexible and dynamic insofar as it reflects the current conditions in its unique national or organizational setting in time and in space.

The bombed remains of automobiles with the bom...

The bombed remains of automobiles with the bombed Federal Building in the background. The military is providing around the clock support since a car bomb exploded inside the building on Wednesday, April 19, 1995. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, the United States’ public attitude toward terrorism was relatively blasé.  Whereas terrorism was officially decried as a potential threat to United States’ security, in most circles it was largely treated as an abstraction worthy of study and documentation[13] and as a threat from “outside,” in other words, of international origin and concern.[14]  After the bombing, a law “to deter terrorism, provide justice for victims, provide for an effective death penalty, and for other purposes”[15] was enacted as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.  This law marked passage of legislation that directly and comprehensively addressed punishment of terrorists and restitution of their victims both in the United States and abroad for the first time.  These changes in law (as a result of changes in public opinion) are examples of functional changes in the definition of terrorism.

In describing the events surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing, we shall rely on both these general and functional definitions of terrorism.

An Overview of the Oklahoma City Bombing

Timothy McVeigh was an avid fan and reader of William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, a racist, hate-filled novel that describes “The Organization’s” overthrow of the non-white world through the use of violence, culminating in the use of nuclear weapons.  Significantly, this book may have served as the template for the Oklahoma City bombing as exemplified by the following excerpt:

“The plan, roughly, is this: Unit 8 will secure a large quantity of explosives-between five and ten tons.  Our unit will hijack a truck making a legitimate delivery to the FBI headquarters, rendezvous at a location where Unit 8 will be waiting with the explosives, and switch loads.  We will then drive into the FBI building’s freight-receiving area, set the fuse, and leave the truck.  While Unit 8 is solving the problem of the explosives, we have to work out all the other details of the assignment, including a determination of the FBI’s freight-delivery schedules and procedures.  We have been given a ten-day deadline…. [Chapter IV, page 20]

Today I completed the detonating mechanism for the bomb we’ll use against the FBI building.  The trigger mechanism itself was quite easy, but I was held up on the booster until yesterday, because I didn’t know what sort of explosives we would be using.  The people in Unit 8 had planned to raid a supply shed in one of the areas where the Washington subway system is being extended, but they didn’t have any luck at all until yesterday—and then not much.  They were only able to steal two cases of blasting gelatin, and one case wasn’t even full.  Less than 100 pounds.  But that solved my problem, at least.  The blasting gelatin is sensitive enough to be initiated by one of my homemade lead azide detonators, and 100 pounds of it will be more than sufficient to detonate the main charge, when and if Unit 8 finds more explosives, regardless of what they are or how they are packaged.

I packed about four pounds of the blasting gelatin into an empty applesauce can, primed it, placed the batteries and timing mechanism in the top of the can, and wired them to a small toggle switch on the end of a 20-foot extension cord.  When we load the truck with explosives, the can will go in back, on top of the two cases of blasting gelatin.  We’ll have to poke small holes in the walls of the trailer and the cab to run the extension cord and the switch into the cab…. [Chapter V, page 22]

They found no explosives, as such, but did find some ammonium nitrate, which they cleaned out: forty-four 100-lb. bags of the stuff.  Sensitized with oil and tightly confined, it makes an effective blasting agent, where the aim is simply to move a quantity of dirt or rock.  But our original plan for the bomb called for it to be essentially unconfined and to be able to punch through two levels of reinforced concrete flooring while producing an open-air blast wave powerful enough to blow the facade off a massive and strongly constructed building.

Finally, two days ago, Unit 8 set about doing what it should have done at the beginning…. [page 23]

Several hundred people will be killed, but the machine will probably keep running. [page 24]” [16]

This excerpt illustrates the forethought and planning that McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, used in the development of their tactics grounded in the employment of fear through violence to catalyze change (in their case, the establishment of a pro-gun, white-dominated America) without regard for their victims.  These tactics also indicate potential linkages with the thought of William Pierce, the ideas of the National Alliance,[17] and the proclivities of The Order.  Perhaps, McVeigh saw himself as an instrument in the continuance of the American Nazi revolution.  Such tactics are implicit in terrorism.

The strategy behind these tactics developed over a period of years.  McVeigh was an Army Gulf War veteran and Bronze Star recipient who became disenchanted with the military when he failed to pass the physical for acceptance into Special Forces’ training.  McVeigh chose to blame his failure on military affirmative action practices, and his belief spiraled downward into a conviction that the government was conspiratorial, anti-gun, and anti-white.

After leaving the Army and working in security jobs in Upstate New York, McVeigh reunited with his former Army associates, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier.[18]  The three seemingly fed off of each other’s anti-government sentiments and rhetoric.

McVeigh’s anti-government ideas reached a peak during the standoff in February 1993 between federal agents and the Branch Davidian religious group headed by David Koresh in Waco, Texas.  McVeigh drove to Waco to observe firsthand when ATF agents barricaded the Branch Davidian compound, wherein eventually many lives were lost or ruined.[19]  McVeigh believed that the rights of Branch Davidians to bear arms had been violated by an illegal government assault, and this incensed him.[20]

During the pre-sentencing phase of McVeigh’s the Oklahoma City bombing trial, the observations of Michelle Rauch, a student reporter who interviewed McVeigh at Waco, confirmed his growing beliefs about a government conspiracy and presaged his developing belief in a strategy that would involve (pro-gun, white) citizens arming themselves against a tyrannical government.  Excerpts from this testimony follow:

“Q.  And if you will, tell us what those bumper stickers [on Timothy McVeigh’s vehicle] say.


One of them I recall — I can’t see them clearly in this picture — but Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun, Politicians Love Gun Control. And then the other one I can’t see quite clearly here, but Ban Guns.  I can’t quite make out —


Can I help you? Does it say, Make the Streets Safe for a Government Takeover? …


And does the one on the far left say, A Man With a Gun is a Citizen, A Man Without a Gun is a Subject? …


Okay. The first quote [of Timothy McVeigh]:  ‘I think if the sheriff served the warrant, it would all be okay.’


All right.


Second quote: ‘They’re not tactical at all.  They’re government employees.’  This was in reference to the ATF.  Next one:  ‘It seems like the ATF just wants a chance to play with their toys, paid for by government money.’  The next direct quote:  ‘The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times.  Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people.  You give them an inch and they take a mile.  I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government.’  He said, ‘The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.’  That’s it.”[21]

The “need to prepare to defend … against government control” provided the core idea behind McVeigh’s developing strategy of violent acts to catalyze governmental change.  As such, this strategy supports the notion that McVeigh’s and his associates’ actions had moved beyond the criminal and into the realm of terror.
English: Aerial view of Alfred P. Murrah Feder...

English: Aerial view of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after bombing, 1995 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Immediate public reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing helped shape the wording of the indictment and the nature of counter-terrorism legislation that arose as a result of this act.  The eleven count indictment that included conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction by explosives, and first degree murder of federal law enforcement agents was constructed to afford the maximum penalty, death.  The ensuing legislation, primarily the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, was intended to help assure the execution of penalties for terrorist acts and the restitution of victims of terrorism.  These actions helped alter the functional definition of terrorism in the United States; hereafter, a purely domestic act[22] could be considered terrorism.

Criminal Act or Terrorism?

Timothy McVeigh might be portrayed a paranoid, psychotic loser who teamed with other similar persons to carry out a succession of increasingly severe criminal acts that culminated in a multiple homicide.  However, a close examination of the actions culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing supports the notion that this was an act of terrorism.  McVeigh and his comrades used tactics and strategies primarily grounded in the employment of fear and violence to send their message that the government was wrong at Waco and that there were some “real Americans” willing to do something about it, regardless of who it hurt.  This was an act of terrorism.

Oklahoma City bombing—Timeline of Terror[23]

September 22, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh rented a storage unit under the name of “Shawn Rivers” in Herington, Kansas.

September 30, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols purchased 40 fifty-pound bags of ammonium nitrate in McPherson, Kansas under the name of “Mike Havens.”

September 31, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh attempted to obtain a detonation cord and racing fuel.

October 1, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols stole explosives from a storage locker in Marion, Kansas.

October 3, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols transported the stolen explosives to Kingman, Arizona.

October 4, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh rented a storage locker in Kingman, Arizona for their explosives.

October 18, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols purchased another 40 fifty-pound bags of ammonium nitrate in McPherson, Kansas under the name of “Mike Havens.”

October 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols planned a robbery of a firearms’ dealer in Arkansas as a means to obtain financing for their planned act of violence.

November 5, 1994.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols stole firearms, ammunition, coins, money, precious metals and other property from a firearms’ dealer in Arkansas.

November 7, 1994.  Terry Nichols rented storage unit number 37 in Council Grove, Kansas under the name of “Ted Parker” to conceal the Arkansas robbery property.

November 16, 1994.  Terry Nichols rented a storage unit in Las Vegas, Nevada and stored a ski mask, among other things.

November 21, 1994.  Prior to departing for the Philippines, Terry Nichols prepared a letter to Timothy McVeigh, to be delivered only in the event of his  death, in which he advised Timothy McVeigh, among other matters, that storage unit number 37 in Kansas had been rented in the name “Parker” and instructed Timothy McVeigh to clear out the contents or extend the lease on No. 37 by February 1, 1995.

December 16, 1994.  While driving to Kansas to take possession of firearms stolen in the Arkansas robbery, Timothy McVeigh drove with Michael Fortier to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and identified the building as the target.

Early 1995.  Following Terry Nichols’ return from the Philippines, goods from the Arkansas robbery were sold, and Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier obtained money from their sale.

February 9, 1995.  Terry Nichols paid for the renewal of storage unit number 40 at Council Grove, Kansas under the name of “Joe Kyle.”

March, 1995.  Timothy McVeigh forged a driver’s license in the name of “Robert Kling” with a date of birth of April 19, 1972.

April 14, 1995.  Timothy McVeigh purchased a 1977 Mercury Marquis in Junction City, Kansas, called a business in Junction City using the name “Bob Kling” to inquire about renting a truck capable of carrying 5,000 pounds of cargo,  and placed a deposit for a rental truck in the name “Robert Kling.”

April 17, 1995. Timothy McVeigh took possession of the 20-foot Ryder rental truck in Junction City, Kansas.

April 18, 1995.  At Geary Lake State Park in Kansas, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols constructed a truck bomb using barrels filled with a mixture of ammonium nitrate, fuel and other explosives placed in the cargo compartment of the rental truck.

April 19, 1995.  At 9:02 a.m., a bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Timothy McVeigh was arrested 90 minutes later on a firearms charge after a routine traffic stop near Billings, Oklahoma.

April 21, 1995.  Federal authorities arrest McVeigh, a suspect who resembles the police sketch of “John Doe Number 1,” in connection with the bombing hours before he was expected to make bail in Perry.  Terry Nichols surrenders in Herington, Kansas, after learning police are looking for him.  Terry and James Nichols are held on material witness warrants.

May 10, 1995.  Terry Nichols is charged in the bombing.

May 23, 1995.  The Murrah building’s remains are demolished.  James Nichols is released; charges against him are later dropped.

April 22, 1997.   The jury is seated in the trial, United States of America v. Timothy James McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols.

June 2, 1997.  After over four days of deliberations, the jury convicts Timothy McVeigh on all counts.

June 13, 1997.  Jury condemns McVeigh to die by injection.

November 7, 1997.  Prosecutors try to tie Nichols to the purchase of two tons of ammonium nitrate.

November 13, 1997.  Key prosecution witness Michael J. Fortier says McVeigh once asked him to join McVeigh and Nichols to take “positive affirmative action” against the government.

December 24, 1997.  Nichols is found guilty on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter.

December 30, 1997.  Prosecutors seek the death penalty for Nichols.

January 7, 1998.  Nichols is spared the death penalty.

May 27, 1998.  Michael Fortier is sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $200,000 for failing to warn authorities about bombing plans.

June 4, 1998.  Calling him “an enemy of the Constitution,” a federal judge sentences Terry Nichols to life in prison.

June 11, 2001.  Timothy McVeigh is executed.

[1]  McVeigh was tried and executed on eleven federal counts, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.  The evidence against McVeigh was overwhelming, in particular, the axle of the Ryder rental truck found at the bombing scene was traced to the Ryder truck agency in Junction City, Kansas wherein the truck had been rented to a “Robert Kling.”  Robert Kling was identified by Michael and Jan Fortier as the name on a forged driver’s license constructed by McVeigh, and McVeigh was also recognized by the truck rental agency employee.

[2]  Ammonium nitrate is a common agricultural fertilizer.

[3]  Nitromethane is a volatile motor fuel, often used as a racing fuel.

[4]  From http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org/hist.htm .

[5] Tactic is word used to describe the premeditation and planning involved in single acts of terror.

[6] Strategy is a word that describes the long-term planning and forethought associated with the aim of an entire campaign of terror.

[7]  “Employment of fear” is as phrase that refers to this unique device implicit in the tactics and strategy of terrorism (i.e., all terrorist acts are meant to elicit fear among their victims.)

[8]  Asymmetric is an adjective that refers to decisionmaking under conditions of uncertainty when combatants are of unequal strength of force or skill.

[9] Violence can be physical or psychological.

[10]  “Catalyze change” is a phrase that refers to the function of terrorism (and the factor that, in many cases, distinguishes it from mere criminality.)

[11]  “Intended audience” is a phrase that refers to the object of the intended change (the intended audience can be the victims, the terrorists, prospective terrorists, or another group.)

[12] Victims are the direct recipients of terror.

[13]  See, for examples, National Security Decision Directive (NSSD) 30, Managing Terrorist Incidents, issued April, 1992, 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism (Public Law 98-533), Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 (Public Law 99-399), Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Amendments Act of 1989 (Public Law 101-222), Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 (Public Law 101-298), and Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990 (Public law 101-604).

[14]  Some FBI efforts against domestic terrorist groups and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center are notable exceptions, but sustained public policy changes as a result of these activities were relatively scarce.

[15]  From the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

[16]  McDonald, Andrew (pseudonym for William Pierce).  The Turner Diaries : A Novel (2nd edition).  Barricade Books, 1996.  The Turner Diaries may have also been the inspiration for the racist, extremist group, “The Order,” which committed murders, robberies, counterfeiting, and hate crimes during the 1980s.  Robert Jay Mathews, the leader of The Order (Mathews was killed at the Whidbey Island shootout with the FBI in 1984), told an acquaintance that their robberies were the beginning of the American Nazi revolution [as described in The Turner Diaries].  William Pierce, who died in 2002, was the founder of the National Alliance, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the United States.  Pierce promoted a vision of a Whites-only homeland and a government free of “non-Aryan” influence.  See also www.splcenter.org for further information.

[17]  Indeed, Timothy McVeigh telephoned the National Alliance recorded message line seven times on the day before the bombing, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

[18]  McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier first met at Ft. Benning, Georgia, when all three were serving in the Army.

[19]  The date of the Oklahoma City bombing is three years after the date of the assault on the Branch Davidian compound by ATF agents.  McVeigh apparently thought that the Murrah building was the headquarters of the ATF unit that performed the assault at Waco.  (Coincidentally, April 19 is the day before Adolf Hitler’s birthday.)

[20]  McVeigh’s increasing anti-government sentiments were probably also influenced earlier by the Whidbey Island shootout in 1984 and the Randy Weaver shootings in Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992.

[21] Reporter’s Transcript (Trial to Jury – Volume 143) Proceedings before the Honorable Richard P. Matsch, Judge, United States District Court for the District of Colorado, commencing at 1:31 p.m., on the 10th day of June, 1997, in Courtroom C-204, United States Courthouse, Denver, Colorado.  The questions are posed by Robert Nigh, Jr, an attorney for the defense to Michelle Rauch, a TV reporter who at the time was a student reporter for the Southern Methodist University newspaper that interviewed Timothy McVeigh in Waco, Texas, near the Branch Davidian compound in spring 1993.

[22]  Although McVeigh, Nichols, and Fortier are generally believed to have primary involvement and sole responsibility for the Oklahoma bombing, McVeigh’s defense attorneys attempted to link the bombing with an attempt by British neo-Nazis to avenge the execution of Richard Wayne Snell, an American neo-Nazi and member of The Order, on April 19, 1995 (the same day as the bombing).  April 19th is also the date of the Nazi raid of the Warsaw Ghetto and the date of the FBI raid of the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA) group.

[23]  Sources: indictment and trial transcripts , United States of America v. Timothy James McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols, and http://www.courttv.com/archive/casefiles/oklahoma/links.html?sect=22 <Accessed October 19, 2004>.

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