Opinion | 'Militia' or 'terrorists'? The terms aren't mutually exclusive

Peter Trumbore

Peter F. Trumbore is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Oakland University

Let’s cut to the chase. The group of 13 men arrested last week on federal and state charges of plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are members of, or affiliated with, armed militias. 

Prosecutors say they were planning acts of terrorism.

So what do we call them, militia members or terrorists? The initial reporting accurately characterized them as militia members. The internet was quick to pounce:

Gov. Whitmer added her own voice to the debate.

News outlets were soon to follow.

But there’s a problem with this simplistic trading of one term for another. The two — militia and terrorist — are not mutually exclusive. When both terms apply we have to use both terms. J.J. MacNab, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism explains why: “Militia” is just a useful indicator of what flavor the terrorist group is."

The militia movement in the United States is a particular slice of the antigovernment far right, a wide-ranging category of groups both armed and unarmed. In emulation of legitimate military forces, militias, even small ones, tend to be organized hierarchically, with command roles and task specialization. They equip themselves with easily acquired military-style weapons and tactical equipment. They recruit. They train in marksmanship, small-unit combat tactics, reconnaissance, operational security, field medicine, and so on.

Amy Cooter, a militia expert at Vanderbilt University, says militia groups tend to fall into two broad categories: "Traditionally, researchers have categorized militias as one of two general types: “constitutionalists,” who are largely law-abiding and make up the majority of the movement, and “millenarians,” who are more prone to conspiracy theories and violent action," Cooter writes.

More recently, internal divisions have occurred in both these groups around whether they support police, or whether they call for a widespread uprising against government tyranny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies nine such armed antigovernment militias active in Michigan as of last year, and fully 181 nationwide. The group plotting the attack on Whitmer, calling themselves Wolverine Watchmen, doesn’t appear on the SPLC’s list, however, according to media reports, the alleged ringleader of the plot, Adam Fox, had been expelled from another, more established militia, the Michigan Home Guard. Apparently they found him too extreme for their own tastes.

The Wolverine Watchmen, Cooter suggests, are likely to be a recent splinter from a larger and more well-established group, the Michigan Liberty Militia, which took a prominent role in the armed antilockdown protests at the Michigan State Capitol in the spring and early summer.

So what flavor of terrorists are these guys? Their affiliation with the militia movement tells us that they are likely motivated by belief in a variety of antigovernment conspiracy theories and fears of state oppression, especially around gun and property rights. They see themselves as a bulwark protecting their fellow citizens from the heavy hand of state repression or tyranny. Some organize with the expectation that they will have to confront impending government violence. Others believe they are preparing for a looming revolution and renewed civil war.

If you accept the evidence presented by the FBI and Michigan State Police, the Whitmer plotters were the latter kind of militia, with a twist. They appear to believe that they could, by going on the offensive, bring about the war they’ve long expected. And here is where they cross the line into terrorism.

According to the FBI affidavit supporting charges against Fox and five others, in a phone conversation recorded in July by a confidential informant, Fox, according to the FBI, discussed the need for government to collapse because in his eyes it has become so tyrannical:

"In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fu--n’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fu--n’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all dude."

A month later, while members of the group were engaging in a reconnaissance operation to scout out the location of the planned kidnapping, an informant captured another conversation on audio. Here Fox makes the promise of violence against not just Whitmer, but other agents of the state, like police, explicit:

We ain’t gonna let ’em burn our f---n’ state down. I don’t give a f-ck if there’s only 20 or 30 of us, dude, we’ll go out there and use deadly force.

And Fox, in talking to his comrades, clearly hopes that their efforts will inspire other militia groups around the country to follow their lead:

"I can see several states takin’ their f--n’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants."

The group had also come to the realization that further participation in nonviolent politics would be both pointless, and could also endanger their planned attack. In an encrypted group chat, Fox asks the group what they thought of an invitation from another militia group to participate in an armed protest at the State Capitol in Lansing.

"[Ty] GARBIN replied, “I would highly advise minimizing any communication with him. Also there needs to be zero and I mean zero public interaction if we want to continue with our plans.” [Brandon] CASERTA replied, “When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence. The fear will be manifested with bullets.”

So where are we? The 13 men arrested and charged last week are part of the antigovernment militia movement who, according to the FBI and the Michigan State Police, plotted a series of terrorist attacks against elected officials and law enforcement officers intended to trigger an armed rebellion against the United States. In this they are a throwback to an earlier Michigan militia group, the Hutaree, who in 2010 plotted to kill police officers in order to touch off a larger war with and uprising against the U.S. government.

I’ve written at some length about the definition of terrorism. To summarize, terrorism is the deliberate, politically, socially, or religiously motivated use or threat of violence, usually intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate target through the creation and exploitation of fear.

Like the Hutaree before them, the Wolverine Watchmen tick all the boxes. Their plans were deliberate and premeditated. They were motivated by a political objective. They intended to carry out acts of violence in pursuit of their goals. They hoped to inspire others to carry out further attacks. They hoped to strike fear.

That makes them terrorists. And militia. Both labels are accurate, and used together paint a more accurate picture of who they are and what they hoped to accomplish than using either label alone.

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middle of the mit
Tue, 10/13/2020 - 6:07pm

While I agree with what you say, I have a caveat.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.[1]

None of these entities could ever be considered Well Regulated. They are group of people who think their definition of the constitution is sacrosanct. And they only regulate themselves without input from the leaders or citizens of the State that they say they are guarding ..............with NO right to do so. Otherwise? WE could all be vigilantes.

Now don't get me wrong. I like superhero movies. They are considered vigilantes. Those movies are now being blamed for this movement.....yet did anyone ever blame Gunsmoke for things of this nature? But they are blaming video games and movies now. But I am a fan.
Why am I not out there doing these things? It's your mindset. Superhero movies are all about the human race dealing with a foreign invader (aliens that are hostile) or getting rid of bad guys. But when you project people like me as being the bad guy, because we care about you getting sick and or spreading a seriously viral disease? I am not the bad guy, and I am not the one that is going to infect your relatives with my relative apathy to a virus.

These people, even those that aren't part of this militia, but are a member of a militia? They aren't a member of a militia. They are a member of an unsanctioned, unauthorized para military force, that seems willing to extract extra judicial law enforcement that succumbs to THEIR IDEALs.

What about the rest of us? Do we get to matter?

If they don't like it here? LEAVE!

Go to Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Arkansas, are getting what I am getting at?

Go the bastions of the FREE Market that give you your freedumbs and the ability to work in the most profitable States in the nation!

Wed, 10/14/2020 - 9:46am

As usual the facts as presented are false,,this group of idiots were a Face Book Group, NOT a militia group. This false info is the same as the Colorado, "Security, Pinkerton" killer who in reality is very pro anti-fa, BLM, and a Trump hater, that was not licensed to be a security guard or carry the gun that he committed murder with,,but you won't learn that from most of the MSM!

The Citizen's have every right to have a Militia, and to regulate it as THEY see fit,,and long as they break no laws. :)

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 9:17pm

I get the strong sense that if the political beliefs of those in conflict were reversed, you would be claiming that the shooter did a great job of protecting himself, and this is exactly what 2A concealed carry is for. (See James Alex Fields and Rittenhouse for close likely historical precedent).

In the shooting you reference, the shooter was struck in the face by the assailant. The shooter backed up and drew his gun. By the time he had his firearm on target the next thing that occurred was shooting: of both pepper spray (from the attacker) and the pistol (from the shooter). Justified use of deadly force? Probably not. Can I understand all the messy human factors that went into that and made it happen? Yes. Very much so.

Irresponsible firearm ownership, and use, is of epic proportions for our population size in the US.

Mon, 10/19/2020 - 5:09pm

The militia of the United States, as defined by the U.S. Congress, has changed over time. During colonial America, all able-bodied men of a certain age range were members of the militia, depending on the respective state's rule. Individual towns formed local independent militias for their own defense.

This is where we got conscription and the draft from. Today, our militias are known as the National Guard and the Coast guard.

Anything more than that, it is a group of thugs who don quasi-para military gear in hopes of reliving Red Dawn. That is the movie they are watching on a loop.

And where do citizens have this Right that you say we have? And where is it spelled out that YOU get to regulate it?

Do you want to see how the founding Fathers dealt with this stuff?


In 1787, Shays' rebels marched on the federal Springfield Armory in an unsuccessful attempt to seize its weaponry and overthrow the government. The federal government found itself unable to finance troops to put down the rebellion, and it was consequently put down by the Massachusetts State militia and a privately funded local militia. The widely held view was that the Articles of Confederation needed to be reformed as the country's governing document, and the events of the rebellion served as a catalyst for the Constitutional Convention and the creation of the new government.[5]

Shays' Rebellion was an armed uprising in Western Massachusetts in response to a debt crisis among the citizenry and in opposition to the state government's increased efforts to collect taxes both on individuals and their trades; the fight took place mostly in and around Springfield during 1786 and 1787


The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest in the United States beginning in 1791 and ending in 1794 during the presidency of George Washington, ultimately under the command of American Revolutionary war veteran Major James McFarlane.

. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation

They squashed in short form. And in part gave up on the Articles of the Confederacy because of people who thought they "interpreted" things better. So, who do we go with?

The originalists, or those who were squashed because they mis interpreted the Founding documents, in real time and had the Founders come after them?!

You are the interpreter. I am just telling you history.

Karl Krumph
Wed, 10/14/2020 - 9:55am

Not Militia Group, they plotted to overthrow Michigan Government and to entice a war, they plotted terror and had no regard for the Republic.

John Chastain
Wed, 10/14/2020 - 10:24am

“When the time comes there will be no need to try and strike fear through presence." that is essentially the difference between the armed protesters in Lansing and the militia terrorists plotting to kidnap two Governors and attack police officers. One group seeks intimidation and dominance by "fear through presence", the others seek to do the same through direct action. Both the mainstream and the fringe are "terrorists" and seek to use the tools of terrorism to affect change. That the more "mainstream" groups aligned with the Republican Party use passive aggressive techniques like armed "presence" to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear instead of planning outright insurrection and sedition doesn't make them any less terrorist then their more extreme counterparts. It is often pointed out that the difference between the IRA and Sinn Fein is a matter of who plays what role. Here in Michigan the militia's play the IRA role of aggression, violence and the threat of violence and the Republican party is our version of Sinn Fein. (with apologies to the people of Northern Ireland but I needed a simplistic example a conservative denialist could understand).

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 8:51pm

Pretty good analogy. I would say though that the Republicans have yet to overtly coordinate with these current right wing extremist groups. We've seen some indication of local law enforcement doing that, but no overt Boogaloo believer is a member of congress. There are quite a few QAnon believers running on GOP tickets, so unfortunately, I think this is likely just a matter of time.

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 3:20am

I strongly disagree. While true the terms are not mutually exclusive, and military units can be correctly classified as and act as terrorist groups, we actually do not have any true militias in the US anymore. We have a 'militia movement', and we have paramilitary groups that want to be considered militia, but they legally are not. By definition a true militia has state backing to operate as an irregular force in the aim of national defense. Giving these groups the title of militia lends a sense of credibility to them that they do not have. We should be more precise and consciously remove associations of legitimacy from these extremist movements. They do not serve our country in any national defense capacity and shouldn't be given the honor of association.