The FBI domestic terrorism unit is investigating the possible role of illegal militia groups in the anthrax outbreaks in Florida and New York.

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people when he blew up a federal building in 1995, belonged to a militia, the National Alliance.

Other groups have threatened to use biological weapons, including anthrax, botulism, and ricin, in their struggle against what they see as the global conspiracy of the ?New World Order.?

After the FBI destruction of the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas and the Ruby Ridge stand-off, where an FBI sniper killed an unarmed woman in a mountain cabin, the militias have turned to the threat of biological weapons. In January 1999, police and security forces responded to 30 anthrax hoaxes in southern California alone. Before September 11, there were thousands of false alarms across the country. Many threats were aimed at government buildings, including deliveries of envelopes containing suspicious white powder. Others targeted schools, hospitals or newspapers and were often sent by disgruntled former employees.

In 1992, two members of the Minnesota Patriots? Council were arrested carrying vials of ricin, an extremely dangerous toxin. They intended to use the substance to kill police officers over a local feud. Larry Wayne Harris of the Aryan Nations managed to buy samples of bubonic plague over the internet. Fortunately, the plague bacteria were inert.

Three members of the Republic of Texas bought what they thought was anthrax in 1998. It turned out to be anthrax serum, the liquid used to inoculate people against the infection. The FBI estimates that the number of militia members may be as high as 40,000, with the larger groups in backwoods areas of Idaho, Texas, Montana and West Virginia. They wear army surplus camouflage uniforms and train with assault rifles and explosives against the day when they might have to defend themselves against direct interference from federal authorities.

Most of the militias? philosophy is based on white-supremacist principles, looking down on blacks as ?mud people? and Jews as manipulators of the world economy for their own benefit.

They have developed a sophisticated communications network using e-mail and shortwave radio.

Britain?s MI6 has advised the FBI to carry out blood tests of any militia members who come into U.S. custody regarding the recent anthrax attacks to find out if they have come into contact with biological terrorist materials.

The advice comes from MI6?s experience in 1993 with Kanatjan Alibekov, the former head of the Soviet biological weapons research program who defected to Britain. When Alibekov first approached them, his story was doubted. His claims to have worked on a variety of biological weapons were eventually verified by checking his blood for antibodies.

Alibekov, who now lives in the U.S. under the name Ken Alibek and researches cures for life-threatening diseases, was found to be carrying antigens to all the agents he claimed to have used. Exposure to even a small quantity of an agent such as anthrax would still leave antibodies in the blood. An FBI source says, ?We can never rule out al Qaeda?s possible role in the current deliberate spread of anthrax?But our own militias may also have a hand in some or all of the incidents. Copycats and hoaxers could also be having a field day. The problem is, we just can?t afford to drop our guard.?

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