On Christmas morning, an explosion rocked the posh, tourist-friendly area of Nashville known as Music City. Thankfully, police had arrived at the scene of the blast shortly before the bomb detonated, allowing for the heroic police officers to evacuate the surrounding buildings. Still, much damage was done to the area and fear is running rampant.
This was the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
Now, authorities are rushing to determine who perpetrated this act of terror—and why—as well as if there is another attack coming. It is unlikely that the Nashville attack was perpetrated by a jihadist, primarily because the attack does not match known patterns of jihadist terrorism. For example, when police arrived at the scene of the explosion, they spotted a suspicious recreational vehicle that was broadcasting a strange message for residents to evacuate the area.
Historically, nationalist groups, such as the Irish Republican Army as well as the Basque Separatists, used to engage in such behavior. They did this usually because their targets were buildings. Or their attacks were merely meant to be a warning to the authorities that their organizations could terrorize society in more egregious ways, unless their demands were met.
Nashville is a Liberal city in a conservative state. Its mayor is a Democrat. In today’s toxic political climate, where both Right-wing and Left-wing extremists routinely engage in public acts of violence, this could make Nashville a tempting target for Right-wing extremists.
Plus, the fact that the RV was parked in front of an AT&T distribution center should not go unnoticed. For years, Right-wing, anti-government rhetoric has fixated on government surveillance programs in which, they believe, AT&T is a willing participant. As outgoing President Donald Trump insists the 2020 election was rigged, with many of his supporters on the hard Right-wing peddling baseless conspiracy theories about electronic voting companies working with foreign governments to steal the election, it’s conceivable that some fringe Right-wing terrorist was triggered into targeting the AT&T facility in Nashville.
There is one group that law enforcement should first investigate and that is the Sovereign Citizen movement. This is a group that has plagued law enforcement for years. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was in cahoots with a man named Terry Nichols, who described himself as a “sovereign citizen” and was affiliated with this network of anti-government extremists.
The FBI describes the Sovereign Citizen movement as, “anti-government extremists who claim the federal government is operating outside its jurisdiction and they are therefore not bound by government authority—including the courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, and even law enforcement.”
Usually, members of the Sovereign Citizen movement express their anti-government ethos through non-violent means (notably they refuse to pay taxes). Though protesting taxation can merely be a gateway into escalating forms of criminality. And ever since the Clive Bundy ranch standoff with federal authorities, anti-government extremist groups, such as the Sovereign Citizen movement, have enjoyed an increase in membership. As these groups grow in size and stature, and as political instability in the United States increases—as it has over the last several years—fringe groups enter into the mainstream with increasing alarm.
Sovereign Citizens have previously targeted police officers as symbols of government power. In 2010, a father-and-son Sovereign Citizen team murdered two police officers at a traffic stop in Arkansas. Meanwhile, a Miami-based member of the group was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to 485 years in prison for repeatedly sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl. In 2016, a group of Sovereign Citizens ambushed and murdered police officers in Baton Rouge, LA. Each act of criminality was justified by the perpetrators as being part of their belief system: they claimed they were not bound by the laws of the United States and struck out against those who attempted to impose U.S. law upon them.
Law enforcement officials believe that anywhere from 300,000-500,000 Americans are part of the national Sovereign Citizen movement. In fact, a 2014 national law enforcement survey found that 145 law enforcement agencies ranked the Sovereign Citizen movement as being the most significant threat to their communities—ahead of even Islamic terrorism. The movement is so widespread and diffuse that law enforcement cannot keep reliable tabs on them. So, there’s little actionable intelligence on this anti-government extremist group available to law enforcement today.
As for Nashville’s prevalence in this story. Consider this: in 2018, the city of Antioch—a short, 17-minute drive away from Nashville—endured a horrific Sovereign Citizen terrorist attack at their local Waffle House. Four people were killed by Travis Reinking, who was a proud member of the Sovereign Citizen movement. When local police raided his home after the shooting, they found Sovereign Citizen paraphernalia and a large cache of weapons.
On December 26, 2020, federal authorities announced that they were investigating a person of interest in the Nashville bombing, a 63 year-old man from Antioch named Anthony Quinn Warner.
The fact that the police were called an hour before the Nashville blast occurred has prompted some experts to theorize that the police themselves could have been the target of the attack. As noted above, violence toward police is a key feature of Sovereign Citizen attacks. And Nashville’s proximity toward areas where Sovereign Citizens are active, such as Antioch, should be instructive for where law enforcement must first focus their investigation into the culprits behind the Nashville attack.
Between the president’s conspiratorial rhetoric about the outcome of the election and loose talk of a pending civil war emanating from the Far Right, investigators must be prepared to deal with an escalating wave of Right-wing domestic terrorism—especially the closer we get toward the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) and can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.