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With Michigan criminal charges, flagging anti-Semitism is under FBI microscope

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The chaos in Michigan is forcing renewed debate over whether state and local officials need federal help in thwarting domestic terrorism.

Law enforcement officials are investigating whether at least one white supremacist group is tied to the woman arrested in Michigan for allegedly plotting to bomb a series of natural gas pipelines.

The suspect, whom officials identified as Lena Groeger, 25, was being held on a $1 million bond. Michigan state officials are also investigating whether two men suspected of radicalizing Groeger participated in pipe bombings in April and May in a park and a cemetery in nearby Redford Township.

The attackers caused no casualties.

Michigan police said they believe the men, who also face charges, attended a militia meeting in Coshocton, Ohio, during the spring.

A third suspect in the case, Brent Taylor, 30, was previously linked to potential domestic terror plots to have a person or group target him over public investments in the Detroit River bridges, according to court documents.

“As these incidents have demonstrated, even a small piece of infrastructure being destroyed by a bombing, near or in its vicinity, can inflict serious harm on the local economy and burden law enforcement resources for many years to come,” said Detroit FBI Special Agent Steve Martin, head of the Detroit field office.

David Rudovsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the focus of the federal investigation in Michigan was a healthy and welcome countermeasure to domestic extremists, who until recently have carried out scattered shootings in the United States.

“The problem is not resources, the problem is motivation,” said Mr. Rudovsky, who argues that activists want to overturn the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that overturned a 1960s-era law criminalizing arson. “They don’t see the destruction of a pipeline as a threat to their way of life.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Rudovsky said state leaders should be more insistent on prodding the federal government to properly examine the nature of domestic extremism — which he has described as emerging groups “that hail from the private consciousness of the American population and seek to apply armed violence and aggressive harassment to try to advance the interests of their sponsors.”

“We have a shortage of psychological understanding of this,” Mr. Rudovsky said. “It’s not a lack of the capacity of law enforcement; it’s a lack of the ability to understand the individual motivations of these people.”

Mr. Rudovsky said the FBI had identified a number of domestic extremist groups, not all of which were domestic extremists. One group, he said, wanted to overthrow the government and enforce a fascist regime across the country.

“If they succeed, everybody will be toast,” Mr. Rudovsky said of domestic terrorists. “It’s a very low-percentage risk, but the absolutely worst outcomes have resulted from the failure to integrate this behavior.”

Lee Smith, who was a member of the intelligence staff in the Obama administration, said the challenges facing the Trump administration in containing domestic terrorism was a matter of the American political discourse.

“I think that some of these small groupings are trying to basically make a statement about what they see as an increasingly anti-religion, anti-government view that’s been expressed on the presidential campaign trail,” Mr. Smith said. “It seems to be the most effective tool that they’ve got in terms of achieving that agenda.”

Mr. Smith said there was evidence that right-wing extremists had been emboldened by President Trump’s recent remarks about immigration.

“Because it’s basically going for demagoguery of a particular kind, a discourse that they can’t really plausibly articulate, that’s really what they’re doing,” Mr. Smith said. “In essence, a lot of what they’re saying is that the government’s into the importing of people and this represents an assault on the white working class. And it is really the kind of demagoguery that I think people have been waiting for.”

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