Early last year, a young neo-Nazi called his girlfriend from a jail cell in Phoenix. She was upset. She was confused. She wanted to know why FBI agents were in her living room saying they caught him making pipe bombs and stockpiling other explosives.
“Why were you guys making that stuff?” she asked. “Why did you have it in your truck?”
“Because,” he told her, “we wanted to make those things for the border.”By all accounts, Jeffery Harbin was a minor player in the white supremacist movement, a man living deep in the fringes of American extremism. But in the broader context of the immigration debate, he was hardly alone.
Arizona became a hotbed for a certain brand of extremist groups in the past decade as it took center stage in discussion about how to handle the nation’s broken immigration system. But while a report by the nation’s leading watchdog of the extremist movement shows the numbers of so-called “border watch” groups are dwindling, some that remain have shown a surprising penchant for violence. They are armed, angry and desperate to fight in what they see as a real-life war taking place in the nation’s borderlands.
In just the past few years alone, federal agents in Arizona have gone on a hunt for a man who claimed to have littered the desert with explosive devices. They have been told a Minuteman-style organization planned to shut down a major freeway. They have discovered a bomb planted along a known smuggling route. And more recently, a militia group has talked openly about buying a tank to combat what it calls “narco terrorism” flowing across the border.
In a way, authorities were lucky they stopped Harbin when they did. He was 150 miles north of the US-Mexico border when he was pulled over on Jan. 14, 2011, in a pickup truck near his hometown of Apache Junction, Ariz., a sleepy exurb on the far eastern edge of metropolitan Phoenix.
Harbin was an active member of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States, and was known to don the organization’s full dress uniform: black pants, black shirt, swastika armband and helmet emblazoned with the white letters SS to mimic the look of Hitler’s army.
More than six months before his arrest, members of the National Socialist Movement were spotted in plain clothes at a Tea Party rally in the Phoenix suburbs, passing out fliers that called for landmines to be placed along the US-Mexico border.
“We all should be actively advocating daily to mainstream America the most humane, non-racist, fair border security plan available,” the fliers said. “Namely, A MINEFIELD!”
The fliers carried the name of one of the group’s local leaders, JT Ready, a man who had recruited Harbin to the cause. Another member of the group later posted photos of the rally on Facebook. In one image, Ready, two other men, a women and two young girls can be seen holding the fliers, smiling and standing next to a news van for Univision, the Spanish language television network.
It’s unclear whether Harbin was at the rally that day. At the time, the fliers may have seemed like little more than tough talk by a group looking to shock the crowd. Groups like the National Socialist Movement have a long history of headline-making stunts. But the talk soon turned into action.
According to federal court records, the FBI got a tip in mid-November 2010 that Harbin was possibly making explosives.
A secret informant told the agents that Harbin’s girlfriend was concerned about his activities. Harbin apparently told her he had found a way to manufacture six gallons of explosive aluminum powder and had purchased a number of model rocket engines to use with it.
At the urging of federal agents, the informant began working to set Harbin up for arrest about six weeks later.
The informant invited Harbin to make flares to take on some sort of operation on the border. Soon, court records show, Harbin suggested he also put together some explosives using plastic pipes and black powder. The informant went along with it.
On Jan. 14, 2011, records show, Harbin packed some of his explosives into a pair of plastic tubs, placed them into his pickup truck and drove to the informant’s house.
What he didn’t know was that FBI agents were watching him the whole time. When he got to the house, he showed the informant an olive green homemade hand grenade, which he nicknamed his “little baby.” He also showed off a pipe bomb complete with end caps and a model rocket fusing system.
The FBI coordinated with local police to pull Harbin over for a traffic violation on his drive home later that day. In his truck, investigators found three homemade bombs. In a later search of his home, they found 12 more.
Harbin’s case is by far the best documented example of Arizona extremists trying to escalate things at the border. But authorities there have been dealing with similar cases for years.
Proof of that came last year in a series of documents that the hacker group LulzSec stole from law enforcement in Arizona and then posted on the internet.
News reports at the time focused largely on what the stolen documents said about the drug war in Mexico and how law enforcement in the United States was handling it. But the documents also revealed several incidents, which were previously undisclosed to the public, showing how extremist groups in were escalating their tactics in the Arizona borderlands.
One document, for example, showed that US Border Patrol agents ran into a heavily armed man on March 30, 2011, in the desert south of Tucson. The man, identified as Tim Foley, told them he was patrolling the border. He said he was getting $350,000 in funding from people he described as “concerned citizens” to recruit five other men to help him.
The document, which was marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive” from the Department of Homeland Security, said Foley bragged to the agents about having military experience as a sniper and ranger. He said his group planned to conduct “mercenary type operations” on both sides of the border.
Most concerning to the agents, according to the document, was what the man told them next. “Tim stated that he has Improvised Explosive Devices deployed in the desert near Sasabe (Ariz.),” the document said. The sentence was typed in bright red letters.
For reasons that still aren’t exactly clear, the agents let Foley go that day. But two days later, federal investigators launched an all-out manhunt for him.
The FBI was brought in along with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a local bomb squad and bomb-sniffing dogs. The search included plans to evacuate parts of the tiny border town of Sasabe if anything major went down. After hours of searching, however, they came up short. Foley had disappeared and his alleged bombs were nowhere to be found. He could not be located for comment on this story.
By then, the idea of explosives hidden in the desert was not altogether new to law enforcement in Arizona. Another document released by the hacker collective showed that on May 30, 2009, a US Border Patrol agent discovered a pipe bomb west of Tucson along a known smuggling route.
Investigators described the device as “moderately complex,” but said it was impossible to know who planted it or what their motive was. The incident was being investigated by the ATF and local authorities.
Beyond explosives, the groups have also demonstrated an ability to put law enforcement on high alert in other ways.
A third “Law Enforcement Sensitive” document released by the hackers showed that authorities were told on April 28, 2010 to be on the lookout for a “civilian Minuteman type group” that had talked about shutting down a major freeway in the central part of the state.
The group, which called itself “A Concerned Citizen,” believed Interstate 8 was being used by smugglers to transport cargo. The warning of a freeway shut down came just days after Gov. Jan Brewer signed her state’s harsh immigration measures.
“The request comes in support of Governor Jane (sic) Brewer’s signing of SB1070 into law,” according to the warning, “and at the opposition of the media’s coverage of the protests in Phoenix.”
The document noted that the group’s plans went far beyond those of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a border watch group that got widespread attention several years earlier for its operations along the border.
The MCDC, which has since been disbanded, camped out at the border and called federal agents whenever they saw immigrants illegally crossing. Despite doubts from its critics, the group’s leaders always insisted their role was to simply observe and report what they saw.
“If this new operation happens,” the document said, “there could be potential for human rights violations and a possibility of violence between armed civilians and smugglers or with law enforcement.”
Meanwhile, at least two of Harbin’s associates from the National Socialist Movement have founded a new group that intends to go well beyond anything the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps ever did.
Led by longtime white supremacists JT Ready and Harry Hughes, the US Border Guard routinely treks out in the desert south of Phoenix, heavily armed for what it describes as “operations” to stop “narco terrorists.” Its members often boast of confronting immigrants and detaining them until authorities can arrive.
But Ready, the same man whose name adorned the landmine fliers in 2010, hopes the group will someday do even more.
On the US Border Guard website, alongside photos of its members wearing camouflage and carrying large guns, he recently posted a call for supporters to help the group with donations through PayPal.
The group needed more supplies, he wrote, and weapons. Among them: a tank.
“Arizona Statues (sic) allow the fielding of most weapons short of nuclear weapons and certain chemical weapons,” he wrote on the website. “Therefore we are already in contact with brokers concerning a .50 cal semi-automatic rifle and a MBT- Main Battle Tank. Yes, you read this correctly. We have a goal to get a Main Battle Tank engaged against the Narco-Terrorists.”
Ready, who is also now running for sheriff of Pinal County, Ariz., describes himself these days as a humanitarian. As he takes a leading role in the new group, he has publicly disavowed the National Socialist Movement. However, he is still a frequent writer on the message boards of the white nationalist website Stormfront.org, where he is recognized as a “friend” of the website and a “sustaining member” — or donor. A search of the site shows he has posted there as recently as February.
Hughes, meanwhile, remains an avowed member of the National Socialist Movement and acts as its spokesman in Arizona. He occasionally posts updates from the field on the NSM’s main website.
As for Harbin, his attorney said in court documents earlier this year that the young man is done with the National Socialist Movement.
Harbin pleaded guilty late last year to two felonies in connection with the bombs. One was for possessing unregistered destructive devices and the other for transporting explosive material.
Harbin’s relatives did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. But in January, his attorney, Philip Seplow, argued that his client’s change of heart about the neo-Nazi movement should lead to a lighter sentence.
“Harbin now rejects the white supremacist dogma,” Seplow wrote. He said Harbin planned to get his racist tattoos removed when he left prison. “People make mistakes,” he wrote, and one of them was associating with the group.
He asked the judge to sentence his client to just two years in prison.
Federal prosecutors, however, argued that Harbin’s crimes were more than just a mistake. The bombs he built were not created for simple curiosity, assistant US attorney Josh Patrick Parecki wrote in his recommendation. They were built on behalf of a racist ideology that wanted to cause havoc in the desert.
“Indeed, committing this offense with some knowledge or intent that the IEDs could later be used along the border makes this offense gravely serious,” the prosecutor wrote.
He asked for Harbin to be put behind bars for four years and four months..
In the end, Judge Neil Wake sided with Harbin. He sentenced him in February to two years in prison, with more than a year of it already having been served.
Prison records show Harbin, 29, is scheduled to be released on Oct. 11 of this year. When he does, he is then scheduled to spend three years on probation.
In his sentencing, Wake ordered Harbin to stay away from the white supremacist movement for the length of his probation. He also barred him from owning anything that could be considered white supremacist paraphernalia, such as the neo-Nazi patches and flag found in his home during the federal search.
If he breaks those conditions, Harbin could end up back in prison.
Court records show Harbin appeared willing to leave it all behind when he made the jailhouse call to his girlfriend shortly after his arrest. It was the same call in which he admitted to making the bombs.
“I think you should just leave the border up to the border patrol,” his girlfriend told him.
“Yeah,” Harbin replied. “I was thinking that, too.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org