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.
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: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com