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30 Years Later: Waco and Extremism

Thirty years ago today, on April 19, 1993, 76 people died at the conclusion of a 51-day siege outside Waco, Texas. The dead, including 25 children, were members of the Branch Davidian sect, some of whom federal agencies were pursuing for firearms offenses. At the time of the siege, sect leader David Koresh was also accused of child abuse.

The deaths came after the FBI flooded the site with CS gas delivered with tanks and grenade launchers. Subsequent fires consumed the buildings. Apart from the victims of the fire, six members of the sect and four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were killed in an exchange of gunfire on Feb. 28, almost eight weeks before the climax of the siege.

Antigovernment movement leaders seized on the conduct of federal agencies throughout the siege as proof that the entire system was corrupt, and they used it to kickstart the militia movement. By providing part of the motivation for the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City, the siege began a process that culminated, ironically, in the expansion of federal agencies’ powers and avenues for prosecuting acts of “domestic terrorism.”

Waco siege
FBI and ATF agents sift through rubble on May 1, 1993, following the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mike German is a former FBI agent and senior fellow at the Brennan Center. By email, he told Hatewatch that “the Waco tragedy, which it is important to remember the FBI inherited after lives were already lost, exposed both the best and the worst of bureau operations.”

He added that “the best included the patient determination of FBI negotiators, who successfully brought 35 people, including 21 children, out of the compound.”

But German said the deaths “also revealed the deep-seated management problems at the FBI.”

Hatewatch contacted the FBI about the anniversary, but the agency declined to comment.

The Branch Davidians were a remnant of the Shepherd’s Rod movement of Davidian Adventists. The original Davidians broke away from the main body of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church in the 1930s to follow the teachings of Bulgarian immigrant Victor Houteff. Houteff had been excommunicated by SDA leaders after they deemed his writings heretical.

Houteff's movement peaked shortly before his death in 1955. By then, more than 100 adherents had moved with him to a tract of land outside Waco that Houteff called Mount Carmel Center.

Houteff's widow, Florence, took control of the original Davidians, prophesied that the world would end in 1959, sold the original Mount Carmel land and moved the group to another nearby tract. After her prophecy failed, she fled the community in disgrace, and another follower named Benjamin Roden became the group’s leader.

Upon Benjamin’s death in 1978, his son George Roden succeeded him as head of the group, but he proved to be an erratic leader. By 1987, Vernon Howell had wrested away leadership of the group with the aid of Benjamin Roden’s widow and George’s mother, Lois. Howell’s ascent happened just six years after he joined the Davidian community.

Howell later changed his name to David Koresh and began supplying his followers with apocalyptic prophecies of his own.

Between Koresh’s takeover and the beginning of the siege, survivors say, he adopted an enthralling preaching style, preached idiosyncratic but – to followers – persuasive interpretations of the Bible, and styled himself not just as a prophet but a Messiah, once telling a reporter, “If the Bible is true, I’m Christ.”

Koresh also proclaimed that every woman in the community belonged to him and had sex with as many of them as he wanted to, including the wives and underage daughters of his followers.

The Davidians began hoarding arms partly as a money-making scheme – they flipped firearms at gun shows – and partly in preparation for an expected period of “persecution” in the leadup to the apocalypse.

By 1992, the forces that would create the siege were in play. The ATF had begun investigating the group for weapons violations that June. The siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where two members of the Weaver family and a federal agent were killed, had heightened Koresh’s paranoia about the federal government. (That incident arose from the ATF’s pursuit of firearms charges against Randy Weaver.)

Reporters from as far away as Australia began taking an interest in the group, and some described it as a cult.

In February 1993, the ATF obtained a warrant on the suspicion that the group had converted semi-automatic weapons to fully-automatic operation.

On Feb. 27, the Waco Tribune-Herald published the first in a series of articles that detailed specific allegations of child abuse and statutory rape against Koresh. The ATF later told Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators that the publication – which they had worked to delay – had led them to move the raid planned for March 1 forward a day.

On Feb. 28, the ATF planned to surprise the Branch Davidians, wanting to execute their warrants without giving the sect time to arm and prepare. However, a reporter who had been tipped off about the raid asked a U.S. Postal Service worker for directions, without knowing that the man was David Koresh’s brother-in-law.

Thus forewarned, Koresh had his followers arm themselves and take up defensive positions around the compound.

ATF agents arrived in a convoy at 9:45 a.m. on Feb. 28, with Army National Guard helicopters flying overhead to distract the occupants of the compound.

The question of who fired the first shots in the confrontation is one of many disputed aspects of the day. In the exchange that followed, four agents and five Davidians were killed, and several others were wounded. Even Koresh was injured by bullets to the stomach and the hand.

Another member of the sect, Michael Schroeder, was killed separately six hours later, shot dead by ATF agents who claimed he fired on them as he attempted to re-enter the compound.

McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Larry Lynch helped broker a cease-fire between the ATF and the sect. The FBI then assumed command of the operation, and the months-long siege commenced.

In ensuing weeks, FBI negotiators persuaded Koresh to release 35 people from the compound. At times, the negotiators appeared to successfully convince Koresh to give the compound up. But the agency was internally divided between those who favored more negotiations, and those who wanted to use more aggressive tactics.

Negotiations were soon accompanied by psychological warfare tactics like blasting loud recordings and floodlights at the compound at all hours, and aggressive patrols of the perimeter of the compound. Eventually, agents cut off water and power supplies to the compound.

The efforts to intimidate and wear down the Davidians went on, although religious scholars warned such tactics might backfire in the face of the sect's apocalytpic worldview.

In a letter Koresh sent negotiators on April 14, he said he would remain inside until he had finished the prophetic manuscript he was working on. The missive made the hawks in the Bureau more determined to bring matters to a head.

In the wake of the letter, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue team recommended an assault on the compound to Attorney General Janet Reno, who then persuaded President Bill Clinton to agree to that plan.

On the morning of April 19th, agents used armored vehicles to insert tear gas into the compound, intending to force the Branch Davidians to evacuate. Agents claimed shots were fired within the compound, which allowed them to respond by launching ferret rounds containing tear gas into the complex. Later that morning, agents drove armored vehicles into building entrances in order to force gas further into the building.

Federal agencies claimed that the Davidians lit the fires that either killed or contributed to the deaths of so many adherents. Some survivors claim government munitions started the fires. In 1999, a U.S. Senate investigation concluded that the FBI had mishandled the situation but did not intentionally cause the fire.

The events also inspired a wave of anti-government sentiment and helped justify the growth of the militia movement. The SPLC’s own counts showed that while before the siege there were only a few dozen scattered militia groups, by 1995 the number had increased to 441.

While the 1990s militia movement had waned by the end of the decade, Waco remains a touchstone for antigovernment propagandists. Conspiracy theories about the siege helped launch the career of media performer and propagandist Alex Jones, who described the event as a “Holocaust.” Donald Trump’s campaign last month denied critics allegations that his choice of Waco as a venue for a defiant rally was a reference to the siege.

The siege was a specific grievance cited by Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people. McVeigh visited the site of the siege twice and was nearby on the final day, and his accomplice in the bombing, Terry Nichols, said that he had expressed anger about the ATF raising its flag on the site at the conclusion of the siege.

In response to that bombing, the Clinton administration initiated a number of domestic terrorism sentence enhancements and gave agencies new powers of investigation and surveillance. These laws were employed extensively throughout the so-called “Green Scare,” when the government pursued radical environmental and animal rights activists over acts of property destruction, and also on U.S. residents and citizens during the so-called “war on terror.”

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