The conspirators had a bold plan to spread terror across Georgia and beyond.
They would detonate bombs at police stations, along power-transmission lines, at water-treatment plants. Mass hysteria would ensure, they figured, forcing the federal government to impose martial law. Then others who shared their ideology would join the fight and the revolution would be under way.
These would-be terrorists weren’t Islamic extremists. They weren’t Syrian refugees or immigrants of any kind. They were a trio of white guys from Rome, Georgia, who harbored some vague, albeit grandiose, ideas about overthrowing the U.S. government.
They considered themselves patriots.
Their plot fizzled after their bomb supplier got nervous and called the FBI. Today, the three men – Terry Eugene Peace, Brian Edward Cannon and Cory Robert Williamson – are serving lengthy sentences in federal prison.
As Congress debates tighter screening of refugees from war-scarred countries and presidential candidates talk about jihadis in America and barring all Muslim immigrants, a review of the Rome case suggests the need for greater vigilance against a different group: domestic dissidents with violent agendas.
Peace, Cannon and Williamson hatched their plot in early 2014, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit filed in U.S. District Court.
The men apparently communicated with like-minded people across the nation through a “Minuteman Militia” Facebook page and on websites that offered encrypted chat sessions. In January 2014, according to court records, Peace wrote to other followers of the Facebook page about a “mission” he was planning for the following month, one that he said would start “an active revolution.” He advised other militias to bone up on guerrilla warfare tactics, gather supplies and prepare their families for a long fight.
About this time, prosecutors alleged, Peace spoke with a Tennessee man about acquiring explosive devices: a dozen pipe bombs built for what Peace called “maximum fragmentation” and three other bombs that could destroy the kind of armored vehicles used by the police and the military.
The Tennessee man, whose identity was not disclosed in court records, thought Peace and the others were serious. He got in touch with law enforcement authorities and began working undercover for the FBI.
In an online chat, a person the FBI believed to be Peace laid out the scheme for his group’s attacks and the ones he assumed would follow:
“We will be using guerrilla-style warfare tactics,” he wrote. “I have been arguing with myself on what level of violence or what level of damage is acceptable. I do not want to kill or injure fellow Americans. So, at least for the guys with me, we will restrain the violence toward people and target infrastructure. Then respond to violence with reciprocal violence.”
He added: “The group with me will move first mainly to make a point. I stand by what I say. The other groups should start within the next 24-48 hours in order to keep the operational tempo up so that when one unit is done, another is hitting nonstop. As soon as we complete mission one, we will relocate and start mission 2, then 3, until all is done.”
In early February, the bomb supplier told Peace he could fill the order for a dozen pipe bombs but could furnish only two of the stronger devices, not three.
“No problem, two will be fine,” Peace replied. “We want the first to be pretty!”
They made plans to meet in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store in Cartersville on Feb. 15. Two days earlier, the supplier asked Peace if he still wanted the bombs.
“Most assuredly,” he answered. “They are a key element.”
As the rendezvous took place, federal agents and local law enforcement officers watched from posts all over the parking lot. The bomb supplier placed one of the devices inside Peace’s truck, then read aloud from an instruction sheet. As he reached for the second bomb, the agents moved in.
The would-be terrorists may have expected trouble. Peace and Cannon both carried handguns, the FBI later said, and agents found three rifles in the cab of their truck. Peace wore body armor, and Cannon had on the rigging for an armored vest.
During interrogations at the Bartow County sheriff’s office, Peace said he had been in touch with several other militia groups. One had about 300 members, he said, and was equipped with “the works”: body armor, gas masks, helmets, guns and ammunition.
But he said he hadn’t discussed targets with other groups and had no idea whether they would actually carry out attacks.
“You would think things … were organized,” Peace said, “but unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Peace, Cannon and Williamson pleaded guilty in May 2015 to a charge of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy sentenced each defendant to 12 years in prison. For Peace, the judge also ordered psychiatric and psychological treatment.
By then, Peace’s swagger had subsided.
“We had no intention of hurting any individuals, only violence,” he told authorities. “The only violence is if you shoot at us and we return fire.
“Human lives are sacrosanct,” he said. “We’re all Americans.”