KELSEY SNELL, HOST:
From Charlottesville to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the public has come to realize that white supremacists pose as much, if not more, of a threat as Islamic extremists. Now comes a book that takes a deep dive into one of those cases, a plot to attack a community of Somali Muslim immigrants in the small town of Garden City, Kan. In his new book, "White Hot Hate," investigative journalist Dick Lehr unspools a gripping account of the small group of men driven by hate behind that plot but were foiled by an FBI informant. Dick Lehr joins me now.
DICK LEHR: Hi. And thanks for having me.
SNELL: So at the center of the story is Dan Day. He's a laid-off, middle-aged white man who always carries a handgun in his pocket. How and why did he become an FBI informant?
LEHR: Well, as I refer to him in the book, I call him the accidental informant because in the summer of 2016, he was out of work. He was a former probation officer. So in the larger scheme of things, he was, I would say, part of the law enforcement world. And he connected with a former colleague of his who invited him to a backyard barbecue in Garden City.
Dan went. He brought his son along, and it turned out to be a recruiting barbecue for the Three Percenter militia. And in the aftermath of that, some of the members kind of went viral with certain Islamophobic messaging and whatnot. And it caught the attention of a couple of the local FBI agents whose jurisdiction is that part of Kansas. Long story short, they reached out to Dan. They had a meeting, and they made a request. They asked Dan to join the Three Percenters and asked him if he would be their eyes and ears. And Dan thought about it, and he said, why not?
SNELL: This becomes his entire life, almost a complete and total separate life that's happening for him 24 hours a day. Why did he decide to continue this?
LEHR: Well, in the beginning it seemed to be such a casual start and casual affair - was really kind of monitoring militia activity and whatnot. But it was, like, six months into it when he met Patrick Stein and these two other guys, where it clearly took a turn into something deep and dark and what became the bomb plot.
And it became incredibly stressful. His life at a couple of times was at stake. But, you know, he'd always been part of law enforcement, so he had a sense of duty and responsibility regarding that. And in talking it through with his wife - they're very religious, and they talked about their Christian faith. And, you know, there's a purpose here. God has put you in this place. And they genuinely believe that kind of thing.
SNELL: This story plays out over such a short period of time, the course of about a year. How do you explain the degree of hatred this core group has for Somalis and immigrants in general?
LEHR: This is what I think the importance of a story like this and be able to go so deep into it and reconstruct the conspiracy and the formation of the bomb plot - is the deep well of hatred that's not only exhibited by these guys time and again in the recordings that Dan Day made of their meetings, but it's also consuming America. It's a lens to look at that kind of hate that's been consuming this country.
SNELL: I was struck by how much of a role that Facebook plays in this story. You know, the main militia, the KSF, Kansas Security Force - they organized a private Facebook group with the name Art of Changing Diapers, and that was meant to avoid red flags while they planned their activities. Can you talk about the role of, you know, social media here?
LEHR: Oh, absolutely. That becomes one of the themes of the book - is the role that Facebook and social media played in this. The three main conspirators - Patrick Stein, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright - they would not have found each other without Facebook, OK? They live 60 miles apart or so. It was on Facebook and in certain groups and chats regarding, you know, white nationalism and Islamophobia that they were able to connect up and become part of the same militia and then realize they shared what I'm calling this white hot hate where they wanted to exterminate the Somali refugees in Garden City.
SNELL: You're used to following big stories like this. You've written about the Boston mob, the civil rights movement, police cover-ups. What did you find compelling about this specific story?
LEHR: Well, there's a bunch of things that seem to come together. First of all, it seems a story that captures our moment, our time in terms of, you know, the rise of white nationalism and far-right extremists. There's the role of the far-right press. There's the role of a presidential candidate coming into his own named Donald J. Trump, who these men loved. Just listen to the tapes. They say plenty of wonderful things about him. It's a story in which you can explore immigration and the anti-Muslim messaging and rhetoric through a - you know, again, a single case that was happening and unfolding in the remote parts of Kansas seemed to capture so much that's going on in our time.
SNELL: In the end, when they're at trial, I was really struck by how much the men who were involved in this plot did not seem to, you know, feel any remorse. They didn't seem to go back and look on this as if they had done anything wrong. What was your sense from that?
LEHR: I think that's an absolutely correct reading of the situation. In fact, the sentencing judge made note of that as he sentenced the men. At the end of the book and at the end of the case, there's this really poignant moment between one of the FBI agents. And this is after they had arrested Patrick Stein, and they're debriefing him. And they had the goods on this guy. They had all these secret recordings. They're incriminating. They're convicting themselves with their own words. So the agent, Robin Smith - he was really after the why. Like, why, you know? And again, it's one of these moments that captures the divisiveness in America but also the debate, the philosophy.
Patrick Stein goes off on one of his rants, saying, you should be with us, you know, FBI agents. You know, you're on the wrong side. And in his own eloquent way, the agent said, you know, you have a right to that opinion in America, and that's one of the great things about America. And I'm not going to interfere with that right. And I'm not going to interfere with your right to take part in the political process. But the thing that separates you and me is that I'm not going to take away your right to live because we disagree so heartily. In other words, I'm not going to kill you for the beliefs that you have. And that was just, you know, a stone-cold kind of faceoff between the two sides.
SNELL: Yeah. That's investigative journalist Dick Lehr. His new book, "White Hot Hate," is out now. Dick, thank you so much for being here.
LEHR: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.