By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - The number of hate and anti-government groups in the United States continued to rise last year, fueled by racial tensions, conspiracy theories and anger over economic inequality, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The most explosive growth came from the so-called Patriot movement, whose adherents view the federal government as their enemy.
The Patriot movement reached a peak in 1996, a year after right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh set off a truck bomb outside the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people. McVeigh and a co-conspirator were convicted, and McVeigh was executed.
The number of Patriot groups, a largely rural phenomenon sometimes referred to as the militia movement, increased to 1,274 groups in 2011 from 824 in 2010, the report released on Thursday said.
The number of those organizations has swelled in recent years since the U.S. economy slumped into recession and Democratic President Barack Obama, the country's first black president, was elected in 2008, said the law center, which has tracked extremist groups for three decades.
A backlash against federal bail outs of the bank and auto industries, and discredited allegations that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore disqualified to be president, provided believers with the rationale to join such groups, according to the report.
Heated political rhetoric from this year's presidential campaign could attract more adherents, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the center and editor of the report.
"The campaign season has simply added fuel to the fire," Potok said. These groups vehemently oppose Obama and abhor the possibility that he could be reelected to a second term in November. "To them, that's a horror show," Potok said. The center counted 1,018 hate groups in the United States last year, up from 1,002 in 2010. The number of groups have been increasing since 2000, when the center counted 602.
Potok said it was hard to gauge how many Americans are members of hate groups, but estimated the number was between 200,000 and 300,000 people.
The center also estimated that some 300,000 Americans were part of the so-called "sovereign citizens" movement who flout most laws, do not pay federal taxes and even refuse to obtain driver's licenses.
The report's findings echoed comments last month in Washington by the FBI about a growing threat of violence by members of these "sovereign citizen" groups.
Stuart McArthur, deputy assistant director in the FBI's counterterrorism division, told a news conference that routine encounters with police can turn violent "at the drop of a hat." He cited shootings of police officers after routine traffic stops in Arkansas and Texas the past two years.
Convictions of such extremists, mostly for white-collar crimes such as fraud, increased to 18 each in 2010 and 2011 from 10 in 2009, the FBI said.
Most members of hate groups and anti-government organizations have not committed crimes, Potok said. But the center's report highlighted recent examples where authorities accused militia members of plotting violence.
In one case, authorities accused four Georgia members of a militia group of plotting to obtain explosives and produce the deadly toxin ricin, with which they intended to attack government officials.
In Michigan, seven members of a Midwestern militia group called the Hutaree are standing trial on charges that they plotted to kill police to spark a wider insurrection.
The law center also found the number of groups specifically targeting gays and lesbians rose to 27 in 2011 from 17 in 2010, and the number of anti-Muslim groups jumped to 30 from 10.
But the number of so-called "nativist extremist" groups who harass people they suspect of being illegal immigrants appeared to be in decline. The number of those groups dropped to 184 in 2011 from 319 the year before.
The center attributed the decline in part to the push in some states for laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the report said. "Nativist groups have lost the wind in their sails as their issue has been co-opted by politicians," Potok said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was formed in the early 1970s to defend the legal rights of African Americans following the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. It was instrumental in some convictions of members of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan for civil rights abuses against blacks. It has broadened to other issues in recent years.
(Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing By Andrew Stern and Greg McCune)