MONTGOMERY, Ala., May 9 (Reuters) - The anti-government U.S. militia movement, brought to prominence by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is fading as the number of such groups declined for the fourth straight year, a study showed.
A survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project found the number of so-called "Patriot" organizations -- anti-government militias and similar groups -- in the United States dropped to 194 in 2000, a drop of nearly 11 percent from 217 groups in 1999.
The ranks of these groups peaked at 858 in 1996, a year after a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people. Convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed for the blast -- the most deadly act of terrorism on U.S. soil -- next week.
Since 1996, the number of "Patriot" groups has steadily fallen, from 523 in 1997, to 435 in 1998, to 217 in 1999, the center's data show.
Mark Potok, an editor at the center, said the Oklahoma City bombing in some ways helped fuel the "Patriot" movement.
"To many of these people (who joined), the bombing of the Murrah building was another Waco," he said, referring to the 1993 raid by federal agents on a Branch Davidian religious sect compound near Waco, Texas, in which more than 80 people died. Waco became a rallying cry for right-wing militias.
Still, Potok said the Oklahoma City bombing and increased awareness of terrorist acts ultimately contributed to the militia groups' decline, as many less ideological members decided they didn't want to be associated with such violence.
The decline of such groups was also linked to passage of state laws targeting militia tactics and weapons violations, he said, noting that "literally thousands of people have been sent to prison since 1995" as a result of those laws.
In addition, significant numbers of people have left these organizations for hard-line racist and anti-Semitic hate organizations, whose numbers are growing.
"As these softer-line militias go downhill, the harder line hate groups have been going up," Potok said.
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