In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, four militia men in Kansas were finalizing their own campaign: a plot to bomb the mosque and homes of Muslim refugees in the small town of Garden City, Kansas.
“I’m a domestic terrorist on a f---ing federal government list right now,” the plot's ringleader, Patrick Stein, was recorded saying before the FBI made arrests in October 2016.
It was an attack authorities said could have eclipsed the Oklahoma City bombing.
But one of the men, Dan Day, was actually an FBI informant, who over several months secretly recorded hundreds of hours with the small militia and derailed their deadly plot.
In a series of exclusive interviews with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Day and his family described what they endured for months as Day worked for the FBI. His story is told in the new ABC News documentary, “The Informant: Fear and Faith in the Heartland,” now available on Hulu.
For many in Kansas, one of the most confounding parts of the case is how three of their own -- Patrick Stein, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright -- became so gripped by hate that they wanted to kill innocent men, women and children.
“I don’t know where [they] got the hate from,” Day, a Garden City native, told ABC News in a series of exclusive interviews.
Ifrah Ahmed, who as a child fled Somalia’s civil war and then waited in a refugee camp for 17 years before coming to Garden City, said the men's level of hatred for total strangers is “beyond anything that my brain can comprehend.”
“There’s only one good kind of Muslim, and that’s a dead motherf---er, straight up,” Stein claimed during a recorded conversation in 2016. “A little g----mn 1-year-old, that little f---er, he’s gotta go.”
“When I hear the [recordings] it’s like, ‘How can somebody be that?’” Ahmed said.
ABC News recently obtained a cache of those recordings. They shed new light on a key question still baffling U.S. counterterrorism officials: Where does that type of violent hatred come from?
“It spreads like wildfire,” Day said.
Hate crimes in the United States have reached their highest level in more than a decade, and the FBI is currently conducting more than 2,700 domestic terrorism investigations around the country, according to FBI statistics.
The recordings from the Garden City case show how a farmer and two mobile-home salesmen turned into domestic terrorists. Coupled with court documents and interviews, they reveal years-long paths toward prejudice, stoked by rabble-rousing media personalities, right-wing conspiracy theories, internal struggles and irrational fears.
‘A game changer for me’
Stein, Allen and Wright were radicalized to violence at a time when ISIS was launching attacks around the world and inspiring scores of Americans to either join the group in Syria or attempt their own attacks at home. The U.S. government expressed confidence in vetting thousands of Syrian refugees coming to the United States, but acknowledged gaps in its capabilities.
Wright, now 56, eventually came to “hate the government,” the Obama administration in particular, for “allowing Muslims” and “possible terrorist threats” into the U.S. homeland, according to notes of a post-arrest interview with him.
“They couldn’t get here if it wasn’t for our government,” Wright said on one of the recordings Day produced.
The birth of Allen’s bigotry was much earlier.
As a member of the Kansas National Guard in the mid-2000s, he was deployed twice to Iraq, where he grew “angry over the enemy’s use of IEDs to wound and kill American personnel,” according to court records filed in the case by his attorney.
Then, after returning home, Allen heard rumors that Muslim doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs were pushing patients to take copies of the Koran.
At the same time, he was lonely and depressed, and for years he battled with the department to award him benefits for war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. By 2011, he became “disappointed” in his military experience and “very skeptical of the federal government,” his attorney said in court.
“We’re going to try to trigger the other like-minded people across the nation to stand up and start [going after] Muslims and government,” Allen, now 54, said during a conversation Day recorded in August 2016.
As for Stein, now 52, he never endured a war zone, but he was always a troubled, vulnerable man.
When Stein was a toddler, his mother was an alcoholic, and he became a drug addict and alcoholic himself before high school, according to his attorney Jim Pratt. By his early 30s, he was divorced twice and estranged from two sons.
As a truck driver who returned home to work his family’s Kansas farm, Stein never paid much attention to politics.
But then on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 foreign terrorists infiltrated the United States and turned commercial planes into unthinkable weapons, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.
“9/11 was a game changer for me,” he said in a jailhouse interview with New York magazine after his arrest. “And that’s what really started my delving into more of the political world.”
‘A call to arms’
For years, Stein “immersed” himself in “right-wing news and ideology,” reading alarming online stories about Muslims, watching YouTube videos purporting to reveal the truth about Islam, and listening to far-right radio hosts like conspiracists Alex Jones, Pratt said in court documents.
Allen and Wright also closely followed Jones.
“Everybody that listens to him is a patriot,” Wright said on one of Day’s recordings. “He’s done so much investigating.”
Jones was the one who in 2012 infamously touted the conspiracy theory that the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was a government “hoax” designed to undercut the Second Amendment. He’s since lost several lawsuits stemming from the false claim.
In 2015, Jones and guests he invited on his show broadcasted an array of anti-Muslim and anti-government screeds. Allen believed Jones was telling listeners to take action.
“He’s gone on his radio show, his TV shows that I was watching – he’s gone on there and said, ‘Dude, this is a call to arms,’” Allen claimed on one of Day’s recordings. “He’s saying, ‘Militia, get off your a--es.’”
Meanwhile, in summer 2015, militias and others in southwest Kansas were becoming increasingly nasty toward the large community of Somali refugees in the area.
Day recalled that one Facebook post in particular “went viral,” spreading bogus rumors that Somalis were trying to recruit for ISIS at the local library in Garden City.
On one of Day’s recordings, Stein said Somali refugees fleeing civil war in East Africa, and Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS on a different continent thousands of miles away, were “one and the same.”
Pratt, Stein’s attorney, later said that after Stein’s arrest, the two of them “talked a lot” about “conservative media pushing these three to a point where they could be convinced” that carrying out an attack on refugees “was the right thing to do.”
Trump ‘normalized’ the fear?
Pratt also claimed in and outside of court that the misguided fear of Muslims festering inside Stein was “normalized” by then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric during his run for the White House in 2016.
“Donald Trump continually stated that these refugees were coming in unvetted, they were dangerous, they didn’t know what was going on,” Pratt said during a recent online forum about the case.
Stein’s sister told a documentary filmmaker last year that Trump’s “words and his message spoke to” Stein and other people “who were already afraid.”
Allen’s attorney similarly claimed that the “political climate” surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign “intensified” and “exacerbated” her client’s “beliefs and opinions.”
For several months in summer 2016, Allen, Stein and Wright pieced together their domestic terrorist plot. Day was with them, and recording, as they negotiated targets to strike in Garden City, gathered bomb-making materials, and drafted a manifesto.
“[Day] was the one thing that stood between those three guys and a smoking hole filled with dead people,” said former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi, who oversaw the case.
Their bombing was scheduled for Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, because an earlier attack “would give a lot of ammunition to the Hillary [Clinton] supporters,” Stein was captured saying in one of Day's recordings.
‘Fomented and inflamed’?
As the defense attorneys see it, what ultimately pushed Stein, Wright and Allen over the edge was the FBI and Day himself.
The men’s words were “horrible, racist, and Islamophobic,” but “rather than try and calm these fears,” the FBI “fomented them and inflamed them through Dan Day,” Pratt told a federal jury during trial.
“We did surveillance [of Somalis] … and it looks like they’re coming out with big bags of something,” Day told the men during a recruitment meeting in June 2016. “It was either like cash, drugs, [or] something. They got something going on there.”
But Day and the FBI disputed any suggestion they improperly encouraged the other men. Day told ABC News that, at the FBI’s direction, he was careful not to “bring up an idea.”
“Once they broached the idea, then I could follow up on that,” he said.
A federal jury eventually convicted Stein, Wright and Allen of terrorism and civil rights-related charges. Each was sentenced to decades in prison.
The trio sought to have their convictions overturned, arguing in part that they were entrapped by Day and the FBI. But a federal appeals court rejected those claims earlier this year.
“[The men’s] rhetoric regarding Muslims predated Mr. Day’s involvement,” and “their actions” belie any claim “that their plans would not have materialized” without Day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth District ruled in January.
As Mattivi described it, "Entrapment is when the government plants the idea in their head, not when the government gives them the mechanism to do it. ... They chose a date, they chose a location, they chose a method."
‘Do the right thing’
“Ideas can be very dangerous,” Day’s son, Brandon Day, noted to ABC News. “They can change the world in a good way. But at the same time, these guys were motivated by evil ideas … they got from the internet [and other] sources that led them to where they are now.”
Recordings from the case show that several other militia members Stein tried to recruit early on knew about his radical views and his desire to harm Muslims, but they didn’t call authorities.
“We had example after example of militia members that these guys tried to recruit, who saw the wrong in what they were trying to do … but they didn’t do anything about it,” Mattivi said.
Day said his “biggest concern” now is that even more people will refuse to speak up when they see their own friend or family member radicalizing to violence.
“There's evil, mean, hateful people out there that wanna kill,” Day warned. “All you gotta do is call the FBI. Call local law enforcement. … Just do the right thing.”
In recent testimony to Congress, FBI director Chris Wray said tracking and thwarting hate-fueled domestic terrorists is “our highest threat priority,” and he warned the FBI was seeing “a significant uptick” in attacks by violent militia members and other anti-government extremists.
Speaking in Washington over the summer, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI and Day's efforts years earlier in a small Kansas town showed "what can go right" in the federal government's fight against domestic terrorism.
ABC News' Cho Park, Eamon McNiff, Jennifer Joseph and Chris Donovan contributed to this report.