Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Colin Clarke, and Samuel Hodgson
Foreign Policy Research Institute
As the world is paralyzed by the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), some violent non-state actors have welcomed the global pandemic as an opportunity to push their propaganda and ideology, and perhaps to strike at their perceived foes. White supremacist extremists see the pandemic as confirmation of many of the movement’s preexisting beliefs, and as an opportunity to pursue their violent aims, as the virus induces anxiety related to the economy, immigration, and uncertainty over the future.
A group known as “accelerationists,” in particular, has seized on the pandemic. Online, they have advanced a raft of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and hateful propaganda accusing Jews and migrants of responsibility for starting and spreading the virus, respectively. Accelerationists believe that the social upheaval they promote, which is viewed as a necessary prelude that will usher in the rebuilding of society on the basis of white power, has been made plausible by the scenes of illness and death dominating mainstream news coverage.
Accelerationism is the most inherently violent and dangerous ideology circulating in the global white supremacist extremist movement. Accelerationists believe that a race war is not only inevitable, but desirable, as it is the only path to achieving white power by bringing about the downfall of current systems of government. Their beliefs are shaped in large part by James Mason’s Siege, which draws on Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, and prominent American neo-Nazi William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries. Accelerationists call for the expulsion or extermination of Jewish people, ethnic and racial minorities, and white “race traitors,” a category that includes race-mixing white women, academics, journalists, and politicians. Their online conversations are molded by a belief that other white supremacists are insufficiently extreme and that only violence directed against the political system can lead to the establishment of white power.
Accelerationists are especially dangerous because they believe an act of mass violence by a single individual (a “lone wolf”) or small cell can trigger their desired race war. Such attacks are intended to force the white population to recognize their “true” enemy, join a revolutionary uprising, and destroy the political system. Accelerationists organize themselves to facilitate these attacks, following the principles of “leaderless resistance” and calling on individuals or small cells to perpetrate revolutionary acts of violence without centralized leadership. Accelerationist networks form small cells to train for and coordinate such attacks. These cells are typically organized geographically, either by country or region, to facilitate activities like physical fitness exercises and paramilitary training. Such a compartmentalized organization, where network and white supremacist movement members take action based on a shared vision rather than at the direction of a single leader, is deliberately designed to resist infiltration by law enforcement.
Accelerationism’s call for armed resistance by lone wolves in the name of hastening of an inevitable societal collapse has produced violent results. The manifestos of both Brenton Tarrant and John Earnest—who in 2019 perpetrated mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a synagogue in Poway, California, respectively—espoused key concepts of accelerationism in describing their motivations or calling for further action. Other plots by accelerationist cells have been foiled, but reflected an intent to act towards similarly violent ends.
Accelerationist Groups and Activity
Several accelerationist networks have emerged. The most notorious, and one of the most prolific, is Atomwaffen Division (AWD), which emerged from the now-defunct fascist online forum Iron March in 2015. The group has international reach, with members and active cells, which appear to operate with a high degree of independence, in several countries. The organization seeks to initiate a race war that will lead to the destruction of the current political system. Members have repeatedly shown their commitment to advancing societal breakdown through violence in order to achieve white power goals. Their forums and chat groups circulate a core set of texts, most prominently Siege.
AWD has a strong U.S. presence. Since its formation, members have been identified in several states, and their social media and propaganda reveals that they have likely held paramilitary training camps in Texas, Nevada, Illinois, and Washington. These camps have featured live-fire weapons training and firearms instruction, in addition to hand-to-hand combat training, instruction in survival skills, and other physical fitness activities. Members have plotted attacks in the United States, including a cell in Florida that had acquired explosive materials and may have intended to target the electrical grid or a nuclear power plant in 2017. Other activities by the members include the murder of a gay Jewish man in California and an intimidation campaign targeting journalists and political figures.
In addition to activity in the United States, AWD appears to have a significant presence in Germany and members in Canada. U.S.-based members are reported to have traveled to England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Germany. While the purpose of these trips is unclear, photos of members holding an AWD flag in front of Wewelsburg Castle, a site of particular historical significance for neo-Nazi groups, have appeared in AWD propaganda, including in the announcement of its German branch, AWD Deutschland.
Atomwaffen has inspired a number of related organizations with shared ideologies and occasionally overlapping memberships—including not only AWD Deutschland, but also Feuerkrieg Division (FKD) and Sonnenkrieg Division. FKD was founded in the Baltics, and reportedly has members in several European countries and the United States. The group’s propaganda reveals that it, like AWD, explicitly embraces employing violence for the purpose of bringing about a race war. FKD has been implicated in terrorist attacks and plots in the United States and Europe. While the scope of the group’s U.S. presence is unclear, at least one former member, Conor Climo, has admitted to discussing attacks on Jewish and LGBT sites in Las Vegas, Nevada, and conducting surveillance in support of potential plots. Climo was also found to have assembled bomb-making materials in his home.
Sonnenkrieg Division is a U.K.-based group whose members have distributed propaganda encouraging terrorist attacks, and have acquired bomb-making instructions. Like AWD, Sonnenkrieg’s members have advocated for mass violence online. Its membership includes former members of National Action, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization currently banned in the United Kingdom. In February 2020, the U.K. home secretary announced that Sonnenkrieg will also be banned as a terrorist group. In private forums, Sonnenkrieg members have discussed traveling to the United States to meet with AWD.
The United States is also home to The Base, another U.S. group with international membership, which was organized in 2018. An individual who refers to himself as “Norman Spear” and “Roman Wolf” formed the group with a similar goal to AWD’s founders: preparing adherents of white supremacist extremist ideology to commit acts of terrorism and participate in an anticipated civil war. While Spear has attempted to publicly disavow violence—describing The Base as a “survivalism & self-defense network”—he has acknowledged that members of his group are “militant,” and seek to foment an insurgency. Spear has also tacitly justified the use of terrorism. For example, he commented in a June 2018 Gab post: “It’s only terrorism if we lose—If we win, we get statues of us put up in parks.” Spear has since been revealed through independent investigations by The Guardian and the BBC to be a U.S. citizen residing in St. Petersburg, Russia, raising questions about the group’s potential foreign connections.
The majority of The Base’s activity takes place in the United States, where cells and members have been identified in Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The group has held paramilitary “hate” camps in Georgia and elsewhere in the United States, and has reportedly sought to hold similar camps in Canada. The group’s physical meetups regularly attracted at least one Canadian member.
Members of The Base explicitly advocate for mass violence in their online communications. While The Base has not successfully executed a terrorist attack, members from Maryland and Canada were indicted in January 2020 on firearms charges and crimes related to the harboring and transportation of an alien, in connection with a plot to carry out an attack at a gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia. Three other members were charged the same month in Georgia with conspiracy to commit murder in relation to a plot to kill anti-fascist activists, while other members have been charged or indicted for vandalizing synagogues in Michigan and Wisconsin, in a scheme that was coordinated by a member from New Jersey.
As witnessed with the recent case of Timothy Wilson, a white supremacist who was killed in a confrontation with the FBI before he could follow through on his plans to bomb a hospital in the midst of the pandemic, the domestic terrorism threats that existed before the pandemic will not cease. Indeed, they may very well be exacerbated by individuals and groups intent on wreaking havoc at a time when first responders, law enforcement, and other emergency personnel are preoccupied. The group to which Wilson belonged, Vorherrschaft Division, appears to have had limited activity beyond their Telegram channel and a single act of anti-Semitic vandalism until his plot, demonstrating the dangerous potential of accelerationist ideology to produce violence.
What seems certain is that accelerationists’ propaganda will be invigorated by the pandemic, focusing on themes that dovetail with their ideology and further complicating national security in the midst of a global health crisis.