In October of this year Cem Özdemir and Claudia Roth of the German Green Party received highly specific and credible death threats. They came from a newly formed German chapter of the US-based Atomwaffen Division (AWD from here), a far-right terrorist organization. The group has existed in the US since 2015 and are now largely in decline because of internal conflict, high-profile arrests and five murders attributed to the group. However, those who still identify as members of the group — it is estimated that there are approximately 80-100 members in total — pose a direct terror threat.
The birth and evolution of AWD
AWD was born out of the milieu of online neo-Nazi message boards and subsequently migrated to Germany via social media. In a talk at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in October of 2018, I highlighted how US-based extremists are now better able to recruit and exploit the grievances of marginalized and far-right individuals through social media. The US-based Anti-Defamation League has subsequently reiterated this risk. It serves as a warning of how extremist groups are forming online using social media and how they are able to organize and commit acts of terror that transcend borders.
On October 12, 2015 a thread appeared on a forum board of the now defunct far-right ironmarch.org website. In it, alleged AWD founder Brandon Russell defined the group stating: “We are [a] very fanatical, ideological band of comrades who do both activism and militant training.” Though it was founded online, Russell stressed the importance that AWD not simply be yet another far-right online community spreading hate; “…we spread awareness in the real world through unconventional means. [keyboard warriorism is nothing to do with what we are.]”
From the outset their group set itself apart from the usual fare of neo-Nazi online groups with this focus on backing up their violent rhetoric with action. AWD participated in training camps around the US known as “hate camps” where they would practice firearms training and take the group from being an online-only phenomenon to trained and anonymous terror cells. These were to prepare members for a perceived upcoming race war.
Furthermore, they attempted to forge a unique and coherent ideology. The group sought out James Mason, a lifelong neo-Nazi and member of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. Mason’s affiliation provided the group with a sense of legitimacy and succession within neo-Nazi circles. Siege, a collection of Mason’s writings became compulsory reading for the group and Mason, who, in the book, calls for people to commit acts of terror in small cells or in lone wolf attacks has acted as an advisor to the group.
The Rise and Fall of AWD
The group’s initial impact and rise to national prominence was dramatic. On May 19, 2017 Devon Arthurs, a member of AWD, shot his two roommates to death. All three were members of AWD but Arthur’s recent conversion to Islam was supposedly derided by the two victims and thought to be the cause of the altercation. Alleged AWD founder Brandon Russell, who also lived with the three, was later sentenced to five years in prison for possession of bomb-making materials. In December, another AWD member was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend’s parents after they broke up the relationship because of his extremist beliefs. The perpetrator — a minor — attempted and failed to take his own life. On January 2, 2018 Sam Woodward, another AWD member murdered and hid the body of a gay Jewish man — Blaze Bernstein — a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
These five murders made dismantling the group a priority for the FBI and subsequent arrests of suspected AWD members on gun and terror charges dramatically restricted their real world activities. However, the decline of the group’s popularity online was due to its affiliation with the Order of Nine Angles, a satanic cult with neo-Nazi roots. This caused conflict within the group with some members being devout Christians, while others just wanted to focus on core neo-Nazi ideologies. The links to Satanism further led to derision from others on the far right. By mid-2018 AWD were largely considered to be a spent force.
Paul Nehlan and GAB
The mid-2018 collapse of AWD coincided with a series of tumultuous events within the far-right online community. Paul Nehlen — a Republican congressional candidate for the State of Wisconsin in 2016 and 2018 — was quickly embraced by the far right on social media and his evolution into an overt and virulent anti-semite and white supremacist won him fans on the extreme fringes of social media. After being banned from Twitter for a series of anti-semitic and racist tweets, Nehlen migrated to GAB where he teamed up with another prominent white supremacist —Christopher Cantwell — best known for his role in the violence that took place at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. Nehlen was banned from from GAB in April 2018 for doxing prominent alt-right troll “Ricky Vaughn”. Vaughn, best known for his memes that helped catapult US president Donald Trump to power, criticised Nehlen and Cantwell for their extreme white nationalist beliefs on “The Ricky Vaughn Cast”. In retaliation, they doxed him to the Huffington Post. This led to Nehlen (and Cantwell shortly after) being banned from GAB and rejected by more moderate members of the alt-right.
Nehlen and the WigNats
On telegram — the platform currently preferred by violent extremist groups — Nehlen found popularity among several groups who, like him, reject a political solution to achieving their goals. In particular, Nehlen (referred to as Uncle Paul by supporters) has been adopted by WigNats — short for “Wigger Nationalists”, an ironic title self-depreciatingly adopted by members of this neo-Nazi group. WigNats are often ridiculed and ostracized by other white identitarians such as AmNats (American Nationalists) who wish to infiltrate the Republican Party and achieve their goals by engaging with the democratic process. These white identitarians consider WigNats too extreme as they reject any political solution to achieving their goals and put violence to the fore for dealing with out groups as encapsulated by their oft-used social media catchphrase “Fuck around and find out”.
Key figures in the WigNat movement are Cantwell, Nehlen and Matt Parrott, co-founder of the neo-Nazi “Traditionalist Worker Party” who has published a “manifesto” on the core principles of WigNat ideology. Their focus on violent extremism, veneration of recent mass shooters such as Dylan Roof and Robert Bowers (who they refer to as “Saints”) and affinity with The Turner Diaries and Siege has made natural allies of other violent extremist groups such as AWD and there is significant crossover between these and other groups.
The Bowl Patrol
A third group, known as the “Bowl Patrol”—a reference to the haircut of Dylan Roof— and lead by Vic McKey (pseudonym) similarly espouse beliefs consistent with AWD. In leaked conversations from the Bowl Patrol’s Telegram chatroom it is clear that while AWD and Bowl Patrol are separate entities, they assist one another with propaganda efforts. Both are so ideologically compatible that Vic MacKey has recommended the AWD’s propaganda video channel to all Bowl Patrol members for propaganda needs.
The Boogaloo Right
Combined, WigNats, Bowl Patrol and the fractured remains of AWD are often referred to by others in the alt-right as the “Boogaloo Right”.
The key uniting principles of the “Boogaloo Right” are:
- Fanatical hatred of Jews and non-whites, LGBTQ individuals, pornography and progressive politics.
- A veneration of recent mass killers (referred to as “saints”) such as Dylan Roof, Robert Bowers and Brenton Tarrant as well as other terrorists long admired by neo-Nazis such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh.
- Ideological beliefs centered on the ideas of neo-Nazis Mason and Rockwell. Telegram chats indicate that there is a strong crossover between these three groups and the American National Socialist Movement and there is even coordination between the groups to push anti-Semitic and racist actions such as a renewed “It’s OK to be White” campaign on Halloween 2019 and efforts to harass Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk at upcoming speaking events because of his Jewish ethnicity, pro-Israel stance and mainstream conservative beliefs.
- Encouraging one another to engage in lone wolf acts of violence. While most of the individuals in these groups are unlikely to commit lone wolf acts of violence themselves they encourage others to do so. A major reason for venerating “saints” (lone wolf mass killers) is to entice others to commit similar acts with the promise of being a hero or venerated by the community after death. These attacks are aimed at sparking a race war or a “Boogaloo”.
Preparing for the “Boogaloo”. Accelerationism is the ambition to hasten the decline of society so that chaos, and then fascism, will arise from the ashes. On Telegram in particular chatrooms are a bleak echo chamber of hate and paranoia. Certain members will consistently remind all members that there is a final race war coming and that Jews in particular are leaving them with no option but to prepare for its inevitable outbreak.
Spread to Germany
From its inception, the Iron March website from which AWD originated, had an international presence. A recent leak of IP addresses and emails of users of the site indicate that while most users were from the USA, there was also strong representation from the UK and Eastern Europe. That there would be AWD users in these areas is not too surprising and in 2018 the Sonnenkrieg division was launched to cater to these regions. In June 2018, AWD launched its first division in Germany. In a video uploaded to the AWD channel on Bitchute titled “AWD Germany: The Knives are already being sharpened!” (translated) the group warned of “a long, final battle” to come. In June 2019, days before the 15th anniversary of the NSU nail bomb attack in Mülheim, Köln, AWD propaganda was posted through letterboxes of local homes warning Muslims to leave Germany. AWD Germany’s focus on Muslims was cemented with the threat made to Cem Özdemir.
Not yet a serious threat
It seems unlikely that the appearance of AWD in Germany poses a dramatically increased threat to the state and individuals. Currently the AWD in the USA is focused on spreading hate and attempting to inspire violent acts from the comfort of their online chatrooms. Similarly, the email to Özdemir and letter campaign in Köln are most likely aimed at increasing racial tension and spreading fear and mistrust rather than acting as a foreshadowing of any actual violent acts of terror.
There has yet to appear any evidence that the AWD Germany has significant numbers, arms or training camps like their US counterparts. What they will focus on initially is establishing their presence in Germany through high-profile threats and through online recruitment. Then, as with their US counterparts, they will push accelerationist propaganda in real world settings and online while urging other radicalized or unstable individuals to commit lone wolf acts of terror with the promise of being immortalized as a “saint”.
At this moment there should be no fear of a “Boogaloo” in Germany. However, it is worrying how easy it has become, thanks to social media, for a small group of extremists based largely in the south east of the US, to spread violent ideas and cause panic in Germany. Thanks to a broad ideology that appeals to white nationalists internationally, savvy brand management on video sharing sites such as YouTube and BitChute, as well as organizing through encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, AWD has migrated effortlessly to Germany. As such, AWD are providing an unwelcome blueprint for international terror in the digital age.