Abstract: The fact that right-wing extremists are cooperating internationally more than ever today is a reality recognized by most researchers and government officials. This article describes some of the mechanisms that are fueling this development. The main finding is that right-wing extremists today, in many cases, no longer subscribe to the narrow concept of nationalism but instead imagine themselves as participants in a global struggle against a global enemy. Consequently, networking and cooperating across borders is seen as a necessity. This process is further supported by shared ideological writings, technological advancement, and the conflict in Ukraine, which has served as a powerful accelarator.

In recent years, analysts and security institutions alike have pointed out that right-wing extremists are increasingly networking across borders and even continents. “Right-wing extremists maintain international links and mutual exchange and are influenced by key treatises and emblematic personalities worldwide,” Europol stated in its 2020 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report.1 The Counter Extremism Project (CEP), in a study funded by Germany’s foreign office, concluded in November 2020 that “the 21st century, and the period after 2014 in particular, saw the emergence of a new leaderless, transnational and apocalyptic violent extreme right-wing (XRW) movement.”2 The Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) of the United Nations Security Council declared in April 2020 that it had been “alerted by Member States to their increasing concern at the growing and increasingly transnational threat posed by extreme right-wing terrorism” and that “ten of the 31 states in which CTED conducted assessment visits … in 2018 and 2019 raised this threat as an issue of concern.”3

While terror plots, physical attacks in the real world, and arrests by the police can be easily counted, networks are somewhat harder to track, especially if they are clandestine and/or online-based. The same is true for personal connections and friendships. But they, too, are part of the phenomenon in question here.

This article seeks to shed light on how these connections occur and are fostered. In doing so, it does not focus solely on potential terrorist or even militant networks. Rather, the aim is to discover which factors have proven conducive to connecting right-wing extremists across borders. As will be shown, among these factors are shared ideas (old and new) as well as advancements in technology and occasions for physical get-togethers, ranging from seemingly harmless concerts to paramilitary training and actual fighting in a war zone.

This article is based on an eight-month investigation that was originally conducted by a team of journalists at Die Zeit, a German newsweekly. The investigation’s findings were published in February 2021 in a feature article in Die Zeit’s print edition, and an English translation was published simultaneously by Zeit Online.4 While the original article was adapted to meet the standards of this publication, the character of the investigation remains intact, and therefore, it is less of an academic enterprise aiming at the highest attainable degree of completeness, but rather tries to illustrate the issue at hand through case studies.a

This article will first explore how a very basic and by no means new idea—creating civil unrest in order to upend the current political order—has spread across the globe and taken on new importance as a galvanizing factor for the international extreme far-right. It will then go on to explore several case examples and factors that have contributed, or helped to facilitate, international cooperation among right-wing extremists. These examples and factors include the role of the conflict in Ukraine, the effectiveness of the recruitment drive of the American violent neo-Nazi group The Base, the nexus between online and offline radicalization, and the importance of the Russian extreme right-wing group Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) as a hub for the globalization. Unless otherwise indicated by citation, the information contained in this article is sourced from Die Zeit’s published investigative report.5

Old and New Ideas
It is noteworthy that even as the global right-wing extremist movement is making more and more use of modern technology (e.g., the live-streaming of terror attacks by the perpetrators of the Christchurch attack in New Zealand and the Halle attack in Germany6), old ideas, concepts, and intellectual resources still play a major role. One of these ‘old’ concepts is that of “leaderless resistance” as originally propagated by Louis Beam.7 Another still-powerful source of inspiration is Siege, the infamous collection of essays authored by American neo-Nazi James Mason.

James Mason was just 14 when he joined the youth wing of the American Nazi Party, and he later went on to became one of the most influential right-wing extremists in the United States. In 1992, his essays were published in the form of a book called Siege.

It includes such sentences as: “Let us give some thought to what the next logical step might be toward opening the way to full, revolutionary conflagration in the United States.” Anything that contributes to “friction, chaos and anarchy” is helpful, he writes, from “random shootings” to “select and consecutive assassinations … in different parts of the country.”

The classic fascist groups and parties of the 20th century were hierarchical, with a leader at the top, chains of command, and military structures. In Siege, though, James Mason presents a different concept: Ideally, people would organize in small cells. “We must view and realize that all of White America is our army,” Mason writes, arguing that the right-wing extremist movement should try to bring about a state of unrest.b

When looking at today’s right-wing extremist groups, echoes of Mason’s writings are omnipresent. One case in point is Atomwaffen Division. There is a photo from 2019 showing James Mason together with 12 male members of the group.c Mason is sitting on a chair in the center wearing a brown shirt and a swastika armband. The men are kneeling or standing around him, all wearing camouflage and skull masks. The Atomwaffen Division (AWD) members are gathered for a meeting in Las Vegas, with Mason there as a kind of guest of honor. Founded in 2015, the neo-Nazi group is one of the most hardcore in the world, with AWD members in the United States suspected of having committed five murders.8 It is heavily influenced by the idea of “leaderless resistance” as well as by James Mason’s writings.9

Mason, who is nearly 70 years old, maintains that he is no longer politically active. But when a reporter from the Die Zeit reporting team visited him at his home in Denver, Colorado, in November 2020, he appeared to be very proud of the fact that he still is an inspiration to right-wing extremists across the globe. “A wonderful, wonderful association” was how Mason described Atomwaffen Division,10 calling the members “bravehearts.”11 The idea behind AWD is to “take the fight to the enemy,” he explained—and not just in the United States. As a matter of fact, AWD now has offshoots in a number of countries, including Germany. “There was a lot of action in the Ukraine and … clear across Europe, and certainly here,” Mason said. “That’s pretty impressive, I have to admit.”

In the spring of 2020, Mason announced that Atomwaffen Division was disbanding,12 but that was likely just a tactical move to alleviate the pressure of FBI investigations. “One name may be disbanded, it may be outlawed,” Mason told the Die Zeit reporter. “You pick up another, like changing your underwear, and it means nothing.”

During the interview, Mason seemed to enjoy his role as one of the movement’s intellectual leaders—much as, perhaps, an old jihadi influencer might rejoice in the fact that his pamphlets and tracts from 20 years ago are still being read and put to use. At the same time, though, Mason seemed to choose his words with care to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as an incitement to violence. Mason claimed to no longer believe in the idea of right-wing terror. But, he added, “so many just aren’t ready to give it up.”d

That is clearly true. And during the course of Die Zeit’s investigation, Siege came up multiple times, making clear its importance to neo-fascists around the world seeking to collapse the established order through violence. Reseachers have described these individuals as part of a violent global “neo-fascist accelerationist movement.”13 Accelerationism, as defined by one researcher, is an “ideologically agnostic doctrine of violent and non-violent actions taken to exploit contradictions intrinsic to a political system to ‘accelerate’ its destruction through the friction caused by its features.”14

One example of the salience of Siege was a hidden digital copy found when German police searched the house of right wing extremist Fabian D., who was later sentenced for planning an act of terrorism. Felix Oberhuber,e another German national who used to be a right-wing extremist and for years tried to reach the battlefield in Ukraine as a foreign fighter, also studied Siege in the process of his radicalization. The American neo-Nazi group The Base, which is closely ideologically aligned with Atomwaffen, considered Siege compulsory reading for prospective members as did many other groups. Analyst Alex Newhouse has referred to a “Siegist” culture in this regard.15 The FBI, in a document Die Zeit was able to review, calls it a “Siege network,” describing it as a “subset of similar Neo-Nazi RMVE (racially motivated violent extremism) groups and Telegram channels which advocate leaderless resistance strategy, the text Siege, and Neo-Nazi ideological aspirations such as the eradication of non-Whites.”f

The fact that Mason’s writings are still so prominent in neo-fascist accelerationist circles is telling. While the concept of “leaderless resistance” serves a predominantly operative function in that it provides guidance for how to best plan an attack that is unlikely to be foiled, Mason’s vision of a revolutionary civil war-like accelerationism scenario actually helps to build bridges because the violent overthrow of the established order it calls for resonates across borders. Mason, at the time of Siege’s writing, only had the United States in mind; today, his followers understand his teachings to apply on a global scale. As the scholar Kathleen Belew puts it: “The nation at the heart of white nationalism is not the United States. It is the Aryan nation, imagined as a transnational white polity …”16

In the past, explains extremism expert Alexander Ritzmann, right-wing extremists were focused on the fight for their own country. Today, though, the focus has shifted to the defense of the “white race.”17 So whether it is American neo-Nazis concerned about the growth of the non-white share of the population or European right-wing extremists who believe in the theory of “the great replacement”g or Russian ultra-nationalists who feel that their traditional “white” culture is being threatened by Western multiculturalism, gay rights, and the like, many have come to the same conclusion: that they need to defend themselves, that it might be useful to cooperate in order to do so, and that the means by which this conflict will be resolved will be a civil war-like scenario just like the one Mason has been propagating, except that it is envisaged as a global, transnational conflict.

Mason is not the only ideologist who has had an impact on this broadening of the horizon of the right-wing extremist movement in recent years,h but it seems fair to say that Siege in this sense provides an important component of the ideological glue that helps the movement connect across what used to be almost insurmountable borders.

The Role of the Conflict in Ukraine
It is no coincidence that the CEP mentions the year 2014 explicitly as an important date in the context of the globalization of the right-wing extremist movement. The conflict in Ukraine that started that year has had a tremendous mobilizing effect. In a September 2019 report, the Soufan Center called the country “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world” and put the number of these foreign recruits at “around 17,000” stemming from 50 countries.18

Most of these seem to have been young men of Russian (or Ukrainian) heritage or origin living away from the motherland.19 But hundreds, if not thousands of volunteers traveled to the area of conflict in Ukraine without any such emotional or personal ties to the region. Not all, but many of the foreign recruits were (and are) right-wing extremists.

Experts believe that from Germany alone, as many as 150 volunteers headed for Ukraine to fight in the war—on both sides of the front.20 But it appears that information about them is scarce. When German parliamentarian Martina Renner of the Left Party filed an official query with the German government in 2020, the response noted that German officials can only identify by name “a number of people in the low two-figures.” Official investigations have only been launched into four volunteers.21

The Die Zeit investigation attempted to find out more about the pull-factors involved and to learn about the networks that facilitate the actual recruitment process.

Felix Oberhuber (not his real name), a 22-year-old German national from the southern part of the country, was one of those who tried to join the war in Ukraine. In several personal interviews, he shared his story with Die Zeit. The team of reporters were able to cross-check and verify most of the information he gave them and consider him reliable.22 i

Oberhuber used to be the leader of the German chapter of a neo-Nazi organization called Misanthropic Division (MD). He still wears a tattoo with the group’s name on his arm. MD is a paramilitary right-wing extremist group from Ukraine that follows the motto “Kill for Wotan,” a nod to Nordic mythology that is often invoked by neo-Nazis. Oberhuber recalls that as a teenager, he drank a lot and got high—and he developed an interest in documentaries about the Nazi era. By the time he turned 18, he was active in more than 35 right-wing extremist WhatsApp groups, where he received reading recommendations, like pamphlets about people who attacked foreigners as well as the aforementioned book Siege by James Mason. He radicalized further, beat up foreigners, and planned an attack on leftists with his comrades. “That was my first attempt to become active as a terrorist,” Oberhuber says. “I was fascinated by fighting.”

The planned attack did not pan out, largely because they were unable to obtain weapons. But Oberhuber continued to be fascinated by violence and stumbled across the Azov Battalion on the internet. Founded in 2014 in Ukraine, shortly after the war started on the country’s eastern border, the Azov Battalion was well known for accepting foreign mercenaries wanting to join the fight against the pro-Russian separatists. Using WhatsApp, Oberhuber contacted a German neo-Nazi who he hoped could bring him to the front. The German turned out to be a functionary with Misanthropic Division, which tried to recruit fighters for the Azov Battalion in Ukrainej in a number of countries. Oberhuber was electrified.

In 2018, Oberhuber moved to the town of Weissenfels, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, into the apartment of a Misanthropic Division functionary. Another man, from Belarus and wanted by the police, was already living there. The three established a cell and started selling T-shirts and flags with MD logos on them they got from Ukraine. Envoys from MD would frequently visit Weissenfels, and Oberhuber would join them on outings, one of them to a castle where Nazis had lived until 1945. Oberhuber had the feeling they were sizing him up.

When the MD functionary went to prison for armed robbery, the MD leadership in Kiev decided that Oberhuber should take over, according to his account. He developed a channel on Telegram and spray-painted MD graffiti, hoping to prove “that I’m a hard worker, and hopefully then end up in a training camp and then on the front.” The Ukrainians sent a tattoo artist who gave Oberhuber the MD logo on his arm, a distinction not unlike a military decoration—and one given to only very few activists. He now belonged to the inner circle.

In the end, Felix Oberhuber’s dream of joining the war in eastern Ukraine was never fulfilled. Perhaps Misanthropic Division did not think he was suitable, or perhaps he did not present himself correctly. It may also be the case that by the time Oberhuber became interested in fighting in around early 2018, the Ukrainian side was less in need for recruits as the fighting had somewhat abated.

But Oberhuber’s radicalization and his journey into the Ukrainian right-wing extremist orbit nonetheless offer a glimpse into the factors at work. It shows not only how comparatively easy it is to connect with relevant actors, but it also proves that until very recently (and perhaps still today, if somewhat restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic) international travel and networking, at least between Western and Eastern Europe, was (and is) possible for right-wing extremists.

One woman has played a crucial role in connecting far-right extremists in Germany with Ukraine. Activist Olena Semenyaka, a young woman from Kiev who at one point was a student of philosophy, is today associated with a political party that has its roots in the Azov movement. She has dark brown hair, a petite figure, and is frequently the only woman in pictures full of bearded, muscle-bound brutes. For Ukrainian right-wing extremists, Semenyaka essentially plays the role of ‘poster girl.’ In a leaked photo, she is shown giving the Hitler salute and posing with a swastika.23

An entire movement has developed around the Azov Battalion in recent years. The goal is to establish a global coalition of right-wing extremist groups, Semenyaka said in a 2019 interview with Time magazine.24

Semenyaka has been visiting right-wing extremist groups across Europe for years as a kind of marketing representative. According to Die Zeit’s reporting, she has visited Germany eight times—at the invitation of the German right-wing political party Die Rechte, for example, or as a speaker to a group from the Identitarian Movement.k At a festival organized by the neo-Nazi party “Der III. Weg” near Erfurt in 2018, she promoted an extreme right-wing rock festival in Ukraine called Asgardsrei. “All of you are explicitly invited to Kiev!”

Asgardsrei is one of the largest events of its kind, and it is sometimes even possible to see Atomwaffen Division flags waving in the audience.25 Semenyaka has leveraged the black-metal festival to form a kind of congress, called Pact of Steel, enabling right-wing extremists from Norway, Italy, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere to get to know each other and exchange ideas.26 It is at functions like these that the internationalization of the movement is being fostered, with the lines between politics and war, activism and militancy purposefully being blurred.

In February 2020, U.S. Congressman Max Rose and terrorism expert Ali Soufan published an op-ed in The New York Times.27 The war in Ukraine, they wrote, had become for right-wing extremists what the war in Afghanistan had been for jihadis in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, volunteers from many countries traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the country’s secular rulers and their Soviet backers. One of them, of course, was Usama bin Ladin, who created al-Qa`ida out of a group of hardcore fanatics. That war turned out to be a kind of Big Bang for 21st century Islamist terrorism.

Is it useful to look at the conflict in Ukraine through this lens? Yes and no: Yes, because the conflict has without question helped galvanize the right-wing extremist movement, and no, because the two cases cannot be easily compared. In Ukraine, to name only the most significant difference, right-wing extremist volunteers were recruited by both parties of the conflict, with a majority of foreign fighters joining the Russian side.28 Ukraine was not a single cause célèbre that united the movement through the fight against one common enemy. Instead, it made visible different undercurrents within the larger movement.

However, what can safely be said is that some of those who met either on the battlefield or in training or at one of the functions that have grown out of the original far-right extremist mobilization effort in the Ukraine war have since created networks of peers and in some cases gained crucial know-how, whether military or ideological. Felix Oberhuber says he himself knows three German neo-Nazis who have returned from the front. And other former right-wing extremists told Die Zeit of neo-Nazis who joined the Azov Battalion primarily to receive weapons training.29

Fighters from the Azov volunteer battalion ignite flares during a march marking the 72nd anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Kiev, Ukraine, on October 14, 2014. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP Photo)

The Recruitment Outreach of The Base
One American far-right extremist organization active in forging international connections among violent neo-fascist accelerationists was The Base. The Base is interesting for more than one reason. For one, its founder, Rinaldo Nazzaro, seems to have looked at jihadi groups for examples of best practices. This may have to do with the fact that Nazzaro, a U.S. citizen now based in Russia, at one time seems to have served as a contractor alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.30 He may even have picked the name of his group from al-Qa`ida.l “Afghanistan is (a) good example of unifying ideology harnessed militarily,” read a tweet posted by a Base account.31 The Base, one member boasted, was better than al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State.32

The Base seems to have been founded in order to serve as an umbrella group for right-wing extremists who are interested in a more global perspective. In an email exchange with this author, Nazzaro himself insisted The Base was neither a neo-Nazi nor a terrorist organization but “a social networking platform for individuals who are interested in survivalism and self-defense.”33 But what appear to be his true reasons for promoting training can be discerned from his apparent cynicism in a leaked chat protocol from The Base: “It’s illegal if you’re training in order to cause civil unrest,” he wrote. “If you’re training for survivalism and self-defense, you’re good to go.”34

Nazzaro became visible as a right-wing extremist only around 2018, when he transformed himself into a propagandist, appearing under the pseudonyms Roman Wolf and Norman Spear. In the summer of 2018, he started The Base, a group for which Siege was required reading.35 The Base was formed following an appeal by Nazzaro in an online forum and quickly attracted around 50 members. Some soon met up in the real world, organizing camps, target practice, and producing propaganda videos.

According to U.S. prosecutors, The Base’s goal is to “unify militant white supremacists around the globe and provide them with paramilitary training in preparation for a ‘race war.’”36 Three members of the organization were arrested because they were planning to murder antifa activists.37 Investigators netted another three members after they discussed attacking a gun rights rally in Virginia, possibly with the goal of provoking an escalation of tensions at the event.38

The Base showed a keen interest in recruiting members internationally, as demonstrated by a number of interviews the group recorded with prospective members from a number of countries. Experts today believe that there may still exist cells in South Africa, Canada, Great Britain, the Baltic states, and perhaps elsewhere.39

In the Die Zeit investigation, the reporting team was able show that the group was very likely successful in recruiting members in Germany and the Netherlands. These cases are discussed in turn in the following paragraphs.

According to the reporting team’s research, in the summer of 2019, a young German national who went by the alias “Dekkit” joined The Base. Photos and chat messages that the reporting team was able to review show that the young man was traveling in the United States at the time in question, probably to Silver Creek, a remote village in the state of Georgia, where the family of a member of The Base owns a 40-acre property. According to U.S. prosecutors, the group held so-called hate camps there, where the men received weapons training and even decapitated a goat in a pagan ritual.40

“Dekkit spotted in America,” an American neo-Nazi wrote in a chat on August 13, 2019, also posting a photo of the visitor. It shows a man in a military uniform half covered by a swastika flag.

Several entries are known to have been posted by Dekkit in The Base’s encrypted chat room. “Almost died going through the Swamps today,” he reported in one. He wrote that his companion had sunk “straight up to the thighs in mud.” They even saw alligators and water snakes. It is unclear exactly what Dekkit did when with The Base.

It appears that Dekkit has since returned to Germany, with no obvious interference by the German police and intelligence agencies. Interestingly, upon his return, he added the letters “AW” to his alias, which is presumably a reference to the Atomwaffen Division, thus proving the point made by James Mason in his interview with Die Zeit that names do not matter: they are exchangable, and overlapping membership in multiple groups is not a problem.m

The Base was apparently also in touch with at least two individuals in the Netherlands who stand accused of joining the group. In January 2021, a detention hearing was held in a court in Rotterdam for two men in custody who have been charged with sedition and membership in a terrorist organization, specifically the Base.n Fabio I., 19, stands accused of sedition and membership in The Base. He is alleged of having posted hate messages on Telegram such as “kill all non white (sic).” His lawyer says he is not a member of The Base, and in an attempt to prove it, he cited a message his client received by a person using the alias “Dutrinas:” “You still haven’t been vetted and have no cell leader.” The message, though, could serve to prove that he was in contact with The Base, at the very least.

The second defendant is 20-year-old Steven V., who is alleged to have incited an attack against Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In a chat room that investigators believe belongs to The Base, they uncovered evidence that Steven V. had shared what he purported to be specific and detailed information about Rutte’s travel patterns to work. “I’m not a terrorist,” Steven V. said during the court hearing. “I left the chat group months ago.” The court ruled that Fabio I. and Steven V. should remain in pre-trial custody.41

It is unclear if Nazzaro has a plan in place for the group’s future apart from a renewed attempt at recruiting.42 But whatever it might be, at least for a while he managed, through a mixture of slick online recruitment and personal availability, to create an organization that some young men chose over local groups that would have been very easy to join.

It is unclear how many foreign recruits The Base was able to win over. But since Die Zeit’s original publication, new evidence has come to light that suggests at least one more German national joined the group.43

From Online Chatting to Attack Plotting
The case of “Dekkit’s” involvement with The Base suggests that some extremists may be especially attracted to groups that offer personal, real-life connections in addition to online outreach. But this is not always so. In some instances, it seems that the online community can be almost as real and meaningful as an offline community. This appears to have been true in the case of Fabian D., a 23-year-old electronics technician from southern Germany.

Fabian D. has never been a formal member of an extreme far-right organization.44 According to what is known, he never harbored ambitions of fighting in Ukraine either. Rather, Fabian D. spent enormous amounts of time in front of his computer playing computer games. On the internet, he stumbled across neo-Nazi groups that embrace or are at least in part motivated by “Siegist” approaches such as Atomwaffen Division, The Base, and the Feuerkrieg Division, another right-wing terrorist networko with around 40 members from 15 countries.p

From his basement, Fabian D. watched Atomwaffen Division propaganda films he found online. He studied the manifestos of right-wing extremist terrorists. And before long, he was no longer content just being a spectator. In spring 2019, he finally gained access to the Feuerkrieg Division’s English-language international chat group.q Fabian D. was a loner and struggled with his weight, and he was able to create a new version of himself online. Die Zeit reviewed more than 18,000 screenshots of the chats. In them, Fabian D. called himself “reinhard070304” or “Heydrich” after the Nazi war criminal and Holocaust organizer Reinhard Heydrich, who was born on March 7, 1904. As a kind of virtual Heydrich, Fabian D. posted a photo showing people of color in the Bavarian city of Sham. The caption read: “Hm, to kill or not to kill is the question.”

Fabian D. also pursued his digital fantasies in the analog world. He would walk around in German military clothing and apparently even made an attempt to obtain weapons. In July 2019, he applied for a small arms license, which he then received 14 days later. And he had weapon parts sent to his grandmother’s address: a “decorative replica” of a Kalashnikov, plus an original case. Milling and drilling marks indicate that he had hopes of turning it into a live weapon.

Fabian D. also downloaded bomb-making instruction from the internet and ordered the kind of skull masks online that he saw in the propaganda videos. A selfie taken at the time shows him wearing a mask and a camouflage outfit, holding Mein Kampf in one hand and the model of a Kalashnikov in the other.

In January 2020, Fabian D. wrote to his comrades that he wanted to become as famous as a “Saint.” In the Feuerkrieg Division chat group, “Saint” is code in the scene for those who commit terrorist attacks like the man alleged to have murdered German politician Walter Lübckeat at his home in 2019, or the assassin in Christchurch, New Zealand, who perpetrated a terrorist attack against mosques in the city the same year.

In his chat group, Fabian D. actively solicited advice on what targets might be appropriate. He wrote that he believed “places of worship” would be a good choice and that he wanted to use “tools” and be “more up close and personal.” Shortly afterward, in February 2020, a SWAT team arrested Fabian D.r They found a blank-firing pistol in the driver’s door of his car that was loaded and ready to shoot, as well as a second one hidden under the passenger seat. He also had a camping knife, a hunting knife, and a hatchet in his backpack. In the basement apartment of his parents’ home, police seized a steel helmet, a machete, a vest for carrying ammunition, and a lock-picking kit. There was a letter from the German armed forces in his mailbox. Fabian D. had applied for a job in the IT department, and the letter contained a job offer.

In November 2020 in front of the Nuremberg District Court, a psychiatrist brought in to review the case said the defendant posed a “considerable danger.” The court sentenced Fabian D. to two years in prison for the preparation of a severe violent act that could or would have threatened the state, with no suspended sentence.s

The case can be seen as a success. At the same time, it underscores the challenges for security authorities in keeping track of internationally networked right-wing extremists. Fabian D. was caught, but other German participants in the Feuerkrieg chat group are still at large.45 In some instances, they cannot be identified; in others, they may be seen as dangerous, but cannot for legal reasons be made the subject of a criminal investigation unless they explicitly call for or announce criminal acts.

According to Die Zeit’s reporting, Germany’s Federal Prosecutor is currently investigating a network of neo-Nazis who are suspected of having either founded or supported yet another terrorist organization: the Atomwaffen Division Deutschland. The trail leads to Bavaria and Berlin, into student circles and to an extreme right-wing vigilante group.t

Investigations are also underway into other possible plans to carry out attacks in Germany. In the aforementioned Feuerkrieg Division chat group, one participant boasted in the summer of 2019 that an “OP Walter Lübcke 2.0” was planned—a reference to the assassination of the conservative German politician. When Fabian D. saw that particular post, he responded with one of the Atomwaffen Division’s slogans: “The knives are getting sharpened.”

The Russian Hub
Most of the networks, groups, and organizations covered thus far are operating clandestinely and illegally. But the increase in international networking among right-wing extremists cannot be fully grasped without including groups that are entirely legal—at least in the country where they are based. The most significant example is the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which serves as a hub for the larger movement of white supremacists but has not been confronted in any meaningful way by the Russian authorities.46<

The Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) calls RIM an “extreme-right, white supremacist militant organization.”47 RIM seeks the re-establishment of the Russian Tzarist order. It also maintains a paramilitary outfit called the Imperial Legion and a paramilitary trainings facility. It has dispatched fighters to the Ukrainian battlefields in the past, and more recently, according to the head of the Imperial Legion, members of the Legion have been fighting alongside regular Russian forces in Libya and elsewhere.u

The head of the Imperial Legion and the associated training program is Denis Gariev, a 42-year-old trained historian. In St. Petersburg, Gariev offers paramilitary training to Russian and foreign private citizens alike on a level unattainable in most other countries. When interviewed in early 2021, he said of his clientele: “They understand that they will need this something tomorrow because tomorrow it won’t matter what kind of car you have or what kind of startup you have launched, because tomorrow they will come to kill everyone and what you are going to do, they will have to fight the enemy.”48

Gariev’s customers are primarily Russian men between the ages of 20 and 45, but they also include French, Serbian, and German nationals. They all travel to him in St. Petersburg and take part in his various offerings, which include a course on war tactics, shooting, first aid, radio communications, and topography. The class lasts seven days and costs the equivalent of 280 euros. Gariev told Die Zeit he had 500 bookings for the class last year alone. “If people come with conservative, patriotic ideas, they are welcome,” he said. Ten instructors work for him, Gariev says.

Gariev is very open about his beliefs. The enemy, in his view, is a global alliance of leftists, gays, and immigrants. He believes it will take a “last crusade” to save ‘traditional’ Christian values from them. This vision is entirely compatible with the ideas of most of the groups discussed in this article thus far. In fact, it is no coincidence that the right-wing extremist movement has, in its propaganda and at occasions like public protests, over the past years displayed an ever stronger pro-Russian sentiment:v Many adherents of this movement see Russia as a bulwark against effeminacy and immigration.

In St. Petersburg, Gariev spoke to Die Zeit openly about his role as a networker. “We are the only organization that has strong and professional ties with the right-wing movements all over the world,” he said. In Germany, Gariev claimed, RIM has contacts with members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). In April 2017, representatives of RIM appeared at a march by right-wing extremists in Dortmund, Germany.49

There have also been networking attempts between RIM and Matthew Heimbach, an American neo-Nazi who has since claimed to have left behind his neo-Nazi beliefs.50 After having met some RIM cadres on a trip to Europe five years ago, a delegation from Russia visited Heimbach in Tennessee in 2017.51 In an interview with Die Zeit, Heimbach claimed the visit was harmless. According to his account, it included roller coaster rides at an amusement park and discussions about an alliance over barbecue. He and his visitors also drove to Washington, D.C., together, where they planted a RIM flag in front of the White House, took pictures, and gloated over their propaganda coup.52

In April 2020, the U.S. State Department classified RIM as “global terrorists,” a first for white supremacist terrorists.53 It appears that the concerns over the potential for the group to build a bridgehead in the United States played a part in this decision.54

Another reason for the designation was a series of attacks against asylum seekers in Sweden. These attacks were conducted by members of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) who had visited Denis Gariev’s facility in St. Petersburg before they started plotting.w The Nordic Resistance Movement is an alliance of neo-Nazi groups active throughout Scandinavia with a total of around 300 members. The attacks in Sweden involved explosives and happened between November 2016 and January 2017. The targets included a leftist bookstore/cafe and a campground that also provided accommodations for refugees. The last bomb they planted was near another refugee shelter. A member of the cleaning staff was seriously injured in the explosion.55 The perpetrators were arrested, and the investigators stumbled across a photo showing two of them in St. Petersburg with Kalashnikovs in their hands. Investigators believe the trip to Russia was “a key step in (their) radicalization.”56

In his interview with Die Zeit, Gariev claimed that his Swedish visitors did not train at his facility and that they only discussed issues of Christianity together. But it is a fact that RIM and NRM have been networking for years now. Scandinavian security services suspect that RIM is actively promoting militancy among NRM cadres.57 In early 2020, officials arrested an alleged RIM recruiter in Stockholm who had built up a cache of weapons.58

With RIM, the global right-wing extremist movement has at its disposal a very well-established organization that can not only provide paramilitary training, but also has in its ranks actual veterans of armed conflicts and is led by leaders whose ideology interlocks smoothly with those within the movement—all the while acting legally and fully in the open inside Russia and being very willing to network. Gariev told Die Zeit that until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the RIM used to organize several international conferences every year.

Now that the group has been designated in the United States, this networking effort has become somewhat more difficult. Gariev told Die Zeit that he knows exactly why the Europeans and Americans are afraid of him and his organization: “They understand very well that we are a threat … because of our ideas.”

The fact that right-wing extremists are cooperating internationally more than ever today is a reality recognized among researchers and government officials alike. This article has attempted to illustrate how some of these connections manifested. The methodology employed was journalistic rather than academic, focusing on individual cases rather than a quantitive or statistical approach. The results should therefore be taken for what they are: examples, illustrations, or in other words anecdotal evidence.

Nonetheless, it was possible to discern certain dynamics that appear to play important roles in this process of interactivity and transnational collaboration. For one, it is important to note that this development is not entirely based on new ideas or concepts. Rather, some old concepts and visions, probably most importantly the notion that it is necessary to start civil unrest, have been globalized by the movement. Regional focuses and traditions of course have not ceased to exist, but it is noteworthy that today, Russian and European neo-Nazis speak about the vision of a civil war in much the same way American neo-Nazis have for years.

Secondly, it is evident from many cases that technological advances have made this international networking effort much easier. The internet and more specifically encrypted tools for chatting are vital in this regard.

But it is not just a matter of technology. The case of “Dekkit,” a German recruit for The Base, suggests that meeting digital contacts in person might be particularly attractive to such extremists. And the case of Fabian D. suggests that the online community can be so tight-knit that it resembles a real-life connection for all practical purposes, including for the soliciting of advice for attack plotting.

Lastly, political developments in Eastern Europe have proven to be crucial for the transnationalization of right-wing extremism: Not only did the conflict provide far-right extremists with the opportunity to fight as a recruit on behalf of ultra-nationalist or openly right-wing extremist battalions and organizations, but a whole political-militant apparatus has grown from the events of 2014 that is still very active today and serves as a major connection between the large right-wing extremist scenes of Ukraine and that of Western Europe and beyond.59

In addition, Russia serves as a hub for the movement because groups like the Russian Imperial Movement are allowed to operate freely. RIM not only provides paramilitary training but openly tries to take on a leadership role for a global white supremacist movement preparing for a global civil war.

At this point in time, there are only two factors that seem to somewhat work against the increasing internationalization of the movement: the global COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened awareness of Western security institutions. The first obstacle will likely soon cease to exist. The second may not be as much of an obstacle as it would ideally be. Or at least not yet. While it is true that many governments have learned to understand the challenge, they still have not developed all the necessary tools to track it or stay ahead of the problem. To give just one example: Germany’s police authorities only started in 2019 to adapt their matrix for analyzing the threat level posed by individual jihadis in order to identify equally dangerous right-wing extremists.60

Meanwhile, there is little to suggest that global right-wing extremist networking activities will come to an end any time soon.     CTC

Yassin Musharbash is the deputy head of the investigative department of Die Zeit in Berlin. In his reporting, he has focused on jihadism, violent extremism, and national security issues for almost 20 years. Twitter: @abususu

Author’s Note: The investigation on which this article is based was conducted by Kai Biermann, Christian Fuchs, Sophie Garbe, Astrid Geisler, Yassin Musharbash, and Holger Stark (Die Zeit). Additional reporting was contributed by Rosanne Kropman in the Netherlands, Dmitry Saltykovsky in Russia, and Anton Maegerle in Germany. The team would like to thank Ryan Thorpe of the Winnipeg Free Press who kindly shared some of his research. The original article as it was published in English on Zeit Online was translated from German into English by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey; this article includes passages from their translation.

© 2021 Yassin Musharbash

Substantive Notes
[a] This means, for example, that many groups, which without doubt play a role in the transnationalization of the movement like National Socialist Order or Sonnenkrieg Division, will not be explicitly considered here.

[b] In the United States, in particular, this idea is usually described as accelerationism, a term that is not very common in Europe.

[c] The picture was published by AWD online at the time.

[d] In June 2021, Mason was listed as a terrorist entity by the Government of Canada. The Canadian listing states that “Mason’s collective works, published as a book called Siege, have served as the ideological grounding for neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division (AWD), which is a listed terrorist entity in Canada, and serves as the backbone for the AWD’s worldview and training program. Mason has also provided tactical direction on how to operate a terrorist group and has met with members of AWD, where he coached them on propagandizing murder and genocide.” It adds that “Mason and Siege have also been cited as the ideological foundation of Feuerkrieg Division and Sonnenkrieg Division, groups that have been proscribed as terrorist entities in the United Kingdom.” “Government of Canada lists four new terrorist entities,” Public Safety Canada, June 25, 2021; “Currently Listed Entities,” Public Safety Canada.

[e] The name Felix Oberhuber is a pseudonym. His real name is known to the authors.

[f] The mentioned document was found in a Swedish investigation file. It goes on to mention by name the following groups: AWD, The Base, Green Brigade, Sonnenkrieg Division, “and many others.” The author possesses the document.

[g] The theory of “The Great Exchange” or “The Great Replacement” is a conspiracy myth propagated by French right-wing ideologue Renaud Camus, according to which “elitists” are planning to substitute white populations with immigrants. It plays a big role in right-wing extremist thinking particularly in Europe but was also referenced by the Christchurch attacker in his manifesto. See also Nellie Bowles, “‘Replacement Theory,’ a Racist, Sexist Doctrine, Spreads in Far-Right Circles,” New York Times, March 18, 2019.

[h] The role of the Iron March internet forum was crucial in this regard. See Alex Newhouse, “The Threat Is the Network: The Multi-Node Structure of Neo-Fascist Accelerationism,” CTC Sentinel 14:5 (2021) for details.

[i] Oberhuber today considers himself a former right-wing extremist who is in the process of deradicalization.

[j] The Azov Battalion started as a volunteer militia in 2014 and was later incorporated into the Ukrainian Army. Among its founders were neo-Nazis. Out of its leadership grew the “National Corps” political party. Anton Shekhovtsov, “Why Azov should not be designated a foreign terrorist organization,” Atlantic Council, February 24, 2020. The Azov Battalion accepted foreign volunteers, “before the Azov Regiment was established and subsequently became the alleged epicentre of European neo-Nazi mobilisation.” Kacper Rekawek, “Career Break or a New Career? Extremist Foreign Fighters in Ukraine,” Counter Extremism Project, April 2020, p. 26.

[k] According to the ADL, “Identitarianism, a racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant movement that originated in France and spread to other countries in Europe and, eventually, the United States. Identitarianism is roughly analogous to the alt right segment of the white supremacist movement in the United States.” “Identitarian Lambda,” ADL website.

[l] It is not entirely clear why al-Qa`ida chose its name, and there are several explanations. But generally, it is assumed that it means “the base.”

[m] Newhouse also makes the point: “The [violent accelerationist neo-fascist] network is built on membership fluidity, frequent communications, and a shared goal of social destruction.” See Newhouse.

[n] According to the spokesperson for the prosecution, both individuals are believed to have been in contact with The Base over the internet. Phone interview conducted by author in July 2021.

[o] The U.K. government proscribed Feuerkrieg Division in July 2020 and described it as a terrorist organization. See “Priti Patel proscribes far-right terrorist group,” U.K. Home Office and The Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, July 13, 2020.

[p] Der Spiegel puts the number of members even higher, at 70. Maik Baumgartner, Roman Höfner, and Roman Lehberger, “Mitgründer der ‘Feuerkrieg Division’ gefasst,” Der Spiegel, April 9, 2020. According to what the Die Zeit reporting team learned during various background briefings with judicial and intelligence sources in Germany, membership in far-right terrorist organizations is very difficult to determine and prove and that membership in specific chat rooms is sometimes all there is to go on.

[q] Alex Newhouse who also reviewed these or similar chats, speaks of “significant transnational communication.” See Newhouse.

[r] It is unclear whether the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German domestic intelligence agency responsible for monitoring terrorism and political extremism, was tracking those conversations or whether it received a tip from abroad. However, the agency contacted the police and informed them there was a threat of an attack, perhaps on a synagogue or a mosque, according to statements by police officers during the trial. Court documents seen by Die Zeit.

[s] His defense attorney has filed an appeal. For details on the sentence, see Olaf Przybilla, “23-Jahriger plante Anschlag und muss zwei Jahre in Haft,” Suddeutsche Zeitung, December 4, 2020.

[t] The Federal Prosecutor in Germany declined to discuss details.

[u] According to several media reports, RIM fighters have even been deployed to Syria and Libya. See, for example, “The Kremlin Uses Radical Russian Imperial Movement to Destabilize the West,” Warsaw Institute, July 17, 2021, and Inside the Russian Imperial Movement: Practical Implications of U.S. Sanctions (New York: Soufan Center, 2020). They also took part in the fighting in Ukraine. Gariev, a leading figure in RIM and the head of its Imperial Legion, confirmed to Die Zeit the deployment to Syria and Libya, stating that the men fought for private military companies or the Russian army.

[v] Examples include The Base’s Nazzaro wearing a Putin T-shirt; some pro-Russian posters held up in U.S. protests in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Matthew Heimbach’s pro-Russia position.

[w] This was confirmed through Swedish court documents that Die Zeit was able to review. RIM’s Denis Gariev confirmed in an interview conducted on behalf of Die Zeit in January 2021 that the NRM members in question visited him at the facility. He said they only came as visitors and that he discussed issues of Christianity with them. He said that these NRM visitors did not train at the facility.

[1] “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2020,” Europol, June 23, 2020, p. 77.

[2] “Violent Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism – Transnational Connectivity, Definitions, Incidents, Structures and Countermeasures,” Counter Extremism Project, November 2020.

[3] United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, April 2020.

[4] Kai Biermann, Christian Fuchs, Astrid Geisler, Yassin Musharbash, and Holger Stark, “The Brown Internationale,” Der Zeit, February 11, 2021.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Graham Macklin, “The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[7] Blyth Crawford and Florence Keen, “The Hanau Terrorist Attack: How Race Hate and Conspiracy Theories Are Fueling Global Far-Right Violence,” CTC Sentinel 13:3 (2020).

[8] Greg Myre, “Deadly Connection: Neo-Nazi Group Linked to 3 Accused Killers,” NPR, March 6, 2018.

[9] A very good overview of AWD’s history can be found in Alex Newhouse, “The Threat Is the Network: The Multi-Node Structure of Neo-Fascist Accelerationism,” CTC Sentinel 14:5 (2021).

[10] For more background on the group, see The Atomwaffen Division: The Evolution of the White Supremacy Threat (New York: Soufan Center, 2020).

[11] All quotes from interview conducted by Die Zeit’s Holger Stark in the fall of 2020.

[12] Joshua Fisher-Birch, “Atomwaffen Division Claims to Have Disbanded,” Counter Extremism Project, March 16, 2020.

[13] Newhouse.

[14] Jade Parker, “Accelerationism in America: Threat Perceptions,” Global Network on Extremism & Technology, February 4, 2020.

[15] Newhouse.

[16] Kathleen Belew, “The Right Way to Understand White Nationalist Terrorism,” New York Times, August 4, 2019.

[17] Interview conducted by Christian Fuchs in September 2020.

[18] White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement (New York: Soufan Center, 2019).

[19] Kacper Rekawek, “‘It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over’: Extreme Right-Wing Foreign Fighters in Ukraine,” Counter Extremism Project, September 23, 2019.

[20] This is according to interviews with security officials who asked not to be identified as well as background briefings by academic experts held under Chatham House rules.

[21] “Deutscher Bundestag Drucksache 19/26359, Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Martina Renner, Dr. André Hahn, Gökay Akbulut, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE,” Deutscher Bundestag – 19. Wahlperiode, February 2, 2021.

[22] Interviews conducted by Christian Fuchs in December 2020.

[23] The picture was part of the so-called Shaltai-Boltai leaks. For more information about that hacker group, see Shaun Walker, “Russian hacking group’s ‘last member at liberty’ comes out of the shadows,” Guardian, February 9, 2017.

[24] Simon Shuster and Billy Perrigo, “Like, Share, Recruit: How a White-Supremacist Militia Uses Facebook to Radicalize and Train New Members,” Time, January 7, 2021.

[25] See Michael Colborne, “Most neo-Nazi Music Festivals Are Closely Guarded Secrets—Not This One in Ukraine,” Haaretz, December 12, 2019.

[26] “Paneuropa Conference,” FOIA Research, January 11, 2019.

[27] Max Rose and Ali H. Soufan, “We Once Fought Jihadists. Now We Battle White Supremacists,” New York Times, February 11, 2020.

[28] Rekawek, “‘It Ain’t Over til It’s Over.’”

[29] Author interviews conducted in 2020 with several extremists who did not wish to be identified by name.

[30] See Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux, “Neo-Nazi Terror Leader Said to Have Worked With U.S. Special Forces,” Vice News, September 24, 2020, and Benjamin Wallace, “The Prep-School Nazi,” New Yorker Magazine, March 30, 2020, for more background on Nazzaro.

[31] United States of America v. Brian Mark Lemley, Jr., Patrik Jordan Mathews, and William Garfield Bilbrough IV, Motion for Detention Pending Trial, January 21, 2020.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Email exchange with author in January 2021.

[34] Mack Lamoureux, Ben Makuch, and Zachary Kamel, “How One Man Built a Neo-Nazi Insurgency in Trump’s America,” Vice News, October 7, 2020.

[35] Ibid.

[36] United States of America v. Yousef Omar Barasneh, Criminal Complaint, January 16, 2020; Bill Chappell, Merrit Kennedy, and Vanessa Romo, “3 Alleged Members Of Hate Group ‘The Base’ Arrested In Georgia, Another In Wisconsin,” NPR, January 17, 2020.

[37] Derek Hawkins and Hannah Knowles, “Alleged members of white supremacy group ‘the Base’ charged with plotting to kill antifa couple,” Washington Post, January 18, 2020.

[38] Peter Williams and Erik Ortiz, “Days before Virginia gun rally, FBI arrests 3 alleged white supremacists,” NBC News, January 16, 2020.

[39] See, for example, Alex Mann and Kevin Nguyen, “The Base tapes,” ABC (Australia), March 25, 2021, and Samantha Springer, “Secret tapes show neo-Nazi group The Base recuriting former members of the military,” NBC News, October 15, 2020. See also Newhouse.

[40] Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux, “Neo-Nazi Memoir Describes Terror Group’s Acid-Soaked Ram Sacrifice,” Vice News, June 24, 2020.

[41] All information recorded by Rosanne Kropman on behalf of Die Zeit in courtroom in Rotterdam in January 2021. According to this article, both men are alleged to have been in contact with The Base leadership: Eddie Anderson, “Right-wing extremist terror suspect ‘just sat at home on the couch under a blanket,’” Netherland News Live, January 21, 2021.

[42] Newhouse; Ben Makuch, “Neo-Nazi Group The Base Is Recruiting Again, Despite FBI Takedown,” Vice News, May 20, 2021.

[43] New information obtained by the Die Zeit investigative team subsequent to the publication of their investigative report.

[44] All information about Fabian D. and his plot are based on original reporting by Astrid Geisler, including her observations of the trial and several background briefings by officials who asked not to be identified by name.

[45] See Christopher Miller, “An International Neo-Nazi Group Thought To Have Been Dissolved Is Recruiting Again In The US,” Buzzfeed, June 9, 2021, for more reporting on possible plots by FKD in other countries.

[46] “Russian Imperial Movement,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last modified February 2021; “Russian Imperial Movement,” Center for International Security and Cooperation, last updated 2021.

[47] “Russian Imperial Movement,” Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University.

[48] Interview conducted by Dmitry Saltikowsky on behalf of Die Zeit in January 2021.

[49] “Deutsche Rechtsextremisten vernetzt in Russland,” Zeit Online, June 5, 2020; “Signal für Einigkeit: Kongreß mit europäischen Nationalisten in Dortmund!” Die Rechte, November 6, 2017.

[50] Interviews conducted on the phone by the author and in person by Holger Stark.

[51] Casey Michel, “Russian, American white nationlists raise their flags in Washington,” ThinkProgress, September 22, 2017.

[52] See Ezel Sahinkaya and Danila Galperovich, “Radical Russian Imperial Movement Expanding Global Outreach,“ Voice of America, May 9, 2020, and Michel. These accounts have, by and large, been confirmed by Heimbach when Die Zeit spoke to him.

[53] Nathan A. Sales, “Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement,” U.S. Department of State, April 6, 2020.

[54] Ibid.

[55] This is according to Swedish court documents Die Zeit’s Kai Biermann was able to review.

[56] “Sweden: Extremism and Terrorism,” Counter Extremism Project.

[57] Background briefing to the author in late 2020 by Scandinavian security official who asked not to be identified by name.

[58] “Combat training for European neo-Nazis in Russia,” Robert Lansing Institute, June 9, 2020.

[59] See also Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Far-Right Extremists in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020) for a discussion of links between American and Ukrainian right-wing extremists.

[60] Yassin Musharbash, “Nur 43 gefährliche Rechtsextremisten in Deutschland? Eher nicht,” Zeit Online, October 15, 2019.

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