Is Biden Ignoring a Key Tool to Combat Violent Extremists?

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The neo-Nazi group Nordic Resistance Movement is big on media. It hosts a weekly podcast dubbed Nordic Frontier with a strong following among its members in Sweden, Finland, and Norway, along with like-minded listeners throughout Europe and the United States. The group bills the showas “the Final Solution to your podcast problem” — a twisted reference to the Holocaust.

Last May, its featured guest was a Queens, New York, native named Rob Rundo.

Rundo is the American white supremacist who co-founded the Rise Above Movement, a U.S.-based white supremacist group theFBI says rioted at the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. When the Nordic Frontier host welcomed Rundo onto the show, he joked that the interview was “way overdue” because he’d been following Rundo and RAM members’ arrests since Charlottesville. A video broadcast online during the interview showed Rundo and RAM brothers “on tour,” weaving their way through many countries of Europe and visiting the Reichstag building in Berlin, scene of the infamous fire that played a role in the Nazis’ rise to power.

The show’s host, Andreas Johansson, lamented how the Covid-19 pandemic had made it more difficult for extremists across Europe to march together. Rundo heartily agreed: “More networking, more meeting up again, because this is all a one-people-one-struggle type of thing.”

The podcast is, in itself, proof of the growing internationalization of white supremacy, and how even proudly nationalistic groups in different countries reinforce each other’s grievances. The sense that white people are under siege in multiple countries fuels the global movement with fresh conspiracies while creating a sense of white brotherhood. Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist who killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, said he was inspired by American white supremacist Dylann Roof and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. Tarrant himself was then hailed by American mass murderers who attacked a California synagogue and killed 22 people, mostly Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, in El Paso, Texas.

For his part, Rundo is just one of many American white supremacists to appear on Nordic Frontier in recent years, underscoring how European identitarians are increasingly radicalizing, and being radicalized by, American white supremacists.

The cross-border reach of the American white supremacist movement and its use of violence is especially concerning to some law enforcement experts who say the Biden administration is failing to utilize the most powerful tool in its legal arsenal to enable law enforcement to monitor hate groups more closely. Under U.S. law, foreign white supremacist groups can be designated as foreign terrorist organizations, and providing “material support” to such groups is a federal crime. To be designated an FTO, a group must be foreign; it must threaten the security of the US or US nationals; and it must participate in terrorist activity or have the capability and intent to commit terrorism, according to the State Department.

Designating groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement as foreign terrorist organizations would, paradoxically, give the FBI new tools to combat violent threats from domestic extremists. The U.S. has no domestic terrorism statute — a longstanding source of disagreement among policy makers. But if a global hate group were designated an FTO, said former FBI Supervisory Agent Ali Soufan, authorities could share intelligence on American citizens connected to the designated group with U.S. allies and prosecutors could charge Americans who provide material support to it. In the eyes of Soufan, a widely respected global security expert known for his early tracking of Osama bin Laden, the additional tools for tracking international white supremacy are crucial to preventing future waves of global attacks.

But to date, no white supremacist groups have been designated FTOs by the US government — because of a hesitance among U.S. officials, and fears that they don’t yet fit the model of global terrorist networks established by Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

Currently, only one white supremacist group is designated by the U.S. government, but it is not as an FTO. Instead, authorities have deemed The Russian Imperial Movement a Specially Designated Global Terrorism Group, a designation which allows for financial penalties but, unlike an FTO, does not allow for criminal penalties based on membership in the group alone.

In February, Canada designated four far-right violent extremist, white supremacist, or neo-Nazi groups, including The Proud Boys, the Atomwaffen Division, the Base, and the Russian Imperial Movement. Three of these organizations were founded in the United States, but all have links to overseas white supremacy groups and are part of the transnational violent far-right ecosystem. Many counterterrorism experts and law enforcement officials have hailed Canada for its decision.

The Biden administration recently released an anti-domestic terrorism strategy that won praise from counterterrorism experts, but many noted in frustration that it does not provide any recommendations for new legal authority to crack down on domestic terrorists. In the wake of the January 6 insurrection in the US Capitol, many say, more legal tools are urgently needed for a law enforcement apparatus that is just now catching up to the threat posed by white supremacists and far-right extremists.

In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that since the spring of 2020 the bureau had more than doubled its domestic terrorism caseload, from about a thousand to around 2,700 investigations. But the Biden administration has not addressed the white-supremacy threat through designations, despite a growing chorus of calls for them to do so.

“We could end up having blood on our hands to a degree if we don’t address this,” said Jason Blazakis, who served as the Director of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations at the State Department for more than a decade until he left to become a professor at the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies in 2018.

“Leaving this unaddressed, whether it means not using the [FTO] sanctions, authorities not pursuing other avenues to try to target extremists in this milieu, not seriously giving consideration to the passage of domestic terrorism law that is bounded by protection of civil liberties — that is absolutely, I think, an example of where we would have blood on our hands because we have those opportunities to do things that we may have missed,” Blazakis said. “And because we didn’t do certain things, something bad may have happened, because we didn’t use the legal authorities that were available to us, or try to create new authorities that will go after a problem in a nuanced way.”

Blazakis believes there is much to be gained by designating more groups as FTOs, particularly because doing so would allow law enforcement to track financial relationships between individual identitarians operating across borders. He said without designating the groups, law enforcement can’t track “the free flow of money” between them.

To take one example, the Proud Boys Irish chapter makes merchandise that it has shared with the American chapter, allowing the group to raise money. Blazakis said this wouldn’t be possible if the Proud Boys foreign chapter were designated. He called the situation reminiscent of when the Irish Republican Army established a charity that raised a huge amount of money in the United States that was ultimately funneled back to Ireland and used for violent campaigns.

Blazakis said that many at the State Department are concerned about protecting First Amendment rights of Americans who could be prosecuted if they consorted with an FTO-designated group. But he also pointed to the ways in which American law enforcement has been distracted by the threat posed by ISIS and other Islamist terror groups as a problem.

“The US was just so focused on Salafi jihadism that the white supremacist challenge wasn’t thought of as the same level of priority,” Blazakis said. “The Biden administration hasn’t used this tool at all yet.”

The State Department declined to participate in an interview for this story, or to directly address the fact that it doesn’t identify any overseas white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations. But a State Department official who was cleared to speak on behalf of the agency said it is “committed to the appropriate use of its counterterrorism-related designations authorities to limit the ability of foreign groups or individuals linked to acts of terrorism to obtain resources and support, regardless of their ideologies or motivations.”

The official said that designations are a critical tool in their efforts to address the racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism threat, and they “continue to assess whether a range of REMVE actors meet the criteria for designation under State authorities.” But the official said the agency faces challenges, including a lack of sufficient information about hate groups due to more diffuse organizational structures.

“Most do not have clear leadership or command and control structures to coordinate attacks, which is important when assessing whether the activities of an individual can be attributed to an organization for designation purposes,” the State official said. “It is important to be clear that the State Department’s counterterrorism sanctions authorities can only be applied to foreign individuals or entities. It is also important to recognize that our foreign partners have different designation regimes and criteria from the United States, and many are able to designate REMVE organizations based solely on hateful speech.”

Not everyone thinks designating more terrorist organizations as FTOs is a good idea. Greg Ehrie, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president of law enforcement and analysis and, previously, the section chief of the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Operations section, said he has concerns about opening the door to the FBI targeting people for their views, not actions. He also said he believes law enforcement has many of the tools it needs to go after white supremacists now, as long as they have committed a crime. And he disagreed with Soufan’s contention that law enforcement currently is hindered from communicating adequately with foreign partners.

“The government has always had the tools to deal with this,” Ehrie said.

While it may be illegal just to be a member of Al-Qaeda, Ehrie said, it would be “too easy” to treat American white supremacists in the same way. He said it would be dangerous to view all white supremacists as terrorists just because most people find their views to be abhorrent and some members of their groups are violent. Instead, Ehrie said, law enforcement should focus on pursuing white supremacists for underlying crimes.

“We can get them from their money, we can get them from their violence, we can get them from their weapons,” Ehrie said. “Our criminal penalties and our criminal investigative techniques are really effective. But the key word here is they’re not easy . . . In America, you are allowed to hate. You are allowed to be members of these groups. It’s not against the law and nor should it be.”

Ehrie said that white supremacists are more emboldened than they’ve been in the past and acknowledged that thanks to social media and technologies like Zoom there is more of an “international nexus” to the problem than there was in the past as extremists are crossing borders, often virtually, and “growing the brand.”

The role of social media in facilitating cross-border networking among white supremacists cannot be understated, many experts maintain. According to Soufan Center Senior Intelligence Analyst Mollie Saltskog, the Proud Boys have chapters in 40 countries, a rapid spread that would not have been possible without social media. They have, in effect, gone viral.

The Nordic Resistance Movement hosted a podcast pegged to the January 6 Capitol insurrection and used it to raise funds. Rundo, who had been living in Serbia until recently when the government expelled him, has co-hosted a podcast of his own with Russian Neo-Nazi Denis Nikitin. A well-connected leader of the identitarian movement throughout Europe, Nikitin is the founder of the lifestyle brand White Rex — one observer called it the “Ralph Lauren of white supremacists” — and is a kingpin of the continent’s Neo-Nazi MMA scene, itself a melting pot for extremists from around the globe.

Nick Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center who now runs the Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism, an NGO supported by tech companies that works to stop terrorists from exploiting digital platforms, said the Canadian government’s designation of terrorist organizations has made it easier for social media companies to crack down. Trying to police extremist content is often difficult without government markers, he said, especially given how amorphous many white supremacists’ connections to one another are — a dynamic that in part can be attributed to the fact that many of them only know each other online.

“If you’re dealing with bin Laden video or a piece of propaganda put forward by a leader of the Islamic State, those forms of content are much more easily identifiable and much more easily readily actionable,” Rasmussen said.

Still, many say that social media companies like Facebook could be doing more. Ehrie, the former FBI domestic terrorism supervisor now at the ADL, was critical of social media companies, saying that it is illegal for white supremacists to foment violence and recruit people to act violently online and more needs to be done to ferret out that behavior.

“You provided the platform,” he said of Facebook. “You have to provide some policing on this platform or at least work with law enforcement investigators who can provide appropriate policing. And it’s easier said than done because it’s massive.”

The 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks are seen by many experts as transnational terrorism in action. Tarrant, who killed 51 people in two mosques, has beenlinked to the Azov Battalion, a Ukraine-based paramilitary white supremacist group. The flak jacket Tarrant wore during the assault included a symbol used by the Azov Battalion and other global Neo-Nazis; his manifesto, which was published online and has been cited by white supremacists worldwide, claims that he visited Ukraine. Tarrant also says he was in touch with Breivik, the Norwegian far-right extremist who killed 77 people in 2011, before the massacre. His online manifesto cited both Breivik and Roof, the American white supremacist who in 2015 gunned down nine Black worshipers in a South Carolina church. And the gun Tarrant used for his rampage allegedly was labeled with the white-supremacist names and memes from around the world.

In April, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat and former CIA intelligence analyst who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing intelligence and counterterrorism, pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate more foreign white supremacist groups as FTOs or, alternately, as Specially Designated Global Terrorist groups. She argued that doing so would give the government “more tools to engage and flag the Americans who contact, support, train, and join these (white supremacist extremist) groups.” In her letter to Blinken, Slotkin named the Nordic Resistance Movement as an organization she would like to see designated.

Mary McCord, who served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security from 2016 to 2017 and now runs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law Center, said the only way under current law to charge white supremacists with terrorism is if their attacks are carried out in support of a designated FTO or are aimed at U.S. government officials or property.

McCord said the U.S. legal framework for terrorism treats international terrorism as distinct from domestic terrorism even though most terrorist ideologies are international with international support.

“If the El Paso shooter had pledged bayat [an oath of allegiance] to the ISIS leader before he committed his mass shooting, there would be several US terrorism offenses that he could be charged with,” McCord said. “But his motivation was based on white supremacy and no US terrorism crime is applicable.”

Domestic terrorism also gets marginalized when it comes to information-sharing, McCord said, recalling how she saw that in action when she traveled to the Mexican border in the spring of 2019 to learn more about a private militia unlawfully detaining migrants at gunpoint.

“I had one local police officer saying, ‘Every day I get a report about what’s happening in Yemen, but I don’t get anything about what’s happening 10 miles away right here at the border,’ ” she said. “Information about extremist activity in the US has not historically been shared as widely.”

McCord has argued for making domestic terrorism a federal crime, but she doesn’t think the opposition to that measure can be overcome, so she has focused recently on promoting other tools for reining in the threat. Among them are designating foreign terrorist organizations as well as pushing federal anti-militia legislation creating criminal penalties and civil enforcement mechanisms to police unlawful private militias.

She said she views white supremacy as a “global phenomenon [where] individual extremists themselves are motivated and encouraged by the work of others.” If more groups were deemed FTOs, any American who travels abroad to train with them or who buys their merchandise could be charged.

“Domestic terrorism isn’t really truly domestic,” she said. “Domestic really just describes where particular acts take place, but the ideologies are often global, including white supremacist ideologies.”

Rundo’s Rise Above Movement maintains ties to foreign groups like the Ukraine-based Azov Battalion, Soufan said, but in the United States the law constrains authorities from criminalizing domestic terrorists even when they are recognized as part of a larger global network.

“How do you pass information about an American citizen to a foreign government if what they are doing is just promoting white supremacist ideology on Facebook, which is protected by the First Amendment, if it’s not designated?” Soufan asked. “Let’s map it out and let’s designate appropriate groups that have been involved in creating these international networks that allows [them] to recruit people from Western countries, radicalize them, and send them back to divide the West and weaken the West from the inside.”

Rundo provides a good case study: He formed the Rise Above Movement (RAM) in 2017, and is alleged to have quickly forged ties with the Hammerskins, a network of neo-Nazi skinheads whose international members have been involved in at least nine murders in four states, according to The New York Times. RAM played a key role at the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally that year, an event which many experts see as a watershed moment for the American white supremacy movement.

According to a 2018 criminal complaint filed by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, Rundo traveled to Italy, Germany and Ukraine in the spring of that year to participate in mixed-martial arts tournaments hosted by neo-Nazi organizations. The FBI, which charged Rundo and other RAM members with rioting, said that while he was in Europe, Rundo celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday and met with European white supremacists, including a leader of the Azov Battalion, which the FBI says is “believed to have participated in training and radicalizing United States-based white supremacy organizations.”

Azov Battalion has allegedly trained scores of American extremists who have streamed into Eastern Ukraine over the years to join in the fight against Russian separatist forces as a means of getting fighting experience. One such American, Craig Lang, is wanted for the 2018 slaying of a Florida coupleafter returning from the front lines in Eastern Ukraine; Lang, a white supremacist and former U.S. Army soldier, is being investigated by the Justice Department for war crimes committed in the Ukraine, a development first reported by Buzzfeed News. He is now fighting extradition back to the United States.

Meanwhile, Rundo’s rioting charges, which stemmed from a series of alleged RAM attacks on protestors and journalists in California and Charlottesville in 2017, were dropped in 2019 when a federal judge ruled that the federal Anti-Riot Act used to prosecute Rundo was “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

While the charges have since been reinstated by a federal appeals court, Soufan sees the case as a prime example of why more FTO designations are needed. If groups like the Nordic Resistance Movement and the Azov Battalion were designated as FTOs, the authorities would have many more tools to investigate and share information about Americans collaborating them — just as they do Islamic terror groups which are routinely designated as FTOs.

“How do you have the NSA or the CIA share information with our counterparts in the Ukraine about these guys going [there to fight], if they are not designated in any way?” Soufan said. “Then they are just passing information about American citizens going there, which is actually a violation of the law.”

To be sure, many in law enforcement are opposed to designations, but not because they don’t think there’s a problem. Former FBI agent Tom O’Connor, who worked domestic terrorism cases for 20 years before retiring in 2019, said he is opposed for First Amendment reasons, but he believes it is vital for the U.S. to implement its own domestic terrorism statute. Without a statute, O’Connor said, it is much harder for law enforcement to track domestic terrorism and assign resources to fight it.

“You can’t tell me how many incidents of domestic terrorism have taken place in United States, because you would have to review every act of violence, to tell me if there was a political agenda behind that violence,” O’Connor said. “Because people have been charged with gun charges, other violent actions, but they’re not charged as domestic terrorists, it is almost impossible to correlate that information into a system that can tell you what the problem actually is.”

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