A threat to confront: far-right extremists and nuclear terrorism

Logo of Atomwaffen Division. (Illustration by Skjoldbro/Wikipedia) Logo of Atomwaffen Division. (Illustration by Skjoldbro/Wikipedia)

Last March, neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson was killed during a shootout as he was planning to bomb a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Like other neo-Nazis, Wilson viewed the pandemic and increased unrest among the American public as an opportunity to popularize Nazi ideas, spark further chaos, and accelerate societal collapse.[1] This past week, Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed while storming the US Capitol as part of a right-wing uprising; several years earlier, she was an employee of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, exhibiting violent behavior during this period. [2] Acts of violence by far-right extremists are on the rise in the United States. Until now, most of these incidents have lacked sophistication, but a critical question for national security experts is whether US far-right extremist groups that espouse violence can carry out something catastrophic.

Every president serving in the last two decades has said that nuclear terrorism is a significant national security threat. Analysis of this threat has been, for good reason, mostly focused on foreign extremist groups, but recent events raise questions of whether there should be greater focus in the United States on far-right, domestic extremist threats. These extremists represent a unique danger because of their prevalence in federal institutions such as the military and the potential that they might infiltrate nuclear facilities, where they could access sensitive information and nuclear materials.

The far-right extremist nuclear terrorism threat, which has some history, is amplified today by an ideology focused on accelerating the collapse of society and a documented interest in pursuing nuclear terrorism. Officials need to act decisively to better understand and mitigate this threat.

Far-right narratives of nuclear terror. The intersection between violent far-right extremist ideology and catastrophic terrorism goes back decades. In The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel labeled the “bible of the racist right,” the protagonists use acts of nuclear terror in service of the creation of a “white world.” Protagonists bomb nuclear installations, seize nuclear weapons, target missiles at New York City and Tel Aviv, and ultimately destroy the Pentagon in a suicidal nuclear attack.[3] The International Centre for Counterterrorism ties the Diaries to “at least 200 murders and at least 40 terrorist attacks/hate crimes” in the last 40 years.[4] This includes Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, resulting in the deaths of 168 people.[5] McVeigh, however, is not the only far-right terrorist to be inspired by the Diaries. In 2011, violent far-right extremist Anders Breivik’s terror attacks killed 77 people in Norway. Dozens of pages in his 1,500-page “manifesto” discuss the execution of different acts of nuclear terrorism.[6]

An increasingly active generation of violent far-right extremist groups and actors have adopted an especially dangerous ideology that is compatible with an act of nuclear terror: accelerationism.[7] Violent far-right extremists who adopt accelerationism view societal collapse as inevitable and seek to hasten that collapse in service of “total revolution”—the complete destruction of the existing system of governance.[8] Violent far-right extremists who adopt accelerationism hope to set off a series of violent chain events, with violence begetting more violence, destabilizing society.[9] Indiscriminate, highly destructive acts of terror—like a nuclear attack—are therefore perfect tools to sow chaos and accelerate this societal collapse.

In Siege, one of the defining theoretical works of violent far-right accelerationism, author and accelerationist leader James Mason writes that, “[White supremacists] will be the single survivor in a war against the System, a TOTAL WAR against the System.”[10] In a recent act of violent far-right extremist terrorism, Brenton Tarrant, the Australian perpetrator of the 2019 terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain in New Zealand, wrote about accelerationism in his manifesto.[11]

Groups with nuclear interests. Inspired by the ideas of accelerationism, the modern breed of violent far-right extremism is becoming more destructive, and nuclear weapons certainly fit into this profile of catastrophic violence. The intention to bring about a cataclysmic clash of civilizations bears resemblance to better known terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, both of which have pursued nuclear weapons. As director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, once observed, “Osama bin Ladin has signaled a specific purpose for using WMD in al Qaeda’s quest to destroy the global status quo, and to create conditions more conducive to the overthrow of apostate regimes throughout the Islamic world.”[12] Like Al-Qaeda, violent far-right extremists support the creation of a new society that is in line with their own ideology.

One of the most notable and violent far-right extremist groups that have adopted accelerationism and operate in the United States is the Atomwaffen Division (AWD).[13] The organization’s name translates from German to “the nuclear weapons division,” indicating that its members have an explicit interest in nuclear terrorism. Brandon Russel, a former Florida National Guard member and an AWD co-founder, is one case of an aspiring nuclear terrorist. A heavily armed Russel and a fellow AWD member were recently arrested while in route to the Turkey Point nuclear power plant. During the investigation officials found that Russel lived in an apartment with two AWD co-conspirators; in the apartment was a prominently placed copy of the Turner Diaries and a framed photo of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh. The trio stockpiled weapons and explosives with the intent to blow up, among other targets, a nuclear power plant. In their apartment, police found pipe bomb components, traces of the explosive hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, and detonators. Police also detected two radioactive materials—thorium and americium—in his bedroom.[14]

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AWD was not the first far-right extremist in America to consider using radioactive or nuclear materials in a terrorist attack. Several previously documented attempts by violent far-right extremists to commit acts of radiological terror indicate a longstanding interest among far-right actors in highly destructive, non-conventional acts of terror.[15] In 2004, National Socialist Movement member Demetrius Van Crocker attempted to build a dirty bomb to blow up a courthouse.[16] In 2008, James Cummings, a white supremacist, obtained four 1-gallon containers of a mix of depleted uranium and thorium-232. He planned to use these materials to assemble a dirty bomb.[17] In 2013, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who worked at General Electric carried out research on radiation dispersal devices, learning what level of emission was required to kill humans.[18]

Could they really pull it off? While some violent far-right extremists are clearly motivated to carry out catastrophic terrorist attacks, a question remains: Do they possess the means and opportunity to conduct an act of nuclear terrorism? There is no public evidence violent far-right extremist groups have obtained the resources or exhibited the requisite operational sophistication to carry out an act of nuclear terrorism. Many of the plots involving far-right extremists and nuclear terrorism have been poorly conceived and were unlikely to succeed. These incidents, however, likely do not provide a complete picture of the threat, because publicly accessible information on the capability of these groups is limited, creating ambiguity about their general capabilities.

Moreover, predicting the capability of specific terrorist groups has proven to be exceptionally difficult. In January 2014, for example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did not list the Islamic State as a terrorist threat in his testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Yet, within months, the Islamic State had seized major portions of Syria and Iraq and declared a global caliphate.[19] Intelligence on potential lone-wolf actors is even more difficult to gather.

The most concerning evidence that violent far-right extremists might have access to nuclear weapons or weapons-useable material lies in their presence in the US military and other parts of the federal government. The presence of white supremacists in the military is well-known and well-documented. A 2019 poll revealed that 36 percent of active-duty military troops had witnessed evidence of white supremacist ideology in the military.[20] In 2020 alone, there were several recent examples of active service members being arrested for plotting far-right extremist acts of terrorism. In January 2020, Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson was sentenced to 13 years in prison for planning a “mass casualty attack” in support of white nationalism.[21] In February, former Master Sgt. Cory Reeves was discharged from the Air Force because of his ties to white supremacist organizations.[22] And in June 2020, Private Ethan Melzer, a neo-Nazi in the US Army, attempted to provide information about US troops abroad, “including whereabouts, movement and security details,” to both white supremacist and jihadist groups. He gave this information with the intention of coordinating a suicidal, mass casualty “jihadi” attack on those troops.[23]

There is also evidence of violent far-right extremism in other government institutions. For example, in May 2018, Matthew Gebert, a State Department employee working on Pakistani and Indian energy policy, led a double life. He headed the Washington, D.C. chapter of the white supremacist group The Right Stuff, socialized with major white supremacist figures like Mike Peinovich and Richard Spencer, and secretly hosted a white nationalist podcast titled “The Fatherland.”[24] In a May 2018 episode of “The Fatherland,” Gebert announced, “We need a country founded for white people with a nuclear deterrent. And you watch how the world trembles.”

This pattern of insider threats raises key questions: How many violent far-right extremists are in the government? What materials or information do violent far-right extremists in government have access to? Are they sophisticated enough to steal nuclear material or sabotage a nuclear facility, or aid another actor on the outside? To what extent have violent far-right extremists penetrated organizations like national laboratories or nuclear material production facilities, where they might be able to acquire highly-enriched uranium or plutonium—the building blocks for constructing an improvised nuclear device?

The need to screen for far-right extremists. The US government needs to develop processes that ensure violent far-right extremists do not have access to nuclear weapons, weapons-useable nuclear materials, radiological material, or sensitive information about nuclear weapons or materials. As a first step, the federal government needs to better understand the threat. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should develop a task force focused on identifying potential violent far-right extremist nuclear terrorists. This task force should pool available information to answer key questions to better understand violent far-right extremists’ capability to carry out an act of nuclear terrorism.

Based on the information obtained through that task force, the security clearance process must be designed so it effectively screens for violent far-right extremism. This should include a review of public statements in support of violent far-right extremism, including those made on social media. Officials designing these screening processes should work to ensure that these procedures are nuanced enough to pick up on far-right extremist beliefs even when those seeking clearance attempt to conceal their beliefs, as Matthew Gebert did.

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Insider threat programs at facilities housing weapons-useable nuclear material or nuclear weapons should be designed to identify potential violent far-right extremist threats. This should include monitoring of those at facilities with nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in regard to violent rhetoric and suspicious financial transactions. Staff at nuclear facilities should be trained to identify behaviors that might indicate violent far-right extremist ideology.

Finally, nuclear facilities should develop security training programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion as an element of security culture. The introduction of such training could help create a culture that discourages and helps to identify violent extremist beliefs. Diversity and equity training could potentially play a role in reducing the likelihood of vulnerable insiders from being radicalized. Tools like implicit bias training could help to reduce those predispositions that create blinders to threats. Discussions of diversity and equity issues might help expose far-right extremists already embedded within organizations. Finally, diversity and equity trainings can play another important function—reducing the likelihood of staff alienation leading to a potential insider threat.

A robust response to violent far-right extremist threats vis-a-vis nuclear security is necessary to minimize risk. Violent far-right extremists are not going away: The instability and chaos of the COVID-19 era combined with increased political polarization and dwindling trust in long-standing institutions suggests that the problem of right-wing extremist terror is likely to grow in coming years.[25] Moreover, there is evidence that this threat is growing in other countries with nuclear facilities.[26] If a violent far-right extremist gained access to nuclear materials or weapons, the consequences would be catastrophic. Improved data collection, redesigned screening and insider protection systems, and diversity and equity initiatives all can help governments and private companies to better understand and mitigate risks to nuclear security posed by violent far-right extremists.

 

Notes

[1] Mike Levine, “FBI learned of coronavirus-inspired bomb plotter through radicalized U.S. Army soldier,” ABC News, March 26, 2020,  https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fbi-learned-coronavirus-inspired-bomb-plotter-radicalized-us/story?id=69818116 (accessed December 22, 2020).

[2] Lilly Price and Tim Prudente, “Woman fatally shot during riot at U.S. Capitol formerly lived in Annapolis, worked at Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant”, Associated Press, January 7, 2021, https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-woman-shot-capitol-ashli-babbitt-maryland-20210107-ayn7y45vbbamnmneqrq3ao4ta4-story.html and Peter Jamison, Hannah Natanson, John Cox, and Alex Horton, “The deadly path of Ashli Babbitt’s radicalization,” Washington Post, January 10, 2021, http://thewashingtonpost.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx.

[3] J.M. Berger, The Turner Legacy: The Stories Origins and Enduring Impact of White Nationalism’s Deadly Bible, (The Hague: The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016), pp. 9-13, https://icct.nl/publication/the-turner-legacy-the-storied-origins-and-enduring-impact-of-white-nationalisms-deadly-bible/ (accessed December 22, 2020).

[4] J.M. Berger, The Turner Legacy: The Stories Origins and Enduring Impact of White Nationalism’s Deadly Bible, p. 3.

[5] Jo Thomas, “Behind a book that inspired McVeigh,” The New York Times, June 9, 2001,  https://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/09/us/behind-a-book-that-inspired-mcveigh.html (accessed December 22, 2020).

[6] J.M. Berger, “The dangerous spread of extremist manifestos,” The Atlantic, February 26, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/christopher-hasson-was-inspired-breivik-manifesto/583567/ (accessed December 22, 2020).

[7] Zack Beauchamp, “Accelerationism: The obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world,” Vox, November 18, 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/11/20882005/accelerationism-white-supremacy-christchurch (accessed December 22, 2020).

[8] Zack Beauchamp, “Accelerationism: The obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world.”

[9] Zack Beauchamp, “Accelerationism: The obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world.”

[10] Hatewatch Staff, “Atomwaffen and the SIEGE parallax: How one neo-Nazi’s life’s work is fueling a younger generation,” Hatewatch, February 22, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/02/22/atomwaffen-and-siege-parallax-how-one-neo-nazi%E2%80%99s-life%E2%80%99s-work-fueling-younger-generation (Accessed December 22, 2020).

[11] Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019, Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques, (Wellington, New Zealand: November 26, 2020), https://christchurchattack.royalcommission.nz/the-report/ (accessed December 22, 2020), p. 170.

[12] Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality? (Cambridge, MA: Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 2010), https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/al-qaeda-weapons-mass-destruction-threat-hype-or-reality (accessed December 22, 2020).

[13] Atomwaffen briefly disbanded in 2020 and was recently renamed to the National Socialist Order.

[14] A.C. Thompson, “An Atomwaffen member sketched a map to take the neo-Nazis down. What path officials took is a mystery,” ProPublica, November 20, 2018, https://www.propublica.org/article/an-atomwaffen-member-sketched-a-map-to-take-the-neo-nazis-down-what-path-officials-took-is-a-mystery (accessed December 22, 2020).

[15] For more on the right-wing radiological threat, see BreAnne K. Fleer, “Radiological-weapons threats: case studies from the extreme right,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 27 Issue 1-2, 2020, https://nonproliferation.org/research/nonproliferation-review/npr-27-1/.

[16] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Domestic terrorism: Tops lead to sting, prison for plotter,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation: Stories, November 29, 2006,  https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2006/november/terror_112906 (accessed December 22, 2020).

[17] Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Dirty bomb materials uncovered in Maine residence,” Global Security Newswire, February 12, 2009, https://www.nti.org/gsn/article/dirty-bomb-materials-uncovered-in-maine-residence/ (accessed December 22, 2020).

[18]“White supremacist gets 30 years in prison for his plot to kill Muslims and Obama,” The Guardian, December 19, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/19/death-ray-plot-muslims-obama-glendon-scott-crawford-new-york (accessed December 22, 2020).

[19] James R. Clapper, “Remarks as delivered by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, current and future worldwide threats to the national security of the United States delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 11, 2014,  https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/congressional-testimonies/congressional-testimonies-2014/item/1016-remarks-as-delivered-by-dni-clapper-on-the-2014-worldwide-threat-assessment (accessed December 22, 2020).

[20] Leo Shane III, “Signs of white supremacy, extremism up again in poll of active-duty troops,” Military Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2020/02/06/signs-of-white-supremacy-extremism-up-again-in-poll-of-active-duty-troops/ (accessed December 22, 2020).

[21] “U.S. Coast Guard officer hoped to kill ‘every person on the earth,’” BBC, February 21, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47313724 (accessed December 22, 2020).

[22] Stephen Losey, “Board recommends discharge of airman with white nationalist ties,” Air Force Times, February 24, 2020, https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2020/02/24/board-recommends-discharge-of-airman-with-white-nationalist-ties/ (accessed December 22, 2020).

[23] Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, “U.S. Army soldier charged with terrorism offenses for planning deadly ambush on service members in his unit,” Justice News, June 22, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/us-army-soldier-charged-terrorism-offenses-planning-deadly-ambush-service-members-his-unit (accessed December 22, 2020).

[24] Michael Edison Hayden, “U.S. State Department official involved in white nationalist movement, Hatewatch determines,” Hatewatch, August 7, 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/gebert (accessed December 22, 2020).

[25] Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington, “The escalating terrorism problems in the United States,” CSIS Briefs, July 17, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states (accessed December 22, 2020).

[26] Katrin Bennhold, “She Called Police Over a Neo-Nazi Threat. But the Neo-Nazis Were Inside the Police.,” New York Times, December 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/21/world/europe/germany-far-right-neo-nazis-police.html.


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Ed Machado

Very thought-provoking article Nickolas. Just as I was starting to sleep a little more peacefully.

CJ Hinke
CJ Hinke

Obviously, Howie Smith, Joe McCarthy, & Pat McCarran had it bass-ackwards. The threat was never from US Communists.

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