Since the war in Ukraine began, some young Americans have rolled into towns there, waving flags with tropical prints. Local soldiers have sometimes assumed the foreign fighters had traveled all the way from Hawaii to join the fight against the Russian invasion.
But in reality, those flags have nothing to do with Hawaii. They’re the symbol of the American “Boogaloo” movement, a sprawling network of anti-government extremists, militiamen, and far-right members. The movement made its way offline and onto American streets in early 2020, when groups of young men in Hawaiian shirts carrying AR-style rifles started showing up to anti-lockdown protests.
Since the “Boogaloo”—memespeak for a violent uprising or civil war—failed to materialize in the U.S., some of the movement’s adherents sought battle experience elsewhere: Ukraine.
VICE News has learned that 10 so-called “Boogaloo Bois” are preparing to deploy from the U.S. to Ukraine in the coming weeks, just as government agencies worry that American far-right extremists traveling to the conflict for combat experience could become national security threats upon their return. Vouching for them is Mike Dunn, a 21-year-old from Virginia, who was considered a leader in the Boogaloo movement and has been embroiled in the conflict in Ukraine since April. Until recently, he was recovering in a Ukrainian military hospital after his brigade came under heavy artillery in July, leading to fatalities, while defending a village in the Donetsk region.
“I’ve met a couple of Americans here that are active Boogaloo Bois, and I have more Boogaloo Bois that will be arriving here,” Dunn told VICE News.
“They’ll be going through background checks and processing into whatever unit picks them,” Dunn said. “Whenever a unit takes them, they’ll process into and start fighting, to either get experience or to reignite some type of passion in their lives, for the excitement, I guess.”
Dunn, who’s a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (and was discharged for a medical condition), said it was the same incident that killed two Americans, a Swede, and a Canadian in one of the worst incidents for foreign fighters since the war in Ukraine began, in late February. Dunn says he was part of a combat support unit made up entirely of foreign fighters attached to the 79th Brigade, a paratrooper group in the Ukrainian special forces. In his telling, a Russian advance pierced the lines of the 79th in the Donetsk region, and his unit was dispatched to stem it but was ambushed in the process.
Dunn said several nationalities were represented among the foreign fighters he works with. The International Legion, a section of the Ukrainian military set up to process international volunteers and train them, officially states that foreign fighters come from at least 55 countries, with the U.S. and U.K. supplying the largest contingents.
“Whenever a unit takes them, they’ll process into and start fighting, to either get experience or to reignite some type of passion in their lives, for the excitement, I guess.”
For years, experts have warned that the war in Ukraine—which was, for a time, a frozen trench conflict isolated to Donbas—could become a training ground and terrorist hotbed for the global far-right movement. Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist unit within the Ukrainian military, is dogged by its connections to neo-Nazism and the global far-right.
So far, no strong evidence suggests the latest phase of the war has attracted scores of neo-Nazis or right-wing extremists to fight for Ukraine. Yet the problem remains on the Ukrainian government’s radar. In 2019, while the conflict was still simmering in Donbas, Ukrainian intelligence deported two American foreign fighters—one a Marine dropout and also a former member of designated terror group The Base—for their far-right terrorist activities in the country.
In recent months, U.S. government agencies have been expressing concern about the possible national security risk posed by American foreign fighters when they return home with combat experience—particularly those with ties to extremist networks. A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) intelligence bulletin from March describes how far-right extremists and other “individuals in the United States and Europe announced intentions to join the conflict,” citing extremists who had been questioned as they left for Ukraine from JFK Airport in New York. The bulletin also flagged that the Azov Battalion is a heavy recruiter of far-right travelers into their ranks.
“What kind of training are foreign fighters receiving in Ukraine that they could possibly proliferate in U.S.-based militia and white nationalist groups?” the report asked in its conclusion.
Joshua Fisher-Birch, an expert and analyst on the far-right at the Counter-Extremism Project, said some extremists may see the conflict as a chance to become battle hardened and gain military skills.
“Some right-wing extremists have viewed the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to gain critical combat experience which would otherwise be unavailable to them,” said Fisher-Birch, pointing out that war experience can also help boost their cachet within the movement at home. “Combat experience not only serves the purpose of increasing their own capabilities but passing those skill sets along to others in their movement.”
Dunn got his start in anti-government organizing in late 2019, when he latched onto anger simmering among pro–Second Amendment Virginians over proposed state gun control legislation and participated in efforts to form county-level militias in response. In 2020, Dunn tried to position himself as a kingpin of the surging Boogaloo movement.
But a year later, with the Boogaloo and its adherents under heavy government scrutiny, Dunn and others left the movement. Dunn deleted his social media accounts, changed his phone number, and retreated from the public persona he’d built around himself.
He got a job as a guard at a prison in Virginia and lay low for a while.
Then the war broke out in Ukraine—and foreign fighters were being encouraged to join the fight. Suddenly, Dunn wanted to put his Hawaiian shirt back on.
“The day that the invasion happened, Mike [Dunn] and I were on the phone, just buzzing back and forth,” said Ken, one of the Boogaloo Bois who is deploying to Ukraine this month.
Mike Dunn, leader of the Last Son's of Liberty, which is part of the boogaloo movement, attends a Lobby Day 2021 event in Richmond, Va. Monday Jan. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)
Ken, 29, asked that his full name be withhold from this story. He’s been a central figure in the Boogaloo movement from its inception, though he’s not as public-facing as Dunn. (He says he ran one of its biggest meme pages on Facebook, “Swamp Mountain Boogaloo,” before it got shut down by the social media company and claims it had around 100,000 followers.)
Only days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Dunn set about making plans to travel overseas. He said he was able to expedite a passport. He and a fellow Boogaloo Boi from Ohio, Henry Hoeft, even gave media interviews about their upcoming deployment.
But they weren’t there for long. Hoeft returned to the U.S. after just two weeks and posted a video explaining his reasons for leaving: that foreign fighters were being used as cannon fodder and sent into tense conflict zones like in Kyiv at the height of the bombing and ground assaults on the Ukraine capital, without proper gear or weapons. It was a very common complaint among the early waves of foreign fighters, who didn’t realize how intense the fighting was or the scarcity of resources facing a Ukrainian military that was resisting a far superior Russian army.
One Ukrainian special forces soldier told VICE News he understood the frustrations of some foreign fighters during those early stages of the Russian invasion.
“Of course, some [foreign fighters] were disappointed with some problems with our management, commanders, and bureaucracy,” he said. “I can understand them. Sometimes, they don't get necessary weapons or other equipment, sometimes there are some doubts about the missions.”
In online posts, other foreign fighters widely ridiculed Hoeft for leaving. Dunn, who was embedded with the Georgian National Legion at the time, says he initially left because he wanted to attend his sister’s wedding. He returned in April, and when he did, this time Dunn said he was able to link up to a more elite branch of the Ukrainian war effort: a special forces group. At the outset of the war in February, some Western veterans and volunteers with real combat skills or special forces training were put under the command of the Ukrainian special forces branch, something that Kyiv wasn’t even shy about discussing at the time.
The CBP intelligence bulletin indicated that many of the extremists the agency feared were heading to Ukraine to fight had gotten detailed instructions on how to officially enter the country through Ukrainian government channels. The bulletin also raised the possibility that these extremists were relying on specific “websites or chat rooms” to help them obtain contacts on the ground in Ukraine.
Now, Dunn says he’s helping to set up his own pipeline for other Boogaloos to join him in Ukraine.
He also runs a TikTok account called “Armed and Dedicated,” where he’s posting updates and documenting life in Ukraine. He’s racked up 5,000 followers and amassed more than 160,000 views on one of his videos, where he talks about the deadly ambush that left him injured and four of his fellow foreign fighters dead.
“Rest in peace,” he says to the camera. “We took artillery and mortar to our position, just couldn't move. I’m alive, my team is alive, we had a good firefight with the Russians out of sight. They suffered losses and retreated.” He was treated for a concussion.
Though Dunn doesn’t explicitly identify himself as a Boogaloo Boi in his TikTok, he’s remained influential in the world of young anti-government extremists, according to Ken.
Ken, who has been friends with Dunn for years, worries that Dunn has made himself a target by being so visible on his TikTok—and inspiring other young foreign fighters to come to Ukraine and join the fray.
“The shit I’ve seen that kid do, he’s a fucking degenerate. I love him to death… He’s a fucking animal, and I love him,” Ken said. “A lot of people look up to him, and a lot of guys are going over there, I’m sure, because of him.”
“If they [the Russian military] were to knock him off or make an example of him, that would stop that in a fucking heartbeat, for a lot of them anyway,” he added.
It’s not immediately obvious what the ideological interest in Ukraine is for the Boogaloo movement, which has always been so laser-focused on grievances against the U.S. government.
Ken doesn’t personally know all of the other nine Boogaloo Bois who are headed to Ukraine, but he’s not particularly concerned about whether any in the group might be loose cannons.
“If you have a proclivity towards violence, if you’re mean in general, if you are bad, then [Ukraine] is probably the place for you,” he said. “If you’re a bad guy with some semblance of a moral compass, then you’re probably right at home.”
A weapon on a demonstrator is seen during a gun rights rally outside of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 17, 2022 (Photo by Bryan Dozier/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
It was similar for Dunn. Asked whether he was concerned that he was helping bring over guys who were already radicalized, and whose only interest in the conflict was that they wanted to engage in violence, Dunn shrugged. “How is that a liability for me?” Dunn said. “Because they’re going to get it. Nor is he particularly worried about whether any of the Boogaloo Bois coming to Ukraine could wind up posing a national security risk once they return to the U.S.
“What about when anybody goes back to the U.S.?” Dunn said. “It’s not just Boogaloo Bois. Every war we’ve been involved in, you’ve had to worry about people coming back.”
“I’ll say something I said to you two years ago,” Dunn added, referring to an interview with VICE News from 2020. “It is what it is.”
Dunn sees his band of Boogaloos as international freedom fighters. “The Boogaloo, regardless of what it is against the U.S. government, it’s always been about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” Dunn said.
Ken believes there are similarities between the U.S. and the Russian Federation. “I will say that the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend,” he said. “Not that I’m going to publicly announce that I’m an enemy of the U.S. government. If I want to get on an airplane in the future, I’d probably better not say that in public. But it’s the same. A lot of the same grievances I would air with our own government are simply applicable to the Russian Federation.”
Ken, who served as an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, told VICE News that he is trying to keep his ideological affiliations under wraps until he makes it over there.
“I’m more worried about U.S. Customs and TSA than I am the Russians,” said Ken. “The last thing I want is them to find my igloo flag folded up in my suitcase and pull me into the office to detain me and question me about it. (The Boogaloo movement adopted igloos as one of their symbols in 2020: “Big Igloo” is a homophone of Boogaloo, so they used this term to skirt social media crackdowns.)
Ken is planning to go to Ukraine for only two months, but he expects that the U.S. federal authorities will be keeping tabs on him.
“It’s entirely legal to go engage in combat with the Russian Federation and not on U.S. soil,” Ken said. “But am I expecting a visit when I get back? Yeah, I'm expecting a knock on the door and they’ll want to ask me questions. And I’m going to invoke the Fifth, and tell them that I have a very polite attorney that they’re welcome to speak to. And that’s that.”
Similarly, Dunn said he became aware that the U.S. government was tracking him in May, when Politico published the same declassified CBP intelligence bulletin (which a civil liberties group first obtained), about American citizens who had traveled abroad to fight in Ukraine.
Dunn believes he’s one of the subjects CBP officers describe in the document: “Sub1” at JFK Airport. He was headed to Warsaw, Poland, flying via Helsinki, Finland. They asked him about his status as a leader in the Boogaloo movement. He told agents that he had “not been involved with the group for almost a year due to the direction they were headed in.”
CBP told VICE News it wouldn’t comment on any cases of foreign fighters in Ukraine, even those individuals described in the bulletin.
“Due to privacy laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is prohibited from discussing the details of an individual U.S. citizen or traveler’s inspection, travel history or immigration status,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement.
Fisher-Birch did note that the initial surge in chatter from far-right groups about going to Ukraine to fight has subsided somewhat since February.
“In the U.S., the extreme right has been less vocal over time in suggesting that their members or supporters become foreign fighters and has focused more on the domestic situation in the U.S. and maintaining unity within their movements,” he said, warning that the Kremlin has used mistruths about foreign fighters to justify its invasion.
“It must also be stated that the myth of a flood of extremist fighters to Ukraine is Russian government propaganda and does not reflect the actual situation.”
The Boogaloo Bois’ involvement in Ukraine, in particular, may pique the interest of U.S. officials. The movement has been in federal agencies’ line of sight since it spent much of the year 2020 plotting anarchy and violence against the U.S. government, starting with anti-lockdown protests. This was the militia movement on steroids—and with memes. Their online conversations were awash in fierce anti-government rhetoric, often tongue-in-cheek, advocating violence against the state.
“It’s entirely legal to go engage in combat with the Russian Federation and not on U.S. soil. But am I expecting a visit when I get back? Yeah.”
Months later, the Boogaloo movement latched onto the national unrest after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Boogaloo Bois tried to present themselves as allies to Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice for Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality. However, it became clear that the true intention of many in the movement was to advance their own broader goals of anarchy and societal collapse.
Individuals with ties to the Boogaloo movement were linked to a string of violent plots and incidents that year: a fatal ambush on a federal security officer in Oakland, a plot to bomb an electrical substation in Nevada, shooting at a police station in Minneapolis during ongoing protests, and even the alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan in revenge for the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
A few Boogaloo Bois, including Dunn, even showed up on Jan. 6 at the Capitol (though he insists he never went inside and has never been charged with anything in relation). At that time, a schism was forming in the Boogaloo movement. Some felt like the joke had gone too far and they’d gotten in over their heads. As one former Boogaloo Boi who goes by “Scrappy” and plans to travel to Ukraine this fall described it, “more extremist-type people came in and ruined the group.”
“You had guys that came in that were saying that they wanted to blow stuff up or shoot people,” said Scrappy, 20. “And I left the group because I didn't want to go to jail. I didn't want to get in trouble.” He claims he even got a visit from the FBI.
“I was just a kid at the time,” said Scrappy, who works as a mechanic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “In all honesty, nowadays it's a terrorist organization that doesn't commit acts of terror.”
Despite having no interest in aligning himself with the Boogaloo movement, Scrappy says he fully anticipates that the U.S. government will be monitoring him, especially given he was already on the FBI’s radar to begin with.
“I understand why they would, they have every reason to because I was part of an extremist group at one point. That’s absolutely a fair observation,” Scrappy said. “And I wish they would investigate me further just in case. You know, I’m not saying that anything’s going to happen, but they have a job to do at the end of the day.”
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