Do Government Terrorism Designations Even Work Against Neo-Nazi Groups?

One leader of a group on the Canadian and the UK terrorist entity list says it has changed nothing in his life.

Sep 9 2021, 12:14pm

Shortly after the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, the Canadian government officially designated several far-right organizations as terrorist entities. The United Kingdom followed suit, adding a number of the same groups to its official list of terrorist organizations, which meant any member could serve an automatic 10-year sentence if convicted

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Both countries were applauded for seemingly taking the threat of far-right terrorism seriously, as opposed to the U.S., which had yet to use its own legal framework for terrorist designations to name any domestic terror groups. While foreign terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda have a designation under American law, far-right groups like the Proud Boys—allegedly major instigators of the Capitol attack—and neo-Nazi organizations The Base and Atomwaffen Division, or AWD, do not.

Months since the designations in Canada and the UK, though, two prominent far-right figures connected with two of those groups claim their lives haven’t changed—nor have there been international arrest warrants or extradition orders against them. And while far-right leaders have been known to play down repercussions from government actions, there’s an open question of how effective these new laws have been. It’s also worth noting that there’s been widespread backlash against naming domestic extremist groups as listed terrorist entities. Many have argued that the designations could lead to government abuses and can end up being applied to dissidents and antifascist activists, or easily end up disproportionately affecting people of color—not the white-nationalist or paramilitary groups they were intended for. 

“Not one particle of [the designations] affected me,” said James Mason, known for writing the terror manual Siege, considered a near-bible to members of AWD (and its successor group) and The Base. In June, the Canadian government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the bold move of labeling Mason, an individual, as a singular terrorist entity. (Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and the deceased founder and leader of al Qaeda, was never designated to the same list as a terrorist entity on his own.) 

Though dozens of Siege followers around the world have been arrested on terrorism-related charges and the book has attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of followers to violent neo-Nazism, Mason has never been convicted of nor credited with terroristic crimes (in the nineties he did spend time in prison for felony menacing). Mason said that the government of Canada and its law enforcement agencies have yet to be in contact with him since he was named to the list. 

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“No one in Canada has felt a pinch,” Mason said in a telephone interview in reference to individuals linked to membership with AWD, “why on earth would they contact me?” 

And while no AWD arrests have ever happened in Canada, the group has historically operated in the country and a former member continues to. In early July, VICE News broke the story that the prolific longtime propagandist for AWD, known to have mingled with the U.S.-based terror group for years, not only lives quietly in the capital of Ottawa—but hasn’t been charged with any crimes for his involvement in the group. Instead, Patrick Gordon MacDonald (AKA ‘Dark Foreigner’) continues to operate an online graphic design studio.

But for Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on terrorism at Queens University in Canada, the designations do carry both a symbolic and a financial penalty.

“​​Consequences of listing are mostly financial, so if someone were to donate money to Mason or financially help the Base or AWD in some way, there is a possibility that people might be facing terrorism charges [in Canada],” he said. “If Mason is just sitting around texting with people and going on podcasts, it likely won't impact him in any serious way.”

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Part of the designation process is about making the political point to the broader public that the government is keeping an eye on certain national security threats and not focusing solely on ISIS or al Qaeda as the terrorists of the day, he says.  

The “symbolism is indeed important,” explained Amarasingam. 

“It communicates to Canadians, and especially communities of color, that these groups are taken as seriously as jihadist groups.”

But Amarasingam did concede that for some less-active terror suspects connected to organizations on the list, it might be a while before they feel the pinch of the law, if they ever do. 

“If you're a boring terrorist,” said Amarasingam, “you may not feel the full effect of the listing right away.”

Rinaldo Nazzaro, 48, the founder and leader of The Base, often described as a global neo-Nazi terrorist group (with several members in custody and facing various criminal charges in the U.S. and Europe), claims he remains completely unaffected and that nothing has really changed in his life since the designations of his group. 

“UK authorities haven't contacted me,” said Nazzaro in an email exchange with VICE News. “I don't know what effect it could have on me.”

The UK Home Office, which oversaw the proscription of both AWD and The Base, said naming both groups to its list sends a strong message that the country won’t tolerate far-right terror. 

A SCREENSHOT FROM A VIDEO NAZZARO RELEASED IN MAY.

“It deters groups from operating here, deters U.K. audiences from engaging with the radicalising content of proscribed groups online, and makes it a criminal offence to belong to or support a proscribed group,” it said in a statement to VICE News. When it came to one of its own citizens residing inside the country, the U.K. government was recently able to use it’s anti-terrorism laws to imprison a British national and purported leader of Sonnenkrieg Division (an AWD-linked organization) on charges stemming from his activities with the group, which was proscribed as a terror entity in 2020

But, as was the case before The Base was legally labeled in both countries as a terror group, Nazzaro, an American citizen, continues to be involved in The Base and its operations in the U.S. from his suspected home in St. Petersburg, Russia. He also says he has not been served any legal documents pertaining to alleged criminal activities in Britain and Canada, nor has anything like an Interpol Red Notice (an international arrest warrant by the global police force) been issued for his arrest.

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As for the downplaying of the very aggressive actions taken by the Canadian and UK governments against them, Alex Newhouse, the deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at Middlebury, said Mason and Nazzaro are both known for portraying themselves as unaffected and unflapped by the pressures of authorities.

Do you have information about extremists or extremist groups? We would love to hear from you. You can reach Ben Makuch by contacting 267-713-9832 on Signal or @benmakuch on the Wire app.

“Mason and Nazzaro frequently downplay the impact of external pressure on their activities, primarily for personal marketing and recruitment reasons,” he told VICE News. “It looks bad to other far-right extremists if they suddenly throw up their hands and admit that designations or law enforcement activity have an impact.” 

He continued, pointing out that the heat American law enforcement exerts on Nazzaro and Mason has undoubtedly put both into worse off positions within the broader neo-Nazi movement: “We know, though, that past pressure (for example, from FBI investigations) have reduced [Mason and Nazzaro’s] capacity to recruit and organize.”

Overall, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to tackle far-right extremism as a major national security threat. Despite not naming any domestic extremist groups to its list of terrorist organizations, the U.S. government has taken a concerted effort to dismantle far-right organizations since the events on Capitol Hill. The FBI and other agencies have helped indict over 500 people for their participation in the mob-attack this past January (100 of whom allegedly assaulted federal officers), while in the last two years there have been a series of aggressive arrests and sentencings of AWD and The Base members. 

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At the time of the designation in Canada, Nazzaro, an ex-Homeland Security analyst and Pentagon contractor, denounced the move as a government overstep and continued to maintain that his group is a “survivalism and self-defense network for nationalists,” not a terror group. As for the UK government designation, Nazzaro said he wasn’t surprised by it, but that his life hasn't quite been disrupted, besides not wanting to travel to the country. 

“I've been on the UK government's radar since at least the first half of 2018 before I created The Base,” he said, claiming that a tweet of his in support of a UK neo-Nazi group was flagged by Twitter for violating counterterrorism laws in that country. “Ever since then, I decided to avoid the UK.”

In the cases of both Nazzaro and Mason, a spokesperson with Public Safety Canada, the department overseeing federal policing in Canada, said it does “not comment or speculate on potential or ongoing cases,” but reiterated that the terror listing plays a “key role in countering terrorist financing,” though it isn’t a crime to be listed. 

Unlike Mason, Nazzaro’s legal status in the U.S. remains murky, with the FBI having repeatedly neither confirmed nor denied that he is being actively investigated. Meanwhile, former members of The Base are facing court dates related to a variety of violent crimes including an assassination plot, ghost-gun making, plans for train derailments, and mutilating a ram. Nazzaro says he hasn’t been charged with any crimes and has said in the past that he could freely travel to the U.S., but believes he is on the U.S. government’s “terrorist watch list.” In May, he was namechecked by an FBI agent in court proceedings against a Michigan cell leader of The Base. A government source told VICE News in the winter that Nazzaro was a Department of Justice matter, which in turn said it had no official comment on him. 

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Quite often, as was the case during the peak years of the War on Terror, government terrorism designations usually means financial penalties for association with a group or individual on a given the list. In the U.S. the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list is administered by both the State Department and the Treasury department and allows financial institutions to freeze bank accounts of suspected terrorists and for the government to seize assets. (The Canadian listing has some of the same financial teeth as its American counterpart.) Financially attacking terror networks was a key tool in combating groups like al-Qaeda and others from engaging in the global financial system. 

But sometimes, these designations have an effect not on the terrorists themselves, but innocent people they’re either loosely or directly connected to. For example, it was well documented that some of the terrorist asset freezing practises following 9/11 unfairly targeted large Muslim charities the government suspected of links to terror groups, which was an attack on American Muslims and their constitutional rights to freely practise their religion. During the height of the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a U.K. court convicted the parents of an ISIS fighter under terror financing laws for sending him 223 pounds while he was suspected of fighting for the jihadist terror group.

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Though he claims the Canadian and UK designations have not had any real effect on him, Nazzaro told VICE News he had American bank accounts and credit cards frozen before The Base ended up on those lists. He also claims relatives who he said, have had nothing to do with The Base and completely disavow his extremist political views are having their credit cards cancelled for the same reasons. (The relatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

“They don't deserve to be persecuted like this,” said Nazzaro. “I deserve everything I get, but to harm them financially isn't justified. They're honest people who worked hard their entire lives [...] 

“Financial institutions have taken it upon themselves to sanction me extrajudicially,” said Nazzaro. “I've never been arrested or charged with any crimes.”

Newhouse explained that terror designations also don’t always account for the constant morphing and name changing of terrorist organizations. Particularly with white-nationalist extremist groups, the adoption of “leaderless” structures makes it more difficult for law enforcement to pin down charges.

“Designations of individuals and even specific groups are often ineffective against movements that purposefully use the creation, collapse, and reshuffling of groups to survive and expand,” said Newhouse. “Canada and the UK's designations are inherently limited in that they don't address that overarching network.

“It's worth keeping in mind too that Nazzaro and Mason are both adept practitioners of [Siege-inspired] extremism, which focuses on creating movements that are transnational, decentralized, and constantly in flux.” 

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Tagged:

News, Canada, terrorism, FBI, neo-nazism, atomwaffen division, The Base, worldnews, Capitol Hill attacks

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