When a historic storm rolled through central Vermont last month, drowning its capital Montpelier and its surrounding communities in waist-high flood waters, one group of men saw a moment of opportunity.
The men, who called themselves PINE — The People’s Initiative of New England— responded to the aftermath to assist clean-up efforts, clear debris from the streets and homes, and pass out bottled water.
PINE describes itself as a “grassroots effort founded to advocate for and advance the interests of New Englanders,” which sounds innocuous enough—and that’s by design. But PINE is a new front for the neo-Nazi street gang NSC-131, which formed in 2019 and has chapters across New England. While NSC-131 brazenly touts Nazi symbols and throws up Hitler salutes during public appearances, PINE is intended as a softer, more socially acceptable mask. The goal of this is for NSC-131 to broaden their appeal, especially to those who agree with their messaging but may not want to publicly affiliate with an explicitly neo-Nazi organization.
In a recently released manifesto, first reported by Rolling Stone, PINE calls for New England to secede from the U.S. and establish a white ethnostate. And they think they can do that by drumming up local support, through “activism and community outreach.”
Hence: their flood relief efforts.
Extremists around the world typically seek to exploit moments of instability or chaos for their own gain, and that’s particularly true in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Weak or muddled government responses to hurricanes, flooding or wildfires have previously created windows of opportunity for extremists to position themselves as reliable, trusted sources of aid—and show government agencies to be useless in a moment of crisis.
And, by ingratiating themselves in impacted communities, extremists are able to reach into a larger pool of prospective recruits.
This is a trend that experts say they expect to see more of in the coming years. As the effects of climate change grow more severe, communities that have been destabilized by natural disasters may increasingly find themselves leaning on wolves in sheeps clothing— extremists dressed up as good samaritans.
A paper published last year by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism explored the various ways that extremists and terrorists exploit climate change and disasters for their own gain. One example they offer is how, in the aftermath of a disaster, those actors take advantage of perceptions that the government has been ineffective in their response and use them to foster “radicalization narratives of alienation and abandonment.” They also then try to “fill in this gap by responding to the challenges posed by climate change to enhance their local authority.”
Militias like the Oath Keepers have historically pounced on any opportunity they can to expose weaknesses in federal agencies like FEMA (which is a go-to source of anti-government conspiracy theories). Members of the group, including their founder Stewart Rhodes, who was recently convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 riot, responded to calls for volunteers in the aftermath of Category 4 Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
A recent joint report by Grist and HuffPost looked at Oath Keepers and other militias’ exploitation of climate disasters over the years. Oath Keepers also traveled to Florida and Puerto Rico in 2017 following hurricanes, and returned to Florida the following year after Hurricane Michael. Oath Keeper leadership also urged their members to travel to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee in 2021, after a string of catastrophic tornadoes moved through the region, according to Grist/Huffpost.
Armed extremists, galvanized by conspiracy theories about “antifa,” set up roadblocks in 2020 and interrogated people fleeing wildfires in Oregon. And last year, an anti-government group called Echo Company of the California State Militia’s 2nd Regiment showed up with military-style trucks and fatigues to provide hot breakfasts to people who’d been evacuated from their homes due to the Oak Fire near Mariposa County. Along with breakfast, members of the militia passed out business cards with QR codes and directions of how to join their organization, NBC reported.
As for PINE—they shared images of their “activism” on their Gab and Telegram channels, making sure to note that they also distributed their propaganda in the process. “Montpelier is a short distance from me,” responded one person. “VT is so far left I too often assume there are no like minded people. Good to see this.”