After two FBI raids, seven arrests, and over a dozen charges, what remained of the Base’s beleaguered leadership congregated on a secret phone call to discuss what was truly important: their brand.
It was mid-January and one of the most infamous neo-Nazi groups in recent memory was imploding. Two of their cell leaders had been arrested and the white supremacists had been tied to an assassination plot, an alleged plan to shoot up a Virginia gun rally, and, most concerning to the group, an FBI infiltrator. Things were dire and there was talk about folding the operation or changing the name. Rinaldo Nazzaro, the group’s flustered leader, launched into a pep talk using the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen—which has been tied to five murders—as a positive reference point.
“Look at Atomwaffen. They’ve been through everything. They’ve been through the satanic panic, through all kinds of doxxing, now through their own series of arrests, et-cetera, et-cetera,” said Nazzaro on the call. “There was a time where they almost disappeared, but they stuck it out and are still around. The important thing about maintaining the brand is it can be salvaged and be rehabilitated, and that would give us more credibility in the long run.”
Several phone calls and chat logs leaked to Motherboard shows, with unprecedented access, how the neo-Nazi group responded to the FBI raids. The 12-hour stretch when the neo-Nazis learned of the multiple FBI operations against the group was a nervous, frenzied time for the Base. One full of discussions about what members would do if the police showed up outside their door and frequent phone calls among the group’s leadership to discuss contingency plans.
The first arrests
It all started on January 16, a little before 1 p.m. EST, when the group’s chat first learned the feds were moving on them as Nazzaro suddenly interrupted a discussion about a recent police stand-off—the group was disappointed police officers hadn’t been killed. Nazzaro announced he was removing a member named “Won’t Go Back” from the main chat for “opsec reasons.” He then ominously warned about another.
“If any of you are friends with Eisen, you may want to check up on him,” Nazzaro, the American-born but now Russia-based leader of the group told his followers.
With that, the purge on The Base—inevitable since its 2018 creation—began. It lasted several days and seven members in total were arrested, a significant number for a terror group whose membership mostly hovered around 50 people. Those arrested included Brian Lemley Jr.and William Bilbrough, who posted as Won’t Go Back and Eisen, and other members like Luke Austin Lane, the leader of the Georgia cell who posted as The Militant Buhdist (TMB).
The members were arrested for a plethora of crimes, including the alleged assassination plot that targeted an antifa couple so detailed it included what the group planned to wear when they committed their first murder, DMT manufacturing, a plan to try and spark a mass killing at a massive rally in Virginia, and the vandalism of several synagogues. The majority of arrests came as a result of two FBI operations, one targeting a Maryland-based cell who were arrested alongside Patrik Mathews, an outed Canadian Armed Forces member who illegally hopped the border and traveled throughout the U.S. with the help of other Base members, and Lane’s Georgia cell.
As members learned about the first FBI operation—which targeted Lemley, Bilbrough, and Mathews—the conversations in the main group chatroom immediately revolved around what they would do if they got rolled up in the investigation and about what the initial group of arrestees did to get caught.
“The way I see it is, if he was OK with saying things like he was to us, I’m sure he was saying it to other people, too,” said Yousef O. Barasneh, who posted as Tachanka of Lemley. “He’s on Telegram. Who knows if he’s in a public chat just blabbering about whatever.”
(Two days after he made that comment on Wire—the encrypted app the Base used to communicate—Barasneh was arrested for his involvement in the organized vandalism of numerous synagogues across the countr, something that was posted about publicly in the chat. Barasneh’s arrest also caused much heartache in the group as they learned he was Jordanian and not white.)
For the most part, the neo-Nazis thought this was just a single operation and that, while not great for them, was something they could easily recover from. They thought the arrestees were stupid, and Nazzaro did his best to reassure his neo-Nazis in the chat before calling it a night because it was getting late in Russia. But just as the neo-Nazis began to fully digest the reality of the arrests, news of the second wave ripped through the group.
The second arrests
It was eight hours later, shortly before 9 p.m. EST, when they learned Jacob Kaderli, a young Georgian man who posted in the chat as Pestilence, had been arrested. They immediately began worrying about Lane, the leader of the cell Kaderli was in, and one of the group’s most influential and militant members. News stories on the group were published, their die hard members were being arrested, and their leader was asleep on another continent—it was a bad time to be in the Base.
“I’m under suspicion that TMB (Lane) has been compromised (arrested) as well only because I haven’t heard from him all day and he’s usually active,” wrote one user.
“He has 110%,” one answered and posted a news article announcing the second batch of arrests.
“FUCK,” the first user responded.
The group learned Lane was arrested, alongside Jacob Kaderli and Michael Helterbrand, and charged with, among other things, an assassination plot against a local anti-fascist couple. The affidavit for the arrests also outlined that not all was well among the Base members, as Lane allegedly planned to kill Lemley and Mathews as he thought they were stupid and a liability.
After Lane’s arrest, the neo-Nazis realized this wasn’t just a single operation. Tension and paranoia in the group picked up exponentially as there was a feeling that anyone could be next. One member pinged the Base group chat three times begging “any group admin” to remove the arrestees’ accounts from the chat. They looked for informants and some members bailed from both the chat and group, while others said they were prepared for a shootout with police in case the authorities came for them.
“I’m thinking of grabbing all my shit and bailing out somewhere,” wrote Justen Watkins under the alias AK. “I’m not talking about surrender. Rather take the fight on my terms than be boxed in a house … I don’t fear death. I openly admit I fear being locked in a cage… Valhalla is the only choice.”
Watkins wouldn’t go out in a blaze of glory, but months later, in October 2020, he was taken peacefully by police officers and charged with gang membership and using computers to commit a felony. Several others like Watkins doubled down that this was the time to take the fight to the government.
“I keep seeing you all say stupid shit like ‘but we’re not doing anything illegal,'” wrote one user named Andrew. “This is a fucking war. It doesn’t matter what is or isn’t legal, what matters is how much you can get away with without getting caught.”
The FBI operation and the subsequent panic on the Base’s group chat, all went down while their leader was asleep in Russia. Cell leaders DMed him saying they need to “urgently” discuss things—”you’re going to have a lot of catching up to do when you wake up… things aren’t looking good right now” one wrote.
“Fuck,” was all Nazzaro wrote upon learning of the situation at 11:20 P.M. EST.
“This is a fucking war. It doesn’t matter what is or isn’t legal, what matters is how much you can get away with without getting caught.”
In a private chat the leaders used to vet potential new members, leadership desperately attempted to figure out what username was associated with which person was arrested. “There’s a third individual who I haven’t been able to identify,” wrote Nazzaro. “We need to figure it out but don’t start a panic.”
Attempting damage control, Nazzaro went back to telling his membership that despite the numerous arrests, the Base wasn’t doing anything illegal. Things weren’t looking good though and Nazzaro asked that if his troops were going to bail that they do so in an orderly fashion and give an “explanation” because he and his fellow Neo-Nazis “deserve that minimal consideration and respect.”
“I am not going to be working with the Base any longer,” read a Dear John letter one Base member left for the group. “I appreciate all of you and I wish you all the best of luck.”
Another Base member estimated that between the arrested and the members abandoning ship the group had lost “a good 20% of membership in less than a week.”
The four remaining members of the Base’s leadership team then organized an “emergency phone call,” it was the first time the four spoke outside of the chat on the arrests. During these calls the usually calm and collective Nazzaro was flustered and rambled. He appeared desperate to not be held accountable for the actions but also look tough as not to lose his influence over the young cabal of neo-Nazis he created and protect the ever-important Base brand. The group was more worried about the remaining members than those arrested who were more or less treated as an afterthought and quickly written off as being shit out of luck.
Speaking to his remaining cell leaders Nazzaro was adamant he didn't hold any responsibility for the alleged crimes. At one point, he essentially laid out his gameplan: Give young men paramilitary style training, push them in the direction of mass violence, and have nothing come back to him. He even thanked a member for “reading between the lines” when it came to not “engaging in direct action while participating in the Base.”
But if anyone “[tries] to be Rambo and pop things off yourself” that’s “on them,” he added later, as he whined that the illegal actions of his group’s members were being tied to the Base.
“Even when (the affidavit) said it was a different they tried to get a dig in on us by saying ‘even though the group was going to be something separate from the Base’ it was all comprised of Base members essentially like it didn’t really matter," he complained. "Yeah it’s Base members but it’s not us directing them to do this.“
“Not that we’re against direct action cause, I’m certainly not in general and in principle, but it’s counterproductive to our mission at the Base,” he later added. “For now the policy has been, ‘if you’re going to do that shit do it on your own time’ but I can see the justification for putting another layer of separation there.”
Early in the morning of January 17, in the wider group chat the neo-Nazis played detective and parsed through the affidavits. They figured out who the FBI infiltrator was: A member of the Georgia cell who went by Pale Horse. Nazzaro and the rest of the Nazis quickly assumed he set up and entrapped the three in Georgia and started painting fantastical scenarios in the chat on how he could have done this. In both the leadership calls and the chat, Nazzaro lamented the difficulty of weeding out Feds when the criminal activity planned is not ongoing but in the future. The group passed the time by attempting to figure out if there were any more infiltrators and sharing small tidbits they learned from the court documents.
Still, the group didn’t know if more arrests were coming. The chat weaved between the serious discussions about how they were infiltrated and what they could do to stop it from happening again, and posting goofy FBI memes. The members reassured one another that they were most likely safe from arrest, but the persistent sense of paranoia was palpable. In the main chat, the group told themselves their fellow neo-Nazis weren’t stupid or brazen enough for the alleged crimes. But in the calls between cell leaders, some of the leadership disagreed.
“I can see (Lane) actually trying to carry something like that out.”
In one of the calls, a Base member from LA who was outed by the BBC as Matthew Baccari said “it doesn’t strike me as unfathomable he would have a plan like this” about Lane and his alleged plans to kill fellow members of the Base. Baccari added that he believed Lane has a “proclivity to violence.”
“You don’t think (Lane) would kill Patrik or (Lemely),” asked Baccari after Nazzaro gave a rambling parsing of the affidavit.
“No, I don’t,” replied Nazzaro.
“From what I’ve seen from (Lane) those statements they really don’t surprise me,” replied Baccari. “I can see (Lane) actually trying to carry something like that out.”
Circling the drain
In the days after the arrests, the group stopped meeting for a month and put a freeze on allowing new members to join–although they continued vetting possible members. They planned to resume as normal after this all blew over—but they never made it that far.
The Base has yet to recover from this moment, and there’s little indication they will. In the ensuing January days, the Guardian published an article revealing Nazzaro’s identity. The heat from this and the arrests was too much for the group and on January 24, just over a week after the first news of arrests tore through his group, Nazzaro told his cell leaders that he was going dark for a bit.
“I’m going to lay low for the next week,” he wrote one of his cell leaders. “I feel I might get a visit.”
To make this easier on the leadership he was leaving in charge, he handed over what were, essentially, the keys to the Base, which included access to the Telegram account and email where new members sent their application information. What he didn’t realize is that he had handed the information over to an anti-fascist infiltrator who had been in the Base for over a year.
The anti-fascist changed the Base telegram name to ‘the Base is a Honey Pot’ and posted memes making fun of Nazzaro, the group, and the neo-Nazi community as a whole. There was no recovering from this, as the group became a joke to both the anti-fascist world and the neo-Nazi world. The infiltrator had wrecked the one thing Nazzaro was so desperate to save: the brand.
With files from Zachary Kamel.