Twenty-five-year-old Michigan native Justen Watkins, a reputed former leader of a neo-Nazi terror group under an FBI counterterrorism probe, continues to be free on bond after his court date was once again delayed.
VICE News has obtained a data dump of postings from a private Instagram account associated with Watkins, which was active before his arrest in October 2020. In the massive cache, dated from late 2019 into 2020, there are calls for murder and several images believed to be of Watkins, who was the one-time leader of the Base, with firearms and paramilitary gear. One particularly disturbing video pans between what looks like a military-style rifle on the passenger side of a car and an armored vehicle parked at a gas station. A caption reads “Bout to play some [Grand Theft Auto].”
After getting out of jail on bond in late 2020, Watkins has yet to face charges in court due to a mixture of coronavirus-related delays and his attorney dumping him as a client. Authorities are aware Watkins had access to firearms and has been accused of being previously intent on acts of terror, yet he remains free. His release while facing serious terrorism-related charges highlights the difficulty authorities have in keeping far-right militants behind bars—a problem they likely wouldn’t face if Watkins was a member of or providing material support to an international terrorist organization like ISIS or al-Qaeda.
One of the posts shows a rifle with a banana clip and a loaded pistol over the caption “Make America Violent Again” as a song about showing no “pity” to Jewish people plays in the background. Another post alleged to have been made by Watkins shows a man aiming a pistol and declaring they will murder Black people during Black History Month. Other images feature a bulletproof vest with the Base insignia and a rifle propped up next to it—an image that was popularized among the far right by the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter, who posted a similar picture before killing 50 worshippers at a mosque in March 2019.
“9mm spinal taps,” one of the many posts reads with an image of a handgun and a flag with a swastika, “solid cure to Judaism.”
The Australian antifascist research group the White Rose Society provided the cache to VICE News, which vetted the veracity of its contents with a source familiar with Watkins that previously saw posts from the Instagram account.
In late October 2020, following a joint FBI and Michigan State Police investigation, Watkins was charged with gang membership for his association with the Base and using computers to commit a felony. (Part of those charges stem from a December 2019 incident in which Watkins, along with an associate of the Base who is now his co-defendant, allegedly attempted to intimidate and threaten the life of an antifascist activist.)
Though in his initial court appearance prosecutors described Watkins as a danger to the community and said he had “expressed a desire to die for the cause [...] and take as many people with him” as possible, he was granted bond in late 2020 and has been free ever since.
Volha Yermalenka, who is listed in court records as Watkins’ latest attorney, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about her client’s social media activity.
In the affidavit against Watkins filed by the state of Michigan, authorities make it clear they were aware of his active Instagram page and how he used it to promote a manifesto for the Base in early 2020.
“I will train with firearms, explosives, knives, Ryder trucks, and anything else,” said Watkins according to the affidavit, referring to what he will do to destroy what he sees as a Jewish-controlled U.S. government, a popular racist fantasy promoted by the far right.
The FBI declined to comment on Watkins; a press secretary for the Attorney General of Michigan said, “Our office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.”
According to Joshua Fisher-Birch, a terrorism analyst at the Counter Extremism Project who specializes in groups like the Base, Watkins is a true radical.
“Watkins’ alleged crimes, as well as messages and videos attributed to him, show him as someone dedicated to the hardcore promotion of white supremacist violence, whether in person or on social media,” he said. “Based on his prior efforts to intimidate and terrorize people as part of a neo-Nazi accelerationist group, the government should take all appropriate measures to ensure that he does not pose a continued threat to the community.”
To many within the Base, Watkins was considered one of the most hardcore and radical members. He organized “hate camps” (neo-Nazi speak for paramilitary training) on a property near Bad Axe, Michigan, where he filmed propaganda that made death threats against journalists. Watkins had also expressed to confidantes that he intended to create an armed, fortified, and all-white compound in northern Michigan to launch the so-called race war, with the Base leading the charge.
Joanna Mendelson, the associate director of the Center on Extremism for the Anti-Defamation League, told VICE News that she wasn’t surprised at the deeply anti-Semitic and violent posts from Watkins.
“The Base seeks to establish a nationwide network of men who use violent methods to overthrow the existing social and political order ‘infected’ by what they perceive as Jewish deviant values and ideals,” she said, pointing out that anti-Semitism in America writ large, is on the rise.
“ADL’s 2019 Audit of antisemitic incidents, the most recent published annual assessment we have, revealed the highest year on record since we began tracking, in 1979,” she said.
In late February, Watkins was reportedly hit with a new charge of possessing illegal steroids, which he allegedly had for personal use. Chat logs show Watkins, under the alias he used with the Base, discussing weightlifting and going to the gym.
The Base is considered one of the most violent American domestic terror groups in decades and was recently designated a terrorist organization by the Canadian government. Since late 2019, nine members of the Base have been arrested in the U.S. for alleged crimes as wide-ranging as an assassination plot, ghost-gun making, plans for train derailments, and a mass shooting.
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With files from Mack Lamoureux.