Devon Arthurs didn't move out even after his conversion to Islam. The 18-year-old was living in an apartment complex called Hamptons at Tampa Palms with three other young men he has since identified as white nationalists. His roommates didn't seem to think his switch from one extremist ideology to another was that big of a big deal. At least some of the young men were members of a group called AtomWaffen Division, known mostly for distributing racist flyers on college campuses.
The delicate cross-denominational housing arrangement did not work out.
Last Friday, Arthurs took three people hostage at a smoke shop in Tampa, according to local police. When he was arrested, he said he'd killed two of his roommates––Jeremy Himmelman, who was 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, who was 18––for making disparaging comments about his new religion. (Himmelman's sister told the Tampa Bay Times her brother and Oneschuk were not neo-Nazis, despite Arthurs's claims to the contrary.) When the cops showed up at Hamptons, they found a third roommate, 21-year-old Brandon Russell, sobbing outside in full camouflage.
The story took another strange twist when police searched the apartment. They found "a cooler containing a white cake-like substance" known as hexamethylene triperoxide diamine and a package of "explosive precursors" addressed to Russell in the garage, along with a photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on his dresser, according to a complaint filed in US District Court. Russell, who is a Florida National Guardsman, was arrested Sunday in the Florida Keys and federally charged with possession of explosives. Arthurs, meanwhile, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenses.
A 24-year-old acquaintance of the group named Watson Fincher explained its dynamics to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. He said Arthurs began identifying as a Muslim about a year ago and changed his profile on the ironmarch.com message board to reflect his new Salafist Nationalist-Socialist identity––a reference to one of the most conservative branches of Sunni Islam. Although denizens made fun of him on there, Arthur seems to have remained in the midst of the AtomWaffen Division, a small-potatoes hate group tracked by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
And while the idea of neo-Nazi converting to an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam might seem inexplicable, Fincher said there were plenty of contradictory stops along the way.
"He was an atheist. Then Catholic. Then Orthodox Christian. Then Nazi. Then Muslim. He latched onto the esthetics of anything that looked cool," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
Terrorism experts say that ping-ponging between violent groups with seemingly opposing ideologies isn't exactly novel.
"You don't have to be a card-carrying ember of any extremist group—you can kind of jump around as you need to," says Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "But usually a person will go from white supremacist group to another. You don't really see someone white supremacist convert to something they despise."
The closest thing Segal has seen to this case came was a guy named Ryan Anderson. He was a Washington State National Guardsman who posted on Usenet groups in 1995 looking for local militias to join.
Eventually, he became increasingly critical of those very groups and began using the alt.religion.islam newsgroup the following year. In September 2004, he was found guilty of five counts of trying to provide information to al Qaeda and sentenced to life in prison.
Segal told me that the internet has allowed wayward young people to flit from one group to another as they see fit––in the same way a stereotypical adolescent tries on different personas.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, pointed me to a much more recent case of someone who converted from neo-Nazism to Salafism. Back in February, German police arrested a man only identified as "Sascha L." who was accused of trying to lure cops and soldiers into a trap with explosives. The authorities said that they found old YouTube videos of a man who appeared to be Sascha talking about the ever-growing threat of Muslims. Apparently he made the switch over to radical Islam in 2014.
These bizarre cases often seem to revolve around young people, which Levin says is crucial. When people are out of the family home for the first time, they're searching for an identity. Some psychologically unhealthy people will drift toward radicalism. Levin recalled an old friend of his who became a born-again Christian and turned his life around––an example of someone who found an "elevational" radical ideology.
Most cases of young radicalization don't turn out so well.
"Healthy people generally don't embrace radicalism," Levin said. "The difference between joining an extremist group in the past and now with the internet is that now you can put a variety of antisocial heaps on your plate, which might not have an ideology consistency but have a psychological consistency. People join philosophies to make them comfortable in some ways, even if they are an intoxicant."
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