Neo-Nazi Group The Base Is Recruiting Again, Despite FBI Takedown

The group's founder, a former Homeland Security employee who is living in Russia, has retaken a leadership position after briefly leaving the organization.
May 20, 2021, 3:32pm
An image of the former Michigan cell of the Base, obtained by VICE News.
An image of the former Michigan cell of the Base, obtained by VICE News.

Despite an aggressive two-year-old FBI crackdown, decades of prison time facing some of its members, and a founder who lives in Russia under suspicious terms, the neo-Nazi terror group the Base not only still exists but is trying to recruit again.

According to sources familiar with the recent inner workings of the Base, it has somewhat rebounded, though as a shadow of its former self. The founder, Rinaldo Nazzaro, 47, by his own admission, still lingers around the remnants of the group from afar. While at its height it boasted around 60 members, the Base is now said to comprise a dozen or so men nationwide and a bad reputation for being a law enforcement honeypot. In an effort to reinvent itself, the Base, which for a time was under the intense pressures of FBI counterterrorism agents, put together a new, shoddily written—and unreleased—manifesto penned in the winter.

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The text, obtained by VICE News, offers a glimpse into how one of the more violent, American neo-Nazi groups has recently seen itself and how it planned on continuing to exist in the face of relentless police pressure. 

Following a string of arrests connected to the Base in early 2020 and into 2021, it became a cautionary tale for other hardcore organizations using the internet to organize violence in real life. To convince other online neo-Nazis existing in the same ecosystem of hyperviolent accelerationists—a sect of the far-right the Base adheres to that preaches terrorism to hasten the collapse of world governments—it wrote a new manifesto in the winter of 2021. The manifesto establishes both “Virtues” (which has a header that includes a weightlifting image) and gestures towards its terrorist goals (that it denies in the same breath), ultimately promising to “accelerate the breakdown of civil society in the West.”

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“The Base was forced underground, bruised but not broken,” it reads, emphatically pointing to the many arrestees once in the group as “True warriors” who went down for the “Cause.” 

“Today, despite being accused of ‘terrorism’ and targeted for elimination like never before, The Base continues the struggle to secure a future for our People. Our existence is our resistance,” the manifesto reads. “This document is our message to friend and foe alike."

On the one hand, the group is steadfast about being an entirely legal network and on the other, it tells recruits to arrive fully radicalized into its oeuvre of violent white nationalism. One of the goals guiding the latest iteration of the Base, according to the unpublished manifesto, is to “establish training bases for the benefit of our members which will serve as sanctuaries during times of crises.” Previously, the group only discussed having temporary training events and a “cadre” of senior paramilitary figures knowledgeable in combat that could train recruits, though Nazzaro had bought acres of land in a rural part of Washington State he reportedly wanted to use as a training base for the group.

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But in a series of emails to VICE News, Nazzaro both suggested he has retaken the reins of the Base and that the “draft” manifesto was the work of a previous leadership structure. He also said that the group was reoriented in mid-April to protect against infiltrators and spies, which have exposed the Base time and again, and that the numbers have changed.

“The Base is in a rebuilding phase of sorts,” he said, before claiming he has reorganized the Base. “The network has been reconfigured and is now entirely compartmentalized. Only I know the total number of participants. I won't reveal that information to you. Anything you've heard elsewhere is purely speculation.” (Nazzaro added that the Base doesn’t recognize a formal leadership structure, but did describe himself as “lead network administrator,” a claim that is in lockstep with the violent far-right ideology of “leaderless resistance.”)

“Leadership in a terrorist organization is important for recruitment and radicalization,” said Mollie Saltskog,  a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm, when she heard that Nazzaro had retaken a leadership role in the group. In recent months, he had begun a different training network apart from the Base, which he then abandoned. “Having Nazzaro back as the official leader of the Base can boost such efforts.”

The unpublished manifesto doesn’t entirely dissuade followers from illegal activities. Instead, under the heading “Don’t Talk,” it warns recruits away from discussing anything illicit online. This was the downfall for several former members who are now behind bars for the litany of crimes they allegedly committed while in the group (some openly talked about them in chat rooms).

Do you have information about the current status of the Base? 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.

“Do not discuss illegal activity online or in real life,” the unreleased manifesto says. “If you intend to break the law, don't indirectly implicate others by broadcasting your intentions. And if you've done something illegal, let your actions speak for themselves or say nothing to no one.”

Though the arrest of Justen Watkins, 25, the onetime head of the Base in Michigan who is facing multiple charges, dented its overall activities, the Base appears to be once again looking to organize paramilitary training in the U.S. (Training has been advertised in Oregon and North Carolina.) Nazzaro, a former employee of the Department of Homeland Security and a Pentagon contractor who worked for years in the War On Terror, first sought to train members of the group as early as the fall of 2018 to prepare for “System Collapse,” which is coded language used by white nationalists for the so-called race war they will use to destroy the U.S. government.

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A screenshot from a recent video Nazzaro released online denouncing the "oppression" of white people in America.

Even if it is a husk of its former self, the fact that a prominent white nationalist organization brazenly carries on in much the same way it did while FBI counterterrorism operations sought to disrupt it is a significant development. It underscores the difficulties law enforcement faces as it tries to dismantle similar groups and domestic terrorist threats in the wake of the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill. Nazzaro’s claim of a new compartmentalization strategy also speaks to the growing interest among the far-right to go offline and offgrid, turning to smaller cells that are harder for law enforcement to surveil. 

“We should not underestimate the potential threat posed by the Base,” said Saltskog, reiterating the dangers of the organization. “The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that racially motivated violent extremists, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, are the most likely to seek to attack civilians and conduct mass casualty attacks—and the Base is included in that category.”

Ultimately, it’s also proof that if members of groups like the Base aren’t indicted and remain free, they can germinate other online portals for new members to find, recreating the organization anew. For example, when faced with a U.S. government terrorism designation and the arrest of multiple cells nationwide, Atomwaffen Division, an adjacent organization to the Base, simply rebranded itself as the National Socialist Order and recruited new members into its fold.

Another major reason why the Base has maintained an online footprint is the steadfast presence of Nazzaro, who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, completely dodging the wrath of American law enforcement efforts against his group. As of late, he has openly posted recruitment links and paramilitary literature on Telegram, a popular encrypted social media app among the far right. But there was drama between Nazzaro and members of the latest iteration of the Base: In March, he momentarily fell out with the group after a tirade on his personal Telegram channel called out the commitment to the cause of certain members of the group.

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Nazzaro’s legal status in the U.S. remains murky. He was recently named by an FBI agent in court proceedings against Watkins, as the man behind the Base and one government source told VICE News that Nazzaro was a Department of Justice matter, which in turn said it couldn’t comment on him. Nazzaro, who claims he is on a U.S. no fly-list and that some of his abilities to engage in the U.S. financial system have been inhibited, has repeatedly denied allegations he is working for Russian intelligence against the country he once served. (Previously, the BBC reported that Nazzaro had loose links to the Russian government.)

As far as Nazzaro is concerned, though, he is “able to travel back to the United States without threat of prosecution,” and hasn’t been formally charged with any crimes. Nazzaro has been in court documents prepared against several members of the Base.

“Anonymous media sources seem to suggest I'm under investigation,” he said to VICE News. “I know I'm on the FBI terrorist watchlist. I haven't been formally charged with any crime. I haven't done anything illegal.”

An FBI spokesperson said the bureau can “neither confirm nor deny whether an individual is on the watchlist.”

As in years past, the Base is regularly posting propaganda to its Telegram channel claiming it isn’t a terrorist organization, yet is still offering covert training to potential new members. “The Base is hosting a 4 day backpacking excursion in Oregon during mid-July,” reads one post from its Telegram account. “Over the course of 4 days, the party will be trekking 50 miles. You are expected to bring your own pack, food, water, and other amenities you’d like. More advanced equipment, such as maps and other topographic gear, will be provided by The Base.” 

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