Months after claiming it was disbanding, the neo-Nazi terror group formerly known as the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) has re-emerged under a new leadership structure and name, according to one of its leaders and an online statement reviewed by VICE News.
The new group, operating under the banner of the National Socialist Order (NSO), says it draws from a cadre of former AWD leaders who avoided jail time after a sweeping nationwide FBI operation earlier this year led to the arrest of several of its members. The NSO statement said “much good came out of AWD"—which is linked to five killings in the U.S.—but that the new organization has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor.
Though this may appear to be nothing more than yet another brigade of internet Nazis making threats, the founding of the NSO illustrates how violent accelerationist organizations continue festering online despite the FBI's concerted efforts to arrest far-right militants. (Beyond the AWD round-up earlier this year, The Base—a parallel organization—was dismantled through a series of raids by the bureau in January, thwarting an assassination plot in Georgia and a mass shooting in Virginia.)
VICE News spoke to a former AWD cell leader now jointly heading the NSO, who said the group will take advantage of the disarray wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant unemployment, and near-unprecedented political polarization in the U.S. The leader said NSO is a "political and paramilitary group" focusing on “recruitment and propaganda” claiming it did not intend to carry out violence in the near term.
Undoubtedly, the latest publicity announcement represents the NSO seeking to unashamedly promote its brand and position itself as a premier name among the accelerationist far-right organizations still left standing. But its genuine connection to AWD—a domestic terrorist organization in the eyes of the FBI and other American national security agencies—is reason for the group to be taken seriously as something more than a group of boastful trolls.
“At the moment, it appears that NSO is very much a new generation of AWD, as the new group is led by AWD leadership that was not arrested,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project, a U.S.-based terrorism watchdog. “It was a matter of time before a new group would emerge and claim leadership of this violent movement.”
The FBI said it is broadly keeping a close eye on domestic terrorism and racist extremists.
“Individuals affiliated with racially motivated violent extremism are responsible for the most lethal and violent domestic terrorism activity since 2000,” said the FBI. “When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals—regardless of group membership—that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion.”
The NSO leader told VICE News the group has an organized chain of command.
“I'm one of the executive leaders,” he told VICE News. “I'm one of the four people who runs the group. And all of us control a region of sorts (in the U.S.). You know, there's four regions that we have. So all four of us make decisions together.”
In the past, loose lips among AWD led to arrests. Some members foolishly discussed illegal actions on surveilled channels, which federal authorities were able to gather and use to pin charges on them. The leader claimed the new organization will somehow try to avoid this.
“We're going to keep people from, if they do anything illegal—which we don't encourage or discourage—we're going to keep them from talking about it online,” he said.
The NSO's announcement included contacts to an encrypted email service, which shows the group is interested in recruitment and expansion. But infiltration by federal authorities or antifascist activists is a constant risk that could lead to another string of arrests and the embarrassing exposure of the organization's inner workings, which is exactly what happened to The Base.
To address infiltration, the NSO leader said, recruitment procedures for his group will be conducted in person, noting that AWD, unlike The Base, never had known FBI penetration.
“Well, everything is going to have to be and is already in person in regards to vetting,” he said. He maintained that FBI attention is unavoidable and that the group is already functioning under the assumption that it is being watched closely. “No FBI agents typing away on his computer from Langley and saying he's a 19 year old kid out in Montana who wants to join this Nazi group. It’s all gonna be in person. We're going to do detailed interviews. We're just gonna be very careful.”
(Langley, Virginia is in fact where CIA headquarters is located.)
“I mean, people even like myself have been visited by the FBI," he said, "and obviously they're paying attention to, you know, fascist and national socialist websites."
One of the original goals of AWD was to eventually create a homegrown insurgency against a weakened U.S. government that would lead to the founding of a white ethnostate. It was also well known for carrying out covert paramilitary training sessions inside the U.S., which were dubbed “Hate Camps,” and used them to produce slick propaganda videos to recruit everyone from active American servicemen and veterans to willing young converts to violent neo-Nazism. According to the leader, NSO is considering doing a Hate Camp and producing new propaganda, but admitted AWD didn’t get “that much of group cohesion or anything came out of it.”
In its initial release, the NSO signalled it is continuing to follow the ideological principles set out by James Mason, a longtime fixture in the American neo-Nazi movement and a former advisor to AWD who wrote the insurgency text Siege. The leader of the NSO maintained Mason “doesn't have anything specifically to do with our group.” (Mason told VICE News in an interview that he is aware of the NSO, but has no formal links to it.)
Just before the NSO announced its existence, a lesser version of The Base reappeared under the auspices of a small number of alleged former members of the original group once led by New Jersey native Rinaldo Nazzaro, who lives in Russia and is suspected of being a Russian intelligence asset. The new version of The Base released an amateurish video of two members shooting a scarecrow, which quickly became the butt of jokes on neo-Nazi Telegram channels that saw the group’s newest propaganda as continued evidence it is no longer a serious contender for the membership of committed militants in the neo-Nazi movement.
In March, remaining Atomwaffen Division leaders empowered Mason to announce its full demise at a time when the group was reportedly on the verge of being labelled a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department. The Russian Imperial Movement, a lesser-known neo-Nazi terror group based in St. Petersburg with ties to the Kremlin, was eventually named instead.
Alleged branches of Atomwaffen Division are believed to exist in other parts of the world. A Russian iteration of the group suddenly announced its existence online in early June, while the German AWD cell actively posts propaganda onto its own Telegram channel.
In the early 1980s, a violent neo-Nazi terrorist organization named "The Order" was known for a string of bank robberies totalling in the millions and the brutal assassination of Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984. The group took its name from the fictional terrorist organization in the The Turner Diaries, a cult novel penned by longtime American Nazi, William Pierce, which has attained near-biblical status among white nationalists. Mason praised The Order in his writings. Its leader, Bob Matthews, who died in a shootout with the FBI shortly after the Berg killing, continues to be both a martyr figure and an example for action to former members of The Base and Atomwaffen Division.
The NSO leader conceded the group name doesn’t necessarily allude to Matthews and The Order of almost 40 years ago—but, he said, it’s not “a comparison we're opposed to in any way.”