In response to the growing global threat of white nationalist terror, House Democrats are calling on the U.S. State Department to add three international far-right groups to its list of “Foreign Terror Organizations.”
This is significant: Since 9/11 the State Department’s terror designation system has been overwhelmingly focused on the threat posed by jihadi extremism, like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Adding international far-right groups to their list could give federal prosecutors more tools to go after radicals suspected of conspiring with those organizations before an attack happens.
On Wednesday, New York Rep. Max Rose, who chairs the counterterrorism subcommittee, submitted a letter to the State Department, co-signed by 39 members of Congress. It urged the department to designate Azov Battalion (a far-right paramilitary regiment in Ukraine), National Action (a neo-Nazi group based in the U.K.), and Nordic Resistance Movement (a neo-Nazi network from Scandinavia) as terrorist organizations.
“It’s clear that the threat we face today is of a self-radicalized gunman,” Rose, a Democrat, told VICE News. “Somebody who has been radicalized online, whether it’s in accordance with jihadi ideology or a global white nationalist, neo-Nazi group.”
There is currently no domestic terror statute in the U.S. To charge a person with terrorism, prosecutors have to prove that they’re affiliated with one of the 67 groups labeled as a foreign terror organization (FTO) by the State Department.
The attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March was a major turning point for the way extremism experts approached white nationalist terror. The shooter, a white nationalist from Australia, shared a manifesto online that was replete with memes and ideas trafficked by far-right extremists around the globe. The manifesto itself was titled “The Great Replacement,” which is a white nationalist conspiracy theory drawn from a book by a French author, and the inspiration behind the chants of “You will not replace us” heard at the violent rally in Charlottesville two years ago.
Since the Christchurch mosque massacres, there have been similar attacks at a synagogue in Poway, California, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and most recently, near a synagogue in Halle, Germany.
In all cases, the shooters shared their own manifestos online that spoke to an international audience of white nationalist extremists who share a common goal of destabilizing society through violence to establish a “white homeland.”
In the seven months since Christchurch, there have been at least six congressional hearings on the issue of white nationalist terror. In those hearings, members of Congress have heard from intelligence officials and experts who have repeatedly stressed the seriousness of the threat posed by global far-right terror. Between 2009 and 2018, right-wing extremists, like white nationalists, accounted for 73% of extremist murders in the U.S., compared to 23% by jihadis, according to the ADL. And last month, DHS unveiled a new counterterrorism strategy that, for the first time, placed a major emphasis on fighting white nationalist terror.
Which is why Rose was surprised that not a single House Republican was willing to back the letter he submitted to the State Department.
“I’m baffled as to why my Republican colleagues have refused to sign on to this,” said Rose. “Not only are Azov Battalion, National Action, and Nordic Resistance Movement directly connected to inspiring attacks in the homeland, they’re direct purveyors of anti-Semitic ideologies that inspire attacks against Jews. It’s curious to me that the Republican Party, for the better half of this year, are claiming they’re against anti-Semitism. Here they have an opportunity to label it, but they’re not willing to stand against it."
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who heads global security research organization the Soufan Center, recently testified before Congress about the threat, saying that the way white nationalists were organizing internationally looked a lot like al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
According to a recent report by the Soufan Center, some 17,000 foreigners from 50 countries — including the U.S. — have traveled to Ukraine to fight in the war there since 2014. Many of those fighters joined the Azov Battalion, which embraces neo-Nazi symbols, and then returned to their home countries with new paramilitary skills.
The U.S. State Department effectively treats those returning fighters as nothing more than Americans coming back from an extended trip abroad.
But Azov has been implicated in a number of violent incidents outside of Ukraine. The Soufan Center has identified ties between the Christchurch shooter and Azov: The gunman had traveled to Ukraine in the years prior to the attack, and he'd embellished his firearm with symbols associated with the regiment (Azov has refuted Soufan’s reporting and stated that the group had no relation to the New Zealand shooter).
The Rise Above Movement, a U.S.-based street-fighting gang, sent some of its members to train with Azov in 2018, according to the FBI. And an American soldier was recently arrested for sharing bomb-making manuals online. According to the federal complaint, he’d discussed joining Azov. And as Rose’s letter points out, the government is well aware of Azov’s extremist leanings: In March 2018, Congress added a provision to its spending bill that barred the U.S. from arming Azov in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine because of its ties to neo-Nazis.
The U.K.’s Home Office designated National Action as a terrorist organization in 2016 — the first time the British government had flagged a far-right group as such since World War II. Researchers in the U.K. have identified relationships between National Action and groups like American Vanguard, which the neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of protesters during Charlottesville reportedly belonged to.
Here's the State Department’s criteria for FTO designation: A group has to be foreign; have the capacity and intent to engage in terrorism; and threaten the security of U.S. nationals, the security of foreign allies, or economic interests in the U.S.
“There are numerous examples of foreign white nationalist groups that fit these conditions,” Rose wrote in his letter. “The American people deserve an explanation as to why these groups are not included on the FTO list.”
Rose and his 39 co-signers asked the State Department to respond to their letter by Nov. 4.
In a response to VICE News’ request for comment, a spokesperson for the State Department wrote “We don’t discuss deliberations or the potential deliberations of our designations process.”
Cover: Combatants of Ukrainian Azov battalion pray near Bohdan Khmelnytsky monument before they were sent on a theater of ATO. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)