Small Wars Journal

Skinheads, Saints, and (National) Socialists

Mon, 06/14/2021 - 1:45pm

Skinheads, Saints, and (National) Socialists: An Overview of the Transnational White Supremacist Extremist Movement · by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Samuel Hodgson · June 14, 2021

The 40 page monograph can be downloaded here.

The introduction, conclusion, and recommendations are below.

This monograph must be read along with its companion monographBehind the Black Bloc An Overview of Militant Anarchism and Anti-Fascism​, which I am forwarding in a separate identically formatted message.​

While each is outstanding on their own, the simultaneous publication of both is just brilliant. These will become seminal works for Congress, policymakers, the IC, FBI, Homeland Security, and researchers. These are so balanced and objective with very sound recommendations the most important in both being "resist the temptation to pick sides."


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment states that among domestic violent extremists, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”1 The threat has been made clear through multiple lethal acts perpetrated by WSEs. The deadliest and most prominent recent attack was an August 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that claimed 22 lives. It was the third-deadliest domestic extremist attack in 50 years.2 Beyond lone acts of terrorism, organized networks such as Atomwaffen Division (AWD) and The Base – both of which have been significantly disrupted, as this report details – have plotted terrorist attacks in recent years to advance their goal of overthrowing the U.S. government and triggering a race war.

The January 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill cast a spotlight on the WSE movement, as some people associated with WSE groups took part and displayed white power symbols, including a now-infamous “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.3 Though the events of January 6 should not be over-interpreted as driven by WSEs – multiple types of rioters, grievances, and belief systems were involved – the insurrection underscored how WSEs can exploit our fractured political environment. In 2020–2021, the United States lurched discernibly toward armed politics and violent activism; multiple factions and movements resorted to the use or threat of violence to pursue their objectives. The country witnessed scenes not glimpsed in decades, such as armed citizens patrolling the streets in Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.4 The involvement of WSEs in the Capitol Hill attack and other events during this tumultuous period points to their ability to exploit societal fractures and the general rise in extremism.

At the same time, WSE activity has taken on an increasingly transnational dimension. WSEs are developing cross-border connections with like-minded individuals and groups, sha­­­­ring ideologies and practical knowledge with their foreign counterparts, both in person and online. The growing transnationalism of the movement has inspired further attacks across the globe and fueled extremist recruitment.

This report is designed to provide an overview of white supremacist extremism, both domestic and international. It addresses key WSE ideologies, major domestic and foreign WSE groups, the nature of the WSE threat in the United States, and transnational WSE activity. The report is not comprehensive: The universe of WSE actors is large, regionally varied, and constantly in flux as political conditions and the actions of law enforcement shape its development. Nonetheless, this report should provide a solid foundation for understanding the threat today and an indication of how the WSE movement may continue to evolve.


Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

In the United States and internationally, the WSE threat continues to grow, and attacks have occurred even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WSE movement thrives in the current political environment, which is increasingly prone to various extremist ideologies. There are concrete policies that can be leveraged to reduce this threat. In countering domestic threats of violence, however, the U.S. government must ensure that it protects relevant civil liberties and maintains political neutrality.



Designating extremist groups as terrorist organizations is a step that the departments of State and the Treasury do not take lightly. The 2020 designation of RIM as an SDGT was a significant step in countering WSE groups. It is worth considering further designations of violent WSE groups and actors that meet the criteria to be listed as SDGTs or Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).126



A statute that allows for designation of domestic violent extremist organizations should be considered. Rather than advocating for or against it, this section describes the benefits and costs of such an approach.

The creation and even-handed employment of such a statute may be the most direct way to address and interdict funding for domestic violent extremist organizations. Such designation would potentially criminalize the financing of these organizations and enable authorities to freeze assets the organizations may already hold.

However, such a domestic statute would raise civil liberties concerns. One major concern would be ensuring that this statute is ideologically neutral in conception and application. Designations should correspond to the threats that groups pose, not the ideas they espouse. A domestic designation statute that targets groups espousing only certain ideologies may heighten the risk of violence. The perception of designation bias may become a rallying cry, drawing more members to violent extremism. As such, this statute must be clear about the predicate acts that trigger designation. Vague or imprecise language would render the statute vulnerable to legal challenges to both its adoption and its enforcement. The threshold for designation should be high: For a group to be designated, it must pose a legitimate threat to the lives of others. Finally, the statute must include a redress mechanism. The consequences of designation are severe and demand an opportunity for appeal.



A dearth of knowledge about how WSE organizations are funded and structured hampers efforts to counter their financing. Accordingly, it is important to deepen our understanding of the organizational structures and funding mechanisms common to domestic violent extremist organizations.

The consensus among experts studying domestic violent extremism is that these groups are relatively fluid and devoid of organizational structure. This may be so. However, these groups may have a hidden hierarchy or organizational structure. Moreover, in the digital age, fluid organizational structures can quickly harden into more concrete ones. This increases the need to unearth concealed organizational structures. Such understanding can help authorities proactively disrupt sources of funding and mitigate the potential for harm. Further research in this area is needed.



The United States has a history of devoting resources to messaging efforts designed to discredit extremist groups. While Washington’s record of discrediting jihadist groups can most charitably be described as mixed, it would be foolish to cede the territory of messaging to WSE groups. Propaganda and messaging constitute an inherent part of any significant conflict. One approach to countering WSE messaging might include de-bureaucratized teams – or “startups within government” – with flexibility in the messaging sphere. In the present case, this could be accomplished by a nimble unit of communications professionals and intelligence officers monitoring WSE propaganda and generating real-time counter-messaging content that exposes falsehoods in WSEs’ messaging and provides facts that discredit the movement. Such a model would inhibit WSE ability to enter new communication spaces unchallenged.127

The benefit of a “startups-within-government” approach is that government messaging efforts tend to be overly risk-averse. Most startups in the commercial sphere fail within their first three years of existence, and that is a good thing: Those that survive the Darwinian process confronting new businesses often go on to become highly profitable and accomplished. A startups-within-government model would accept the near certainty of failed experiments, with the understanding that de-bureaucratized cells that do not fail in a competitive environment are more likely to achieve an outsized impact.



Extremists use social media and technology platforms to disseminate materials and recruit. In the past, WSE attackers have posted manifestos online prior to carrying out attacks. There may be better ways to identify danger signs and alert authorities if danger appears likely or imminent. And platforms where WSEs may attempt to spread violent ideologies and recruit should be monitored. Indeed, one increasingly important space for WSE recruitment appears to be videogames. Partnerships between large and small technology companies may help create a more comprehensive effort, including by providing smaller companies access to resources.

Collaboration between the U.S. government and technology companies has often been hampered by technology companies’ mistrust of government intelligence-gathering, as well as concerns about user privacy. The U.S. government should address WSE activity in a manner consistent with these concerns. Continuing dialogue about content takedowns – regardless of the ideology of the content – is crucial. The success of the dialogue will depend on the ability of participants to approach extremism with the appropriate level of context and expertise and without bias. To this end, one critical recommendation is to include people with a diversity of perspectives in these discussions, including those skeptical of content takedowns due to concerns related to protecting speech and expression.



Since the WSE movement is global, Washington must collaborate with international partners to study groups and individuals with connections to WSE militancy. WSE groups seek to establish cross-border links with foreign counterparts, and some even establish overseas chapters or operate in multiple countries. They can inspire and motivate others across the globe to carry out attacks. The U.S. government should study and prepare for potential new avenues of internationalization and transnational collaboration in the WSE sphere. Such understanding and awareness would better prepare U.S. law enforcement and intelligence to halt or respond to acts of WSE violence.



In the current polarized climate, opposite extremes tend to radicalize both sides and provide average people a reason to drift toward extremes. Theories of reciprocal radicalization and fringe fluidity are therefore highly instructive. Reciprocal radicalization suggests that growing power and success of groups aligned with one extremist ideology will fuel recruitment and encourage activity by groups of ostensibly opposing ideologies. Interactions between groups locked into reciprocal radicalization often result in “a bizarre mixture of cooperation, competition, and overt fighting between different groups.”128 Another relevant dynamic is fringe fluidity.129 This is a radicalization pathway in which individuals transition from one form of extremism to another. Fringe fluidity demonstrates how extremists prioritize common grievances, goals, and enemies even when their overarching ideologies conflict.130 Brenton Tarrant, the March 2019 Christchurch mosque killer, is one recent example. Tarrant shifted between several extremist ideologies, ultimately declaring himself an ecofascist at the time of his attack.131

In an era of political polarization, extremists may seize the opportunity to draw recruits and mobilize from a growing menu of overlapping and sometimes conflicting militant ideologies, making fringe fluidity an increasingly powerful force. Likewise, evidence of reciprocal radicalization among extremist groups demands attention, as extremists of one persuasion have no shortage of opposing forces to radicalize them. The U.S. government should devote resources to studying these phenomena.



In recent years, politicians have too often spoken on issues of extremist violence with ambiguity because of partisan considerations. Political leaders must recognize the role they may play in furthering extremist narratives. Choosing a side serves to prioritize goals and enemies as the extremists would. As political factions and movements in the United States resort to violence or the threat of violence to pursue objectives, the government must be unified and precise in its messaging: Political violence is completely intolerable in a democratic society.



WSEs have in the past conducted mass attacks in public spaces, some of which have left significant numbers dead. Unfortunately, violent extremists of various ideological stripes, as well as non-ideological mass attackers, are certain to strike again. In too many attacks, man-made structures have aided attackers and worked against those trying to escape. Victims have been trapped by limited exits or prevented from securing rooms because doors do not lock from the inside. One solution is crisis architecture, an architectural paradigm that offers integrated tactical, psychological, and technological security measures while preserving function and aesthetics.132

Categories: domestic terrorism