US far right seeks ways to exploit coronavirus and cause social collapse

Jason Wilson
Photograph: Gary He/EPA

Neo-Nazi groups in the US are looking for ways to exploit the coronavirus outbreak and commit acts of violence, according to observers of far-right groups, law enforcement, and propaganda materials reviewed by the Guardian.

The watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) raised the alarm last week about opportunism from far-right so-called “accelerationist” groups who believe sowing chaos and violence will hasten the collapse of society, allowing them to build a white supremacist one in its place.

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Late last month, the FBI warned such extremist groups were encouraging members to deliberately spread the virus to Jewish people and police officers. Similarly, British hate monitors Hope Not Hate warned these groups are expressing “gleeful expectation of social turmoil”.

With few public-facing social media services allowing white supremacists to have a reliable platform for their views, the propaganda effort to use the coronavirus crisis as a recruiting tool is mainly visible on laissez-faire social media platforms like Telegram.

There neo-Nazi groups have been affirming and welcoming the pandemic as a threat to liberal democracy and seeing it as an opportunity to grow their movement and realize their goals with acts of violence.

“All we’ve been saying is this pandemic is real, it is global, and this will get pretty bad so prepare and enjoy the show,” read one post to a coronavirus-themed neo-Nazi channel in recent days, between posts baselessly speculating that white people were less prone to contracting it and racist conspiracy theories about its origins.

Beyond accepting the pandemic is real, activists are encouraging like-minded neo-Nazis to take advantage of the social chaos it creates in order to further destabilize the liberal democratic systems they despise.

One channel issued an eight-point plan for “the boog” – a term used on the far right to denote what they believe to be a looming civil war. Their advice included acts of terrorism and sabotage and asks people to “encourage locals to join your cause, if have to do it by force”, and “attack key locations for federal entities, NATO outposts, and military presence”.

At the same time, such groups are using the pandemic to sharpen their condemnations of “the system”, and encouraging people to lose all hope in normal political processes. A representative post in one channel made in recent days read, “I have said it before and I will say it again, America is Dead.”

Such posturing – which often combines nihilism, exhortations to violence and conspiracy-addled racism – is shared by groups like the ostensibly disbanded Atomwaffen Division, The Base and Fueuerkrieg Division.

This subculture, whose members openly advocate terrorism, has been subject to multiple arrests and prosecutions in recent months, on charges ranging from synagogue vandalism to conspiracy to murder.

An SPLC researcher, Cassie Miller, said these groups have always talked about ways that western democracies might be destabilized, but “this time the political opportunity has come to them. They haven’t had to do anything to sow chaos at this point.

“They’re saying, ‘see, this is what we told you. Modern society is unsustainable. It is eventually headed towards collapse’,” Miller added. “And they think that they’re going to be the revolutionary vanguard that is going to be in place to handle the situation when it eventually breaks down.”

Similar sentiments appear to have motivated a Missouri man who planned a car bomb attack on a hospital which was treating coronavirus patients. He was shot dead by FBI agents who were seeking to arrest him late last month.

The man, who had been under FBI investigation for months, was active in Telegram chats associated with two neo-Nazi groups: the longstanding National Socialist Movement and the accelerationist group Vorherrschaft Division.

Miller said these groups remain potentially dangerous but a wave of recent arrests has weakened them, and it’s not clear what capacity they have to carry out actions beyond attacks by radicalized individuals.

“I think that the FBI has clearly reprioritized white supremacist violence, and we’ve seen the effects of that in the last several months,” she said.

“That’s caused this huge disruption in these networks. And I hope that the attention continues, especially as people who are part of this movement are trying to exploit the current political atmosphere.”

The FBI declined to confirm or deny the existence of any active investigation into individuals or groups embracing neo-Nazi accelerationism.

“However, we continue steadfast in our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution throughout this period of national emergency,” an FBI spokesperson wrote in an email.

“Our operations remain directed toward national security and violations of federal law, and will continue unabated”, the spokesperson added.