STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-Berlin. The Atomwaffen Division (AWD) is a dangerous white supremacy extremist group that encourages violence in pursuit of a race war to establish a white ethno-state. While AWD’s roots are in the United States, it has established affiliates and offshoots across Europe, including in the United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states. Its expansion to these countries makes its reach and its capacity to plan and conduct violence global in nature—and therefore makes it worthy of a potential terrorist designation.
So far, the group has been definitively linked to at least five murders in the United States, and is known to surreptitiously host paramilitary training camps, called ‘hate camps,’ across the country. Members based in the United States have communicated with affiliates overseas. In late July, an announcement on the group’s Telegram channel claimed that AWD’s leadership has founded a rebranded group called the National Socialist Order (NSO), mimicking a name-change strategy often used by Salafi-jihadist groups, including some al-Qaeda affiliates. This action is meant to complicate counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts to disrupt their operations and hold them accountable for their crimes, while also creating confusion as the group attempts to label itself a paramilitary and political group.
AWD, founded in 2015, operates as a cellular based organization, with small cells or ‘lone wolves’ furthering the organization’s racist goals through violence and intimidation. AWD members in the United States communicate with affiliates abroad, forming a visible if loose network of white supremacist terrorist cells. American members are known to have traveled and networked throughout Europe, including Kaleb Cole, the leader of AWD’s Washington state cell.
The most prominent international affiliates of AWD are based in the Baltic states, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The Baltic affiliate, called the Feuerkrieg Division (FKD), has been linked to violent plots in the United States and Europe, including death threats made against Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, and planned attacks on Las Vegas establishments including a synagogue and a gay bar. Notably, an FKD-linked U.S. Army soldier, Jarret William Smith, pleaded guilty in February to charges related to an attack he was planning on CNN using explosives.
Members of the UK affiliate of AWD, called the Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD), are known to have communicated with American AWD members online. The United Kingdom designated SKD a terrorist group on February 25, 2020. AWD’s German affiliate, AWD-Deutschland (AWD-D), has made death threats against Green Party members of Germany’s Parliament. AWD-D has found a home in the growing right wing extremist scene in Germany, which Thomas Haldewang, the president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, has called the ‘biggest danger to German democracy today.’
AWD has also been linked to brazen acts of violence in the United States, including at least five murders. Paramilitary-style ‘hate camps,’ where AWD members receive indoctrination and military-style training, are known to have taken place in Nevada, Illinois, Washington State, California, and Texas. AWD’s message has resonated with former and active-duty military members, heightening the danger the group poses by recruiting individuals with combat experience and tactical expertise. In addition to its own activities and recruitment, AWD is known to engage with other neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations in the United States, including The Base, to participate in rallies and plan and conduct violent acts against civilians, infrastructure, houses of worship, and other targets.
While AWD’s roots are in the United States, it now maintains an expanding international presence fueled by online communication, especially encrypted apps—an expansion that the COVID-19 pandemic could facilitate, given the increasing amount of time spent online against a background of devastating economic calamity and acrimonious political division. The U.S. Government should give serious consideration to sanctioning AWD, as it meets the criteria to be labeled a terrorist group: it maintains a foreign presence; has constituted a threat to U.S. national security interests; and has demonstrated an ability to commit terrorist attacks. The case of Conor Climo, who plotted an attack in Las Vegas in concert with FKD members abroad, is one of several examples. In case AWD’s domestic presence makes it challenging to designate the group, other legal options are available to criminalize AWD’s activities.
Updating section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) could provide more flexibility for designating groups with both a domestic and a foreign presence. Taking such an action will allow authorities to prevent travel of group members abroad, cut off groups’ financial networks, and access resources that will allow such groups to be investigated more comprehensively, thus protecting American citizens in the process. The parallel growth of other white supremacy and far-right elements, including anti-government militias, conspiracy theorists, and newer ideologies like the so-called ‘Boogaloo Bois,’ should not be viewed as competition for AWD, but rather as a potential complement, which makes taking action against AWD all the more urgent (TSC).