Reporter A.C. Thompson details his investigation of Atomwaffen, a growing neo-Nazi and murderous white supremacist group with heavily armed members in about 20 American cities.
Founded and run by young, white males, the group has expanded in the wake of the protests last year in Charlottesville, VA. One member, Samuel Woodward, is charged in Orange County, CA, with the January 2018 murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein — a gay, Jewish college student.
Thompson’s team at the website ProPublica obtained and reviewed some 250,000 chat messages exchanged by Atomwaffen (German for “nuclear weapons”) supporters, including hateful, anti-Semitic comments about Bernstein’s murder. Thompson notes that Atomwaffen is not aligned with Trump. The group’s guru is James Mason — who joined the American Nazi Party in the 1960s and wrote Siege, which is considered Atomwaffen’s manifesto.
In the space of a few months, people associated with the group have been charged in five murders; another member pleaded guilty to possession of explosives in a possible plot to blow up a nuclear facility near Miami.
Despite this — and threats by a Las Vegas member to target the power grid in the West — Thompson says the FBI shows little interest in Atomwaffen, and there’s no indication that the FBI is deploying undercover agents or using the techniques that have become commonplace in domestic terrorism investigations that target Muslim Americans.
You can read the ProPublica report here.
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|Peter B. Collins:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Today I’m joined by A.C. Thompson, an investigative journalist for ProPublica, who explains his recent report about the neo-Nazi white-supremacist group called Atomwaffen Division. They’ve got 18 to 20 cells across the country and people associated with the group have been charged in five murders over the past year. Another group member pleaded guilty to possession of explosives and there are other serious issues, as well.|
|ProPublica was able to get a hold of some 250,000 chat messages exchanged between Atomwaffen members. I think you’ll find this fascinating and a little scary, particularly, when A.C. Thompson tells us that the FBI doesn’t seem to be very interested in Atomwaffen. And, so far, he has no indication that the FBI has penetrated this dangerous militant group.|
|Investigative journalist A.C. Thompson from ProPublica joins me today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. He and colleagues have been investigating a group called Atomwaffen, a notorious white-supremacist group and one of its leaders is now implicated in a murder case here in California. A.C. Thompson, thanks for joining me today.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Thanks for having me on.|
|Peter B. Collins||I first connected with you back in 2006, A.C., when you and Trevor Paglen wrote the book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, and I’ve been following your work ever since. You and the people at ProPublica do a lot of great investigative work. This recent story really is an eye-opener about this group that operates in, perhaps, 18 or 20 cities. It’s loosely organized. The formal name is Atomwaffen Division. Atomwaffen is the German term for “nuclear weapons.” This has been off my radar until I saw your story published on February 23rd. How did you first learn about Atomwaffen, A.C.?|
|A.C. Thompson:||You know, they came to my attention because the group was putting up posters on college campuses all over the country. This was a year, year and a half ago. They were, I would say, out of the new wave of white-supremacist groups that have emerged, these were the most extreme propaganda materials. They were just openly Nazi. They were incredibly inflammatory. And college students around the country were freaking out, understandably, that this stuff was showing up on their campuses. I had had an eye on the group ever since then. When the opportunity came to get inside the group, myself and my team took it.|
|Peter B. Collins:||You have a really powerful insight into their communications network. You obtained hundreds of pages, it sounds like, of… based on 250,000 messages that were exchanged. And they use a system that is related to video gamers; so they’re not on Snapchat, or Instagram, or any of the more popular mainstream social media sites. But you say that they’re using Discord, which is a chat scene for video gamers?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, exactly. It’s an app and a technology that were designed for video gamers who are playing immersive online massive multiplayer games, so that they can communicate, either by text or by voice, as they’re playing. But this technology has been massively co-opted by the white-supremacist movement. We saw it being used by the organizers of the Charlottesville rally last summer. We’ve seen it used by lots of different white-supremacist groups. In fact, at times to share bomb-making recipes and materials. For Atomwaffen, it was the key communications platform for them.|
|Their members, and we counted more than 100 different usernames in there… We believe there’s about 80 different members would use it to make basic plans to talk about what members of the group should be reading, to make plans for their training camps, for weapons and hand-to-hand combat, and to enforce a sense of discipline. The more crucial conversations, or the more… conversations you might get in trouble with law enforcement about, happen on a different channel and that’s called Wire. It’s an encrypting messaging service and those messages disappear after a certain amount of time. So they’re even harder to track.|
|Then finally, the third way that the group communicates with its most sensitive material, is purely face-to-face. But by reading these 250,000 messages, and figuring out who the characters were in these conversations and working very hard to identify them, we were able to get a really good sense of the group’s aims, its intentions, and where it believes that it’s going.|
|Peter B. Collins:||In January, a murder was committed in Orange County, California. The suspect in the case is a member of Atomwaffen named Samuel Woodward. And the victim is a 19-year-old man named Blaze Bernstein. And for those of us old enough to remember Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, were quite a combination. It’s an interesting irony to see these names surface in this combination. What do we know about the murder of Blaze Bernstein and to what extent do the chats confirm that Samuel Woodward was the killer?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Early on, when the news came out about Blaze Bernstein’s murder, there was not very much evidence, not very much information. When the police went and arrested Samuel Woodward, people in my profession, journalists, started poking around and they started raising questions. Hey, was this guy a white supremacist? What is his story? There’s some stuff that’s online from him that looks pretty concerning. What we were able to do is, working with people with deep knowledge of the Atomwaffen group, is to confirm that he was a key member of the group. That he was a key leader within the California operation of the group… to confirm that he had been at their training events. And that he had practiced firearms training and hand-to-hand combat.|
|We were, eventually, able to get his specific messages that he had posted both before and after the murder.|
|Peter B. Collins:||We’ll point out that the victim was a 19 year-old Jewish gay student at the University of Pennsylvania. You report that he and Woodward apparently knew each other from high school. Is that right?|
|A.C. Thompson:||That’s our understanding, is that they knew each other from high school. How they came to, possibly, meet up in that park in Orange County is not clear. What’s clear is Samuel Woodward is a person who was, or is, deeply committed to Nazism. He is the kind of young man that is taking an extreme ideology and taking it as far as it can possibly go. In his mind, Francisco Franco, the Fascist dictator who ruled over Spain for more than 30 years, was not enough of a Fascist. He, from reading his chat messages, seems to be ambivalent about characters like Mussolini… but Hitler, he’s a very, very big Hitler fan.|
|He’s also somebody who seems to gravitate towards the most violent sort of neo-Nazi formation. There’s messages that he posts where he discusses a contemporary Nazi terror group involved in many murders and bombings in Germany. He says, “Oh, those guys are pretty cool.” Those are the kind of leaders and groups that he gravitated towards. In terms of the views that he espouses online, in these chats, they’re incredibly misogynistic. They are incredibly racist. They are incredibly anti-Semitic… and deeply homophobic.|
|It’s a big toxic stew that you get from him.|
|Peter B. Collins:||You also indicate that the popularity of Atomwaffen, virtually, I don’t want to use the term exploded… but it seemed to increase quite aggressively after the scene in Charlottesville last year.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, and that’s a really interesting and, I think, it’s an important note here. After the protests, the counter-protests, and the killing, and the violence in Charlottesville, there were a lot of young white supremacists who said, “Hey, we’re the victims here. The victim is not Heather Heyer who was murdered. The victims are not the people who were run over with the car or the other people who were abused. We are the victims. We were unable to hold our rally to get together and support white supremacy and these Confederate statues. The police didn’t help us. The counter-protestors were mean to us and we’re the victims. What we need to do is go underground. We’re not going to do these protests anymore. We’re not going to march around in public or any of that kind of stuff. We’re going to go underground and we’re going to wage a guerrilla war against the government.”|
|A lot of those people that had that sort of sense gravitated and went over to Atomwaffen because that is their explicit mission. They are not people that believe that any sort of political process is viable. They believe in armed struggle, and guerilla warfare, and terrorism. Yes, they got a big bump after that and we can see that in the logs, new people coming in.|
|Peter B. Collin:||A.C., we know that David Duke, the former Klan leader, was outspoken in his support of Trump, when Trump, basically, offered equivalency for the white supremacists and the counter-protesters who were there in Charlottesville. Was there any commentary in these chats, that you saw, where they praised Trump for, basically, making white supremacy popular again, legitimate again, and also his commentary post-Charlottesville?|
|A.C. Thompson:||You know, that’s an interesting thing about these guys… if you look at other sectors of the New White Supremacist Movement, a lot of them have a lot of support for Trump. There’s a lot of sense that they have overlapping world views. These guys do not believe that at all. They are not interested in Trump. They don’t like Trump. They would never support him because he has a Jewish son-in-law and because his daughter has converted to Judaism. These guys, they don’t care about Trump, I mean, they just think he’s another tool of, basically, what they view as a Zionist-controlled world government. So they don’t care what he says or does. What they want to do is topple his government and any other American government.|
|Peter B. Collins:||A.C., we will link to your article in the show summary at whowhatwhy.org for this podcast, but you profile about five different members of this neo-Nazi group. What struck me is they’re all so young. I mean, the average age appears to be 20 or 22. In my experience, those who embrace the Aryan Nation and these white-supremacist neo-Nazi groups have, generally, done prison time. That’s where they get their PhD in hate and in white supremacy group organizing. But it doesn’t appear that any of these people has a criminal record and, you note, that their manifesto is a book called Siege, written by a gentleman named James Mason, who appears to be aging and has been around as an American Nazi since the 1960s. Tell us about Mason and the extent to which he is a source of inspiration for Atomwaffen Division.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, James Mason is both a scary and fascinating character. He was a guy who joined the American Nazi Party back in the ’60s when he was 14 years old. He was deeply devoted to the leader of that group, whose name was George Lincoln Rockwell. After that movement imploded… Rockwell was assassinated by a distraught former member… Mason got deeper and deeper into the belief that a social movement, a political movement, was not the way to go. That the way to go was some sort of terror-based asymmetrical warfare. He looked around at what was happening at this time, and by this time we’re talking about the ’70s and early ’80s. His influences were the radical left. He was inspired by the Vietcong and he said, “Look, the Vietnamese guerrillas were able to beat back the US Army, the US empire. That’s pretty inspiring. I don’t like people of color, but, wow, those guys are impressive.”|
|He looked around, at the Weather Underground, and at other hardcore leftist movements of the ’60s and ’70s and said, “Look, with just a few people, these groups were able to, at times, paralyze major American cities. This is the sort of thinking and these are the sort of actions that we need to take.” He openly advocated for assassination, for political terrorism, for setting up a White Liberation Front that was very, very inspired by lefty politics. But the White Liberation Front would defend the rights of white folks, and wage a guerrilla struggle, against the US Government on behalf of what he viewed as an oppressed white populace.|
|The Atomwaffen Division have brought this guy out of obscurity, brought him out of the footnotes of 20th Century extremism, and made him central to their ideology. Because he is this sort of elder statesman, and a person with a sort of teleological worldview, he has a complete world view out there that they treat as basically divine revelation. This is their calling card and this is, I would say, their touchstone… their way forward is through his ideas and through armed struggle.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Is there a vision for a white Aryan Nation state here in North America? Is there a vision for trying to take down our government and just produce a level of chaos, anarchy? What is the mission statement, if you will, of Atomwaffen?|
|A.C. Thompson:||That’s a great question. You know, if you throw it back to the ’80s and ’90s, the idea that was percolating around the white-extremist circles, at that point, was like, “Hey, we’ll have a whites-only homeland somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. We will separate ourselves from diverse multicultural America. We will have, basically, our white homeland.” That sort of got taken up in the current era as a notion of America becoming a white ethno-state where people who are not white would be purged from it. That’s the Richard Spencer ideal. But when you look at Atomwaffen and what they want to do, it’s actually different. They think the notion of creating a white homeland, or a white reservation, is ridiculous. They think the idea of transforming America, the diverse, the multicultural, the nation of immigrants, into a white ethno-state is ridiculous.|
|What they want to do is bring everything down. At a certain level, they are nihilists. They want to bring everything down. They want to see cataclysmic apocalyptic civil war, conflict, unrest, and the eventual collapse of the US Government. They believe only through that sort of collapse can they then build the whites-only fascist regime that they dream of, but it means the total destruction of America first.|
|Peter B. Collins:||There is a subgenre of rock-and-roll called National Socialist Black Metal. In fact, I used that as a search term at Spotify and it returned a number of groups, including one listening group that had a playlist and said that there were 20 people who were members of it. You identified a group called Burzum and their music is available on Spotify. Let’s listen to a little jam here called War. [singing 00:19:18].|
|According to my screen, at Spotify, this little love song called “War” has been listened to 560,000 times, A.C. That’s more than the membership of Atomwaffen. There appears to be a subculture and I haven’t even begun a search at YouTube, perhaps you have. Are there inspirational videos featuring James Mason or featuring some of these young people who are the core leaders of Atomwaffen?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, so that’s a really interesting question. Just in the past few days, YouTube has taken down the Atomwaffen channel. They had their own channel that they posted their propaganda videos on and did recruiting on. They have taken that down, but they still maintain another channel on YouTube called Siege TV, Siege being the name of James Mason’s book… and it’s all lectures, and speeches, and propaganda based on his ideas. They’re still using that as a way to disseminate their ideas. It’s fascinating to me… the group has its own website, atomwaffendivision.org, and another website called Siege Culture, for the ideas of James Mason. It’s just really interesting to me that they can operate in such a public way, when they’ve been tied to five different murders and a bomb plot.|
|Peter B. Collins:||When you contact the FBI, what do they say about Atomwaffen? Let me put this as a double question and you can chew on this a little bit: We know that over the past year, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s research have been focusing on what they call “black identity extremists.” Many people see this as a not-so-subtle attempt to take out Black Lives Matter, which, to date, has been a nonviolent group that is working toward change… but I don’t believe that they promote hate or any of the elements that we see in Atomwaffen. Yet, we know the FBI is devoting resources to these alleged “black identity extremists.” I don’t know that they are giving equivalent focus to Atomwaffen. What do you know, A.C.?|
|A.C. Thompson:||This is my concern… my concern is that I believe the law enforcement community from the locals, to the state investigators, to the FBI, are generally several years behind, when it comes to tracking these groups. When I look at the intel bulletins that they are putting out and I look at the research they’re doing, a lot of it is talking about stuff from ’80s and ’90s. It’s just not relevant now. It’s been hard, I think, for them to track this massive explosion in activity over the last two years.|
|What I would say is, I do not believe that the FBI has eyes inside Atomwaffen. I do not believe that they have been able to, or have wanted to, effectively investigate the group. I think it’s a little surprising because this is a group that… when they first come on the scene back in the middle of last year, it’s because one of their members murders two of their other members… and federal agents find that the founder of the group has been compiling radiological material and bomb-making material. That he’s got a framed picture of Tim McVeigh next to a picture of the Fuhrer in his bedroom. The allegations, at that time, by a former member were that this guy, the founder of the group, was planning to blow up a nuclear power plant.|
|That’s the middle of last year. Since that time, I do not believe that the federal government has effectively infiltrated this group. And I do not believe that they have… I know for sure they haven’t disrupted the group.|
|Peter B. Collins:||A.C., I find this distressing because I have devoted a lot of coverage in recent years to the FBI’s domestic practices related to so-called domestic terrorism suspects. There are over 800 cases. And Trevor Aaronson, who now writes at The Intercept, has done an incredible job of trying to keep track of all these. But he… if we thumbnail it, he says that only about a dozen of these cases are free of the taint of a paid informant, an undercover operative, who suggests the crime provides the means and then produces a bust while cameras are rolling as this suspect, who often is manipulated, pulls the trigger, or grabs the cellphone, whatever it happens to be.|
|We’re told this is to protect us from international terrorist groups. I’m deeply offended that we’ve seen a lot of unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement. But it’s even more outrageous when these groups are operating, generally, in plain view. You’re able to penetrate them and report on them. And it doesn’t appear that the FBI has the same interest in these suspects… because they’re white and because they’re not Muslim. What’s your comment on that?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. The first one is… here’s a remarkable, remarkable thing… When the first big incident happened that I was talking about in May of last year, in Florida… and this is a scenario where there’s a double homicide, there’s bombs involved… It’s an incredibly crazy scene. The federal agents involved in that case allowed the founder of Atomwaffen to leave the site where the bomb — his house — where the explosives were, where there were weapons, where there were fuses, where there was radiological material… there was cesium and another radiological element… and just take off.|
|Peter B. Collins:||You’re speaking about John Cameron Denton, right?|
|A.C. Thompson:||No, this is the original founder, his name is Brandon Russell. He’s the founder of the group. He gets caught at his house with bombs, with a clear sort of extremist world view, with high explosives… the sort of explosives that brought down the Oklahoma City Federal Building… and radioactive material… and, plus, there’s two dead bodies in his house, both of them neo-Nazis. The agents involved in that matter said, “Hey, Brandon, yeah, you can take off. We’ll circle back to you when we need to talk to you some more.”|
|Brandon met up with another neo-Nazi, got in a car, went and bought rifles and ammunition, packed his skull masks so that people wouldn’t know who he was if he wanted to go undercover, and just took off. It wasn’t for a couple days that law enforcement decided to bring him back into custody. I do not believe that that would happen under similar circumstances if Brandon’s name was Muhammad and he was not like a young white guy. I just don’t think it would happen. If he was a suspected Islamic terrorist, I do not think that would happen. I think, what you were saying is so interesting to me, is… A reporter asked me about this yesterday and the reporter said, “Hey, you know when you look at that deal in Florida, where the founder of this group had bomb-making material… Do you think he really wanted to blow stuff up or what?”|
|I said, “Hey, do you know what almost always happens in counter-terrorism cases? What almost always happens is there’s some crazy provocateur who’s working for the FBI, who encourages the group to become more radical and more extreme and finally to plot to blow something up. Then, as you said, they get arrested and that’s the end of it.” In the case of Atomwaffen, the founder of the group, without any inspiration or collaboration from a provocateur working for the Federal Government, took it upon himself to make a bunch of explosives and gather up radioactive material. Do I think he was planning to bomb something? Yes, I absolutely do. He’s currently doing a five-year stint in federal prison around all of this… but the question remains, at that point: If you are the federal government and you’ve got a dude who absolutely embraces and worships terrorists and neo-Nazis and has an extreme, extreme version of the neo-Nazi world view…|
|would you think, at that point, “Hey, we should probably get inside this group and make sure they don’t kill anybody or blow anything up”? I think you should, and I do not believe that that has happened.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Wow. I’m just digesting this, A.C., because, you know, I have been a sharp critic of the FBI since COINTELPRO in the 1970s, but I do believe that there are a lot of good people who work at the FBI, who have a strong law enforcement ethic, who do believe in constitutional law enforcement… but this just strikes me as so dangerous and the basis for it is race. I’m not going to call it racism, but, clearly, if a group of black individuals had these kinds of chats, expressing hate toward white people, and they were armed and a leader had been arrested, I mean, this would be covered massively and the government would be strutting and showing us how effective they’ve been at infiltrating and busting this group.|
|But to have this very separate track for obviously dangerous white-supremacist groups… this is stunning.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Yeah, I think it’s very concerning and, I would say, I absolutely agree with you. I have known many very smart, very committed, very decent, FBI agents and federal prosecutors. I believe there are many people at the Bureau and the DOJ that would be very unhappy to hear this. If they were aware of what was going on, would really want to dive in and chase these guys. I believe there may now be some more interest on the part of the Bureau in looking at this organization and some others in this milieu, but I think that there has been a lack of focus on this group.|
|To make it more clear, you have the double homicide — the bomb plot — back in May of last year. In December, of last year, you have a 17-year-old young man, who we believe was a young recruit to the group, who is in direct communication and was in the process of becoming a full-fledged member of the group, who allegedly murders his ex-girlfriend’s parents in Virginia because they don’t want their daughter dating a Nazi. Then you come into the beginning of this year and you have Samuel Woodward allegedly murdering Blaze Bernstein… and all of his buddies, within the group, getting together in their chats and saying that they think this is great and they are happy that a gay Jewish young man is dead.|
|To me, I feel like this is the sort of thing that, back in the middle of last year, we would have liked to have seen some real investigation.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well, and A.C., your article really is the basis for a series of investigations and indictments. Let me just add to the list that you just gave us. Michael Lloyd Hubsky, 29-year-old Las Vegas resident who calls himself the Komissar… He’s got a concealed weapons permit. He also is a licensed security guard and he, in these chats, bragged about how he has a map of the US power grid, west coast only, classified map… had someone with special permissions get it. Now, this is what the Joint Terrorism Task Force and these fusion centers that are part of the vertically integrated law enforcement system that has been erected since 9/11… and this guy, Hubsky, should be a suspect right now. And is he at large?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Is he at large? I believe he’s at large. I believe he’s not been taken into custody. I believe he is still working at his job. He’s the sort of person that… yeah, I think, if you are a counter-terror investigator, he’s a guy you’d want to go see, absolutely.|
|Peter B. Collins:||A.C. as we wrap up here, could you share with our listeners some of the more extreme text messages of the 250,000 that you have sifted through, so people can get an idea of how they communicate, what their attitudes are, and, really, just how dangerous these people are to the public in general?|
|A.C. Thompson:||Sure. I mean, I’ll tell you one of the things that was just stunning to me when I read it was… Sam Woodward, the man accused of killing Blaze Bernstein, went on a whole thread that he was discussing… where he said, “You know, sexual relations between people of different races, that’s totally awful, unless of course you’re using it as… unless you’re raping women of color and using that as a tool of war, as part of an ethnic cleansing play in the same way the Serbs did in the Balkan Wars of the last century. And in the same way that the Serbs did in raping and abusing Bosnian Muslim women.”|
|I mean, this is the sort of worldview that you get out of these people; like rape is a good thing, rape should be used as a tool of war, and the only sort of way that people of different ethnicities, different races, should interact is in a violent and hateful way. There was another thread that the leader, the current leader, of the group who calls himself Rape and whose true name is John Cameron Denton was on… where he was saying he was looking forward to decapitating race mixers. That that was a good idea that he had in his mind. That was something he was looking forward to in the coming race war.|
|This sort of gives you an idea of just how malevolent these people are.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Well, A.C., this is a very important story and I fear that because of the reaction to the Parkland school shooting in Florida and all the zany tweets that come out of Trump every day, that the mainstream media in this country has not focused on this. I hope that they will dig into your story and really cover this properly, because these are very dangerous people who represent the worst of the worst. To see law enforcement really slacking on this particular front is really shocking and, I think, needs to be addressed.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Thank you. I have the same hope as well. I’m hoping both that my colleagues in the media continue to chase this story and that, perhaps, somebody in the federal law enforcement bureaucracy will begin to really drill down on this.|
|Peter B. Collins:||A.C. Thompson from ProPublica worked on this story with Ali Winston and Jake Hanrahan. It was published on February 23rd at propublica.org. A.C., always a pleasure. Thanks for joining me today.|
|A.C. Thompson:||Thank you so much.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Thanks for listening to this WhoWhatWhy podcast featuring investigative journalist A.C. Thompson of ProPublica. Your comments and feedback are welcome and we encourage your financial support for WhoWhatWhy‘s investigative journalist. Send your comments to Peter at peterbcollins.com.|
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