The day that President Trump declared he would label the far-left “antifa” movement a domestic terrorist organization last week, a far-right group also based in the United States announced a new international branch in Russia.
The Atomwaffen Division, a small but violent neo-Nazi group, claimed in March that it had disbanded after its alleged leader and four other members were arrested on federal charges. But the group has continued to put out polished propaganda videos and establish affiliates around the globe.
Security experts and officials in Europe say they are frustrated that U.S. authorities have not taken bolder steps to combat growing right-wing extremism. Their concern has been exacerbated by Trump’s focus on antifa as responsible for violence at nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“Our requests to our U.S. counterparts for legal assistance and information exchange in matters of right-wing extremist groups would often be unanswered,” said a European intelligence official, who, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
When European authorities do get a response, the official said, they are often told that the concerning behavior “is protected as freedom of speech in the U.S.”
Trump’s announcement on antifa “came as a surprise,” one European security official said. Short for anti-fascist, antifa is more of a loosely defined movement, unlike many far-right groups, which “have not only argued for violent acts against Jews, African Americans and others, but who have acted upon it,” the official said.
At a news conference Thursday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the agency investigates extremists across the spectrum.
“We’re about the violence, we’re not about the ideology,” he said.
Atomwaffen, which was founded in 2015, has been linked by prosecutors to five killings in the United States and holds “hate camps,” as seen in videos and online postings.
The group, whose name means “atomic weapons” in German, adheres to the teachings of a once-obscure American white-supremacist named James Mason, who advocates random violence as the path to a race war. His book “Siege” is considered required reading for Atomwaffen and other far-right groups.
In April, the United States designated an ultranationalist movement based in Russia as a terrorist organization, the first time it has applied that label to a white-supremacist group. European officials have urged their American counterparts to designate more groups, including the foreign branches of Atomwaffen, to expand authorities’ power to investigate supporters in the United States.
U.S. officials have downplayed the significance of the label, which cannot formally be applied to domestic extremist groups despite Trump’s tweet about antifa.
“Regardless of whether a particular group is designated under U.S. law, the American justice system has ample authorities and resources to use in countering violent extremism and individuals committing criminal acts for a variety of extremist motivations,” Department of Justice spokesman Marc Raimondi said.
But European officials say the designation would make it easier to target Atomwaffen and other U.S.-based extremist groups.
“If the U.S. would designate this group as a terrorist organization, there could be an opportunity for them to go after all the still-existing structures and contacts of Atomwaffen in the U.S.,” a German security official said. “It is very clear that we are speaking about the same program, same ideology, same targets, and we do see communication across countries and continents.”
Experts say those international ties are increasing.
Atomwaffen has expanded to Canada, Britain and Switzerland in addition to Russia, where it announced its launch May 31 with a translation of its whites-only agenda into Russian. The German version went online just after the group’s claimed dissolution in March.
The German arm of Atomwaffen announced itself publicly in the summer of 2018 with a video of a masked member unfurling an Atomwaffen Division flag outside a castle where the Nazi SS officers trained. A section of the video greets “comrades in the USA.”
Authorities in Europe say Atomwaffen Germany has threatened minorities and politicians. Muslims in the country found fliers in their mailboxes in May 2019 warning them to leave the country or they would be attacked. In October, two Green Party politicians reported receiving a threat that said, “We are the Atomwaffen Division Germany and are continuing what began in America, as we are a globally networked far-right organization with contacts to militant groups throughout Europe and America.”
Jay Tabb, former executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said U.S. authorities are tracking “a dramatic increase” in travel by white supremacists and share information extensively with European intelligence. But, he said, arrests are not always possible.
“It’s not illegal to hate, it’s not illegal to join these groups, not illegal to travel to see these people,” said Tabb, who is currently senior vice president of the Crisis Response Company’s Global Security Division.
Two recent cases highlight the limitations.
In November, German authorities say a U.S. Atomwaffen supporter named Kyle McCoy attempted to enter the country through Berlin on a flight from Dublin. But police officers tipped off by the FBI were waiting for him at Berlin Tegel Airport.
The 31-year-old man told officials he planned to marry a German woman, who was waiting for him at the airport. After further questioning, authorities refused him entry and border police put him on a plane back to Ireland that evening.
German intelligence officials say the border police decision was a missed opportunity. “It would have been better to let him in and see who he was meeting with,” one said.
McCoy claims to have left the group and has not been charged with a crime, but a federal investigation related to his alleged connections to the group remains open, according to people familiar with the matter.
In the second case, Kaleb Cole was stopped and questioned after returning to the United States from a trip to Eastern Europe last year. Court records show he took photos with neo-Nazi propaganda, including an Atomwaffen flag, at the Auschwitz death camp and other sites. He also had been amassing weapons, hosting and promoting training at “hate camps” and posting violent, racist invective online. He had been banned from Canada for his Atomwaffen affiliation.
But none of that constitutes a federal crime.
The FBI turned to local prosecutors in Seattle, who were able to seize Cole’s guns and ammunition under a state “red flag” law, which allows temporary removal of weapons from someone deemed dangerous.
“They were quite grateful, frankly, that we had this tool,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said because the FBI described Cole as “the paradigmatic lone wolf” potential terrorist.
Cole relocated to Texas, moving in with alleged Atomwaffen leader John Cameron Denton. In November, Cole and another suspected Atomwaffen member were stopped by police, who found weapons in the car — a violation of the protective order.
But Cole could not be arrested in Texas on that charge. Instead, prosecutors built a case against him, two others for targeting specific journalists and activists — crossing the line from free speech to illegal threats.
Denton and another man, meanwhile, were under investigation for calling police to the homes and workplaces of journalists and public officials, including the former secretary of homeland security. All five were arrested in January.
The threat charges carry maximum penalties of five years in prison and sentencing guidelines of far less.
An Atomwaffen leader in Virginia arrested on gun charges last year was given 12 months behind bars. Only the three Atomwaffen supporters directly linked to murders are facing the possibility of decades in prison.
“A lot of people think we need a homeland statute specifically directed at these domestic groups,” Tabb said.
Mary McCord, former acting assistant attorney general for national security, is among those advocating that approach. She argues not for labeling specific homegrown groups as terrorist organizations but for making domestic acts of a terror a crime, which would make it easier to open investigations and seek harsher punishments.
“A domestic terrorism law wouldn’t designate specific groups — you can’t do that without First Amendment concerns,” she said. “But you can make it a crime to commit certain acts of terrorism — including attempts and conspiracy to commit those crimes.”
But “there is and has been a lack of appetite for that just based on the history of our country,” Tabb said. “We are a democracy born from a rebellion.”