The Coronavirus Becomes a Battle Cry for U.S. Extremists

Neil MacFarquhar

America’s extremists are attempting to turn the coronavirus pandemic into a potent recruiting tool both in the deep corners of the internet and on the streets of state capitals by twisting the public health crisis to bolster their white supremacist, anti-government agenda.

Although the protests that have broken out across the country have drawn out a wide variety of people pressing to lift stay-at-home orders, the presence of extremists cannot be missed, with their anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic signs and coded messages aimed at inspiring the faithful, say those who track such movements.

April is typically a busy month for white supremacists. There is Adolf Hitler’s birthday, which they contort into a celebration. There is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the domestic attack 25 years ago that killed 168 people and still serves as a rallying call for new extremist recruits.

But this April, something else overshadowed those chilling milestones. It was the coronavirus and the disruption it wreaked on society that became the extremists’ battle cry.

Embellishing COVID-19 developments to fit their usual agenda, extremists spread disinformation on the transmission of the virus and disparage stay-at-home orders as “medical martial law” — the long-anticipated advent of a totalitarian state.

“They are being very effective in capitalizing on the pandemic,” said Devin Burghart, a veteran researcher of white nationalists who runs the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based research center on far-right movements.

What success the groups have had in finding fresh recruits is not yet clear, but new research indicates a significant jump in people consuming extremist material while under lockdown. Various violent incidents have been linked to white supremacist or anti-government perpetrators enraged over aspects of the pandemic.

The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness said in March that white supremacists have encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the crisis to incite fear and target ethnic minorities and immigrants.

“We have noticed domestic extremist groups taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by spreading disinformation,” Jared Maples, its director, said in a statement.

The coronavirus has been dismissed as a hoax, painted as a Jewish-run conspiracy and, alternatively, described as a disease spread by nonwhite immigrants, he said.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement officials throughout the United States of the mobilization of violent extremists in response to stay-at-home measures, according to a senior law enforcement official and a congressional staff member, who were not authorized to discuss the warning publicly.

A department memo dated April 23 noted the recent arrests of individuals who had threatened government officials imposing coronavirus-related regulations. The memo was distributed to law enforcement “fusion centers” that counter terrorism nationwide and to congressional committees, officials said.

Extremist organizations habitually try to exploit any crisis to further their aims. While not monolithic, a spectrum of organizations — from anti-immigrant groups to those with a variety of grievances and those that overtly espouse violence — found something to like about the coronavirus.

“They view it as a chance to turn people,” said Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina who tracks online extremist chatter.

New material sprouts regularly on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, while those exiled from mainstream platforms migrate to less-policed venues, including Telegram, Reddit, 4chan and gaming sites.

One subculture known as “accelerationists” lives in constant expectation of a race war that will topple the federal government. The pandemic became the latest in a long line of possible igniters.

Some label their expected second civil war “the boogaloo,” and experts have tracked a spike in interest in the term on social media, plus a proliferation of advice on how to prepare.

The name is a pop culture reference derived from a 1984 movie flop that became a cult classic called “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It went through various mutations and emerged sometimes as the “Big Igloo” or the “Big Luau.” That is why adherents sometimes wear Hawaiian shirts, say those who track them. Many such shirts were in evidence when armed protesters stormed the state capital in Lansing, Michigan, on Thursday; and they have appeared in rallies across the country.

Enthusiasts riff on the name, calling themselves “boojihadeen” or “the boog.” Not all those in the “boogaloo” movement are white supremacists, but groups who track hate culture find some overlap in terms of Nazi iconography and other extremist symbols.

There are some 125 such groups on Facebook, more than 60% created this year, according to a report from the Tech Transparency Project of the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Facebook, which had previously said it wrestled with the term because it is also the name of a popular music genre, issued a statement Friday saying it would remove posts that link the term to violence.

“We’re updating our policies to prohibit the use of these terms when accompanied by statements and images depicting armed violence,” said a Facebook spokesman, who spoke on the condition of not being identified, as per company policy.

A common thread found on the internet is that Americans might soon be pitted against their government. In one YouTube video called “Top 5 Boogaloo Guns,” which has more than 340,000 views, the host warns of “a tyrannical government, and you have got to take to the streets and take care of business.” The speaker was wearing a Hawaiian shirt decorated with pineapples and grenades.

Engagement with violent extremist content online in states with extended stay-at-home orders grew 21% in early April compared with the eight previous months, according to a report by Moonshot CVE, a startup that monitors extremist searches on Google.

ISD Global, a London think tank that studies U.S. social media, found that subscriptions to extremist channels also jumped markedly.

There is special concern that impressionable adolescents, bored and spending countless hours online, will be swayed by the hateful material.

This concern was amplified by the revelation in the Estonian newspaper Eesti Ekspress that a leader of a neo-Nazi organization called the Feuerkrieg Division was 13 years old. He had discussed setting up a terrorist training camp, shared bomb-making information and vehemently opposed a proposed merger with the Atomwaffen Division, another accelerationist group that endorses violence.

After President Donald Trump tweeted that he was temporarily stopping immigration in response to the pandemic, the mood among white-power advocates ranged from jubilation to cautious optimism.

When Trump’s suspension proved temporary, some still celebrated that a once fringe talking point had gone mainstream, while others expressed disappointment online.

“Whoop-dee-do,” wrote one critic on a Telegram channel frequented by white supremacists.

Several recent plots have been linked to people who frequented such discussions.

Timothy Wilson, 36, an extremist suspected of planning an attack on a Missouri hospital, was killed in a shootout with FBI agents in late March. An FBI statement said he was “motivated by racial, religious, and anti-government animus.”

The federal government sought to harness the pandemic as an “excuse to destroy our people,” Wilson wrote on an online channel for violent neo-Nazi groups, Squire said, while also describing it as a Jewish “power grab.”

An Arkansas man, Aaron Swenson, 36, had used an alias to “like” more than a dozen “boogaloo” Facebook pages, said the Tech Transparency Project report. He then went on Facebook Live on April 12 to announce that he was hunting for a law enforcement officer to ambush and execute in Texarkana, Texas, where police arrested him, according to a police statement.

Swenson, who remains in jail on $85,000 bail, was charged with making terroristic threats, evading capture and carrying a weapon illegally. He plans to enter a plea of not guilty, said Rick Shumaker, the chief public defender for Bowie County, Texas. No court date has been set.

In a twist, the coronavirus prompted at least one white supremacist to reinvent himself as a disease expert.

Previously, Tom Kawczynski advocated turning New England into a white-run monarchy. After the pandemic erupted, he recast himself as a virus expert, starting a “Coronavirus Central” podcast that is among the most popular on coronavirus themes offered by Apple.

Kawczynski’s former sentiments did not entirely disappear. With virus cases expanding in New York and elsewhere nearby in early April, he suggested on Twitter that New England had to work “independently for survival.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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