Inside an international network of teenage neo-Nazi extremists
Last year, a 20-year-old named Christian Michael Mackey arrived at the Phillips 66 gas station in Grand Prairie, Texas, hoping to sell his AM-15 rifle to make some quick cash. He'd said he wanted to buy a more powerful gun, something that could stop what he called a "hoard of you know what."
Mackey told an online group chat he'd started looking at Nazi websites at around 15-years-old, when he began spending hours on white nationalist message boards and talking to other extremists on Instagram and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. Five years later, he was active in a network of violent neo-Nazi groups that organized and communicated through online group chats. He described himself as a "radical Jew slayer."
When Mackey met his buyer in the gas-station parking lot in January 2021, he didn't know he had walked into a sting. The woman purchasing his rifle was a paid FBI source with numerous felonies, and Mackey was arrested as soon as the gun changed hands. At his detention hearing a month later, an FBI agent said authorities had found a pipe bomb in Mackey's parents' house, where he lived.
Mackey's stepfather told local news soon after the arrest that his stepson had been radicalized online, and footage showed him ripping up a copy of "Mein Kampf" in Mackey's bedroom. FBI records and court documents indicated that Mackey had posted more than 2,400 messages in one neo-Nazi Instagram group chat alone, and had told another user "I'm just trying to live long enough to die attacking."
Stories like this have increasingly played out across the US and around the world in recent years — young people, overwhelmingly white and male, who have become involved in a global network of neo-Nazi extremist groups that plot mass violence online.
Canadian authorities earlier this year arrested a 19-year-old on terrorism charges after they say he tried to join a neo-Nazi group similar to the ones Mackey was involved in. In April, a 15-year-old in Denmark was charged with recruiting for a neo-Nazi organization banned in the country. A 16-year-old became the UK's youngest terrorism offender after joining that same group, where he researched terror manuals and discussed how to make explosives. Others made it further along in their plots, like a 21-year-old who planted a bomb outside the Western Union office in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius.
As far-right extremism has grown over the past decade, so too has the notoriety of various groups and their leaders. Far-right gangs such as the Proud Boys as well as suit-and-tie-wearing white nationalists like Richard Spencer regularly make headlines. But there are also lesser-known groups with more directly violent aims that follow an ideology called accelerationism — the belief that carrying out bombings, mass shootings, and other attacks is necessary to hasten the collapse of society and allow a white ethnostate to rise in its place.
Countries including the United Kingdom and Canada have designated accelerationist groups such as Atomwaffen Division, Feuerkrieg Division and The Base as terrorist organizations. Atomwaffen, which is now largely defunct, was linked to at least five murders in the US alone. The Base's leader was sentenced in May to four years in prison after plotting to kill minorities and instigate a race war.
Experts trace the origins of groups like these to a neo-Nazi website called Iron March that went offline in 2017, and which notoriously helped extremists from many countries forge international connections and spread accelerationist propaganda.
The ideology has been linked to the 2019 Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, where a white nationalist killed 51 people at two mosques while livestreaming the attack online, and a shooting earlier this year at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY where 10 people were killed.
As part of a joint investigation that Insider undertook with Welt Am Sonntag and Politico, reporters gained access to two dozen internal chat groups linked to a broader network of neo-Nazi accelerationists. Comprising 98,000 messages from about 900 users, the data includes photos, videos, text, and voice messages.
Various participants in the groups have been charged with a range of crimes related to plots to bomb or burn down synagogues and gay bars, attack anti-fascist activists, and illegally traffic firearms. In chat logs that reporters reviewed, members showed off homemade explosives, encouraged one another to kill minorities, and discussed how to get access to weapons.
The scores of messages and propaganda in these chats provide a glimpse into one of the most dangerous corners of modern far-right extremism. It is increasingly international, intent on radicalizing young people, and committed to using violence to further its fascist ideology.
Rather than a centralized group, it is a loosely connected network that rises and falls as its members are killed or arrested — but never seems to entirely go away. And unlike extremist groups that want to integrate their beliefs into political parties or run for local office, the aim of accelerationist groups like these is primarily to create violent chaos.
When Peter Smith, an investigator for the nonprofit Canadian Anti-Hate Network, began to infiltrate Feuerkrieg Division in about late 2019, he first faced questions from "Commander," the group's self-appointed leader. How did Smith feel about gay people? What did he think of "race mixing"?
When Smith's answers weren't enough to satisfy Commander's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of neo-Nazi ideology, he told Insider, he was instructed to study a list of white nationalist texts and then try again.
What Smith didn't know at the time was that Commander was a 13-year-old Estonian boy, who was coordinating his international neo-Nazi campaign from his parents' house on an island in the Baltic Sea.
Commander founded Feuerkrieg Division in 2018 and immediately attempted to recruit across North America and Europe. As authorities cracked down on groups such as Atomwaffen Division, membership in Feuerkrieg grew. Its members put up flyers and posed with Nazi flags, shared extremist manifestos, and exchanged tips on how to acquire firearms and make explosives.
The core of their ideology is a series of neo-Nazi writings that members endlessly debate and fawn over, most notably "Siege" the 1992 book by the American neo-Nazi James Mason. Mason, who is now 69-years-old and lives in government housing in Denver, is an ardent antisemite who idolizes Charles Manson and advocates for terrorist attacks against what he calls "the system."
Once a fringe neo-Nazi figure, Mason has become exceedingly popular among a younger generation of white nationalists. Among the materials that were circulated in the materials that Insider reviewed was a livestreamed Q&A that Mason gave this year on Hitler's birthday.
"I take quotations from the Bible and I take quotations from Adolf Hitler, and I line them up and demonstrate positively that the same mind wrote both books," Mason told his audience during the over 1 ½-hour livestream where he rambled through his racist and antisemitic views.
The chat logs that reporters reviewed are rife with various neo-Nazi symbols and imagery — skull masks, swastikas, jagged fonts — filtered through the style of internet shitposts and gaming forums. Users assumed pseudonyms like "Joe Goebbels" and "American Himmler." Some groups had only a handful of members. The group Totenwaffen had 100 users in one of its chats.
One of Feuerkrieg Division's recruitment posters features an illustration of a grimacing, blood-splattered man holding a rifle with a swastika on it. In big white letters across a red and black background, the text reads "turn your sadness into rage." It looks like something a teenager would make — because very likely it is something a teenager made.
Members of these accelerationist groups message in the kind of ironic edgelord vernacular that has become the native tongue of internet backwaters, but they are earnest about their promotion of violence. White nationalist mass killers such as Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, mostly children, during a 2011 attack in Norway, are described in chats as "saints" and memorialized on the days of their killings.
"The saint gets a day as long as they manage to take some people out," Smith told Insider.
During Smith's time infiltrating the Feueurkrieg chats he found what appeared to be numerous other members who were at least as young as its leader, including someone who appeared to be a preteen Canadian girl whom Commander talked about pursuing romantically.
"There were photos being shared of kids who were around Commander's age — 10, 11, 12 — in skull masks," Smith said.
Accelerationist groups operate on the principle that "you can use three people to destabilize the world," said Alex Newhouse, the deputy director at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "There would be no way that this network ever attempted to hold territory, for instance, but that's not really what they're interested in."
Rather than functioning as organized groups, they act as banners under which people can make connections, share resources, and radicalize one another.
"We need to think about them like marketing brands, rather than operational entities," Newhouse said.
Though Feuerkrieg Division is known within accelerationist groups for having especially young members, youth radicalization is one of the primary goals of the movement. Neo-Nazis have tried to target online spaces where they can recruit isolated young people, and they have infiltrated gaming platforms such as Minecraft and Roblox that are immensely popular with kids.
"They are intentionally trying to find 14- to 18-year-olds and turn them into terrorists," Newhouse said.
In Las Vegas, the FBI arrested another person linked to Feuerkrieg in August 2019, a 23-year-old named Conor Climo who discussed carrying out attacks on a synagogue or gay bar with an undercover agent.
Climo had been a walking red flag for years. Two years before his arrest, a local news crew filmed a curiosity piece about him patrolling his suburban neighborhood with body armor and an AR-15 while telling visibly nervous onlookers he meant no harm. He posted a Hitler quote as a response on a Quora message board about multiculturalism, and a 2015 Change.org petition under his name calls to repeal restrictions on machine-gun sales. Former high-school classmates told Politico they remembered him claiming to have built bombs, and when the FBI searched his home they found chemicals, wiring, and schematics that could be used to make explosives.
Different countries, same hate
Though extremism researchers generally believe there is no one path to radicalization, many of the young men arrested in relation to Feuerkrieg and other accelerationist groups resembled Climo in some ways. They appear to be socially isolated and filled with grievances. And they embrace online communities that offer them a shared worldview and unite them against women, Jews, Black people, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, and anyone else they perceive as an "other."
Lukas, whose real name Insider has withheld for legal reasons and his family's privacy, was 16-years-old when he became the founder and leader of a neo-Nazi group he called Totenwaffen.
Born in Belarus before moving with his family to Potsdam, Germany, as a toddler, he created Totenwaffen in 2020. Inside group chats he discussed using 3-D printers to make weapons, and boasted that one day he might get angry enough to bomb one of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel's speeches. In the summer of 2021, Lukas ordered chemicals off Amazon to make a bomb, according to materials viewed by Welt, and filmed videos of himself carrying out test explosions in an abandoned barracks once used by Nazi troops in World War II.
In Totenwaffen, Lukas fashioned himself as a dictator in his online world and asked members to pledge an oath of fealty to the cause.
In late May, reporters from Welt visited the family's apartment complex seeking an interview. Lukas' parents answered the door and agreed to fetch their son. But when a lanky teen appeared, he said he didn't want to talk and slammed the door shut.
Several family members told Welt that earlier that day the family had gotten into a heated argument — Lukas' father had just thrown away his son's copy of "Mein Kampf."
A turning point for Lukas appeared to have come a year before he started Totenwaffen. Then 15, he visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just north of Berlin, on a school trip, his brother told Welt. What was meant to be an educational tour to teach children about the horrors of the Holocaust seemed to provide a dark inspiration for Lukas, who set his computer background to a swastika soon afterward.
In the 1990s, the biggest supplier of neo-Nazi materials to Germany was a Nebraska man nicknamed the "Farm Belt führer" who plied European countries with millions of pieces of white nationalist propaganda. But the growth of social media and encrypted messaging platforms has allowed people like Lukas to connect online and spread propaganda with remarkable ease.
This new generation of extremists is also fully at home in online communities, and chat logs show how they discuss issues like cybersecurity as they constantly migrate between various messaging platforms.
The chats reviewed by Insider included users who appeared to be from the US to Estonia, Romania to Australia. One chat, tailored to Brazilian extremists, featured quotes from the American domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski translated into Portuguese.
"It's so transnational at this point," Newhouse said. "We found accelerationists in Brazil and Argentina and Japan, China and South Africa. It's all over the place."
In June, not long after Welt journalists knocked on the door of his family home, German authorities arrested Lukas. They had apparently been monitoring his activities and eventually executed a search warrant at his home. He is awaiting formal charges and did not respond to a letter from Welt sent to him in detention. Around Potsdam, graffiti has popped up calling for his release.
Several people linked to Feuerkrieg have been charged or convicted with crimes, and activity in the group has waned. Conor Climo was sentenced to two years in prison in 2020 on charges of possessing bomb-making materials. He is now under supervised release and living with his grandparents in Louisiana. Jarrett William Smith, the former Army reservist, was that same year sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for distributing information on making napalm and improvised explosive devices.
Christian Mackey, who was in a group called Iron Youth but whom anti-facist activists have also linked to Feuerkrieg, pleaded guilty last year to possession of an unregistered firearm. In doing so, he avoided the more serious charge of knowingly selling a weapon to a convicted felon and in December was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by 3 years of supervised release.
Canadian authorities carried out raids against Atomwaffen in the province of Quebec last month, one of the country's three operations targeting the group this year.
Numerous countries have designated accelerationist groups as terrorist entities, which gives them broader powers to investigate and charge anyone suspected of affiliating with them. Law-enforcement agencies across North America and Europe have deployed undercover agents to infiltrate chat groups, as with Christian Michael Mackey in Grand Prairie, Texas.
But efforts to stamp out accelerationist networks can run afoul of various legal protections, especially in cases involving minors.
Estonian authorities arrested Commander in 2020 only to say they had taken action to curtail his extremist activities, rather than bringing charges. National laws prohibit the prosecution for anyone younger than 14.
In the US, prosecuting cases of domestic terrorism is complicated by the fact that American authorities don't designate domestic terrorist groups the same way they criminalizes foreign extremist organizations. The strategy of relying on undercover agents and paid FBI sources to infiltrate extremist groups has also come under fire. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal prosecutors in the US widely used informants to build cases. While most of these cases were successful, civil liberties groups allege the tactic can lead people to commit crimes they wouldn't have been capable of carrying out otherwise.
While some countries have instituted large-scale government deradicalization programs, most governments have no such system. Countries that have attempted such efforts have struggled with the complicated nature of addressing mental illness and belief in extremist ideology at scale.
"The arrests are working, but I don't think it's enough — in particular in the US," Newhouse said.
What's left is a sort of game of whack-a-mole in which authorities try to shut down networks and prosecute individuals, only to have new groups spring up and leaders emerge.
Even as groups like Totenwaffen and Feuerkrieg diminish, those who follow extremist networks worry that unless there is a wider reckoning with this movement there will be more cases like Lukas, Climo, and Mackey.
"Some of these guys never stopped talking," Smith said. "Never stopped organizing or trying to promote these ideas."
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