By Stevie Kiesel
While the national focus has correctly shifted to the threat from COVID-19, other national security threats have not gone away. On the contrary, domestic and international terrorist groups view the pandemic as a chance to sow chaos and strike at their vulnerable enemies. The Voice of Hind, a magazine supportive of the Islamic State and published in India, recently called on supporters to “use this opportunity to strike [nonbelievers] with a sword or a knife or even a rope…[and] fill the streets with their blood.” Closer to home, on March 24, Timothy Wilson accelerated his plan to deploy a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device to cause mass casualties. Recognizing an opportunity to use the pandemic as a force multiplier, Wilson was on his way to his target—a crowded Missouri hospital—when he was intercepted by the FBI. Wilson had been the subject of a domestic terrorism investigation for his “violent extremist” ideology that was “motivated by racial, religious, and anti-government animus.”
The threat from white supremacist terrorism has surged in recent years, and the US has been grappling with how to address this threat. In September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security issued its Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which explicitly acknowledged that “[t]here has been a concerning rise in attacks by individuals motivated by a variety of domestic terrorist ideologies, such as racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, including white supremacist violent extremism [and] anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism.” And in February 2020, FBI Director Wray testified to Congress that the FBI “elevated to the top-level priority racially motivated violent extremism so it’s on the same footing in terms of our national threat banding as ISIS and homegrown violent extremism.” The FBI’s domestic terrorism investigation of Timothy Wilson, an accelerationist vehicle bomber, which thwarted a potentially devastating attack, shows that this new emphasis is not misplaced.
The US Department of State took another positive step on Monday when it designated, pursuant to Executive Order 13224, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) and three of its leaders as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” RIM is a white supremacist paramilitary group based in Russia; they violently oppose globalization, multiculturalism, and liberalism. Although not officially sponsored by—and indeed sometimes in conflict with—the Russian government, Vladimir Putin tolerates the group because RIM members often fight on the Russian government’s side in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has emerged as the white supremacists’ Syria: as jihadists have traveled to Syria during the civil war to gain battlefield experience, so, too, have white supremacists traveled to eastern Ukraine. Further, RIM has been particularly active in recruiting foreign fighters to build a transnational movement.
This is the first time the US has ever officially given this designation to a white supremacist terrorist organization, and it has several implications for the group: US financial institutions are required to block and freeze transactions associated with RIM, and anyone discovered associating themselves financially with RIM or the sanctioned individuals can face criminal penalties. This designation will also put pressure on companies that tangentially support or provide a platform to RIM to reconsider their support. For example, RIM is active on YouTube and Facebook; it is likely that these companies will remove these profiles, as they have done in the past.
The efficacy of this designation is an open question; as time passes, more data will be available on the group’s finances, recruiting, and other operations. However, RIM was not the first group to be considered for this designation. US-based group Atomwaffen Division (AWD) and its international affiliates were slated for this designation in March, but shortly after news articles publicized these deliberations, AWD’s ideological leader James Mason released an audio recording claiming that the group was disbanding. The aforementioned Timothy Wilson had ties to AWD. Mason claimed that the combination of federal infiltration and official designation as a terrorist group would completely disrupt the group’s operations. However, even if AWD has disbanded, the members that made up this group do not cease to exist. It is too early to say whether AWD has truly disbanded, if they will regroup under different names, or whether this will drive their activities offline and/or to more heavily encrypted platforms, outside the reach of intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
This is something to watch with RIM as well, and there may be lessons to draw from the United Kingdom. In 2016, the neo-Nazi terrorist organization National Action murdered a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox. National Action was then banned from operating in the United Kingdom. However, a 2019 assessment found that National Action has continued to operate and recruit new members, both by splitting into regional factions with different names and by taking their operations underground. The US State Department designation of specific individuals that can be sanctioned is a positive step toward addressing this concern, but this designation must be coupled with adequately resourced intelligence and information sharing capabilities to understand how members of a terrorist group disperse when their organization is targeted.