2019 saw a fresh and ferocious kind of far-right violence emerge in Western countries. In March, a 28-year-old Australian attacked two mosques, murdering 51 in Christchurch, New Zealand. In April, a teenager in Poway, California, gunned down a woman and injured three others in a synagogue. In August, a 21-year-old massacred 22 in an anti-Latino spree in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. In October, an armed 27-year-old man in Halle, Germany, tried and failed to force his way into a synagogue on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, instead executing a passer-by and a staff member in a nearby kebab shop.
All four killers released manifestos heavy with slang and in-group references, and the Christchurch and Halle attackers livestreamed their actions online. While they were not known “members” of any formal organisations, all four made clear that they viewed their actions not as isolated incidents, but as part of a wider offensive, drawing inspiration from previous attackers and detailing their motivations and methods in the hope of sparking further rampage.
Over the past two years, we have also witnessed small, decentralised, international and terroristic extreme-right “groups” announcing themselves online. While these secretive and fragmented networks may differ politically in some aspects, they all draw inspiration from existing far-right terror networks, such as the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), and similarly preach a message of sabotage and guerrilla warfare in order to accelerate the collapse of the “system”, thereby unleashing a carnival of homicide in which their perceived enemies will be annihilated.
What connects these two phenomena is a bloodthirsty far-right ecosystem that has taken root in recent years, suppurating on anonymous imageboards, public channels, private forums and messaging apps. This subculture cheerleads for and deifies terrorists, and regards mass murder not only as a means to revolution and retribution, but as a form of entertainment. It was the audience to which these gunmen addressed their sprees, and enables budding far-right activists to radicalise and network, and allows new groupings to coalesce.
If we are to understand the nature of contemporary far-right terrorism, it is imperative that we navigate this complex, labyrinthine and hard-to-monitor world of pro-terrorism online spaces. In particular, we must explore the so-called “Terrorgram” network, a collection of a few dozen public channels and private chat groups on the messaging app Telegram, which is developing into a central hub through which this subculture operates.
While pro-terror content is accessible on almost any social media platform, many of the major firms have become more proactive in tackling the issue since the far-right rally in Charlottesville, USA, in August 2017, when a neo-nazi drove his car into a crowd and killed a counter-protester, Heather Heyer. This more proactive approach from social media firms is of course welcome. But one consequence is that deplatformed groups and individuals have re-congregated on platforms with a more laissez faire attitude towards extremism. Since its foundation, the encyrpted messaging app Telegram has placed an overriding emphasis on privacy; founder Pavel Durov once claimed that “our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.”
The platform, which now has hundreds of millions of active users across the globe, has long been central to the operations of jihadi groups, most notably supporters of the so-called Islamic State (IS). A 2017 report by the Counter Extremism Project showed how extremist groups used the platform “to recruit new members, fundraise, incite to violence, and even coordinate terrorist activity.” Elements of the far right have also made Telegram home, increasingly since the Christchurch attack. The SITE Intelligence Group reported that almost 80% of a select sample of 374 far-right Telegram channels and groups were created between the 15 March massacre and 30 October.
After years of inaction, Telegram finally began purging accounts associated with IS and al-Qaeda in November 2019. However, as terrorism analyst Rita Katz has highlighted, the platform has yet to do the same for the multitude of public nazi channels, private groups and accounts, despite many being just as threatening as jihadists.
Telegram’s stance is particularly concerning given the stark extremeness of Terrorgram channels, which prolifically spew out white supremacist propaganda, snuff videos of lynches and shootings, survivalist and guerrilla training manuals, and instructions for manufacturing weapons, carrying out attacks and evading detection.
Most channels are in English or Ukrainian, although German and Spanish channels also exist; many of those in English appear to be US-oriented, although a handful are known to be UK-based. While some channels are dedicated to specific extreme-right organisations and others to obscure variants of far- right terrorism, the most popular take a more broad approach and serve as feeds for all types of far-right, pro-terror content, heavily recycling posts from, and actively promoting, other Terrorgram channels.
It’s possible to assume a large amount of crossover in followers across Terrorgram channels and groups. The biggest have accrued over 4,000 followers in under a year – significant numbers for outlets urging viewers to “Piss away any morals you have left” and take up arms.
A major preoccupation of Terrorgram is the worship of terrorists, who are canonized as “Saints”. Most of their pantheon consists of white supremacists, including the 1999 London nailbomber David Copeland and the perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks, Anders Breivik. A surprisingly diverse range of other killers are praised and discussed on Terrorgram, often used as case studies from which potential attackers can learn. For example, Islamist terrorist Omar Mateen has been dubbed a “hero” for murdering 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida in 2016, and Christopher Dorner, an African American, has been celebrated for his nine- day 2013 campaign of warfare against police.
The Provisional IRA is often glorified for its longevity, tactical sophistication and aesthetics. Even the Zodiac serial killer, who murdered at least five people in the 1960s and 1970s, has been praised for his ability to evade capture, and Jim Jones, the cult leader who led over 900 to mass suicide, was included in a “leader board” of “Saints” for the sheer numbers he took to the grave.
The celebration of such figures reveals the bleak nihilism underpinning Terrorgram; for many the capacity for death is the highest virtue, and political or religious alignment is secondary.
Of course, the modern terroristic nazi scene predates Terrorgram. One major influence is the now-defunct nazi forum Iron March (IM), linked to both the proscribed UK-based nazi terror group National Action (NA), and the US-founded Atomwaffen Division (AWD). Despite having little over 1,200 users when it folded in November 2017, as a forum Iron March has had an outsized influence on modern nazism. In particular, it popularised SIEGE by veteran American nazi James Mason, a work promoting the establishment of underground, leaderless terrorist cells, working towards destabilising society and ushering in revolution.
Iron March was also key in the development of the “terrorwave” aesthetic, a distinctive and deeply menacing form of visual propaganda that succinctly communicates a message of terrorist violence. Usually rendered in red, white and black, the style often incorporates images of historical fascists, terrorists or paramilitaries wearing skull masks, alongside esoteric far-right symbols and simplistic slogans (such as “TRAITORS WILL HANG” and “RAPE THE POLICE”).
The influence of IM on Terrorgram is profound, and the philosophies of SIEGE and the terrorwave aesthetic are ubiquitous across Terrorgram channels.
While all are unequivocally dedicated to decentralised terrorism, there is a degree of ideological variation within the Terrorgram circuit. There are several channels dedicated to “eco-fascism”, for example: a loose and intensely antisemitic far-right scene that emphasises a mystical connection to the land, the violent enforcement of animal rights, and often genocidal solutions to the issue of overpopulation.
The scene became increasingly visible during 2019, in part due to the Christchurch killer self-identifying as an eco-fascist, and the El Paso killer using eco-fascist arguments in his manifesto.
There is also a strong strain of esotericism and occultism woven into Terrorgram propaganda, lending a mystic sheen to the movement. Esoteric Hitlerism is frequently referenced, a bizarre pseudo-religion cooked up post-war by Nazi zealot Savitri Devi, who co-opted elements of Hinduism and alleged that Hitler was an incarnation of the god Vishnu.
The iconography of the Order of Nine Angles (O9A), a neo-nazi Satanist group, also often appears on Terrorgram. Founded in the UK in the 1960s, O9A combines Hitler worship with occultist trappings, and encourages adherents to commit violence, rapes and even the “culling” of human victims in order to undermine civilisation. A key acolyte was David Myatt, a man who influenced both the nazi terror group Combat 18 and the London nailbomber David Copeland in the 1990s, before converting to fundamentalist Islam and spending over a decade promoting al-Qaeda.
While it is unlikely many Terrorgram users genuinely believe the teachings of Devi and Myatt, the sheer extremeness of their philosophies are alluring to young activists in search of the “edgiest” positions available, and fluency in the wilfully baffling jargon and occult symbolism are used to signal in-group status. As we report elsewhere in State of Hate, O9A has experienced a resurgence in recent years, with members of NA and AWD dabbling in its ideas. It is also believed to have been influential on the Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD), an offshoot of NA, which has produced some of the most sickening and degraded content ever produced by the British far right.
Most worryingly, Telegram has extended the reach of an array of international terroristic organisations, some of which continue to announce new cells in Europe, Australasia and North America. The platform has also played midwife to several new terroristic groups over the past year, some of which, although small, are establishing cells offline, committing hate crimes and threatening public officials.
AWD remains a looming presence on Terrorgram. Founded by IM users in 2015, the group was the first of a new generation of nazis to embrace the philosophies of SIEGE, and has been linked to five murders in the US. Whilst it has suffered crackdowns and numerous arrests in recent years, cells outside of the USA continue to broadcast its message.
In October, a pre-existing Telegram channel with thousands of followers announced itself “the official channel for THE ATOMWAFFEN DIVISION”. The same day it claimed that “in the past months the AWD have received hundreds of emails with positive feedback and key cells across the globe have been established within such a short time”, posting a video of heavily-armed activists from its recently formed Ukrainian branch.
AWD in turn has influenced The Base, another key name on the Terrorgram circuit. Formed in July 2018 and taking its name from al-Qaeda, the “Siegepilled” (SIEGE-promoting) group held paramilitary training camps in the USA during 2019. The group has had a disastrous start to 2020, with six members arrested in the USA for various charges including conspiracy to murder an anti-fascist couple, and The Guardian revealed that Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American living in Russia, was the mastermind behind its operations. It is unlikely that the group will survive, although its legacy will continue to resound on Terrorgram.
Also notable is the emergence of the Feuerkrieg Division (FKD). Established in late 2018, FKD is believed to have fewer than 50 members, primarily based in Europe, including the UK, the Netherlands and Estonia, and has recruited activists in Canada and the USA.
In August last year, an alleged FKD activist was arrested in Las Vegas for allegedly plotting antisemitic and homophobic attacks, with bomb-making materials found in his home. Following the September arrest of an alleged teenage member, the group also received press coverage in the UK after it posted a picture on Telegram of the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police with a gun to his head. Another post bore the words “Release our member or your heads will be our agenda”, alongside the addresses of police stations and offices.
Smaller, more recently formed groups include the eco-fascist outfit The Green Brigade (GB), which launched on Telegram in November 2019 and quickly accrued over 1,000 followers. Describing itself as “an organization consisting of openly accelerationist, militant environmentalist members focused on tearing down the system that exploits our people, land and animals”, activists have distributed posters in Arkansas and New Hampshire in the USA, Stockholm in Sweden, and London and Scotland, UK.
VICE magazine has linked GB to an arson attack on a mink farm in Sölvesborg, Sweden, and labelled it “a cell within The Base”, although GB claims it has “no formal agreements with any other group and it will remain that way”.
The Vorherrschaft Division (VSD), established in August 2019, is yet another pro- SIEGE group. Although undoubtedly tiny, in October last year a synagogue in Michigan was plastered with VSD posters featuring images of Hitler with the words: “Did you forget about me?” VSD’s Telegram channel has also published the detailed personal details of the families of perceived enemies, including children, and encouraged readers to “pay them a visit”. The purpose of establishing these myriad outfits is decentralisation, ensuring that when a group becomes compromised (such as The Base), others are untarnished. The effect is also disorientating, inflating their scope and creating the illusion that there are nazi cells in every town poised for violence. While their Telegram channels may have hundreds of followers, in reality some of the smaller announced “groups” may at this stage consist of little more than a logo, a Telegram channel and an email address, and their “cells” being single activists.
However, to minimise the threat of far-right terrorism is both foolhardy and dangerous. As we have seen in Christchurch, Poway, El Paso and Halle, it only takes a single individual to carry out a deadly attack.
Telegram continues to fail to take action against the cruel subculture operating through its software, and must do much more to impede its spread. All tech companies have a responsibility to deal with the use of their platforms for nefarious purposes, and Telegram must be held to account.
It is crucial to recognise that Telegram is just one part of a wider underground ecosystem. Members of this system are conscious that they may soon be forced to find a new home online. As one popular channel posted: “This won’t last forever though, none of this stuff we’re doing on Telegram will. Eventually there will be a ban, a leak, an arrest, and we’ll have the option of finding our next Twitter/Discord/Telegram or we can begin to take things into our own hands.”
While Telegram bans alone will not eradicate the threat, it will take away one key means by which terrorists radicalise, propagandise and network. The platform must take action now, and we must track down potential terrorists wherever they run to next.