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National Security & Defense

The Trump Administration Escalates the War on White Supremacist Terrorism

Nathan Sales speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, November 14, 2019. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

The Trump administration on Monday applied an international terrorist designation to an ethno-nationalist group known as the Russian Imperialist Movement, marking the first time the U.S. has applied such a designation to a white supremacist organization.

The State Department relied on expanded counterterrorism authorities released in September in order to designate R.IM. as a foreign terrorist organization and to bring sanctions against three of its leaders.

During a Wednesday phone interview with National Review, Nathan Sales, the State Department envoy on counterterrorism, described the move as a historic step in administration’s efforts to keep up with the dynamic nature of extremist violence in the 21st century.

“We think this sends a really strong message to the world, as well as to interested parties here in the United States, that we’re going to use our counterterrorism authorities to the fullest extent possible to confront terrorists of whatever ideological stripe,” Sales said.

President Trump’s September executive order empowered the State Department to target groups and individuals that have not necessarily committed any violent acts themselves but instead provided training for those who have. Before the executive order, the government’s hands were tied when pursuing known terrorist leaders: only those individuals who were known to have directly participated in the planning of an attack could be sanctioned. But under the leadership prong of the new guidance, an individual’s status as a leader in a terrorist group, such as RIM, is itself sufficient to designate the person as a foreign terrorist and to sanction them as such.

Sales explained that RIM “fell squarely” under the State Department’s expanded sanctions authorities because, while the group and its leaders are not known to have personally directed any attacks, they operate two training camps outside of St. Petersburg, Russia, where prospective terrorists travel to learn woodland combat and survival skills.

The group’s training camps have already proven to be more than a summer camp for disaffected young men playing soldier. In 2017, two men set off bombs in Gothenburg, Sweden months after leaving one of the group’s “Partisan” training camps. No one was injured in the blasts, but the location of the attacks suggests the men were targeting recent Middle Eastern and North African refugees. “The paramilitary camp in St. Petersburg was a key step in [the bombers’] radicalization” and it “may be the place where they learned to manufacture the bombs that they used in Gothenburg,” the prosecutor on the case told the Daily Beast during trial.

Sales argued that the expanded sanctions authorities don’t imperil anyone’s right to free speech, since propaganda efforts alone are not sufficient for designation; the individuals in question must cross the line into indirectly furthering terrorist plots by providing training.

While it’s not what landed them on the sanctions list, R.I.M. does maintain an extensive propaganda network which allows them to form relationships with other Eastern European neo-fascist groups and recruits from among their ranks. Like the Islamic State, the group has found success in wooing alienated young men intent on lashing out against a perceived existential threat; in this case, the influx of Arab refugees who began flooding Scandinavia in 2014 and 2015.

The group has also reportedly tried to make inroads with American neo-Nazi groups, which have been known to coordinate with their European counterparts. In 2015, a group of American white supremacists travelled to Russia to the International Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg, where they rubbed shoulders with white supremacist groups from Italy, Greece, and Germany.

European ethnocentrism reemerged as a significant threat to national security in 2015, primarily in response to the influx of refugees Middle Eastern and North African immigrants fleeing to Europe. White supremacist attacks against immigrants spiked that year across Europe, and the U.S. suffered the worst white supremacist attack in its history at the hands of the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof.

As this nascent international movement gathered steam, the U.S., which had for years focused its counterterrorism efforts on Islamic extremism, was caught flat-footed and suffered attacks at the hands of white supremacists who were radicalized online, often by foreigners.

“We know that the transnational white supremacist movement is very much a transnational phenomenon. The shooter at the El Paso Walmart, we know that he was inspired by the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, so we’re always on the lookout for foreign groups that might try to reach into the homeland either to recruit Americans or to inspire Americans to commit acts of violence,” Sales told National Review.

R.I.M. has recruited heavily from Poland, Sweden, Germany and other Scandinavian countries by drawing on Norse mythology in their propaganda and casting their efforts as part of a pan-European campaign to rid the region of non-whites.

While the level of coordination between R.I.M. and the Kremlin remains unclear, the proximity of its training camps to a major Russian metropolis — and their continued operation despite the media attention they received in the wake of the Gothenberg bombings — suggest the group operate with at least the tacit approval of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, RIM members have served as “little green men” in Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine, helping pro-Russian separatists seize Crimea in 2014. Ukrainian forces, such as the Azov Battalion, have also allied with white supremacist groups but U.S. intelligence has determined that the extremist groups were more active on the pro-Russian side.

While Putin gestured at a crackdown on the group (their website is now censored in Russia) the group “operates freely” in the country and continues to be “tolerated by the authorities,” in the words of former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. In addition to serving as soldiers in Putin’s near-abroad campaign, they also serve the useful function of sowing chaos in western democracies, which, in Putin’s zero-sum view of the world, is an unalloyed good.

Some observers have cast the move as a thinly veiled attempt to rehabilitate the administration’s reputation on the issue of white supremacy, which has persisted since Trump’s infamous Charlottesville speech. Indeed, the designation gone largely unremarked upon by the political media’s opinion makers, and most news articles reporting the development have included wary statements from extremism researchers casting the move as a public relations stunt. But, coupled with the FBI’s recent aggressive pursuit of domestic white supremacists — and provided the State Department continues to monitor these foreign groups and designate them accordingly under the new expanded guidance — Trump’s September executive order may prove to be a substantial blow against a white supremacist threat that began to emerge in earnest in Europe during the refugee crisis of 2014 and 2015, and has since metastasized in the U.S.

The sanctions against R.I.M.’s three leaders — Stanislav Vorobyev, Denis Gariev, and Nikolay Trushchalov — will deprive them of access to the U.S. financial system and will freeze their assets in the international banking system. It will also enable the prosecution of any sympathetic American who attempts to aid them. In the administration’s view this move is a long overdue modernization of the way the U.S. deals with an extremist phenomenon that doesn’t respect borders and uses the internet to form communities that can have a devastating impact on Americans and free people around the world.

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