May 5, 2021
IntelBrief: Cat and Mouse Game in Canada as Proud Boys Chapter Claims to Disband
Approximately three months after its designation as a terrorist entity, the Canadian chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right violent extremist group that espouses Western chauvinism, claims to have “officially dissolved.” The designation in February by the Canadian government did not make it illegal to be a member of the organization, but did include a host of consequences, including travel restrictions related to no-fly lists and the potential to have financial assets frozen by banks. Canada is the only country so far to designate the Proud Boys, although others may follow suit. Canada’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Proud Boys since at least 2018. The group’s profile was elevated significantly after former U.S. President Donald Trump referenced it during a Presidential debate, telling its members to “Stand back and stand by” while refusing to unequivocally condemn white supremacists. The group became even more prominent following the January 6 Capitol insurrection in the United States, in which several of its members played a pivotal role. Although the U.S.-based Proud Boys, founded by Canadian Gavin McInness, receives the lion’s share of publicity, its Canadian chapter was beginning to be a serious concern to Canadian law enforcement and intelligence services.
In their communication announcing the alleged dissolution of the group, the Proud Boys referenced financial difficulties, largely associated with current and potential future legal costs. It was recently reported by USA Today that the Proud Boys received significant financial backing from the Chinese diaspora in the lead up to the January 6 Capitol insurrection, estimated at $86,000 on crowdfunding platforms, including GiveSendGo. The affinity that some members of the Chinese diaspora have for the Proud Boys can be traced to the group’s messaging on fighting communism and “Cultural Marxism” that they contend is being pushed by Antifa and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement –demonstrating the dangerous resonance of many extremist narratives across ideologies and motivations. Much of this rhetoric is recycled by both mainstream and fringe Conservative media outlets, amplifying the message and providing it with a veneer of credibility.
While the impact of the terrorist designations on the group’s finances and operations is important, it is necessary to exercise caution when considering a terrorist group’s own pronouncements of dissolution. There are numerous examples of groups that have claimed to disband, but merely use that announcement as a feint to escape the consequences and associated stigma of a designation. After all, the Proud Boys found itself on the same list as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State after being designated as a terrorist organization in Canada. This likely spooked some of its members. In the United Kingdom, the Islamist group, al-Muhajiroun, led by the hardline ideologue Anjem Choudary, underwent several iterations of its name after claiming to disband in response to a terrorist designation. Similarly, the Feuerkrieg Division, a neo-Nazi group with members in the UK, followed suit. At various points, the far-right extremist group, National Action, attempted the same, even expressing admiration for al-Muhajiroun’s ability to continuously reinvent itself.
The result of Canada’s designation could be further splintering of the Proud Boys. Some members have already formed a new group called Canada First. There has also been splintering among some U.S. chapters of the organization. And while some individuals may end up disengaging from the group following its designation and alleged dissolution, it is important to recognize the difference between disengagement and deradicalization. The most hardcore members could also seek to join existing groups like The Base or the Atomwaffen Division. Still others could seek to travel abroad — to the United States, Europe, or perhaps Ukraine — to join far-right extremist groups in other countries. In addition to banning National Action, the UK has also proscribed The Feuerkrieg Division and the Sonnenkrieg Division, both neo-Nazi groups, and the Australian government has designated the Sonnenkrieg Division. Other countries, including “Five Eyes” countries like the U.S., UK, Australia, and New Zealand should consider similar punitive measures against the Proud Boys and groups of its ilk to build on the momentum generated by the Canadian government. At the United Nations, where states are currently negotiating a key counterterrorism resolution in the General Assembly, questions abound about how to forge an international consensus and response to transnational far-right violent extremist and terrorist groups. Many states will be watching to learn from the impact of Canada’s experience in designating the Proud Boys and its potential implications for the prospect of some kind of international designation.