March 13, 2020

IntelBrief: Designating White Supremacist Groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Raymond Duda, FBI Special Agent in Charge in Seattle, speaks during a news conference at a podium at left, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, about charges against a group of alleged members of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division for cyber-stalking and mailing threatening communications (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren).
  • In an unprecedented move, the U.S. State Department may formally designate a violent white supremacist group as a foreign terrorist organization according to press sources.
  • The move, if carried out, is another indication of the growing severity of the threat posed by violent white supremacist groups.
  • There is some concern that such a designation infringes on First Amendment rights in the United States, although the initial designation is narrowly focused.
  • The neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen is the most likely candidate to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization.



The U.S. State Department, the department tasked with Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations, is reportedly close to designating a violent white supremacist group, possibly within a few weeks. Atomwaffen Division (AWD) is a neo-Nazi group that started in the United States and has since made transnational connections to other extremist groups in the United Kingdom, Europe, and elsewhere as part of a broader growth in the violent white supremacist movement. Atomwaffen is expected to be the first white supremacist group ever designated as an FTO. 

The move is another indication of the violent threat posed by these groups and how their rapidly spreading ideology and propaganda is now as ubiquitous and sophisticated as that produced by salafi-jihadist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Countering these groups has remained the primary focus of the United States and its allies throughout the entire Global War on Terrorism. This focus has been somewhat myopic and overly focused on one type of threat, while ignoring the statistics and research studies that showed violent white supremacy extremism has long been a pervasive and growing concern in the West. The United States’ history of racism in law enforcement and in legislatures further frustrated efforts to expand the focus from jihadist terrorism to a far more domestic and active threat posed by violent white supremacist and anti-government groups.

Congressman Max Rose, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, has been pushing for a change in how the United States classifies and designates terrorist threats. The House Committee on Homeland Security voted unanimously to approve the ‘Transnational White Supremacist Extremism Review Act’ in February 2020. This act, if passed by both chambers and signed into law, would require that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ‘develop and disseminate a terrorist threat assessment of foreign white extremist groups.’ This is a necessary step in adopting a more rigorous posture to combating groups like Atomwaffen and others of similar hateful ideology and intent to commit violence. Groups such as Atomwaffen have become truly global groups, tapping into explicit and even tacit acceptance of racist views and encouraging violence. There has been an increase in nationalistic politicians who either directly espouse or encourage white supremacist ideology. Russia has played a key role in amplifying these trends, encouraging racism and anti-government sentiment both online and offline because it dovetails with Moscow’s goal of sowing division in Western and especially NATO countries.

A recent video showed AWD’s Ukrainian branch pledging allegiance to the group, much in the same way that ISIS and al-Qaeda maintain affiliates and franchise groups throughout the world. By sanctioning this group now, the goal is to mitigate the real and growing threat they pose to the nation’s security, and prevent the group from catalyzing further. AWD has made it clear through propaganda what its intentions are, and it has been responsible for a number of attacks and plots. Agencies within the United States, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and DHS have publicly spoken about the threat posed by violent white supremacist groups. The FBI has arrested 13 members of Atomwaffen since the beginning of 2020, and addressing violent white supremacist and anti-government violence is now a top priority of U.S. federal law enforcement. There remains a troublesome disconnect between these agencies and the White House, however, which has consistently downplayed the threat both from violent white supremacist groups and from Russia. The formal designation of Atomwaffen, or any white supremacist or neo-Nazi group, will be a significant advancement in how the United States addresses ongoing and future terrorist threats by violent white supremacist groups. 


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