September 9, 2020

IntelBrief: Financing the Radical Right in Plain Sight

Stack of 100 dollars notes

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The continued commercialization of hate creates steady forms of revenue for violent extremist organizations, including white supremacists.
  • Crowdsourcing as a key tool of finance for right-wing movements may have dampened since 2017, but major crowdfunding companies still allow individuals associated with QAnon to raise money.
  • More straightforward forms of finance by right-wing extremists, especially violent white supremacists, including many Aryan groups, remain an important source of finance.
  • Online and self-financing trends related to right-wing financing will continue to challenge law enforcement ‘follow the money’ strategies.

Radical right-wing groups, movements, and individuals, including white supremacists, continue to use a mix of licit and illicit methods to finance their activities. Anders Breivik micro-financed his deadly 2011 attack by maxing out multiple credit cards to their limits. More contemporaneously, groups like the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), now rebranded as the New Socialist Order, likely self-funded travel to Charlottesville and individuals linked to the group used their own resources to fund activities in multiple states. While one leadership figure advocated for the pooling of group member resources, AWD also sold merchandise, hawking t-shirts online, to accrue wealth. Just like AWD and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) long before it, online investigations reveal that individuals associated with the QAnon movement are selling a wide array of merchandise to support themselves or augment primary sources of income. Amazon, Walmart, Etsy, and many other major retailers and smaller self-run websites sell QAnon t-shirts, coffee mugs, flags, and other esoterica and chotskies associated with the conspiracy theory. QAnon symbols, such as a white rabbit t-shirt, remain available for purchase on Facebook’s Market Place despite its recent strategic disruption of the movement, including a de-platforming in August, resulting in the removal of nearly 800 QAnon groups from the site.

Internet-driven fundraising efforts have long been central to the radical right’s ability to spread propaganda and recruit new members. In the 1980s, the infamous KKK leader Louis Beam, created a computer system for white supremacists to communicate and raise money. More recently, between 2017-2018, crowdfunding websites like Patreon, GoFundMe, and Kickstarter were a source of funding for white supremacist groups until those companies curbed access to their platforms. This resulted in the creation of alternative crowdsourcing, and inherently racist, platforms like ‘Hatreon’ and ‘Goy Fund Me,’ both short-lived. While mainstream crowdsourcing efforts are likely a source of finance for specific individuals who self-identify as white supremacists, this trend has ebbed since 2017. Still, even cursory online research indicates that both Patreon and GoFundMe are used by QAnon supporters. Multiple influential QAnon influencers with large Twitter followings, Praying Medic (nearly 400,000 followers) and Obiwan Qenobi (nearly 50,000 followers) maintain Patreon accounts that receive regular donations from patrons. GoFundMe has, as of September 5th, nearly 40 QAnon-associated fundraising efforts that remain ongoing. While it is unlikely that the Patreon and GoFundMe accounts are significant sources of funding for QAnon, the fact that such efforts continue are worrisome, particularly given the rise of QAnon-inspired violence, its anti-Semitic roots, and the FBI’s determination that the QAnon conspiracy represents a domestic terrorism threat.

Conventional criminal activities, including drug trafficking and armed robbery, have been a mainstay for financing right wing groups in the past. In the 1980s, the infamous white supremacist group known as the Order made millions on ransacking an armored car and counterfeiting U.S. currency. Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was purportedly linked to multiple bank robberies prior the attack. The Aryan Brotherhood, founded in San Quentin Prison in the 1960s has made millions in racketeering, drug trafficking, and armed robberies. Various forms of illicit finance remain lucrative for the myriad of inherently violent organizations that populate the Aryan communities in the United States. In early 2020, the state of Texas successfully prosecuted 64 white supremacists that spanned multiple Aryan groups for a wide range of crimes, including the trafficking of more than 1,600 kilos of methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin. The scope of the radical right’s involvement in the drug-trade in the United States remains widespread and arrests associated with the movement are being made daily across the country.

The Internet, because of its ubiquity - especially during a pandemic - will continue to remain a platform for key sources of finance for the less virulent, but still dangerous, fringes of the radical right. Yet, the decentralized nature of the Internet will likely make organized group-based financing efforts less instrumental than individual based online financing efforts. At the same time, individuals will continue to self-finance their activities through licit forms of employment. Yet, as far-right extremists search for new and innovative ways to earn funds, they could turn to similar crime-terror nexus mechanisms used by jihadists and other terrorists, including fraud, petty crime, and a range of cyber scams, including credit card and identity theft. These activities can make it more challenging for law enforcement to trace and track the money in order to unravel criminal networks. Instead, more effective efforts would be using IRS resources to monitor the online vendors selling swag associated with movements that have been deemed national security threats. Right-wing movements, many of which are anti-government in their ideology, have long sought to resist paying taxes, making them vulnerable to being charged with financial crimes that could lead to other charges over time.