On Jan. 6, a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The violence was motivated by right-wing conspiracy theories, White nationalist movements and Trump’s own rhetoric.
The Trump years saw an increase in domestic terrorist attacks linked by hateful ideologies that thrive online. Reveal teams up with Type Investigations to track every domestic terror incident from 2016 through 2019. We unpack the ideologies and tactics of American White supremacists and assess government attempts to combat them.
Reporter Priska Neely introduces us to a survivor of the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, and, with Type Investigations reporter David Neiwert, traces the racist ideology connecting that attack with the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, along with other terrorist events.
Many of today’s domestic terrorists were radicalized online, adopting their extreme views without interacting with other extremists in person. Reveal’s Stan Alcorn explores how the online organizing of White supremacists and other right-wing extremists has evolved over the last few years, through the story of former White nationalist Joshua Bates.
Alcorn also looks into the FBI’s response to the rising tide of right-wing domestic terrorism. The agency claims it’s taking those threats more seriously, but U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says the agency has been slow to provide details about exactly what it’s doing.
This is a rebroadcast of a show that originally aired June 27, 2020.
Reported by: Stan Alcorn, Darren Ankrom, Priska Neely and David Neiwert
Produced by: Stan Alcorn and Priska Neely
Edited by: Jen Chien, Taki Telonidis and Kevin Sullivan with Esther Kaplan and Soo Oh
Production manager: Amy Mostafa
Production assistance: Brett Simpson, Najib Aminy
Sound design and music by: Ramtin Arablouei
Mixing: Ramtin Arablouei
Special thanks: Sarah Blustain and Type Investigations, and Maha Ahmed, Richard Salame, Nikki Frick and Hannah Beckler for fact-checking.
Episode photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan
Host: Al Letson
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The morning of January 6, before the storming of the halls of Congress, reporter David Neiwert tweeted a prediction, “Today is likely to be a historically violent day in the nation’s capital.”
David Neiwert: Yeah. No, that wound up being an understatement, didn’t it?
Al Letson: David wasn’t surprised that pro-Trump extremists did what they did. In fact, he linked to a video from the night before shot on the streets of D.C. in which a middle-aged white man in a Trump hat tells a young white nationalist livestreamer-
Speaker 4: In fact, tomorrow, I don’t even like to say because I’ll be arrested-
Speaker 5: Well, let’s not say it.
Speaker 4: I’ll say it.
Speaker 5: All right.
Speaker 4: We need to go into the Capitol.
Speaker 5: Let’s go!
David Neiwert: It certainly wasn’t a surprise for any of the people who’ve been reporting on and researching the radical right here in the United States in the past year, because they’ve been pretty upfront about it. They were saying they were going to do this.
Al Letson: David has been following the radical right for decades. A few years back, he and the nonprofit newsroom Type Investigations teamed up with Reveal to start tracking what looked to him like an uptick in far right terrorism. We put together a database of every single domestic terror event starting in 2008.
Al Letson: In 2017, that data showed that right-wing extremists had become the biggest threat, while law enforcement under President Obama was focused on those acting in the name of Islam. Last summer, we ran the numbers for terrorism under President Trump, and we found that far right terror had grown and become more lethal, responsible for almost the same number of deaths during Trump’s first three years as during all eight years under Obama. The men, it’s almost always men, who are responsible for many of those deaths were driven by the same ideology.
David Neiwert: There’s a very specific stripe of white nationalism that we’re seeing run through, especially, these more recent mass killings.
Al Letson: Today, we’re bringing back a show we first aired last June. We’re going to connect the dots to show how extremist ideas and extremist violence spread online, and we’ll ask why law enforcement is still struggling to catch up. Reveal reporters Stan Alcorn and Priska Neely dug into this for months. Priska starts us off with the story of a man who witnessed the deadliest domestic terror attack of 2019.
Priska Neely: Guillermo Glenn is well-known in El Paso’s Mexican-American community. He’s 79 now, and he’s been a community organizer and labor rights activist for most of his life.
Guillermo Glenn: We conducted a lot of protests. We blocked a bridge. We went to jail.
Priska Neely: On August 3, 2019, he was just going about his weekend routine.
Guillermo Glenn: It was a Saturday morning around 10:00. I had gone to Walmart to buy some pet food. I was way in the back, and I heard this great big noise.
Priska Neely: A warning, Guillermo is going to share graphic details about what happened that day.
Guillermo Glenn: A large number of families, women and men were running towards me from the front of the building, and then I noticed at least one of the women was dripping blood. I said, “Well, there’s something really wrong.” I ran into the woman who was… Both her legs had received some type, either shrapnel or bullet wounds, and she was bleeding. So I stopped there to help her, and I grabbed a first-aid kit and tried to at least tend to her wounds in her legs. One of the firemen or paramedic came and told, “You have to get her out. We’re getting everybody out of the store.” So we put her in one of those grocery baskets.
Priska Neely: When he wheeled the woman to the front, he saw what had happened.
Guillermo Glenn: Right at the front door, there was a lot of blood. I knew then that there’d been a shooter. It was a very traumatic scene. I saw the body of a man with half his head shot off. There was a lady laying on the pavement across from where we’re loading the people. I didn’t know exactly who he’d taken out. I didn’t have that information that he was actually shooting Mexicans.
Priska Neely: The suspected gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, drove roughly 10 hours from outside Dallas to the El Paso Walmart right near the Mexican border. Police say he opened fire, 23 people were killed and many were wounded, and then he drove off.
Speaker 8: Minutes later, Patrick Crusius stopped his car at an intersection near the Walmart. He came out with his hands raised in the air and stated out loud to the Texas Rangers, “I’m the shooter.”
Priska Neely: He’s facing 90 federal charges, including 45 hate crimes.
Priska Neely: After Guillermo witnessed what happened that day, he got in his car and went to the restaurant where his friends always gather on Saturdays.
Guillermo Glenn: Several of my friends came up and hugged me and said, “Oh, you’re okay. We’re so glad. We’ve been looking for you. We thought you might be there.” Then they showed me the manifesto.
Priska Neely: The manifesto. Minutes before the attack, the shooter had posted a document filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric to the online message board 8chan. Some of Guillermo’s friends showed him a copy.
Guillermo Glenn: I sat down. I had some food, had some of my regular Saturday menudo. Then I finally realized what had happened, right after I read the manifesto.
Priska Neely: The Crusius manifesto reads kind of like a corporate website. It has an About Me section and parts where he outlines his warped vision for America. He matter-of-factly explains how his attack will preserve a world where white people have the political and economic power. He says peaceful means will no longer achieve his goal.
Priska Neely: Reporter David Neiwert says this alleged shooter is the quintessential Trump-era terrorist, a man largely radicalized online, entrenched in white nationalist ideology, and fueled by the belief that white men like himself are being replaced by Latino immigrants. Crusius wrote that the media would blame President Trump for inspiring him, but he claimed that his ideas predated the Trump campaign. Here’s David.
David Neiwert: Patrick Crusius, especially, was so filled with loathing for Latino people that he didn’t see them as human.
Priska Neely: When David reads the manifesto, he can immediately see the fingerprints of other white nationalists.
David Neiwert: Here’s how Crusius opens his manifesto. “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
Priska Neely: That opening line is a direct signal back to a previous act of terrorism, the shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, just months before. David says this is part of a trend. One terrorist inspires another, and the cycle continues. Guillermo says he didn’t understand all of the references at first, but it was clear to him that the manifesto had ties to a larger movement.
Guillermo Glenn: I think he was trying to show that somebody had to take action, and that really angered me at that point. Why would somebody come and shoot innocent people like that?
Priska Neely: David say Crusius started doing online research because of the anger he felt over how the country was changing demographically.
David Neiwert: But in the process of doing this research, he came across multiple white genocide theories, including The Great Replacement.
Priska Neely: The Great Replacement, or replacement theory, unites many acts of hate that we see across the country, around the world.
David Neiwert: That’s this idea that comes out of white nationalism that white Europeans face a global genocide at the hands of brown people and that they’re being slowly rubbed out of existence.
Priska Neely: Only a few terrorists in recent years have referenced replacement theory by name, but it’s widely popular among right-wing extremists. It’s linked to ideas that are many decades old, but one attack in Europe showed how those ideas can be weaponized.
David Neiwert: Anders Breivik’s terrorism attack in Oslo and Utøya Island, Norway, in 2011.
Priska Neely: Breivik killed 77 people in a bombing and mass shooting. Before the attack, he sent out a 1,500-page manifesto about how he planned to lead white supremacists on a crusade against the “Islamification of Europe.” Around the same time, a French writer named Renaud Camus refined and popularized the ideology in a book. The title translates to The Great Replacement.
David Neiwert: The Great Replacement essentially is this idea that brown people, particularly refugees and immigrants from Arab countries in Europe, are being deliberately brought into the country in order to replace white people as the chief demographic.
Priska Neely: The conspiracy theory claims all this is orchestrated by a cabal of nefarious globalists. That’s code for Jews.
Speaker 9: You will not replace us!
Speaker 10: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
Priska Neely: In August 2017, white supremacists in the U.S. took up this concept as a rallying cry at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Speaker 10: Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!
Priska Neely: The next day, a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. This incident had an immediate impact on the public perception of terrorism, making it clear that white nationalists violence is a serious threat.
Speaker 11: Today, the nightmare has hit home here in the city of Pittsburgh.
Priska Neely: At a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, Robert Bowers is accused of killing 11 people.
David Neiwert: He went to a Jewish synagogue because he was angry about the Latin American caravans. The caravans had been in all the news in the weeks prior to that synagogue attack. He blamed Jews and went to a Jewish synagogue to take revenge for Latino immigration.
Priska Neely: These are the ideologies that are zigzagging across the globe. In March 2019, the gunman who livestreamed his mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Facebook also wrote a manifesto. The title, The Great Replacement. The New Zealand manifesto inspired the El Paso shooter to target the people he felt were replacing him. Recent manifestos and books put a new spin on violent, hateful acts, but David traces these sentiments back much further.
David Neiwert: What’s remarkable in a lot of ways when I read these manifestos is so many of them are expressing ideas that I read in the 1920s coming from eugenicists. Look, I would even take it back to the 1890s, when we first started seeing the wave of lynchings in the South as a form of social control. This was very clearly a form of terrorism.
Priska Neely: After the El Paso shooting, activist Guillermo Glenn says white supremacist ideology was barely part of the conversation. There were brief efforts to unite the community against hate, a few events held under the banner El Paso Strong.
Guillermo Glenn: The politicians, the businessmen, the mayor, everybody was pushing this idea that we had to survive, but they weren’t really talking about who caused it or why.
Priska Neely: Before we talked for this story, Guillermo says he didn’t identify as part of this larger group of survivors that includes Jewish and Muslim communities.
Guillermo Glenn: You say, well, it’s the Jewish people that they attacked, it’s the Muslim people that they attacked, and here on the border it’s the Mexican and Central Americans. But nobody talks about, what does the Great Replacement mean? Nobody put all these incidences together and say, “Hey, this is something that we should be aware of nationally.”
Priska Neely: And he says that’s part of the failure, part of the reason these attacks keep happening.
Al Letson: That story from Reveal’s Priska Neely.
Al Letson: As we’ve been saying, these extremist groups are using online communities to spread their messages and find new recruits. When we come back, we’ll hear how it works.
Josh Bates: It’s a conditioning process, it’s a grooming process, and I let myself fall into that.
Al Letson: The evolution of the white supremacist internet, next on Reveal.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’re continuing with our show we first broadcast last summer about domestic terrorism during the Trump administration.
Al Letson: The FBI and academic researchers say there’s no such thing as a terrorist profile. You can’t tell who’s going to become a terrorist with a personality test or a demographic checklist. But the young white men who attacked the synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway and the Walmart in El Paso, they had a lot in common. Not only were they motivated by the same conspiracy theory about white people being replaced, they developed those ideas in some of the same spaces online. Two of them even posted their manifestos to the same website, 8chan.
Al Letson: Now, you can’t blame today’s white supremacist terrorism on the internet, but you also can’t understand it without talking about the way the white supremacist movement uses the internet and how it’s changed over the last decade. Reveal’s Stan Alcorn is going to tell that story through the eyes of a man who lived it. Here’s Stan.
Stan Alcorn: Josh Bates’s decade as a white supremacist started in his mid-20s, with a YouTube video about the presidential candidate he says he supported at the time, Barack Obama.
Josh Bates: I was scrolling through the comments section, “He’s a Muslim,” “He wasn’t born here,” things of that nature, and somebody said, “You guys sound like those Stormfront (beep).” I was like, “What in the world is Stormfront?”
Stan Alcorn: Stormfront is a message board that a former KKK leader set up in the ’90s. Josh says he went there at first because he was curious, then to argue. But then the middle-aged message-board neo-Nazis started winning him over.
Stan Alcorn: How could they be convincing in these arguments? Can you help me understand that?
Josh Bates: Well, I wish I could answer that question, because I still ask myself that a lot. How could I end up falling for something like that? But I guess it’s probably similar to how we look at people who fall into cults. It’s a conditioning process, it’s a grooming process, and I let myself fall into that.
Stan Alcorn: The experts I talked to say that first step is more about the person than what they’re stepping into. Josh had just left the Marines, where he used to have a team and a mission. Now all he had was a computer.
Shannon Martine…: It’s pretty concurrent with a whole lot of people, where they felt really deeply disempowered in their lives.
Stan Alcorn: Shannon Martinez is a former white supremacist who’s helped people, including Josh, leave the movement.
Shannon Martine…: When you encounter information that’s presented that this is the real truth, the true truth people don’t want you to have because, if you did, it would be too empowering for you and too disempowering for them, that’s an incredibly powerful, toxic drug.
Stan Alcorn: That drug, widely available on the internet, is, at its heart, a conspiracy theory. It says your problems aren’t your fault; it’s immigrants, Black people, Jews.
Josh Bates: They talk about, oh, Hollywood and the media and all these Jews that are in these positions of power. When you google that kind of stuff and you see it and you consume it, eventually after a few months you kind of get desensitized to it. Everybody’s agreeing with everyone for the most part. You get along. There’s that online community. Stormfront was my first one.
Stan Alcorn: He didn’t know their names, but they were his team now. He’d spend the next 10 years as what he calls a keyboard warrior for the white supremacist movement. He’d be there for every step in its evolution, from joining the KKK and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement to more diffuse groups and websites that called themselves alt-right and identitarian.
Stan Alcorn: Some of these groups would go to some lengths to appear respectable and say, “We’re not racists. We’re not Nazis. We’re not the KKK.” Then some of those groups were Nazis; they were the KKK. You were in all of them. Does that tell you that the differences between these groups are more about the image and the tactics than the core ideas or who they attract?
Josh Bates: Absolutely. We’ve been using the terms white nationalism 1.0 and white nationalism 2.0 for a few years now. 1.0 is your early groups, Ku Klux Klan. They’re very explicit, National Socialist Movement, walking around with swastikas on their uniforms and their flags. Your 2.0 guys, they’re your Identity Evropas, where they’re dressing in khakis and collared shirts and dock shoes, and they’ve got these nice cropped haircuts. They call that good optics. But anybody who was in the early 1.0 movements like myself, I could see right through it. They just put lipstick on a pig. That’s all they did.
Stan Alcorn: But people who followed the white supremacist movement for decades, like Type Investigations reporter David Neiwert, they say that this alt-right makeover of the old racist right, it was transformative.
David Neiwert: That radical right was very backward-looking, very stiff and formal. They didn’t have any… Humor was not part of their repertoire. In fact, their primary recruitment demographic really was men between the ages of 40 and 60. With the advent of the alt-right, what we saw was this very tech-savvy, very agile movement that, instead of running away from the culturally savvy aspects of the internet, rather embraced them wholly.
Stan Alcorn: Instead of writing racist newsletters that people had to sign up for, they were making memes and jokes in places like Reddit and 4chan. These forums that celebrated being politically incorrect, they were the perfect place for those ideas to take root, hybridize with other fringe ideas, and grow into something that could be shared on more mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
David Neiwert: It was very brilliant because it meant that suddenly their recruitment demographic was much larger and had a lot more political activist energy. They were younger people.
Stan Alcorn: Josh Bates says that energy got a huge boost in 2016 with the rise of a new presidential candidate.
Donald Trump: They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. Some, I assume, are good people.
Josh Bates: Because Trump was spouting off a lot of the same talking points as general white nationalists, he breathed new life into that movement. The thought leaders of the movement just took full advantage, thinking that they could take it even further, and they did.
Stan Alcorn: They started to take their ideas into the real world.
Megan Squire: They were being emboldened by Trump and really acting out.
Stan Alcorn: After Trump’s election in 2017, computer scientist Megan Squire set up software to track extremists on Facebook. She’d started out studying the misogynist Gamergate movement, but that had led her to all of these different anti-Muslim and neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups.
Megan Squire: At the time, Facebook was a central player, if not the central player, and it was the place where these guys all wanted to be. I was looking for ideological crossover, group membership crossover, just trying to, I guess, map the ecosystem of hate on Facebook.
Stan Alcorn: She watched this ecosystem plan what one neo-Nazi website would call the Summer of Hate, anti-Muslim marches, misogynist Proud Boy rallies, and what was shaping up to be this real-world meetup of all these different mostly online hate groups, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is where she came across Josh Bates.
Megan Squire: There was a person who was talking about they didn’t have enough money to go to Charlottesville, and someone else suggested, “Hey, we have this crowdfunding site. Why don’t you set up a fundraiser?”
Stan Alcorn: When Megan clicked the link, she saw this whole list of white supremacist fundraisers on a website Josh had built, because GoFundMe had started cutting them off. It was the beginning of what Megan calls alt-tech.
Megan Squire: At the time we’re talking about, alt-tech was basically just replacements that were coded and controlled by people probably in the movement or close to the movement, or at least didn’t care about white supremacists using their services. So they were replacing Patreon with hate-reon. It’s kind of a one-to-one match there.
Stan Alcorn: But when it came to advertising the rally, the alt-right didn’t need alt-tech. They had a Facebook event page, and it was being promoted by hate groups that Facebook had allowed to remain on the site, even after they were reported by civil rights advocates.
Megan Squire: I’m a solo researcher with a laptop in rural North Carolina, and I was able to find well over 2,000 hate groups operating on Facebook in a couple of months. I don’t have a lot of sympathy that Facebook didn’t know it was happening. That’s ridiculous.
Stan Alcorn: Megan decided to go to the rally in person, in part to see if this convergence of hate she was seeing on Facebook would happen in real life. Josh Bates went for the same reason.
Josh Bates: Never in the history of white nationalism had there been that many people all showing up at one place. You had NSM, Ku Klux Klan, Identity Evropa, all these groups.
Stan Alcorn: All the groups that you’d ever been a member of.
Josh Bates: Yeah, pretty much. When you see that many people show up to support a common cause, it fills you up a little bit with maybe a little enthusiasm, like, “Hey, maybe this isn’t dying. Maybe this could go forward.”
Megan Squire: That’s exactly right. I believe that. That’s exactly why you have to shut that stuff down, because this is not the kind of people we need to be amassing power.
Stan Alcorn: The rally wasn’t shut down, but when it turned violent and a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer, reporter David Neiwert says this whole plan to unite the racist right backfired.
David Neiwert: All of these groups started splitting. There was huge infighting over whether they did the right thing. In fact, the social media platforms actually then began taking it seriously, although that seriousness varied from platform to platform.
Megan Squire: It reminded me of when you catch a kid doing something they’re not supposed to be doing and all of a sudden they’re incredibly sorry. But they already did it. There wasn’t a whole lot of foresight there. They’re sorry after the fact.
Stan Alcorn: It’s a pattern we’ve seen over and over in the last few years. A terrorist attack happens, the social media platforms put out statements, but don’t fundamentally change their policies. On YouTube, you can still find old video manifestos from right-wing domestic terrorists. Facebook didn’t ban white nationalist content until a year and a half after Charlottesville. The main step they did take at the time was to remove the accounts of a bunch of individual users and groups.
Megan Squire: But that means I don’t get to just clap my hands, “Okay, we’re done here. Good job. They got deplatformed,” because my job is to worry about where they’re going to go next.
David Neiwert: You would push them off of platforms like Twitter, and they would just go off and create their own new platform and they called it Gab. It was just straight for white nationalists. It was on Gab, for instance, that the man who conducted the terrorism act against the Tree of Life synagogue did most of his organizing.
Stan Alcorn: He networked with other white nationalists and had a long string of racist and anti-Semitic posts before his infamous final message, “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
David Neiwert: On these alternative platforms, they could talk as though they didn’t have to fear censors or monitors or people looking over their shoulders, so they were much more open and explicit about their hatefulness, and not just their hatefulness, but, frankly, their lust for violence. The rhetoric became incredibly violent on a lot of these smaller platforms.
Stan Alcorn: This journey, trying to go mainstream only to retreat back to the violent fringe, it’s the journey Josh made too.
Josh Bates: That’s this trajectory of going from white nationalist 1.0, white nationalist 2.0, and then things just crumbling apart, going underground, and finding this thing called The Base.
Stan Alcorn: The Base is a neo-Nazi network with an explicit focus on real-world violence. They shared bomb-making manuals and planned paramilitary trainings to prepare for a coming race war. When news broke that 11 people had been murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue, they talked about it in terms of tactics. Josh wrote in their private chat, “Infrastructure is what needs targeting. Small hits like yesterday’s, while striking fear into many, that only ultimately served to embolden the enemy while they’re still strong.”
Josh Bates: Yeah, see, I don’t even remember saying that. I guess that goes to show that I was playing a role, in a sense, and it’s just you start to play this role and you start getting into it.
David Neiwert: That’s the sound of someone who was enthralled with the idea of being a hero. That’s how the whole heroism dynamic works, is that you are playing a role. You’ve created this image for yourself of being the hero, and now it’s really important for you to live up to it. This is how people who’ve been radicalized can get talked into committing acts of violence, is that they feel like they have to. They have to prove that they are the heroes they’ve made themselves out to be in their own minds.
Stan Alcorn: Josh left The Base’s chatroom in November of 2018. He says he was turned off by all the glorification of violence. A couple weeks after that, Atlanta anti-fascists published an article exposing his long history in the white supremacist movement. Within days, he was tweeting that he was out of the movement for good.
Josh Bates: Looking back now, I don’t see myself staying in the movement, no matter getting doxed or not. It’s just it’s tiring. Obviously, everything about it is wrong, in the ideological and racial and social sense. Everything about it is wrong.
Stan Alcorn: Other men who stayed in The Base would go on to be arrested for vandalizing a synagogue, plotting to murder a couple they believed were Antifa activists, and trying to start a civil war at a gun rights rally in Virginia.
Stan Alcorn: The FBI says the greatest terrorist threat in the United States today comes from what they call lone offenders, terrorists who get their radical ideas from online communities, who attack without ever coordinating with anyone else in the real world. According to our database, they’re responsible for nearly half the terrorist fatalities since Trump took office. It’s a list that includes the Tree of Life shooter, Robert Bowers, the Poway synagogue shooter, John Earnest, and the El Paso Walmart shooter, Patrick Crusius.
David Neiwert: A lot of people will be exposed to these same ideas and not respond in a violent way, but it doesn’t take very many of them to actually cause a whole lot of harm.
Stan Alcorn: For law enforcement, the tricky question here is, how can you tell from what someone says online that they’re actually going to commit an act of violence? But for the rest of us, there is a different question that’s maybe even trickier. What do we do when people say things online that might help push other people to commit acts of violence?
Stan Alcorn: Josh said several times in our interview that over the course of his 10 years in the white supremacist movement, he only spent a grand total of maybe five days doing things in the real world. His role was setting up websites, organizing online, and writing propaganda, like an article he wrote for altright.com where he told his fellow white people to “rekindle your inner hate” and that “an honorable death must be earned.”
Stan Alcorn: You’ve talked about this, saying that you didn’t do anything; you were just writing things. But just as you were radicalized through reading things online, so was Robert Bowers, so was John Earnest, so was Patrick Crusius. Isn’t writing something doing something, and do you think-
Josh Bates: What I mean by doing something is IRL, like actually getting out into the street. That’s what I mean by doing something.
Stan Alcorn: But he’s starting to think that distinction doesn’t really make a difference.
Josh Bates: I didn’t actually go out and get in any street brawls or physically attack anybody, but that’s no different than writing something and encouraging others to do it. You know what I mean? I would’ve considered myself, in a way, a domestic terrorist because I was spouting off some of these same ideas. It feels so weird to reference yourself in that way, but I have to be honest.
Stan Alcorn: The things Josh did may not meet the FBI or the Department of Justice’s definition of terrorism. They didn’t even get him kicked off social media. But he says he’ll be making up for them for the rest of his life.
Al Letson: That story was from Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. We reached out to Facebook for a comment. They sent us a statement saying that they don’t want to be a place for promoting hate or violence, and that they’re making progress. We reached out to YouTube and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism as well, but they didn’t respond.
Al Letson: If social media companies aren’t stopping white supremacist terrorism, what about the U.S. government? That’s after the break on Reveal.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: A year after Josh Bates left the white supremacist group The Base, another member of the organization shot a video of himself speaking into a camera, wearing a gas mask. He was calling on white people to acquire weapons, derail trains, and poison water supplies in order to ensure the survival of the white race. Later, a federal judge outside of Washington, D.C., would read a transcript of that video into the record before prosecutors held a press conference.
Speaker 18: As the evidence gathered by the FBI demonstrates, these defendants, who were self-proclaimed members of the white supremacist group The Base, were dedicated to the idea of doing harm to African-Americans, Jewish Americans, and others who the defendants viewed as a treat to their twisted idea of a white ethnostate. Put simply, this domestic terrorism investigation likely saved lives.
Al Letson: But this, law enforcement stopping white supremacist terrorism before it happens, has been the exception. According to the database we put together with Type Investigations, from 2008 to 2019, law enforcement stopped about one in three terror plots by white supremacists and other right-wing extremists. Over that same period, they stopped terror plots by those claiming to act in the name of Islam at more than twice that rate. They stopped three out of four of those.
Al Letson: In other words, the FBI seems to do a better job going after terrorists whose ideas resemble the 9/11 attackers than the right-wing terrorists who’ve killed far more people in the two decades since. But in the last year and a half, reporter David Neiwert says the FBI’s statements and arrests seem to show a shift towards taking white supremacist terrorism more seriously.
David Neiwert: It’s very clear that the FBI has caught on that this is a problem, but it’s also very clear that they have a lot of catching up to do.
Al Letson: Getting the FBI to describe how it’s catching up isn’t easy. Here’s Reveal’s Stan Alcorn again.
Stan Alcorn: In theory, there are people who can force the FBI to explain itself, Congress. But Congress has not always been focused on white supremacist terrorism either, for instance, this hearing from 2011-
Peter King: Good morning. The Committee on Homeland Security will come to order.
Stan Alcorn: … led by Republican Congressman from New York Peter King.
Peter King: This committee cannot live in denial, which is what some of us would do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11th. There is no equivalency of threat between Al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, or other isolated madmen. Only Al Qaeda-
Stan Alcorn: Actually, there were more than twice as many right-wing domestic terror incidents that year as anything inspired by groups like Al Qaeda, according to our data.
Peter King: Now it’s my privilege to recognize the distinguished ranking member of the committee, the gentleman from Mississippi, Mr. Thompson.
Stan Alcorn: The ranking member, or top Democrat, Bennie Thompson-
Bennie Thompson: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Stan Alcorn: … had a different perspective.
Bennie Thompson: I understand that our personal experiences play a role in how we see the world. We’ve all come to this place from somewhere else. I’m from Mississippi. My personal-
Stan Alcorn: He’d become the first Black mayor of his hometown in 1973, a place where cross burnings were used to intimidate civil rights activists. 20 years later, when he was elected to Congress, he made national news for pushing to finally prosecute the mastermind of the KKK killing that happened when he was in college.
Bennie Thompson: But we are not here in these places now. As members of Congress-
Stan Alcorn: In this hearing, he brought up an arrest that happened just the day before. A man had placed a bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Washington.
Bennie Thompson: News reports identify the suspect as a member of the same white supremacist group that influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. I urge you, Mr. Chairman, to hold a hearing examining the homeland security threat posed by anti-government and white supremacist groups. I yield back.
Stan Alcorn: Over the next eight years, Thompson and other Democrats would keep asking for that hearing on domestic terrorism. They’d never get it.
Stan Alcorn: I called up Congressman Thompson on Skype at his office in Bolton, Mississippi, the same town that elected him mayor nearly 50 years ago.
Bennie Thompson: There are about 500 people who live in this little town.
Stan Alcorn: So I bet you must know every single one of them, more or less.
Bennie Thompson: Not only do I know them, I know their business and they know my business. There are no secrets.
Stan Alcorn: We talked about how it felt to struggle to get his colleagues to pay attention to this threat of right-wing terrorism.
Bennie Thompson: Well, it was frustrating, to be honest with you, because I knew this problem was growing in America, and somehow our committee was missing the opportunity to address it. That’s unfortunate.
Stan Alcorn: But in 2019, Democrats took control of the House, and Bennie Thompson took control of the Homeland Security Committee.
Bennie Thompson: Finally, after I became chairman, we held a hearing. It was only in this hearing that members of Congress and the public get a chance to see and hear for the first time what was going on.
Stan Alcorn: This hearing and other Democrat-led oversight hearings got the FBI to finally acknowledge the serious threat of white supremacist terrorism. They said that “racially motivated violent extremism was now as big a threat as ISIS.” But these hearings didn’t turn up a lot of details on exactly what the FBI was doing to deal with that threat on the ground, like the number of agents or cases or arrests. So I asked the FBI agent in charge of counterterrorism for the Newark field office, Joe Denahan.
Joe Denahan: I think there’s really been a surge in what we assess as racially motivated violent extremism, both here in New Jersey and across the nation. I think a lot of the profiles of the subjects we have seen conduct successful attacks are younger males, all of them really radicalized online. Now that the velocity of those threats and successful attacks appears to be increasing, we obviously dedicate a greater number of resources to that threat.
Stan Alcorn: When you talk about that, dedicating a greater number of resources, can you share anything in the way of numbers, something to just concretely get a sense of what that looks like?
Joe Denahan: Yeah, unfortunately, I can’t give any specifics on that in terms of our personnel or assets. But I can tell you that there is a tremendous emphasis put on this. We recognize that the threat is evolving, and we’re evolving with it, no question about it.
Stan Alcorn: Just to be clear, why is it that you can’t give more details on that?
Joe Denahan: I’m not comfortable talking about the number of agents that we have working a specific threat.
Stan Alcorn: No numbers. Then there’s the terms itself, racially motivated violent extremism. Why call it that?
Stan Alcorn: Are we primarily talking about white supremacist terrorism?
Joe Denahan: No question that white racially motivated extremism is a very serious problem.
Stan Alcorn: Well, what else fits into that…
Stan Alcorn: What he isn’t saying is the whole point of the term racially motivated violent extremism is that they are not just talking about white supremacists, who’ve been responsible for more plots and attacks in the last few years than any other kind of terrorist in our database.
Stan Alcorn: What happened was, in 2017, an FBI document was leaked to Foreign Policy magazine about something they called Black identity extremists. The FBI defined them as anyone using violence “in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society, in particular, police brutality.” It was so broad, former FBI agent Mike German said, “Basically, it’s Black people who scare them.”
Stan Alcorn: When Congressman Thompson heard about it, not from the FBI, but from reading about it in the press, he wondered if it was really about countering terrorism at all.
Bennie Thompson: I went through COINTELPRO in the ’60s, the FBI spying on people of color. So they said, “Look, are we trying to unfairly target Black people and Black organizations again?”
Stan Alcorn: This was a scandal, and the FBI said it got rid of the Black identity extremist category. But in 2019, more FBI documents were leaked to reporter Ken Klippenstein, and they showed that the FBI had really just taken the Black identity extremists and the white supremacists and put them both in one combined category, racially motivated violent extremism.
Stan Alcorn: Can you say with confidence now that the FBI is not focusing on so-called Black identity extremists as a terrorist threat and potentially going after activists?
Bennie Thompson: Well, no, I can’t. No, I can’t. Because I know-
Stan Alcorn: And why not? You’re the head of the oversight committee looking at them. Why can’t you say it with confidence that you know?
Bennie Thompson: Well, I can’t say it because a lot of what I found out as a member of Congress is, there’s a term, a need to know. Even though you might be in a classified setting and supposedly have top-secret clearances, there’s still certain information that if an agency decides for whatever reason you don’t need to know it, in all probability, they’re not going to tell you.
Stan Alcorn: The FBI’s lack of transparency is why we built our own domestic terror database. It’s also why the most important thing the last Congress did on domestic terror might be something that’s barely been noticed.
Stan Alcorn: Tucked into the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on page 957, there’s language that requires the FBI to, for the first time, lay out in detail its own domestic terror data, describing every incident, assessment, and investigation since 2009, and breaking them down by category and saying exactly how many agents are working each threat.
Bennie Thompson: Why would you have to pass an act in Congress to get somebody to collect data that ought to be part of one’s job? Well, needless to say, we had to take it to that level.
Stan Alcorn: And you had to get it in the defense spending bill, too, right?
Bennie Thompson: Yeah. Well, it’s what you call a little home cooking.
Stan Alcorn: The law gave the FBI a deadline for that domestic terrorism report. It was right around the time this story first aired in the summer of 2020. But the FBI didn’t make that deadline. In fact, the report still isn’t out. When I called Congressman Thompson again last week-
Bennie Thompson: This is Bennie Thompson. How are you doing?
Stan Alcorn: … the report was more than six months overdue.
Bennie Thompson: We can pass all the legislation we want to, but if the implementation is delayed to the point that it doesn’t happen, that really doesn’t help anyone.
Stan Alcorn: He blames the slow pace on the Trump administration.
Bennie Thompson: I’m looking forward to the Biden administration calling on the FBI to follow the law.
Stan Alcorn: We spoke on the day he voted, with 231 of his House colleagues. to impeach President Trump for incitement of insurrection. The vote took place in the room he’d been forced to flee a week before after hearing gunshots in the halls of Congress. Now, in preparation for Biden’s inauguration, the building was surrounded by a high fence, and hundreds of National Guard troops were sleeping in their uniforms on the marble floors.
Bennie Thompson: The immediate comment that I’m picking up from my colleagues is, “Well, I didn’t see any of this on the 6th of January.” I think it’s a legitimate question, where was the cavalry when you needed them?
Stan Alcorn: He called it a failure in leadership, in security, in sharing and acting on intelligence. He also called it an act of right-wing domestic terrorism, the kind he’s been warning about for years.
Al Letson: That story was from Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. The FBI has been tracking down people involved with the storming of the Capitol, the same people that cops let walk away the day of. Dozens have been arrested as I record this, a number that’s expected to grow into the hundreds. But this is only the beginning. The lies and the rage behind the violence we saw that day, they aren’t going to just quietly disappear. Where they take us next is something the FBI, the new president, and all of us are going to be grappling with for a long time.
Al Letson: This week’s show was produced by Stan Alcorn and Priska Neely and edited by Jen Chien and Taki Telonides with help from Esther Kaplan and Soo Oh. Special thanks to our partners at Type Investigations, David Neiwert, Darren Ankrom, and Sarah Blustein. Victoria Barenetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa.
Al Letson: Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. This week’s show was mixed and scored by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Najib Aminy and Brett Simpson. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comorado, Lightning.
Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 22: From PRX.