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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Inside the Shadowy Digital Realm of Active Clubs

In the digital domain, a dark undercurrent of hate and extremism is thriving. Dubbed Active Clubs, these groups form a clandestine network of white supremacist and nationalist organizations, often masquerading as workout and mixed martial arts (MMA) training groups to drive recruitment.

Despite their innocuous name, the threat posed by Active Clubs looms large. With their organization of and participation in public rallies – particularly counter-protests – coupled with a penchant for physicality, they stand as a powder keg ready to explode into violence. 

Social media platforms – both traditional and alternative – provide a forum for recruiting and organizing that allows extremist groups to reach new audiences and find a like-minded audience for their content. 

The genesis of Active Clubs is the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a California-based group masterminded by white supremacist Robert Rundo. Following the incarceration of three RAM members who participated in the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, Rundo orchestrated a strategic shift for the group.

Out went the centralized structure of RAM, and in its place emerged the decentralized network of Active Clubs, hoping to fly under the radar of law enforcement and appeal to a broader audience of would-be recruits.

Active Clubs are deft at exploiting mainstream social media platforms for initial outreach efforts. However, when individuals are recruited, or events hit the planning stages, conversations shift to more clandestine and non-traditional messaging and digital forums, which are more challenging to monitor.

Today, Active Clubs are prevalent across the United States and in the heart of Western and Northern Europe. Vanguards of a dangerous ideology, these groups engage in overt political activities, including protests, demonstrations, and the distribution of online and offline propaganda. 

At the heart of their operations lie alternative social media platforms such as Telegram and Gab, where the echo chambers of hate reverberate. Here, Active Clubs push their propaganda, organizing training events and forging alliances with like-minded extremist groups such as Patriot Front and White Lives Matter. 

Much of Active Clubs’ propaganda and recruiting material for attracting potential members centers on the physical training aspect of the groups’ activities. Members post photographs and videos of training exercises and sparring. Almost all Active Clubs’ images and videos show members working out or highlighting their physiques.

Active Club training sessions serve three primary purposes:

  1. To create camaraderie amongst existing members through non-political activities viewed as non-threatening by local law enforcement.
  2. To cultivate a core membership centered around action and violence.
  3. To attract potential recruits through less overtly political activities.

With elections on the horizon, Active Clubs pose a risk for physical harm and civil disturbances at the local and state levels in the United States and parts of Europe. Their emphasis on physical activity, violence, and hateful rhetoric, as well as their organized counter-protest, intimidation, and harassment activities, will continue to pose an acute challenge for law enforcement.

Monitoring the activities of Active Clubs demands an understanding of their tactics and a familiarity with the dark corners of the internet where they congregate. Decentralization and Active Clubs’ use of alternative social media makes law enforcement monitoring costly and time-consuming.

Nisos identified nearly 100 Telegram channels associated with Active Clubs operating in North America, including profiles on alternative and traditional social media platforms such as Gab, Odysee, and X (formerly Twitter). Our cross-platform visibility and analytical expertise across the spectrum of violent extremism give us a unique front-row seat to Active Clubs and other extremist movements as they emerge.  

In conclusion, the rise and expansion of Active Clubs across the United States and Europe highlight a troubling evolution in white supremacist and nationalist movements. These groups pose a substantial risk of inciting violence and disturbances at local and regional levels.

Their decentralized nature and skillful use of alternative social media platforms enable them to organize, recruit, and spread their ideology with a concerning level of efficacy and minimal detection, while the persistent challenge they present to law enforcement is exacerbated by their sophisticated operational security measures and ambiguous online activities.

It is crucial that monitoring efforts continue to evolve, and Nisos remains committed to employing its cross-platform visibility and analytical expertise across the spectrum of violent extremism to help trust and safety clients and law enforcement partners monitor and protect against threats of violence.

author avatar
Stephen Helm
Stephen is product marketing director at Nisos, the Managed Intelligence Company®, delivering threat intelligence as a service to enterprises and organizations. With a passion for trust and safety issues, Stephen has over 13 years of product marketing experience for threat intelligence and cybersecurity brands. Before joining Nisos, Stephen led product marketing for WatchGuard Technologies network security and Gemalto (now Thales) crypto management solutions. Follow him on LinkedIn.
Stephen Helm
Stephen Helm
Stephen is product marketing director at Nisos, the Managed Intelligence Company®, delivering threat intelligence as a service to enterprises and organizations. With a passion for trust and safety issues, Stephen has over 13 years of product marketing experience for threat intelligence and cybersecurity brands. Before joining Nisos, Stephen led product marketing for WatchGuard Technologies network security and Gemalto (now Thales) crypto management solutions. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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