48 F
Washington D.C.
Monday, October 3, 2022
spot_img

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram

Critically relevant is the transnational far-right’s relationship with the war in Donbas and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Research into the far-right social space on Telegram has shown that contemporary far-right extremist groups have started to shift their propaganda and self-stated agendas away from the nation-centric model of classic ‘old school’ nationalism. Instead, these same groups have increasingly adopted a narrative in which they frame themselves and other far-right actors as comrades in a wider globalized struggle against general anti-white tyranny. Under this framework, far-right extremists promote an internationally cooperative white revolution against what they claim to be a similarly global enemy. This global, systemic enemy consists of groups designated as having a shared anti-white interest – namely, anti-conservatives, ethnic, racial, or religious minorities, refugees, migrants, LGBT persons, and supporters or ‘agents’ of neoliberal globalism and multiculturalism. Transnational community building through digital means – and a select few in-person events like concerts and conferences – has become the goal of many influential and violent far-right organizations. The logic behind ultra-nationalists and other ethnocentric extremists uniting in spite of their obsession with national identity and ethnic isolationism is a simple one: to form some effective and quasi-united front in the transnational war they have constructed, they must network and organize to prevent being outmatched by an enemy that deems their ideology and race a universal threat.

Transnationalism can be identified as a core theme adopted by what this article refers to as the ‘New School’ ideology of today’s far-right. Communication, cooperation, and networking between groups – whether through formal alliance-building or something as casual as sharing of training or intelligence – have become the operational objectives of the growing number of far-right extremists that possess bigger and more long-term missions. As transnational unity rhetoric becomes both more fundamental and widespread within the far-right, the importance of furthering the greater vision – the macroscale survival of supposedly persecuted whites – does not entirely supersede but heavily competes and often intermingles with the immediate needs of a single nationalist group and their microscale nation-state goals. In this respect, far-right extremist groups have a dual benefit by insisting that their own operations in their respective countries are carried out as part of a wider and inter-organizational undertaking on behalf of the whole far-right community or movement.

It should come as no small surprise that this emphasis on leaderless resistance and cooperative revolutionary struggle across borders and sub-groups has now become a critical element of the modern far-right’s practice and ideological makeup. New School transnationalism has an overwhelming presence within far-right discourse on the extremist-rich social media platform Telegram. Coupled with an analysis of the wider trends of the far-right meta-culture, the emerging trend serves to suggest that transnationalism has a growing role within far-right extremism. This development should concern policymakers and involved security professionals, especially as transnationalism continues to grow, spread, and take further root in the increasingly emboldened far-right community.

Perhaps more critically relevant remains the transnational far-right’s relationship with the war in Donbas, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the wider ongoings of the present Russo-Ukrainian War. Far-right communications operating within the narrative of ‘global struggle’ have galvanized many pre-existing ethnocentric and nationalistic sentiments within not only Eastern Europe itself but throughout the geopolitical West as well – sentiments that often operate in tandem or directly interlink with the culture of the far-right. Those who feel they hold a personal stake in the conflict – such as those within the Slavic/post-Soviet diaspora or expatriate community – have and continue to operate as foreign volunteers for both Russia and Ukraine, often serving alongside interested far-right extremists who have deemed the conflict as part of a wider international struggle that they, or their home countries, are a part of. Since its beginnings during the Donbas crisis, the Russo-Ukrainian War has seen foreign fighters and volunteers become a significant presence in-region, and as of this current writing, the number of foreign travelers and participants serving on behalf of either side has grown since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

The exact number of far-right extremists participating in the Russo-Ukrainian War remains vague or incomplete, as does the number of foreign fighters and volunteers supporting either the Russian or Ukrainian side in particular. The authors’ field research-backed estimates in Ukraine, anecdotal evidence, and open-source intelligence, however, reveal instances of far-right extremists partaking in the conflict, with a significant far-right adherent base continuing to promote the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War as a symbol of the far-right transnational struggle online. Interviews conducted by the second author between March-April 2022 and July 2022, respectively, in different parts of Ukraine indicate the presence of small groups of individuals who had traveled to Ukraine with the intention of joining the Azov Battalion, which they characterized as a far-right organization and a hub for other far-right and Neo-Nazi groups in countries like France (i.e. Bastion Social), Sweden (i.e. Nordic Resistance Movement), and the U.S. (i.e. Rise Above Movement), to name a few.[i] The death of a French volunteer allegedly tied to the Misanthropic Division as reported by other sources also serves to demonstrate the presence of far-right extremists on the ground in Ukraine.

Provided online discourse is a signifier, the framing of the Russo-Ukrainian War as a ‘fight for the far-right’ has and continues to be repeated to great effect. Several far-right social media platforms monitored by the authors revealed rhetoric calling for far-right and white supremacist groups in general not to splinter over their differing views on the Russo-Ukrainian War. Instead, individuals and factions were urged to focus on both “local and transnational” far-right-associated issues. Through this lens, the Russo-Ukrainian War functions as a transnational feedback loop, providing extremist discourse, practical training, military experience, and clout to far-right militants who participate in it, while simultaneously serving as a living symbol of their global struggle. In this regard, far-right transnationalism within the context of the war presents unique security challenges to nations involved in the conflict – either formally or through their foreign fighters – and, alarmingly, the new transnational ideology of the far-right is given fertile ground in the physical world. Equally important, the authors’ research indicates a notable growth of transnationalism and New School ideology from the communities and mouthpieces of today’s far-right on Telegram, in not only their online conversation and propaganda but also in their actual recruitment efforts.

Transnational cooperation continues to grow and prosper not only throughout the far-right online, but also through a concentrated nexus of ethnic and nationalist tension within Eastern Europe that augments, accelerates, and furthers its adoption in both the digital and physical world. By monitoring widely circulated far-right channels and private communities (i.e., identified as those with large numbers of re-posts, shares, and view counts), the authors collected open-source intelligence to observe and demonstrate the prevalence of transnational ideology within the far-right’s primary social space, Telegram. The goal was to identify that transnationalism had become a major talking point and ideological marker within far-right discourse online, rather than a niche idea exclusive to certain sub-ideologies or groups of the broader extremist culture. In doing so, a wide variety of far-right sources were examined to represent the greater ideological diversity of the far-right on Telegram. In the data collection phase, individual channels and communities were organized into the following source categories:

– Pan-White: The group promotes a message of white unity, regardless of specific far-right ideology.

– Pan-European: The group focuses on the promotion of European ethnonationalist solidarity.

– Aryan/Neo-Nazi: The group is associated with blatant Nazi iconography, terminology, and general Hitlerism.

– Aryan Christianity: The group promotes white unity under Christianity as a purely white faith.

– Aryan Paganism: The group promotes white unity under European paganism, New Age religion, or esoteric spiritualism as purely white and ethnocentric faiths.

– Far-Right Misc.: The group holds no niche sub-ideological identity and promotes all-encompassing far-right talking points.

Each source demonstrated rhetoric or propaganda that promoted some brand of far-right unity – unity being defined as a collectivist attitude that disregards any specific sub-ideological distinction or factionalism within the greater far-right community. This was determined on a post-by-post basis by creating a database of common New School transnational keywords, and then logging potential posts by keyword for further hands-on processing and ultimate approval into the body of data points. Such keywords included but were not limited to: ‘white unity,’ ‘no more brother wars,’ ‘European solidarity,’ ‘support all crews,’ ‘put race first,’ and ‘one struggle.’ The collected posts were then organized by their origin channel, channel subscriber count, channel sub-ideology, and channel creation date, alongside the number of views/likes and creation date of the post itself. The data points were then summed by sub-ideology to indicate which sub-ideology proved the most receptive to far-right transnational rhetoric, while also demonstrating the overall and comparatively high prevalence of transnationalism on far-right Telegram as a whole:

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

Channels within the category of Far-Right Misc. received the highest recorded counts of both subscribers (or group members) and views for their posts per channel. This does not necessarily imply that Far-Right Misc. channels were more receptive to the transnationalist message; rather, channels under the Far-Right Misc. category already possessed some of the largest communities within far-right Telegram by virtue of their broad, universalist content. Rather than confine their media or identity to specific sub-ideologies, popular channels within Far-Right Misc. were broad in their posts’ subject matter, reposting other channels’ content and musing with rhetoric that spanned the far-right spectrum, allowing them to reach a wider and growing audience and not restrict themselves to any particular ideological niche. This can be contrasted with the sub-ideological identity of, say, channels belonging to the Aryan Christianity or Aryan Paganism categories, who themselves are more specific in content and character. The difference between them is evident in raw numbers, with the Far-Right Misc. or Neo-Nazi channels generally outmatching more sub-ideologically focused ones in their likes, views, and general membership counts.

This unique media environment works uniquely in favor of the New School transnationalism of the evolving far-right. Well-entrenched Far-Right Misc. Telegram channels – like The Western Chauvinist, for example – already possess the means of an efficient propaganda and information pipeline on the platform for the distribution of New School ideas. As they occupy a seemingly nonpartisan and what might be characterized as a ‘normal/mainstream’ position within the community online, Far-Right Misc.’s refusal to align with any one individual sub-ideology has made it an effective crossroads for further radicalization. This is especially true for those new radicals whose path to extremism might have been held back by the insular defensiveness of other, more niche sub-groups. Simultaneously, those channels in the Far-Right Misc. category are more likely to bridge gaps between pre-existing extremists who, through their particular niche, have isolated themselves from their peers within the far-right online. These channels, then, become a functional example of far-right transnationalism at work in their establishment of a commonplace ‘village square’ for networking and cooperation between a variety of far-right movements.

The prominence of select keywords in the dataset should be noted as well. While they serve as indicators of transnationalist ideology, they should also be understood and recognized for their rhetorical significance as rallying cries, evangelistic phrases, and propaganda buzzwords. For example, the keyword ‘no more brother wars’ is a frequent marker on Telegram, but it is also an effective appeal to the themes that draw many young men to far-right extremism, like hyper-machismo, brotherhood, and the idea of a warrior spirit. These phrases hold two intentions: first, to promote the idea of far-right unity in online circles, and second, to maintain the image of what the far-right characterizes and markets itself as. Collected examples of these rhetorical keywords can be seen below:

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

Much like the appeal seen in ‘no more brother wars,’ the example shown in Figure 6 below from Activism, Athletics, Identity promotes not only far-right transnationalism and unity, but also traditional far-right masculinity through the content and personality of the channel, combining new ideological scripts with the old. Their phrases promote New School ideology by suggesting that nationalist organizations, regardless of their individuality, should form a supportive and cooperative environment for one another. This rhetoric complements the pre-established idea of brotherhood already present within the mainstream far-right, and it does so by suggesting that the traditional values of the movement can be bolstered through cross-ideological camaraderie. Figure 7 represents this development, similarly, as the post emphasizes words and phrases like ‘action,’ ‘victory or death,’ and ‘family,’ in addition to transnational unity. Ultimately, these terms refer to greater sentiments among the far-right, such as white survival, exaggerated masculinity, accelerationism through action, traditional family values, and notions of the tribe.

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

Under the Aryan Paganism category, the channel PineKvlt demonstrated what is perhaps the most troubling instance of transnational ideology on Telegram. PineKvlt not only reproduced segments of renowned far-right extremist and transnationalist James Mason’s work, Siege, but they did so in both an audio and text format alongside attached how-to guides for engaging in far-right violence. Fittingly, these excerpts of Siege and the supplementary militant manuals were translated into several languages beyond English, including Swedish, Russian, Spanish, French, and German. While these are practical examples of far-right transnational outreach, PineKvlt efforts are exemplified by the following quote, as pulled from the linked file in Figure 8: “We must remove petty nationalism from our mind, many of us already have. To go forward, We must think of all Europeans and European Descendants around the globe as our Kinfolk. The distinctions are important, but they must be put behind us,” and “The Boers Fight is Our Fight! The Swede’s Fight is Our Fight! The German Fight is Our Fight! The English Fight is Our Fight! The American Fight is Our Fight!”

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

Despite the diversity of sub-ideology between these groups, the posts retrieved from said channels served as data points because of their universal argument for pan-right unity regardless of their respective differences. In particularly well-trafficked channels, these differences were not only acknowledged at times, but even publicly rallied against and then disputed in favor of the idea of creating a cooperative transnational front for all belonging to the far-right. In such posts, the diversity of opinion and interest – and often ‘self-interest’ – were marked as weaknesses that have derailed the far-right from achieving its more significant goals. This conflict between sub-ideologies was often blamed for the failure of many unsuccessful far-right attacks and operations in both the United States and Western Europe. Alongside the assembled data, these posts reveal a generalized frustration with the internal conflicts and power jockeying that have populated the far-right spectrum both online and in the real world.

While much of the Telegram data presented in this report predates the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ideology of the far-right does not exist in a vacuum, and the establishment of a narrative of global struggle has extended into present crises and conflicts, including the Russo-Ukrainian War. The ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia amidst the greater Russo-Ukrainian War has provided a massive uptick in foreign volunteers arriving in the region. Now that the stakes are higher for both countries and governments respectively – and for Ukraine in particular – there is a level of appeal and urgency within the conflict that surpasses any previous notions thereof. Per Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s own statements, the recent influx of foreign fighters on the pro-Ukrainian side alone has reached an unprecedented estimate of 16,000. For clarity, this should be taken in the context of the previously established pre-invasion foreign fighter counts (i.e. counts that include both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian volunteers) provided by analyst Egle Murauskaite and the Soufan Center, which establish the approximate numbers of 2,000 and 17,000 foreign fighters in the Russo-Ukrainian War, respectively. If the true number of pre-invasion foreign fighters lies somewhere between these two estimates, this count, when combined with the additional and likely still growing at present, could ultimately yield a total in excess of 20,000 volunteers in-region for the pro-Ukraine side alone.

As previously mentioned, the specific population of far-right foreign actors within this given total of foreign fighters remains, at best, imprecise. However, logical conclusions can be drawn by examining the relationship between the rising number of foreign fighters within Ukraine post-invasion and the far-right groups that were already operating within the war that will profit from their increased presence. A valuable case study in this regard is the pro-Ukraine Azov Battalion. Existing as an incorporated unit of Ukraine’s National Guard since November 12, 2014, Azov has enjoyed a boost in its clout, financing, and matériel, having gained a status of government-sanctioned legitimacy unlike their far-right peers in Western European countries. Though the Minsk Ceasefire Agreements dictated that foreign fighters were banned from Ukrainian military service, the Azov National Guard regiment and others like it ostensibly never ceased their recruitment or training of foreigners, operating within a grey area of legality. In fact, the second author’s recent research-related visit to an Azov headquarters outside Kyiv, Ukraine, revealed a number of foreigners continue to fight alongside Azov or Azov-affiliated units. Now, as the Minsk Agreements are all but inoperative following Russia’s unlawful invasion, Azov is now poised to recruit from sources abroad with impunity while enjoying their toleration as what can, at best, be identified as a necessary evil.

In particular, a significant minority of foreign fighters supported Azov’s defense of the besieged city of Mariupol, with Azov running a training program for civilians alongside volunteers from Ukraine’s foreign legion in the city before the invasion proper. Three of these foreign fighters – Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim – stand to be executed by the Donetsk People’s Republic. The Kremlin has entered into a similar Faustian bargain with its own far-right actors, including the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), the Defenders of Donbas, and the quasi-state mercenary Wagner Group, among others. These organizations have espoused far-right views while continuing their widespread usage of neo-Nazi and other far-right heraldry and insignia both in the field and in their propaganda content. More relevant, however, is their shared and active shift toward foreign recruitment on behalf of the Russian cause in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Most notably, all three have increased their recruitment content on Telegram, and have disseminated contact points for interested foreigners to apply and then travel to eastern Ukraine to fight for pro-Russian forces.

The ‘New School’ Far-Right: A Transnational Model on Telegram Homeland Security Today

The increased legitimacy supplied by a growing reputation as battle-hardened Ukrainian nationalists standing against an overtly aggressive and often de-humanizing Russian enemy has and will continue to prove a unique issue for a postwar Ukraine going forward. The government’s wartime acceptance of far-right actors, notwithstanding the scope, paired with the nationalist boom brought by the Russian invasion, might prove especially challenging for Ukrainian national security following the removal of Russia as an external threat. One potential threat concerns Ukrainian far-right actors’ reactions to a postwar Zelensky government, should it continue to become more aligned and integrated with Western European politics and economic partnership – a goal antithetical to some active groups’ aspirations of a wholly ethnonationalist if not somewhat isolationist Ukraine, one ‘free of outside influence’ from neoliberal Western powers. In the case of Russia, the Putin government is inviting its own security risks and, more importantly, exporting them transnationally, as seen with their employment of Eastern European far-right militants and jihadists adjacent to Syrian, Kadyrovite Chechen, and Central Asian actors alike throughout the conflict thus far.[ii] Should it continue with this operational calculus, the Kremlin will likely set a dangerous precedent in which both the far-right and Islamist movements are seen as quasi-legitimate military resources to be deployed, rather than as extremists, criminals, or designations thereof.

Ultimately, there are many dangers that may present from either Ukrainian or Russian sponsorship of extremists, though two remain more significant than others within the conflict itself. First, politically violent extremists receiving combat experience – however limited it may be – is a critical national security threat not only to Russia and Ukraine, but the foreign fighters’ respective countries of origin. Through their service, foreign fighters will either receive practical training and skills, making them exponentially more effective as terrorist combatants, or use the illusion of such to garner a reputation that galvanizes their own cause and gives them greater curb appeal to potential recruits and other far-right sympathizers. Second, far-right actors on the pro-Ukraine side contribute to the wider disinformation campaign and morale war perpetrated by the belligerent, Russia, in which the Zelensky government is characterized as an illegitimate and Nazi-sympathetic regime. Ultimately, both serve to undermine global democratic security in their respective contexts. The first does so internationally, as foreign fighters bring greater exposure and training to the far-right communities of their respective and often Western homelands, while the second hinders the survival of a fragile wartime (and foreseeably post-war) Ukrainian democracy by giving fodder to a false narrative. Additionally, the flood of foreign matériel into Ukraine proper will make for a volatile and prolific environment for arms exchange. This influx, paired with a lack of oversight and security in its distribution, will increase the probability that military-grade weaponry will fall into the hands of extremist groups in-country beholden to either side.

As policymakers, journalists, security professionals and other interested parties continue to react to the conflict as it develops, Western states should devote themselves to a multilateral and international response now more than ever. Information and intelligence exchange between government law enforcement agencies, the documentation and categorizing of war crimes in the field by journalists and third-party legal and humanitarian watchdogs and organizations, the formation of a comprehensive monitoring system or at least awareness of individual countries’ foreign fighters, particularly in regard to their return home, and a preparation for de-radicalization programs may serve as relevant prescriptions. As a highly intensified and complex geopolitical event with several vested public and private interests at play, the Russo-Ukrainian War must be watched and analyzed beyond the pursuit of an end to hostilities, and one must further consider the potential fallout and security threats that will follow the war’s end. Lastly, particular attention must be paid to how far-right extremists have and might continue to benefit from participating in the conflict, and how a post-war Russia and Ukraine might together prove themselves more fertile breeding grounds for future ethnocentrism and far-right militancy than previously expected. Returnees who obtained combat experience may potentially have a strong impact on their peers at home, providing them with logistical support and more effective recruitment online, as often articulated in Telegram and other social media channels observed by the authors of the article.

 

[i] Pending ACTRI research publication on foreign volunteer force in Ukraine. [In press].

[ii] Ibid.

Michael R. Vandelune, Ardian Shajkovci, and Allison McDowell-Smith
Michael Vandelune is a Research Fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). Michael pursues research on the transnational capabilities of the far-right, focusing on how groups share training, weaponry, and support across borders and sub-cultures. His personal research focus is far-right extremism and ethnic-based conflict in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world. Michael is currently a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York, studying for a Bachelor of Science degree in both Political Science and Psychology and an attached minor in Russian language. He has worked in foreign policy and international relations academia through two university-sponsored undergraduate research positions, contributing to two forthcoming books from professors Benjamin Banta (RIT) and Sarah Burns, Ph.D. (RIT), respectively. He has pursued further career experience through volunteering abroad and a certification program in post-conflict reconstruction taught by NATO and UN-affiliated instructors at the Frederick C. Cuny Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Pristina, Kosovo. Michael’s undergraduate academic and published works have been featured in RIT’s Dept. of Political Science and College of Liberal Arts. Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is Director at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). Ardian is a counter-terrorism researcher, lecturer, and security analyst. He has been conducting research on terrorism and violent extremism in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Western Europe, the Balkans, Kenya and Central Asia, Somalia, and Ukraine. Ardian serves as a visiting lecturer and adjunct faculty, including at Nichols College, where he is teaching CT and P/CVE courses in the MSC Counterterrorism Program. Ardian obtained his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. in Public Policy and Administration, from Northwestern University, and a B.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. Ardian has authored and co-authored numerous scientific and professional publications on the subject of violent extremism and terrorism. He has written for, and his work has been quoted by, The New York Times, The Hill, Homeland Security Today, New York Post, The Washington Times, Euronews, The Daily Beast, Le Figaro, Washington Examiner, AFP, Daily Caller, Fox News, and others. Allison McDowell-Smith, Ph.D., is Deputy Director at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI). Allison is the Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Director of the Graduate Counterterrorism Program, Chair of the Undergraduate Criminal Justice Programs, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism at Nichols College. She has launched the Nichols Master of Science in Counterterrorism (MSC) Program, the first graduate program in the United States with a focus on Violent Extremism (VE) and leadership for those pursuing careers in the fields of security, intelligence, and public policy. Prior to her academic life, she worked in the non-profit sector, most recently as a Senior Research Fellow for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), where she conducted research on ISIS recruitment strategies, de-radicalization processes, and counter-messaging. She obtained a Ph.D. from Northcentral University focused on Homeland Security, Leadership, and Policy; an M.S. in Criminal Justice Administration from Northcentral University; and a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Related Articles

- Advertisement -

Latest Articles