A former neo-Nazi warned Congress that “the United States is losing vital ground in a battle we have yet to acknowledge exists on some levels” in the fight against domestic extremism.
Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate and author of White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement–and How I Got Out, now leads the Free Radicals Project, which is a global disengagement platform assisting people who want to get out of violent extremism.
Testifying last week before a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism and House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, Picciolini described being recruited into America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead group in 1987, when he was just 14 years old. After attaining a leadership role in the white nationalist movement, he left the life in 1996 “through the compassion of people I least deserve it from — black, and Latin Americans, Jews, people from the LGBTQI community, and Muslims — who brought me back to humanity.”
Turning his focus to helping others out of extremism, Picciolini said “hundreds” of white supremacists and ISIS foreign fighters have come through his disengagement programs.
“Violence by white supremacists has skyrocketed in America. Data from the FBI and groups like the Anti-Defamation League clearly document this disturbing trend, but the greater threat that has gone largely unnoticed and challenged for decades is how the tentacles of American white nationalism extend far beyond our borders and into a deep network of global terror,” he said.
“American white nationalists have spent decades building alliances with their counterparts overseas. They’ve developed a sophisticated online presence and received material support from foreign allies through digital influence campaigns that directly bolster their narratives and propaganda and extend their reach. Like ISIS, white nationalists also distribute glossy print and electronic propaganda and produce high-quality recruitment videos. They trade in digital cryptocurrency, use social media and encrypted platforms to communicate, share ideas and resources, lure new sympathizers and plan attacks. This is just what’s occurring online.”
Picciolini said the white nationalists training in Ukraine and Russia — including recruits from the United States, according to the FBI — “inflict terror the same way as foreign terrorist groups, bombing government facilities, planned interruption of critical infrastructure, using high-capacity military-style assault weapons against soft civilian targets, assassinations, and the use of vehicles to target crowds.”
“We tend to view white nationalist attacks like those in Charleston or El Paso as isolated hate crimes, but I can’t stress enough that this view is naive, and dangerous, and will continue to expose Americans until we acknowledge that this threat is persistent and pervasive,” he told lawmakers. “White nationalism is a fast-growing global movement whose members are preparing for a coming, coming race war, while simultaneously trying to initiate one.”
Picciolini noted that Australian Brenton Tarrant, accused of the March mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 Muslims were murdered, was wearing in his livestream attack video a patch of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian unit blocked from receiving any U.S. military aid because of its neo-Nazi membership and ideology. “This is just one example of how international cooperation leads to a body count,” he said. “There are dozens more deadly incidents that have occurred recently, right here at home.”
White nationalist terrorism, he stressed, must be thought of in borderless, global dimensions just as Islamist extremist terrorism. Preventing radicalization also needs to be approached from a public health perspective, he added.
“Adequate terrorism laws already exist to thwart and prosecute terrorists, as do plenty of capable and talented people who are ready to defend us from the threat of harm, but the current counterterrorism mandate doesn’t provide for the proper focus, resources, funding, or in some cases the correct holistic approach to effectively counter extremism,” Picciolini said.
“White supremacists have done a very good job of hiding themselves over the last 30 years,” he noted, citing efforts from movement leadership to get adherents to tone down visible indicators. “It’s very difficult to identify them.”
And, like Islamist extremism, “the groups really are everywhere — and it’s less about the groups than it is about the individuals, and they are everywhere.”
“I get requests, probably a dozen or so every week, from either people wanting to disengage from hate groups or from white supremacy or from parents of children who were horrified that their kids are being recruited over video games, through the headsets playing multiplayer online games, through the depression forums online, through autism forums where they are hunting for people,” Picciolini continued. “Those are the types of tactics that groups like ISIS use as well.”