'Not Your Old-School Aryan Nation Guy': Army Case Highlights Evolving Threat
When Army Pvt. Ethan Melzer found out in April that he was deploying to Turkey, U.S. prosecutors say, he began to plot. He allegedly browsed jihadist propaganda, including an ISIS account of attacks on American forces. In it, militants referred to a "harvest of the soldiers."
But the ambush 22-year-old Melzer was planning, authorities say, was driven by a different ideology. A federal indictment unsealed in June accuses Melzer of passing sensitive military information to fellow members of a Satanic neo-Nazi network, the Order of the Nine Angles. The target: Melzer's own unit.
While the case hinges on contacts with white supremacists, jihadist references are laced throughout. In May, prosecutors say, Melzer slipped information to someone he took for an al-Qaida operative. Court papers show a conversation where an alleged neo-Nazi asked Melzer if they were "literally organizing a jihadi attack," to which he replied, "Yes probably."
"They didn't draw a distinction, didn't really see a problem with adhering to tenets of violent white supremacy, Satanism and jihad," said Colin P. Clarke, a terrorism researcher at The Soufan Center. "The lines are blurrier than ever before."
Analysts say Melzer's alleged plot is emblematic of today's extremist threat, one inspired by a mash-up of radical beliefs. It's a threat that is international in reach, and nihilistic and violent in nature – part of the destroy-the-system "accelerationist" vein. One researcher noted that the old left-right terrorism spectrum now looks more like a circle. A Justice Department statement described Melzer's motivations as "a diabolical cocktail of ideologies."
Even the federal case against Melzer is muddy when it comes to which brand of extremism forms the legal basis of the terrorism component. After several email exchanges between NPR and Justice Department spokespeople, it was still unclear whether the charge Melzer faces for material support of terrorism is linked to his alleged association with the neo-Nazi group or to the jihadists. Or, potentially to both.
"It's all become muddled together and it's very difficult to disaggregate," Clarke said. "As researchers, we're looking for that kind of clarity, and it's not there very often now. This is not your old-school Aryan Nation guy."
The fluidity makes it even harder for security officials and terrorism researchers struggling to "turn the ship," as Clarke put it. They're moving from years of an almost single-minded focus on Islamist extremism – namely al-Qaida and ISIS – to the resurgent far-right, now the deadlier and more active threat in the United States, according to the FBI.
Plus, the country is in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis and a polarizing election year, creating fertile ground for radicalization.
"I think we're going to look back at the first half of 2020 and see this as a watershed moment for far-right extremists, in terms of recruiting new members and infusing new lifeblood into these groups," Clarke said.
The concept of accelerationism — the promotion of violence to hasten the collapse of failed governmental systems - isn't exclusive to the far-right. And the vision of a post-collapse new order varies from faction to faction. The heavily armed, Hawaiian shirt-sporting "boogaloo boys" say they're prepping for a second Civil War, but they're all over the place on ideology and governance for the day after.
For hardcore racists, the goal is more clear-cut: a white ethno-state.
"What defines white supremacist accelerationists is their belief that violence is the only way to pursue their political goals. To put it most simply, accelerationists embrace terrorism," wrote researcher Cassie Miller in a recent report for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Accelerationists aren't part of a new movement," Miller added. "They're just an iteration more inclined toward terroristic violence than has existed in recent decades."
The attacks often draw from a hybrid of ideologies. One trend blends white nationalism with the misogynistic incel movement, another uses the left's climate concerns to stoke right-wing paranoia over racial competition for resources. Mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, both included environmentalist themes in their white-nationalist manifestos.
Melzer's case is among a handful involving both white supremacy and militant Islamism, sometimes based on a melding of ideologies, sometimes just a borrowing of tactics.
Another example comes from the Justice Department's crackdown on The Base, a small neo-Nazi group agitating for a race war. As Miller of the SPLC wrote, The Base's goal was "system collapse." The network was disrupted in January with the arrests of seven members ahead of a gun rally in Virginia. Authorities say The Base planned to target the event.
Extremism trackers roll their eyes at the attention to the name of the group – yes, they all know "The Base" translates as "al Qaida" in Arabic. That might be coincidental, researchers say, but they do see the jihadist influence elsewhere. The Base's black flag is reminiscent of the ISIS banner. The group's propaganda follows the cinematic style that was another hallmark of ISIS, down to a group photo with a decapitated ram's head.
Art Jipson, a University of Dayton professor who's studied white racial extremists for decades, said neo-Nazis and jihadists don't stand a chance of working out a power-sharing agreement after the imagined system collapse. The disparate camps are interested in one another only as a means to an end. For now, Jipson said, they share an obsession with "purity and pollution" and a penchant for guerrilla warfare.
"There is a respect for the tactic, the devotion to cause, the devotion to the group, but obviously not accepting the ideology or the goals of those movements," Jipson said. "The willingness to die for your cause is held in some esteem."
The portrait that emerges from the court papers of Melzer, the Army private charged with plotting to ambush his own unit, is of an extremist who wanted to sow chaos by any means necessary.
When Melzer found out in April that he was being deployed to Turkey, prosecutors say, he passed details about his unit's location, strength and defenses to the Order of the Nine Angles; prosecutors say he also gave information to a purported al-Qaida operative. An attorney for Melzer, Jennifer Willis, declined to comment on the charges.
Melzer realized the ambush plot was a suicide operation and didn't care, according to the indictment. His goal was bigger – he wanted to "leave a mark." The indictment says Melzer reasoned that his death was worth it because "the after effects of a convoy getting attacked would cover it ... It would be another war."
In the court papers, one exchange shows Melzer and his neo-Nazi comrades using Arabic phrases about Melzer's deployment to Turkey, as if mimicking jihadists: "inshallah my brother, allahu akbar." In another transcript, an alleged co-conspirator tells Melzer that his neo-Nazi group "is officially chill with the hajis," a pejorative reference to Muslims. Melzer allegedly replied that they were "not the only one." The other member wrote back that what the group was planning "is already similar to jihad."
"There's a kind of flippancy with the language, a tongue-in-cheek humor to it: 'They're on the wrong side of history, we're on the right side of history, but if they're attacking the federal, international cabal, then that is not necessarily a bad thing,' " Jipson said, summarizing the white supremacists' take on jihadists.
Counterterrorism authorities disrupted the alleged plot in May and arrested Melzer on June 10. A Justice Department news release referred to him as "the enemy within" and said he was "motivated by racism and hatred as he attempted to carry out this ultimate act of betrayal."
Melzer is in custody, but researchers warn that his alleged apocalyptic mission, informed by guerrilla movements around the world, remains a serious national security threat. The pandemic makes it even more timely to understand and address it, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.
The more people view systems as failing to protect them, she said, the more the tear-it-down approach resonates.
"There's a lot of fantastical and even mythological thinking here, a phoenix rising from the ashes, a way of believing in some kind of mythical rebirth and restoration," Miller-Idriss said. "That becomes more attractive in times where we're experiencing a lot of instability and uncertainty."