A.C. Thompson

Here are the members of several well-known hate groups that were identified at the Capitol

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Members of the ultranationalist street gang known as the Proud Boys were easy to spot at the protests that flared across the United States throughout 2020, often in the middle of a brawl, typically clad in black and yellow outfits.

But in December, as the group's leaders planned to flood Washington to oppose the certification of the Electoral College vote this week for President-elect Joe Biden, they decided to do something different.

“The ProudBoys will turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th but this time with a twist...," Henry “Enrique" Tarrio, the group's president, wrote in a late-December post on Parler, a social media platform that has become popular with right-wing activists and conservatives. “We will not be wearing our traditional Black and Yellow. We will be incognito and we will spread across downtown DC in smaller teams. And who knows....we might dress in all BLACK for the occasion."

The precise composition of the mob that forced its way into the Capitol on Wednesday, disrupting sessions of both houses of Congress and leaving a police officer and four others dead, remains unknown. But a review by a ProPublica-FRONTLINE team that has been tracking far-right movements for the past three years shows that the crowd included members of the Proud Boys and other groups with violent ideologies. Videos reveal the presence of several noted hardcore nativists and white nationalists who participated in the 2017 white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that President Donald Trump infamously refused to condemn.

Tarrio does not appear to have been present during the insurrection. Two days before members of the House and Senate gathered to certify the Electoral College results, Washington's Metropolitan Police Department arrested Tarrio and charged him with possessing high-capacity firearm magazines and destruction of property over the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner last month. A judge barred him from entering the city while he awaits trial.

But it appears that Tarrio's followers heeded his advice. A journalist working with ProPublica and FRONTLINE encountered members of the Proud Boys in dark clothes walking through Washington on the night before the attack. The four men posed for a photo and confirmed their membership in the group. Few participants involved in the Capitol siege were seen wearing Proud Boys colors or logos.

But since the incident, Proud Boys social media channels have flaunted their direct role in the attack and looting of the Capitol.

One prominent Proud Boys account encouraged rioters as the chaos was unfolding: “Hold your ground!!!... DO NOT GO HOME. WE ARE ON THE CUSP OF SAVING THE CONSTITUTION."

So far, police have arrested more than 80 people in connection with the attack, including at least one Proud Boy, Nick Ochs. They have seized pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails and arrested at least six people on illegal firearms charges, including one Maryland man who was captured in the visitors' center of the Capitol. More arrests are expected.

As the crowds ringing the Capitol swelled on Wednesday, a small group of men clad in body armor shuffled toward the doors at the center of the building's east-facing facade.

The eight men, whose movements were captured on video, were identified by ProPublica and FRONTLINE as members of the Oath Keepers, a long-standing militia group that has pledged to ignite a civil war on behalf of Trump. Members of the group joined the protesters and insurrectionists flooding into the Capitol. Footage from later in the day shows Oath Keepers dragging a wounded comrade out of the building.

Stewart Rhodes, a former soldier and Yale law school graduate, who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and built it into a nationwide network, was seen on video standing outside the Capitol building. While he was not seen entering the Capitol, he could be seen talking with his militia followers throughout the day.

Several other of the participants ProPublica and FRONTLINE identified from video have direct links to the white nationalist movement, which has seen a resurgence of activity during the Trump era.

One was Nick Fuentes, an internet personality who streams a daily talk show on DLive, an alternative social media platform. Fuentes, who marched in Charlottesville during the 2017 white power rally there, speaks frequently in anti-Semitic terms and pontificates on the need to protect America's white heritage from the ongoing shift in the nation's demographics. He has publicly denied believing in white nationalism but has said that he considers himself a “white majoritarian."

Fuentes, who spoke at pro-Trump rallies late last year in Michigan and Washington, D.C., said he was at the rally on Wednesday but didn't follow the mob into the Capitol. One group of Fuentes' supporters, who call themselves the Groyper Army, was filmed running through the Capitol carrying a large blue flag with the America First logo.

Days before the Capitol was stormed, Fuentes seemed to encourage his followers to kill state legislators in a bid to overturn Biden's electoral victory, as Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who follows online extremist communities, noted on Twitter.

“What can you and I do to a state legislator — besides kill him?" he said with a smirk. “We should not do that. I'm not advising that, but I mean, what else can you do, right?"

Squire fears that Fuentes' incendiary rhetoric will inspire his followers to engage in more drastic — even lethal — acts of political violence. “Instead of trying to appear democratic he's making an argument for fascism, for monarchism," she said. “He's criticizing democracy at every turn. He doesn't believe in democracy and it's scary because his fans find him fascinating."

DLive recently announced that it has booted Fuentes from its platform.

Another figure inside the Capitol with ties to white nationalists was Tim Gionet, a livestreamer who uses the handle Baked Alaska and who participated in the Charlottesville rally, which left one woman dead. Gionet was photographed within the Capitol and apparently used DLive to stream from within the building as events unfolded. Part of his video appeared to show him in Nancy Pelosi's office, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

Other extremist figures present either at the rally or within the Capitol included Vincent James Foxx, an online propagandist for the Rise Above Movement, a now-defunct Southern California white supremacist group.

Also on scene: Gabe Brown, a New Englander who helped create Anticom, a now-defunct organization devoted to physically combating leftists. In 2017, Anticom members posted a vast trove of bomb-making manuals to a private online chatroom.

The militant group members joined with scores of others who rampaged inside the Capitol.

Rep. André Carson, a Democrat from Indiana, said the scene reminded him of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Photos from within the Capitol showed one unidentified man carrying a Confederate battle flag and another wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a skull and the words “Camp Auschwitz," a reference to the infamous Nazi death camp.

Carson and other House members who spoke to ProPublica and FRONTLINE said the body would be launching an extensive investigation of the Capitol Police force and its mishandling of Wednesday's events.

The rioters, said Carson, who is Black, “were hostile. They were venomous. And I think there was a sense of entitlement that they carried that somehow their country was being taken away from them."

After the siege, a Boogaloo Bois group called the Last Sons of Liberty, which includes militants from Virginia, posted a video to Parler purporting to document their role in the incident — a clip that shows members inside the Capitol. A loose-knit confederation of anti-government militants, the Boogaloo Bois have been tied to a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and to the murder of two law enforcement officers in California. ProPublica and FRONTLINE have been unable to independently confirm their involvement.

Some far-right activists are already calling for retribution over the death of Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran from California who was shot and killed by a security officer. “We've got a girl that's dead. She's shot, laying on the ground in there," said Damon Beckley, leader of a group called DC Under Siege, in an interview just outside the Capitol while the riot was ongoing. “We're not putting up with this tyrannical rule. ... If we gotta come back here and start a revolution and take all these traitors out — which is what should happen — then we will."

Another person took to Parler to say that they were planning to show up, armed, in Washington for Inauguration Day. “Many of us will return on January 19, 2021 carrying Our weapons," wrote the Parler user, who goes by the handle Colonel007. “We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match."

The Proud Boys also celebrated on social media. On Parler, one Proud Boys leader posted a photo of members of Congress cowering in fear and captioned it with a menacing statement: “Today you found out. The power of the people will not be denied."

House committee to subpoena records on Border Patrol agents disciplined for offensive secret Facebook group posts

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

In a blistering 17-page letter, the head of a congressional committee on Friday accused federal officials of improperly withholding information on Border Patrol agents' misconduct in a secret Facebook group from congressional investigators.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in the letter that she plans to subpoena internal Border Patrol documents detailing misconduct related to the Facebook group, which included some 9,500 current and former agents. First exposed by ProPublica in July 2019, the social media community called “I'm 10-15" was rife with dehumanizing and misogynistic postings, including an image of President Donald Trump sexually assaulting Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The dispute that prompted Maloney's letter centers on the refusal of the Border Patrol's parent organization, Customs and Border Protection, to turn over documents identifying by name, rank .and geographic location the agents who were disciplined or fired for making offensive posts in the Facebook group. CBP has also failed to provide congressional investigators with any details about specific incidents that led to agents being punished or fired. The records that CBP has provided to the committee are heavily redacted, according to Maloney.

“While I did not come to the decision to subpoena the CBP lightly, it is necessary," said Maloney, a New York Democrat, in a statement to ProPublica. “The Committee needs these unredacted documents to oversee whether CBP is properly disciplining its employees and whether employees who CBP found to have committed misconduct are still working directly with immigrant women, children, and babies."

CBP has long insisted that it is barred by federal law from disclosing key details about its disciplinary process, including the names of employees who've faced discipline for violating the agency's policies.

In the letter, however, Maloney called CBP's refusal to turn over the unredacted disciplinary records as “legally baseless" and asserted that her committee “has direct jurisdiction over federal employees and agency disciplinary procedures."

CBP has said publicly that it investigated 136 employees in connection to the “I'm 10-15" group and another Facebook group, and that the probe led to the firing of four agents and the suspension of more than three dozen others. Still, the agency has kept most other facts about the investigation confidential, declining to share information with the committee or issue a public report.

“To date, CBP has provided a significant volume of documents on the matter, some of which were publicly released by the Committee without CBP's consent, in addition to providing numerous briefings on the matter," a CBP official said in an emailed statement. “Since the beginning of this investigation, CBP's primary goal has been to provide transparency while still protecting the health and safety of our personnel, given the high degree of social unrest and the potential hostile targeting of employees for the nature of their employment." The official said the agency is aware of Maloney's intent to subpoena the documents.

Her letter states that the documents CBP has already turned over show that the agency “reduced penalties for numerous employees" who engaged in misconduct; three agents who were slated to be fired had their punishments reduced to suspensions from work, while 19 others had the length of their suspensions cut down.

The committee is seeking further information about an agent identified only as “Fired Agent #1" in the letter. ProPublica's reporting indicates that this is Thomas Hendricks, who served as a supervisory agent in Calexico, California, until he was ousted from the Border Patrol in October 2019 because of his offensive posts in the Facebook group. It was Hendricks who posted the image of Ocasio-Cortez being assaulted.

According to Maloney's letter, Hendricks told internal affairs investigators that his postings were “just having fun" and later described them as “good natured."

Hendricks appealed his firing, but in a decision handed down last month a federal appeals board denied his request to be reinstated. The decision shows that the agent made offensive Facebook posts demeaning women and gay men while working. “It's not a big deal to post a meme on duty," Hendricks told investigators.

His attorney, Joel Kirkpatrick, did not return requests for comment.

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All 4 white supremacists charged in Charlottesville violence plead guilty

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Last year, when federal authorities arrested and charged four members or associates of a white supremacist gang for their roles in the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the men and their supporters struck a defiant tone.

The men proclaimed their innocence, and their backers described them in social media posts as “patriots” and “political prisoners.” The gang, known as the Rise Above Movement and based in Southern California, set up an anonymous tip line for people to share evidence that might exonerate the imprisoned members, and it established a legal defense fund, with donations taken via PayPal and bitcoin.

But in the following months, the men, one after the other, have pleaded guilty. Last Friday saw the final two guilty pleas, including one from Ben Daley, 26, one of the group’s leaders. He was joined by Michael Miselis, 30, a former Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot.

“These avowed white supremacists traveled to Charlottesville to incite and commit acts of violence, not to engage in peaceful First Amendment expression,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said in announcing the guilty pleas. “Although the First Amendment protects an organization’s right to express abhorrent political views, it does not authorize senseless violence in furtherance of a political agenda.”

The Rise Above Movement and its role in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and at rallies in other cities was the subject of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline, work the authorities have credited in taking action against the men. Federal prosecutors in California are pursuing charges against four other RAM members, including its founder, Robert Rundo.

The plea documents filed during Friday’s court proceedings in Charlottesville lay out a detailed narrative of what the authorities say were RAM’s repeated acts of violence two years ago.

The narrative chronicles RAM’s combat training and the visual evidence capturing its members attacking protesters, including in Charlottesville, where, the authorities spell out, they “collectively pushed, punched, kicked, choked, head-butted, and otherwise assaulted several individuals, resulting in a riot.”

In pleading guilty, the authorities said, Daley and Miselis admitted their actions were not in self-defense.

In the contemporary white supremacist scene, RAM had positioned itself as the violent vanguard of the movement, a successor to the volatile and hyper-aggressive skinhead gangs that were prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s. Since its formation in 2016, the group has recruited several members of the Hammerskin Nation, the largest skinhead gang in the country, which has been tied to numerous killings, including the massacre of six Sikh worshippers at a temple outside Milwaukee.

Though RAM has eschewed the skinhead style — combat boots and bomber jackets — in favor of a more mainstream look, its members have embraced the bloody tactics of the Nazi skinhead gangs.

Miselis, a onetime engineering student at UCLA, was fired from his job at Northrop Grumman after ProPublica and Frontline exposed his membership in RAM. In a companywide email, then-CEO Wesley Bush said he was “deeply saddened yesterday to see news reports alleging that one of our employees engaged in violence as part of the Charlottesville protests.” Miselis held a government-issued security clearance while at Northrop, a major defense contractor, though the company has so far declined to say what projects Miselis was assigned to.

Rundo, who was living in Orange County at the time of his arrest, has also portrayed the federal prosecutions as a miscarriage of justice. “The rioting charges brought against us have not been used in 70 years,” Rundo said in a jailhouse interview posted on YouTube in February. “This has little to do with rioting and all to do with censorship and silencing anyone that they deem too radical by today’s standards.”

In the interview, Rundo blamed the media for demonizing RAM and described the group as a self-improvement club for white men.

Rundo has pleaded not guilty, and he could be headed to trial.

The RAM prosecutions have become something of a cause celebre for the racist right. Augustus Invictus, a fringe political figure and attorney, has set up a legal defense fund to solicit donations for the RAM members facing charges. “The federal government has taken an absolute political hard line against the right wing,” Invictus said in a 53-minute YouTube video discussing the case. The video has generated more than 22,000 views and nearly 700 comments, most of them sympathetic to RAM and many of them racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.

One of RAM’s most infamous supporters is Robert Bowers, the Pennsylvania man accused of murdering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Shortly before the massacre, Bowers posted a message decrying the RAM prosecutions on Gab, a far-right social media platform. Bowers has pleaded not guilty in the unfolding case.

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The 18-year-old, excited by his handiwork at the bloody rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, quickly went online to boast. He used the handle VasillistheGreek.

“Today cracked 3 skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” the young man wrote on Aug. 12, 2017.

Vasillios Pistolis had come to the now infamous Unite the Right rally eager for such violence. He belonged to a white supremacist group known as Atomwaffen Division, a secretive neo-Nazi organization whose members say they are preparing for a coming race war in the U.S. In online chats leading up to the rally, Pistolis had been encouraged to be vicious with any counterprotestors, maybe even sodomize someone with a knife. He’d responded by saying he was prepared to kill someone “if shit goes down.”

One of Pistolis’ victims that weekend was Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and trans woman from Charlottesville who had shown up to confront the rally’s hundreds of white supremacists. In an online post, Pistolis delighted in how he had “drop kicked” that “tranny” during a violent nighttime march on the campus of the University of Virginia. He also wrote about a blood-soaked flag he’d kept as a memento.

“Not my blood,” he took care to note.

At the end of the weekend that shocked much of the country, Pistolis returned to his everyday life: serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Of the many white supremacist organizations that have sprung up in the past few years, Atomwaffen is among the more extreme, espousing the overthrow of the U.S. government through acts of political violence and guerrilla warfare.

Journalists with ProPublica and Frontline gained insight into Atomwaffen’s ideology, aims and membership after obtaining seven months of messages from a confidential chat room used by the group’s members. The chat logs, as well as interviews with a former member, reveal Atomwaffen has attracted a mixture of young men — fans of fringe heavy metal music, a private investigator, firearms aficionados — living in more than 20 states.

But a number are current or former members of the U.S. military. ProPublica and Frontline have identified three Atomwaffen members or associates who are currently employed by the Army or Navy. Another three served in the armed forces in the past. Pistolis, who remains an active-duty Marine, left Atomwaffen in a dispute late in 2017 and joined up with another white supremacist group. Reporters made the identifications through dozens of interviews, a range of social media and other online posts, and a review of the 250,000 confidential messages obtained earlier this year.

Joshua Beckett, who trained Atomwaffen members in firearms and hand-to-hand combat last fall, served in the Army from 2011 to 2015, according to service records. Online, Beckett, 26, has said that he worked as a combat engineer while in the army. Combat engineers are the army’s demolitions experts.

In Atomwaffen chats, Beckett, using the handle Johann Donarsson, said he was building assault rifles and would happily construct weapons for his fellow members. “Give me the parts and the receiver and I’ll get it all together for you,” Beckett wrote in August 2017.

Beckett also wrote about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of combat in Afghanistan, and how his time in uniform caused him to radically revise his political beliefs, prompting him to abandon mainstream conservatism in favor of National Socialism.

In online discussions, Beckett encouraged Atomwaffen members to enlist in the military, so as to become proficient in the use of weaponry, and then turn their expertise against the U.S. government, which he believed to be controlled by a secret cabal of Jews.

“The army itself woke me up to race and the war woke me up to the Jews,” Beckett wrote, adding, “The US military gives great training…you learn how to fight, and survive.”

Another Atomwaffen member used the chats to talk about the combat he saw during the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan.

“I was in the infantry in the army in Afghanistan and did a lot of…shit,” the member wrote. He said the Army wanted him to become a chemical weapons specialist, but he chose to join the infantry. He spent his time, he wrote, blasting “lead into sand niggers.”

ProPublica and Frontline specifically identified Pistolis and Beckett through interviews with a former Atomwaffen member who knew them, the group's internal records, and the men's digital footprints. In his online activities, Pistolis left many clues to his identity, including pictures of himself he uploaded to private white supremacist chat rooms and photos of himself on his public Facebook page. Beckett’s internet handles and Facebook content also helped us to confirm him as the man who had spent five years in the Army before joining Atomwaffen.

Reporters contacted Beckett via phone and Facebook messages, but did not get a response. Beckett’s Facebook page features an image of Donald Trump driving a white convertible emblazoned with the number 1488, a white supremacist code, and a call for whites to jump in the car.

In a series of phone and email exchanges, Pistolis claimed he did not attend the Charlottesville rally and did not assault Gorcenski or anyone else. His online messages about Gorcenski, he said, were nothing more than jokes. He admitted to harboring “alt right” or white supremacist beliefs, though he claimed he had “infiltrated” Atomwaffen on behalf of another extremist group and was never actually a member.

Pistolis, who indicated to reporters that he is stationed in North Carolina, pulled down his personal Twitter account shortly after being contacted by ProPublica and Frontline. He also took down his account on Gab, a discussion channel favored by white supremacists, many of whom have been banned from Twitter and other social media platforms. His postings indicate that after leaving Atomwaffen last November — other members accused him of risking unwanted attention for the group by showing up with Atomwaffen flag at a rally in Tennessee — he became an active participant in online forums involving the Traditionalist Workers Party,  another neo-Nazi group.

Since May 2017, three people involved with Atomwaffen have been charged with five murders. Devon Arthurs, an early Atomwaffen recruit, is facing trial for allegedly murdering two other members of the group in Florida. A teenager in Virginia stands accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s parents, who had tried to keep their daughter away from him; the 17-year-old, who was in the process of joining Atomwaffen, is being tried as a juvenile. Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty in the slaying of Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish college student whose body was discovered in a Southern California park early this year. Authorities believe Woodward stabbed Bernstein more than 20 times.

Despite the mounting body count, it is unclear just how aggressive law enforcement — at the federal or local level — has been in investigating the group. None of the men charged in the homicides had a military background.

The FBI had no comment when asked about Atomwaffen.

One Atomwaffen member caught up in a high-profile criminal case has a quite direct link to the armed forces.

Atomwaffen’s founder, Brandon Russell, 22, was arrested last year after investigators discovered a cache of weapons, detonators and volatile chemical compounds in his home, including a cooler full of HMTD, a powerful explosive often used by bomb-makers, and ammonium nitrate, the substance used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City attack. Russell was also in possession of two radioactive isotopes, americium and thorium. In September 2017, he pleaded guilty to a single charge of unlawful possession of explosives and was later sentenced to five years in federal prison.

At the time of his arrest, Russell, 22, had been serving in the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion of Florida’s Army National Guard. A spokesman for the Marine Corps, Major Brian Block, said the corps would be looking into Pistolis and would likely open a formal probe into his activities last summer.

“There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” Block said in a written statement. “Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values.”

He added, “The guidance to Marines is clear: Participation in supremacist or extremist organizations or activities is a violation of Department of Defense and Marine Corps orders” and can lead to expulsion from the service.

Contacted by ProPublica and Frontline, Carla Gleason, a Department of Defense spokesperson and Air Force major, said the military relies on its commanders to identify problematic activities and respond judiciously.

“What we’re doing is empowering commanders at every level to counsel service members on their conduct, and take disciplinary action where appropriate,” she said.

“We do recognize the right to free speech and thought,” said Gleason. But, she added, the Department of Defense insists that service members observe the military’s policies prohibiting discrimination and extremist behavior.

ProPublica and Frontline documented Pistolis’ role in Charlottesville through an analysis of photos and video footage from the rally and his own online admissions, including a statement Pistolis posted to an Atomwaffen chat room saying he “kicked Emily gorcenski” during the march at the University of Virginia.

ProPublica and Frontline contacted the University of Virginia Police Department to check the accuracy of the material involving Pistolis at the Unite the Right Rally, and to see if there was an investigation underway. Sgt. Casey Acord reviewed the material and later said his agency would investigate Pistolis’ apparent role in the melee that occurred during the torch-lit march on school property.

Reporters also showed pictures, video and chat posts to Gorcenski, the activist attacked in Charlottsville. While she didn’t suffer any significant physical injuries that night, the experience, Gorcenski said, was profoundly traumatizing — and she has faced frequent harassment from fascists and white supremacists since the rally. She said she plans to move out of the country.

Gorcenski quickly identified Pistolis as the man who kicked her.

“He’s telling the truth in these logs about what happened,” she said.

Like many white supremacist groups, Atomwaffen initially coalesced in cyberspace — the founders and early members met each other through a fascist discussion forum called Iron March, which is now defunct. But in the past few years, the organization — it is estimated to have 80 to 100 members — has moved into the real world.

Atomwaffen has conducted weapons and other training exercises in at least four states, according to the chat logs and interviews. Current and former members of the military have found that their skills are highly valued by Atomwaffen and have assumed leadership roles within the group. Drawing on their battlefield experience, Marines and soldiers have helped to shape the group into a loose collection of armed cells, according to the chat logs and people with direct knowledge of the organization.

There has long been a worrisome if not fully understood nexus between the military and the white supremacist movement. Over the past half-century, many of the movement’s key leaders have come from the ranks of the military, including George Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party, Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler. 

Pete Simi, co-author of the book “American Swastika” and an associate professor at Chapman University in California, said white supremacists often draw inspiration from the armed forces.

“Extremist culture tends to be paramilitary — the Klan, for instance, is a clearly paramilitary organization, it was started by former military officers,” said Simi. “A lot of traditional neo-Nazi groups tend to emulate military structure … Some skinhead groups do that as well.”

Organizations like Atomwaffen, he said, “need military people who have explosives experience, firearms experience, combat fighting experience” that they can pass on to other members. But there’s also another factor, in Simi’s view. “I think there’s also a credibility aspect to it, in that it gives more credibility to the group to have people who served in the U.S. military. It brings a certain gravitas.”

Last year, nearly 25 percent of active-duty service members surveyed by the Military Times said they’d encountered white nationalists within the ranks. The publication polled more than 1,000 service members.

The results are jarring in a number of ways, not least because each branch of the armed forces has regulations that bar service members from joining white supremacist organizations. Army policy, for example, forbids soldiers from participating in “extremist groups” that foster “racial, gender, or ethnic hatred or intolerance.” The Marine Corps has a similar regulation, Order 1900.16, which mandates swift penalties for Marines caught engaging in “extremist or supremacist activities.”

Air Force directives note that airmen who participate in racist organizations can face court martial for disobedience.

For Simi, a key question is whether the Department of Defense and various military branches are effectively enforcing these policies by screening volunteers as they enter the service and thoroughly investigating reports of extremist activity by service members. If the figures in the Military Times survey “are anywhere close to credible, then there’s clearly a problem that isn’t being addressed,” Simi said.

A former Marine who currently works for a government intelligence agency told ProPublica and Frontline that the military’s seriousness about combating white supremacists in its ranks can vary.

“At the command level — and publicly — the military takes any extremism seriously,” the ex-Marine said. “There is a zero-tolerance policy regarding Nazis. We defeated them in World War II, and they have no business currently serving in the U.S. military.”

“At the unit level, I believe there’s a willful ignorance,” the former Marine added. “‘If neo-Nazis aren’t allowed to enlist in the military, and if nobody I know is a neo-Nazi, there must not be any within my unit’ seems to be the standard. It’s difficult to take seriously that which you don’t believe exists.”

Pistolis appears to have gotten involved in the neo-Nazi movement long before he joined the armed forces. In online conversations with members of Atomwaffen, Pistolis said that he’d started hanging around with the National Socialist Movement “and other skinheads” when he was 16. He listed some of his favorite books: “Mein Kampf” was one; the autobiography of American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell was another. A third was “The Turner Diaries,” the notorious 1978 novel about race war in America that inspired McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

Pistolis said in the chats he was also a fan of “Siege,” a 563-page tome preaching the virtues of assassination, political terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the U.S. government that has become something of a bible for Atomwaffen members.

After joining Atomwaffen, Pistolis took on a leadership role in the summer of 2017, running the North Carolina cell and vetting new recruits to the group, according to the chat messages as well as a former member.

Before the Unite the Right rally, Pistolis, who is slim with dark close-cropped hair and a distinctive widow’s peak, sketched out designs for two flags he wanted to bring to the event. One was yellow and black and featured a coiled snake poised to strike and the logo of the Golden Dawn, a Greek fascist party linked to murders and violence in that country. On the other flag, he blended the stars-and-bars of the Confederate battle flag with the Sonnenrad, a circular emblem used by the Nazis and adopted by the new generation of white supremacists.

Pistolis paid a company to manufacture the flags and shared a picture of them online in a private chat room for people attending the rally; the chat logs were obtained by Unicorn Riot, a leftist media collective.

Over a span of roughly two months, Pistolis posted at least 82 messages in the chat room, which was hosted by Discord, an online messaging service aimed at video gamers.

His views were quite clear: Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who is African American, was a “monkey” in a fancy suit. He shared photos of Bellamy and Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, who is Jewish, captioned with the words, “Niggers, Jews…Bad News.”

In Charlottesville, Pistolis, wearing a black-and-white Adidas track suit, was among the hundreds of torch-bearing young men who marched onto the campus of the University of Virginia after sunset on Aug. 11 chanting “blood and soil,” a slogan of the Third Reich, and performing straight-arm Nazi salutes. Photos and video from that night show Pistolis participating in the event.

The march ended at a monument to Thomas Jefferson, where the white supremacists were met by a small group of anti-fascist counterprotesters, many of them students, who had gathered at the foot of the statue. There was pushing and punching. Pistolis ran through the crowd and launched a flying kick at Gorcenski.

“He traveled here from out of state with the intent to do violence,” said Gorcenski. “His own statements match up perfectly to what’s happened.

“The military is supposed to protect American civilians and here we see that our soldiers are attacking American civilians — and celebrating it.”

The melee that night immediately intensified, as white supremacists bludgeoned the counterprotesters with lit torches and streams of pepper spray shot in all directions. Dozens of men attacked the anti-fascists.

Pistolis was front and center, according to his post. He told his fellow Atomwaffen members how to spot him in videos of the altercation that were popping up on YouTube. “If you see a guy in a tracksuit that’s me,” Pistolis wrote.

Another Atomwaffen member reminded Pistolis that he could face a court martial if he was arrested for brawling.

“So don’t get caught doing stupid shit,” wrote the Atomwaffen member, an Army soldier.

The day after the torch march, Pistolis was fighting again, this time in the streets surrounding Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. He was carrying one of the flags he’d had specially made for the rally and wearing a black baseball cap, combat boots, and a T-shirt with the stylized skull logo of the Punisher, the comic book vigilante.

At least two photos taken by a Getty Images photographer capture him smashing a counterprotester with the wooden flagpole.

Later, Pistolis shared a photo of the aftermath with his friends in Atomwaffen. The blue and red flag was splattered with blood. He said he’d “cracked a skull” and left “3 mother fuckers bleeding.”

Another member asked if he could share the “bloody flag” picture on Atomwaffen’s Twitter account.

About a month after the rally, Pistolis got into an online conversation with an Atomwaffen member from Virginia. Unite the Right was “so much fun,” the Virginia man wrote.

Pistolis promptly uploaded two photos of himself from that weekend.

“I can confir[m],” he wrote.

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'Enemy Combatant' Languishes in a South Carolina Brig

How to describe Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri? The basic bio is easy. He’s a native of Qatar, a member of a prominent Arab tribe. Forty-one-years-old with a mess of coal hair and a beard speckled with gray. Married with five children. Holds a degree in business administration from a small university in Illinois.

And since 2001, when U.S. government agents grabbed al-Marri and accused him of plotting heinous crimes against America, he’s been one of the Bush Administration’s prize prisoners, a trophy captured during the War on Terror.

After reciting these facts, rendering a portrait of the man becomes a challenge -- the U.S. government has thrust him into a vortex, a place from which only minuscule fragments of information dribble out.

Some three-and-a-half years ago, the Pentagon effectively disappeared al-Marri, dubbing him an "enemy combatant," confining him to a solitary cell in the military brig at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina. For seventeen interrogation-heavy months, they barred him even from talking to his attorneys. Now they are the only ones he can talk to.

Citing security concerns, the Defense Department refused to let this reporter interview al-Marri, or even visit the brig to get a sense of how the facility operates. "There are no media visits due to the unique circumstance that an alleged Al Qaeda operative is being held there," says Defense spokesman Navy Lieutenant Commander J. D. Gordon. "There are a wide variety of operational security concerns."

Thus we know very, very little about al-Marri. What does his voice sound like? Is it smooth or raspy? Is it a deep baritone or whiny and high-pitched or somewhere in between? What about his eyes? Do they flit around anxiously? Do they lock onto the person he’s conversing with? Does he cast them sullenly towards the floor?

We can’t tell you.

Is he, as the government contends, an Al Qaeda operative connected to the 9/11 attacks, a guy who surreptitiously moved around money for jihadists and cooked up chemical warfare recipes on his home computer?

We can’t tell you.

Could he be innocent, a victim of this paranoid age?

We can’t tell you.

Despite the informational blackout, we can tell you this: Experts outside the armed forces characterize the conditions of al-Marri’s incarceration -- along with those of a handful of better known prisoners, including alleged dirty-bomb schemer Jose Padilla -- as a subtle brand of torture. Pentagon investigators found problems with the treatment of enemy combatants at the South Carolina brig, according to an internal report obtained by The Progressive.

Now, thanks to recent moves by the administration of George W. Bush -- moves that reflect a drastic restructuring of the American justice system -- al-Marri could languish in this purgatory for decades to come without facing any sort of trial.

The Defense Department has "never admitted that he has any rights, including the right not to be tortured," says Jonathan Hafetz, one of al-Marri’s lawyers. "They’ve created a black hole where he has no rights."

The Arrest

With the government gagging al-Marri and disseminating little information about him, we've got to rely heavily on the court record -- hundreds of pages of paperwork filed in four different federal courthouses -- to tell his story.

One key document is an affidavit written up days after September 11, 2001, by Nichols Zambeck, a special agent with the FBI. That document makes for chilling reading, accusing al-Marri of running a sophisticated credit card fraud operation, and implying he may have somehow been involved in raising or circulating money for the world’s most notorious terrorist group.

At the time in question, al-Marri was dwelling in Peoria, Illinois, and working on a master’s in computer science at Bradley University, the same school he’d attended while earning a BA in business in the 1991.

While he claimed to be studying, al-Marri was actually living in a motel and using a fake name to open a trio of bank accounts for a fake company called AAA Carpet, according to Zambeck and the FBI. The bureau also alleges that al-Marri opened an account with a credit card processing firm, allowing AAA Carpet to conduct credit card transactions. That account was purportedly used to siphon money from twelve stolen credit cards, although agents reportedly discovered evidence of a much larger scam -- more than 1,000 credit card numbers on al-Marri's laptop computer.

When digital analysts with the FBI scrolled through the files on al-Marri’s computer they came across a host of unsettling material, according to Zambeck: audio lectures by Osama bin Laden and his fellow jihadists; photos of the 9/11 attacks; a folder marked "chem" filled with data on deadly chemicals; bookmarked websites about weaponry, computer hacking, phony IDs, and satellite equipment.

What Zambeck and company portray as a direct connection to Al Qaeda comes in the form of several phone calls allegedly made by al-Marri to a phone number in the United Arab Emirates.

The phone number in the Emirates allegedly belonged to Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. The 9/11 Commission describes al-Hawsawi as an "Al Qaeda media committee member" and "financial and travel" planner for the attacks on Manhattan, and when federal prosecutors tried 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, they labeled him a "co-conspirator." Allegedly, al-Hawsawi helped the hijackers travel from Pakistan to the Emirates and on to the U.S. in preparation for the attacks.

After the FBI arrested al-Marri in December 2001, prosecutors charged him with seven criminal offenses, including unauthorized possession of credit card numbers, making false statements to a bank, and using a phony ID to scam a bank.

His lawyers insist the government has hyped the case against him. "There’s been no evidence presented" that al-Marri is an Al Qaeda operative or ally, says Hafetz, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and one of several lawyers working on al-Marri’s case. Hafetz adds, "He’s asserted his innocence."

Under normal circumstances, a jury would have considered his guilt or innocence, by now, a half-decade later, and rendered a verdict, pushing al-Marri into a prison sentence or cutting him loose. But these are not normal times.

The shift and the treatment

After a string of court hearings in the United States of America v. Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the Bush Administration, in 2003, switched tacks. A month before al-Marri was to stand trial in Illinois, the President, with a stroke of the executive pen, wiped the case out of existence. Saying al-Marri "represents a continuing, present, and grave danger" to the country, Bush labeled al-Marri an "enemy combatant" and turned him over to the Defense Department. Instantly, the strictures of the criminal justice system no longer applied. Fundamental rights were out the window: al-Marri could now be held indefinitely without charge in a military prison, could be denied a lawyer, could be denied not only a speedy trial but any trial. Thus began his habitation of a 9’ by 6’ concrete cell in the naval brig in Charleston.

While progressives and liberals raised concerns about the hundreds shipped from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, few realized that right here on American soil al-Marri was facing a similar fate -- jailed without charge.

For the first seventeen months of al-Marri’s incarceration in Charleston, the Defense Department did not allow Hafetz and al-Marri’s other attorneys to communicate with him in any way. He had no contact with family, friends, or anyone other than government personnel.

After many months of interrogation, al-Marri finally got to see his lawyers. He quickly filed a lawsuit alleging that he’d been subjected to torturous living conditions. According to the suit, al-Marri "has suffered inhumane, degrading, and physically and psychologically abusive treatment at the brig in violation of this country’s most basic laws and fundamental norms."

Hafetz says aside from some sporadic recreation periods, his client is kept caged in his cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and surveilled constantly by a video camera. For much of his time, al-Marri had nothing in his cell but a thin mattress and blanket, although at times he didn’t even have those items. When he leaves his cell now, the isolation continues, Hafetz says. He’s cuffed and shackled, his ears covered with noise-diffusing headphones, his eyes shielded by opaque goggles.

"He had no books, no magazines, nothing. He was in a black box," recalls Hafetz. "The isolation is very, very detrimental to him and clearly unconstitutional. He has not had any contact with anyone but his attorneys for the past three years. He hasn’t been able to talk to his wife and five children."

Lieutenant Commander Gordon gives this response. "The government in the strongest terms denies allegations of torture, allegations made without support and without citing a shred of record evidence," he says. "It is our policy to treat all detainees humanely."

After the lawyers started agitating over his conditions, al-Marri began to get letters from his wife and children in Qatar, although the missives are thoroughly redacted. He’s now able to read newspapers, as well, but those, too, are heavily censored.

The report

A high-level Pentagon report obtained by The Progressive reveals that all has not been right at the South Carolina brig. The report, dated May 11, 2004, is entitled: "Brief to the Secretary of Defense on Treatment of Enemy Combatants Detained at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston." It was written by Naval Vice Admiral A. T. Church III and by Marine Brigadier General D. D. Thiessen. Its task: "Ensure Department of Defense orders concerning proper treatment of enemy combatants."

They found numerous problems at both facilities. At Charleston, where al-Marri was held, these included the following citations:

"One detainee has Koran removed from cell as part of JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] interrogation plan. Muslim chaplain not available."

"One detainee in Charleston has mattress removed as part of JFCOM-approved interrogation plan."

"One detainee in each location currently not authorized ICRC [Red Cross] visits due to interrogation plans in progress."

"One detainee in Charleston has Koran, mattress, and pillow removed and is fed cold MREs as part of interrogation plan.� (This citation had a footnote that added: “After completion of current interrogation," removal of the Koran as an incentive "will no longer be used at Charleston.")

"Limited number and unique status of detainees in Charleston precludes interaction with other detainees. Argument could be made that this constitutes isolation."

In the "Summary of Findings," it added about Charleston: 'Christian chaplain used to provide socialization, but could be perceived as forced proselytization."

For all these problems, the report nevertheless concluded: "No evidence of noncompliance with DoD orders at either facility." The authors did take as an assumption, they wrote, that "treatment provided for in Presidential and SECDEF orders constitutes ‘humane treatment.’ "

The law

After President Bush shipped al-Marri to South Carolina, his plan to try al-Marri and other detainees in military commissions hit a serious snag. In a series of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the commissions, saying they trampled on basic legal protections and military justice rules, and violated the 1949 Geneva Convention. This fall, Congress passed -- and Bush signed -- the Military Commissions Act, a legal rewrite intended to appease the high court.

In the view of many legal scholars, the Military Commissions Act throws open the door for the use of secret evidence, coercive and even torturous interrogation tactics, and, perhaps most seriously, suspends habeas corpus for noncitizens, including legal residents. A cornerstone of the American justice system, habeas corpus is the legal doctrine allowing prisoners to challenge their confinement in court.

Even though al-Marri could now be tried by a military commission, there’s no guarantee of that actually happening. And it’s not clear that a military commission would try al-Marri in a transparent, public process.

The problem, says Hillman, the Rutgers professor, is that the Military Commissions Act, in contrast to the rules governing criminal prosecutions, sets no timeline for bringing charges. "If the MCA stands as written, the U.S. government has little motivation to move forward in pressing charges," argues Hillman. "I hope that political pressure will intervene and force a solution, but the legal situation under the MCA gives detainees like al-Marri no reason to hope for either release or trial."

There are two ways to look at the al-Marri narrative. He may truly be the cunning, ruthless character the government has made him out to be. Or he may not. Without an open, public trial, we’ll never know whether al-Marri really is a terrorist, whether he truly was collaborating with Bin Laden’s minions when the towers dropped.

Hafetz says his client is eager to have his day in criminal court. "If they have evidence to prove these guys are who they say there, why are they so afraid to go in front of a judge? They’re running scared of having a court hearing. To me that speaks volumes," he says. 'Part of the purpose of a trial is to get the truth out, to expose what happened."

The case "raises fundamental questions about America and how it values its traditions," Hafetz continues. 'Since the nation’s founding, we’ve held that people accused of a crime deserve a trial."

When Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri closes his eyes in his blank-walled cell, under the surveillance camera, what does he dream about?

We can’t tell you.

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