Rep. Elissa Slotkin last week sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to take the unprecedented step of designating 13 extremist movements as foreign terrorist organizations, arguing that such a move “will help apply more stress to curtail these violent organizations’ and their leaders’ ability to operate their groups.”
But of the 13 groups listed in her letter, which her office provided to BuzzFeed News, at least four are defunct, one is an American club founded in California that has splintered and rebranded, and another changed the name used in Slotkin’s letter six years ago when it became part of an allied nation’s national guard.
“It was a great list — in 2018,” Matthew Feldman, director of the London-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, told BuzzFeed News. “Every one of [the listed groups] was active. Every one was dangerous.”
Feldman praised Slotkin’s efforts and the motivation behind the list, saying they are a step in the right direction. But he also said it serves as an example of how the US government has been slow to recognize the threat posed by far-right violent extremists at home and abroad.
Biden has signaled his intent to combat domestic violent extremists — specifically white supremacists like those who were among the mob that attacked the US Capitol on Jan. 6, and whom the FBI sees as a top threat. Department of Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers last month that domestic violent extremism “poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today.”
But experts say it is also important to go after foreign extremist groups, which often communicate, coordinate, and inspire their American counterparts.
If the Biden administration were to list groups like those suggested by Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, as official Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), or the lesser designation of Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), it would help curb dangerous white supremacist organizations, the member of Congress argued in her letter, which was previously reported by Reuters.
“It would also give the United States Government more tools to engage and flag the Americans who contact, support, train, and join these [white supremacist extremist] groups,” wrote Slotkin.
But Elizabeth Neumann, the former assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security during the Donald Trump administration, told BuzzFeed News that the process is lengthy and difficult.
“The FTO process is a pretty high bar,” she said. “I was frustrated we were only able to get the Russian Imperial Movement. That was not the only group we looked at.”
In April 2020, the US designated RIM and three of its leaders SDGTs — the first time such a classification had been used.
Asked about Slotkin’s letter, a State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “as a general matter, we do not comment on congressional correspondence and we do not comment on designations or deliberations related to potential designations.” But Blinken told MSNBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that designating overseas white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations is “something we’re looking at.”
A former CIA analyst who focused on foreign terrorist organizations in the Middle East, Slotkin wrote that she has been “struck by the threat these white supremacist groups pose, the amount of contact they have with extremists in the U.S., the minimal intelligence and diplomatic reporting we have on these groups, and the relative lack of review taken by the U.S. Government.”
Among those Slotkin said deserve terrorist designations is the National Action Group, a neo-Nazi organization founded in the United Kingdom and banned in 2016 that targeted British youth. A 2018 US counterterrorism report described it as a terrorist group promoting violence against politicians and minorities. A Metropolitan Police officer named Ben Hannam was convicted of membership on April 1.
Another is the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, which the same 2018 US report described as an anti-Western transnational organization behind violent attacks, including against Muslims and left-wing groups.
But not all of the groups she has asked the government to focus on are currently active.
Kacper Rekawek, a Slovakia-based researcher at the nonprofit Counter Extremism Project, said Slotkin’s list is the type of list someone searching for far-right extremist groups on Google might draw up.
“The effort of Rep. Slotkin is commendable. Designations, underused in the European context, should help with countering the threat of violence from extreme right-wing organizations,” Rekawek told BuzzFeed News. “However, this must be informed by a thorough analysis of the local far-right scenes which include a plethora of actors who often talk the talk, but do not walk the walk as far as violence is concerned.”
The neo-Nazi groups Feuerkrieg Division, Sonnenkrieg Division, Atomwaffen Division Deutschland, and Northern Order — all on Slotkin’s list — are defunct, Rekawek and Feldman said. Members of the groups — all of which were inspired by the US Atomwaffen Division and American neo-Nazi James Mason’s “Siege culture,” — were tied to violence or violent plots in the UK, the US, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere.
Rise Above Movement (RAM), a white supremacist fight club founded in Southern California with ties to neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine and the Balkans, was also more or less disbanded after three of its members were imprisoned for participating in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. RAM’s founder, New York native Robert Rundo, was charged in a separate federal case for violence at several protests across California. The charges were dismissed in June 2019 but reinstated last month.
After this story published, Slotkin's staff clarified they included RAM on the list as a way of identifying the group's foreign affiliates.
Another problematic group on Slotkin’s list is Ukraine’s Azov Battalion. The paramilitary force was formed in 2014 by far-right extremists who volunteered to take up arms against Russia-backed forces when the war in eastern Ukraine broke out. In January 2016, it became part of the country’s National Guard and has since been known as the Azov Regiment.
Its political wing, National Corps, has been labeled a “nationalist hate group” by the State Department. But designating the regiment as a foreign terrorist organization is likely to pose challenges, especially due to its attachment to the state and the fact that Ukraine is a US ally.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Slotkin for comment on the list. An aide said they had been made aware of the status of Azov and the disbanded groups after the representative's letter was reported by Reuters. But, the aide said, they plan to move ahead with at least the groups on the list which remain active.
“We’re confident we can get some level of designation,” the aide said.
Read Slotkin’s full letter.