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The White Supremacist Movement's Metamorphosis

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
11 MINS READJan 18, 2007 | 02:12 GMT
Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler on Nov. 3, 2003 in Hayden, Idaho.

Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler on Nov. 3, 2003 in Hayden, Idaho. The deaths of older white supremacist leaders like Butler respected within the movement left a leadership vacuum. (William B. Plowman/Getty Images)

(William B. Plowman/Getty Images)

Three white supremacist leaders have been arrested on sex-related charges since Dec. 22, 2006. Two of them — Matthew Downing, National Vanguard's Boston unit leader, and Gordon Young, former leader of the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and current member of the National Socialist Movement — have been charged with sexually assaulting minors. The third, Kevin Alfred Strom, founder of the National Vanguard organization, has been charged with possession of child pornography and witness tampering. It has clearly been a hard month for the self-appointed defenders of white virtue.

In the wake of these arrests, and with this being the week Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and legacy, it seems fitting that we take the time to review the state of the white supremacist movement in the United States today, and to look at where it is heading in the future.

The Leadership Vacuum

Since the 9/11 attacks, the white supremacist movement in the United States has undergone a huge change. One of the factors driving this change has been the generational transition that resulted from the deaths of older white supremacist leaders respected within the movement, such as William Pierce and Richard Butler. Their deaths left a leadership vacuum, and with no clear emerging leader to replace them, the movement has seen much infighting and splintering, as seemingly everyone in the movement seeks to be "the fuhrer."

The power struggle associated with this generational change is vividly illustrated by an examination of what has happened in Pierce's group, the National Alliance (NA), since his passing. Until Pierce's July 2002 death from cancer, the NA was a growing group that had gained momentum from Pierce's effective propaganda and stature. As the author of the "Turner Diaries" and "Hunter," Pierce created two of the most revered fictional characters in the white supremacist universe: Earl Turner and Oscar Yeager, who would later inspire deadly real-life imitators in The Order in the early 1980s and Timothy McVeigh in the mid-1990s.

The NA's National Vanguard book business and its purchase of the "hatecore" music company Resistance Records ensured that the group had a healthy income, and Resistance also provided the group with access to a steady stream of young potential recruits. This resulted in the Anti-Defamation League in 1997 labeling the NA "the most dangerous hate group in America." However, Pierce neglected to name a successor from among his lieutenants before he died, leaving a power vacuum at the highest level of the group.

Erich Gliebe, who had run Resistance Records, eventually emerged as chairman of the NA, but he proved to be an ineffectual leader who lacked the skills needed to hold the organization together. During Gliebe's tenure, many of the organization's board members, staff members, key leaders and even entire units left the NA. One of the key NA staff members — Kevin Strom, who ran the NA's National Vanguard Web site — led a group of disaffected NA members who attempted to oust Gliebe from the chairmanship in April 2005.

When their attempt to topple Gliebe failed, they left the organization and founded a new group called National Vanguard (NV), after the popular NA Web site. Gliebe, whose reputation also was marred by accounts of womanizing and an eventual marriage to a stripper, was finally forced to step down following the failed coup attempt. He was replaced by Shaun Walker; however, Walker proved to be no more effective than his predecessor. Following Walker's June 2006 arrest on charges stemming from bar fights he got into while serving as the NA's Salt Lake City unit leader, Gliebe resumed leadership of the group.

Since its inception, the NV had been taking advantage of the troubles within the NA, and the group had worked hard to recruit former NA members. Members of the NV actively portrayed themselves as the true followers of Pierce's philosophy and legacy. However, while Strom was considered a talented intellectual and a good writer, he did not have the organizational or leadership skills to hold the NV together, and the group soon began to fracture. Strom also was criticized for being lazy, and many people considered him too effeminate to be an effective white supremacist leader. There were even rumors that Strom was a homosexual.

On July 18, 2006, Strom took a leave of absence from the NV, citing "health and family matters." He noted in a statement posted on the NV's Web site that he had made "mistakes" in his life, "sometimes serious ones." Many NV members believed Strom's resignation had to do with his rocky marriage, and they were shocked by the revelation that Strom was arrested Jan. 4 on child pornography charges. His mistakes were clearly more serious than many had realized, although those who had questioned his sexuality certainly felt vindicated. Strom's arrest dealt a particularly hard blow to the organization since it followed closely on the heels of NV Boston Unit leader Matthew Downing's Dec. 22, 2006, arrest on charges of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

The Quiet Campaign

While the NA was imploding, another factor contributing to the change of the white supremacist movement was beginning to gain momentum: the U.S. government's focus on disrupting terrorism and the government's expanded powers under the USA Patriot Act. This focus extended to domestic terrorism, and the government's increased efforts resulted in a string of law enforcement successes against white supremacist leaders. Though this campaign was quiet in comparison to all the press surrounding the government's efforts against jihadist groups, it was nonetheless impressive. Some highlights of this campaign include:

  • On Dec. 12, 2002, David Duke pleaded guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud charges and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
  • In January 2003, Matt Hale, leader of the Creativity Movement (formerly the World Church of the Creator — WCOTC) was arrested for soliciting the killing of a federal judge and subsequently sentenced to 40 years.
  • In March 2003, Chester Doles, a convicted felon and Georgia NA leader, was arrested for possession of weapons and sentenced to serve 70 months.
  • In February 2004, David Wayne Hull, an imperial wizard in the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested and charged with making a pipe bomb. Hull was sentenced to 12 years.
  • In December 2004, Anthony Pierpont — owner of Panzerfaust Records, a company that distributed neo-Nazi and white supremacist media — was arrested on drug charges. Panzerfaust Records, once the largest "hatecore" record company in the country, is now out of business.
  • On June 8, 2006, NA leader Shaun Walker was arrested in West Virginia, and two other members of the white supremacist group — Travis Massey and Eric Egbert — were arrested in Utah. The arrests stemmed from a federal indictment for allegedly conspiring to intimidate minorities. Walker is still awaiting trial.

The Brown Shirts Return With the crumbling of the NA, the fizzling of the NV and the arrests of other white supremacist leaders, such as Duke and Hale, the big winner was the National Socialist Movement (NSM). The NSM, which calls itself "America's Nazi Party," is an organization of uniform-wearing neo-Nazis who delight in publicly displaying their regalia and provoking violence, as they did in Toledo, Ohio, in October 2005, when they provoked a riot. The NSM's public rallies led many white supremacists to see it as the only organization willing to do anything more than "meet, eat and retreat." This perception resulted in the NSM gaining members and momentum.

However, that momentum was abruptly halted in the summer of 2006, when a watchdog group publicized the fact that the NSM post office box in Tulsa, Okla., was also being used by the Joy of Satan Ministries, a Satanist organization with sexual initiation rites that also is the parent organization of the very visible "Teens for Satan" e-group. Apparently, the wife of Clifford Herrington, the NSM's chairman emeritus, is the high priestess of the Joy of Satan organization. This revelation that a neo-Nazi leader was married to a Satanist high priestess provoked several weeks of public infighting on several white nationalist Internet sites, which resulted in the fracturing of the NSM as key members left to form new, competing organizations.

In November 2006, the NSM began to regain a little momentum when Gordon Young, the leader of the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, traded his white sheet for a Nazi uniform and announced he was disbanding his group to join the NSM. However, Young's Jan. 10 arrest for sexually abusing a minor will certainly cause further damage to the reputation of the NSM, which already is tainted by its connection to the Joy of Satan organization and allegations that Joy of Satan promotes sexual initiation rites for teens.

The NSM's link to Joy of Satan and the accompanying complications, along with the recent NSM and NV arrests, has caused many white supremacists to question the way these organizations' leaders and members interpret the white supremacist mantra known as "the 14 words": "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children." Such people also are increasingly questioning the need for membership-based groups and their often fatally flawed leaders.

In the past, membership in an organized hate group was the main avenue for activists seeking extremist literature and like-minded people, but the Internet has turned that paradigm on its head.

The Metamorphosis

Though white supremacist groups are declining in size and strength, the popularity of white supremacist sites on the Web and the increasing proliferation of the movement's "hatecore" music clearly indicate that their former members remain committed to a common ideology. Such people are not disappearing; they are simply adopting a new organization model. In the past, membership in an organized hate group was the main avenue for activists seeking extremist literature and like-minded people, but the Internet has turned that paradigm on its head. There are now thousands of anti-Semitic and white supremacist Web sites on the Internet, and adherents also regularly establish their presence on popular Web destinations such as Myspace and Youtube.

Increasingly, the Internet is replacing membership groups as the primary way for white supremacists to obtain information and communicate. Large membership-based groups have been monitored and targeted precisely because they are known entities with membership lists, financial statements and physical addresses. This makes investigating them for illegal activity or suing them in civil court fairly easy. The threat of lawsuits connected to group members' illegal activities, in fact, has forced the membership-based organizations to pressure their members to "keep legal."

Such pressure does not exist for anonymous lone wolves who get their information and companionship via the anonymity of the Internet. Moreover, membership-based groups such as the WCOTC and the NA were not only easier for law enforcement to monitor, but they were also easy for them to infiltrate. For example, an FBI informant who penetrated the WCOTC and became the group's head of security was largely responsible for Hale's conviction.

Law enforcement's success in infiltrating white supremacist groups has led many white supremacists to embrace the "leaderless resistance" organizational model. The bickering within and among organized groups and the obvious shortcomings of leaders like Strom, Young, Gliebe, Downing and Herrington are further strengthening this sentiment in the minds of many activists.

This shift toward leaderless resistance conducted by lone wolves and small cells has long been advocated by white supremacists such as former Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam because it makes it far more difficult for law enforcement and watchdog groups to identify radical individuals and monitor their plans and activities. The leaderless resistance model has been adopted by the radical environmental rights movement Earth Liberation Front, which has a Web site but no real membership. The Web site serves to inform and unite, but individuals and small units plan and conduct actions on their own.

As this model is more widely adopted in the white supremacist realm, law enforcement and watchdog groups are going to have to change the way they do business. Instead of focusing the bulk of their efforts on a few high-profile leaders ensconced in well-known compounds, they will have to shift their resources to look for violence-prone radicals on the edge of the movement.

In the long run, this shift in attention to the fringe of the movement could be good for public safety. Most of the truly dangerous people — such as McVeigh, Joseph Paul Franklin, William Krar and brothers Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams — have emerged from the anonymous fringe. The real-life aspiring Earl Turners and Oscar Yeagers tend to avoid membership in organizations that could bring them to the attention of the authorities and usually do not have the time or patience for "meet, eat and retreat" activism.

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