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A nation must think before it acts.
We are at a stage, Gentlemen, where the only sure political victories are achieved by non-political organizations; by an organization which has a surer, more positive, and more permanent purpose than the immediate political goals that are only means to an end; by an organization which has a backbone, and cohesiveness, and strength, and definiteness of direction, which are impossible for the old-style political party organization.
– The Blue Book of The John Birch Society
On the Friday following his inauguration, President Joseph Biden ordered Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the threat posed by domestic violent extremism following the January 6 assault on the Capitol complex in Washington. Included in the assessment is the question of how to monitor and counter evolving threats, including radicalization through social media.
That assessment is long overdue and, if conducted properly, will represent a genuine rethinking of the sources and nature of the threat posed by domestic violent extremism. Right-wing extremist political action has transformed irreversibly from an earlier era of charismatic leaders and organization-seeking movements à la the John Birch Society. While it was never monolithic in the United States, right-wing extremism (RWE) is more atomized today than heretofore was the case. Individual actors and small, highly cohesive factions engage in online discourse and occasional acts of anti-state violence on the model of their political polar opposite, Antifa. In today’s RWE, said one German activist, “The group is each individual within the group.”
Retired General Stanley McChrystal recently warned that America is headed for a homegrown insurgency, suggesting parallels between the January 6 assault on the Capitol complex and the evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The latter, McChrystal said, led “a whole generation of angry Arab youth to embrace an ideology that justified their violence. This is now happening in America.”
That incipient insurgency has been here for some time, but its roots are European—not AQI, but Autonomous Nationalism (AN), a non-hierarchical RWE faction that originated among German neo-Nazi groups in the early 2000s. Intertwined with conspiracy theories and suggested Russian intelligence overlays, AN has received far too little attention in the United States, where it is only dimly understood. It operates by networking actors in a web of radical political energy that harmonizes contradictions and exerts a dangerous multiplier effect on the otherwise isolated threat posed by individual cells, something that would not be achievable through more traditional organizational structures. Connectivity, wrote the historian Roger Griffin, makes it eminently able to survive and grow even if individual cells or formations are banned and their social media access interrupted.
AN emerged in Germany circa 1990s as an RWE platform for nationalist independence from globalization (thus, “autonomy”) through means characterized as “DIY [do it yourself] activism.” For “nationalism” read as “national resistance” (nationaler Widerstand), a unifying term adopted by German extremists centered on opposition to globalism and multiculturalism. It no doubt would surprise RWEs that AN’s theoretical underpinnings are derivative Marxist conceptions of nationalism and national struggle as a moral ideal. Theory, like polemical violence, holds little interest among AN/RWEs; however, violent aggression is a central element of AN’s political self-image.
AN first emerged at the street level in Berlin c.2002, when AN black blocs (a look appropriated from the anti-fascist Autonomen) began to appear in larger neo-Nazi demonstrations. After spreading quickly to other German cities in 2003 and 2004, a Europeanized variant emerged, first in the Czech Republic, then in Slovakia and Poland, and later in Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. AN has an outsized virtual presence online. While it is adept at leveraging open social media platforms as communication channels, this is not unique to AN: during the Syrian civil war, ISIS-aligned Chechen jamaats routinely communicated via YouTube, Twitter, and other open platforms. That said, AN proved an early adopter of open platforms and is adept at hiding in (virtual) crowds.
Perhaps the most obvious parallel to what happened in Washington is the August 2020 storming of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, during a demonstration organized by Querdenker 711, a group that opposes governmental coronavirus restrictions. German authorities warned throughout the autumn with increasing alarm that Querdenker demonstrations were being instrumentalized by RWE Rechtsradikales, who by November accounted for as much as a third of all participants in a Düsseldorf rally. Querdenker demonstrations then spread across Germany accompanied by calls for politicians to be removed, jailed, or brought to justice. As German RWE highjacked what one politician called “legitimate protest against state measures to contain the corona pandemic,” German’s domestic security agency warned of its increased willingness to use force. German RWE networks at the national and regional levels proved effective organizing platforms.
AN’s outsized online presence is intended to give operational boost to its ground operations. When it does, AN demonstrates an asymmetric capacity for RWE violence that exemplifies the century-old anarchist conception of “propaganda by the deed.” AN’s RWE criminal violence embraces Bakunin on the importance of the target—there perhaps is no more important symbolic one than the U.S. Capitol. While AN’s virtual presence, like RWE generally, often takes on a life of its own and fails to provide operational boost, it nonetheless is a political tendency that punches above its weight. As David Galula said of insurgents, AN (and RWE generally) is judged by what it promises, not by what it does.
RWE-focused domestic intelligence collection, whether investigative or exploratory, is challenging and is not conducive to a traditional law enforcement, case-based approach. Analysts find it challenging to detect unobserved terrorist plots, often by unknown clandestine cells that do not have command and control apparatuses to disrupt, all the while having to sort through a daily expanding body of online polemical violence in order to build actionable datasets. While mass RWE action at the Capitol complex was wholly foreseeable (even if authorities failed to act on intelligence), future ones may be even harder to detect in advance if American RWEs fully operationalize German-style AN and continue to adopt simple workarounds like Telegram, a device-specific end-to-end encrypted messaging application. German AN in particular evinces both a capacity and willingness to translate virtual political violence into propaganda of the deed (POTD). POTD incidents intend random, unintended consequences (as well as deliberate ones) that force their way onto the Richter scale of the media, as seen when large swaths of Washington were converted into de facto militarized zones.
Leaderless resistance à la German-style AN thrives on galvanizing events. We should expect community-strengthening narratives (including LARPing) to emerge about the assault on the Capitol complex that are intended to resonate within the domestic RWE community, and possibly to spur ideologically motivated cell and lone wolf crimes and violence. This is common to all RWE regardless of place: a 2020 report by the Swedish National Defense College’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies warned, “The basic idea is for everyone to act on their initiative based on their common understanding of general, long-term goal, without the necessity of having actions sanctioned in advance or waiting for an order from someone.”
AN exists at a dividing line of RWE subculture and a social-political movement. It is “an organization with no membership,” as Blood & Honour cofounder Ian Stuart Donaldson said of that UK neo-Nazi group. AN has no central leadership; it is individualistic, decentralized, and networked, making it fertile ground for lone wolves. Activists describe themselves as moving anonymously in society: “We are not so easily ‘reachable’ by our political opponents and yet we are constantly present through our autonomous activism,” said one German AN activist. Operating in small cells called fellowships or “comradeships” (Kameradshaften or Freie Kameradshaften), German AN’s model of closely networked, virtual extremist communities built around social media, blogs, and YouTube embodies Roger Griffin’s conception of groupuscular right formations of largely autonomous grouplets within an amorphous, leaderless, and centerless cellular network of political ideology, organization, and activism.
AN is meta-political, not party-political or a movement party, and its activists have no interest in changing political institutions: “We don’t feel represented in this system—that’s why the question of reforms no longer arises,” stated the Aktionsgruppe Wolfsburg on its website, going on to eschew “paralyzing majority decisions” made by “overpaid talking heads.” In the United States, AN groupuscules are the shock force of an uncompromising, undiluted RWE and, in common with European AN, principally attacks the liberal ethos which has “allowed” or “encouraged” multiculturalism. This message is endlessly reinforced in AN virtual communities, which cocoon activists inside dense clusters of websites and social media. Its networked aspect makes AN resistant to penetration by security and intelligence agencies whose methods are better suited to organized threat-groups. Networking also allows AN virtual communities to survive and grow, even if individual cells are detected and their social media presence is terminated.
The violent assault on the Capitol complex caught nearly all observers by surprise, even after then-President Donald Trump’s provocative dog whistle to “fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” It should not have surprised anyone: provocative displays of violence and aggressive demeanor are central elements of AN/RWE’s political self-image, and its formations have long evinced a willingness to use violence against political opponents and the police. As one German language assessment put it, AN mobs develop their own dynamic and leverage a visual willingness to use violence to attract new participants. AN/RWE violence is not solely an instrument to achieve political objectives. It also is an end in itself that AN/RWE uses to shape and define itself, aestheticizing and legitimizing violence on a symbolic as well as a factual level in its virtual communities.
AN/RWE polemics vilify and discredit state institutions to legitimize violent acts that are intended to contribute to their destruction, something common to the movement transnationally. AN is not a doctrine, but an attitude. As political activist Garry Kasparov’s Russian-language website Kasparov.ru put it, “In real life, to be good, you have to do something good, and to become evil, you have to do something evil. But not so in their mythology: their heroes are good by definition, not because they did something particularly good, but because they took up arms.” Counterterrorism to be effective must focus on AN/RWE contagion methods and how to translate the emotional code of AN/RWE propaganda. It must develop predictive interdiction tools based on how AN/RWE innovates communication and dissemination channels to proselytize online. All this means avoiding the trap of committing disproportionate analytic energy and attention to AN/RWE violent incidents instead of developing predictive cultural cognitive maps.
The recent incident of AN/RWE terrorism represented a move from its everyday symbolic violence in the virtual world to more European-style physical acts intended to garner attention and weaken government institutions. The televised unleashing of that dark energy is a wakeup call that hard core German-style AN has arrived in the United States, and it will take a focused, sustained counterterrorist effort to prevent its spread, and over time, eradicate it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
All translations are by the author unless noted otherwise.
 Robert Welch (1959; 1961). The Blue Book of The John Birch Society (Boston: Western Islands Publishers), p. 96.
 Literally, “lateral thinker,” Querdenker means something more akin to “thinking outside the box.” The number 711 is the area code for Stuttgart, where Querdenker’s organizer, the entrepreneur Michael Ballweg, resides.