White supremacists appear to have settled on a new strategy to grow their numbers and ready capable fighting forces across the United States, Canada and Europe while avoiding the scrutiny of law enforcement.
New research, presented Friday by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), warns the past several months have seen a proliferation of small, loosely affiliated combat sports and fitness clubs — known as Active Clubs — that publicly advertise fitness, self-improvement and brotherhood.
But behind the scenes, researchers say, club members are pushing a white supremacist narrative geared at preparing members to take part in a potential race war.
“They are trying to build a militia undercover,” said Alexander Ritzmann, a CEP senior adviser and the author of the new report. “The underlying assessment is there is no leadership in the U.S. for targeted violence, for a strong national event or leadership. But once such a thing occurs, you need soldiers.”
Ritzmann and his colleagues warn that more than 100 of the Active Clubs have been created since late 2020, and that at least 46 are currently active in 34 U.S. states.
They further identified another 46 clubs in 14 countries across Europe and 12 clubs in Canada.
No centralized leadership
Yet despite the spread of these clubs, there is no centralized or hierarchical leadership.
They adhere to a philosophy, sometimes called White Supremacy 3.0, espoused by Robert Rundo, the founder of the white supremacist Rise Above Movement, who was extradited to the U.S. from Romania in August to face charges connected to planning and participating in a series of riots in California.
Anyone who wants to start a club is encouraged to do so, and most clubs are relatively small, thought to have five to 25 members. Participating in events with other clubs is also encouraged.
And they do not seem to shy away from attention.
“The strategy is hiding in plain sight,” Ritzmann said. “They try to show that they're actually just a bunch of white men doing sports together, being rather on the nice and friendly side so that law enforcement would look at this and would say, ‘This is a bit odd, but definitely, you know, not a priority for us to research now.’”
Guidelines pushed by Active Club members seek to play up the fitness-focused persona.
Members are told to avoid any display of obvious Nazi or white supremacist symbols and imagery. They are also instructed not to talk about Jews or about history. And most refrain from posting images on social media that show them engaged in military-style training.
'Young and active people' sought
At the same time, members are encouraged to mingle with the public to recruit new members.
“Activism at events like concerts, NASCAR races and local festivals are also much more likely to reach young and active people,” according to a post on one Active Club website, cited by the CEP report. “These demographics are far more likely to become useful members.”
The same post encouraged club members to recruit from high schools where “changing demographics … have led to gang-beatings of minority White youth.”
Once recruited, new members are gradually indoctrinated and, according to Ritzmann, subtly taught skills designed to make them part of a capable militia using marginally legal or illegal activities like banner drops, stickering, and painting graffiti on public and private property.
“Make sure they know how to organize, to spot locations, to organize transport, to avoid law enforcement,” Ritzmann said. “It's like an open-air militia training camp.”
In some ways, the warnings in the new CEP report on Active Clubs mirror warnings by U.S. officials, who have said for more than a year that the U.S. remains mired in a “heightened threat environment,” with the biggest threat coming from U.S.-based extremists motivated by “enduring racial, ethnic, religious and anti-government ideologies."
U.S. homeland security and law enforcement officials have also emphasized that the greatest danger comes from small groups or individuals.
But the extent to which the U.S. government is aware of the Active Clubs in unclear.
The Department of Homeland Security has yet to respond to a VOA query about the warnings in the new CEP report. The FBI said it had no comment.
Other researchers, though, agree there is reason for concern.
The Active Club network in the U.S. “really continues to be the most active element of the white supremacist landscape, regularly hosting fight nights and streaming propaganda and hosting demonstrations,” said Morgan Lynn Moon, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, speaking during a webinar on the report’s findings.
"These groups continue to form and currently represent an enduring threat,” she said, adding the clubs also appear to be at the vanguard of another worrisome trend.
“We're seeing recently white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis becoming increasingly anxious about perceived threats, particularly to the white race, and this increased willingness to work together to send a message,” she said. “In this case, [that message is] uniting behind the idea of raising white racial consciousness despite their key ideological differences.”
Members of other groups
CEP’s research found that in some cases, Active Club members are current or former members of other extremist groups like Patriot Front, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and White Lives Matter.
Some researchers even fear the clubs are starting to make the sort of inroads that the other groups could not.
“The Active Clubs are who the Proud Boys thought they were. The Active Clubs are who the Proud Boys wanted to be,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“This isn't just merely a traditional white supremacist fight club as much as it's individuals who really do see themselves as … harkening back to Greek and Roman soldiers fighting back against their kind of core enemies,” he said, speaking at the CEP report’s rollout. “The Active Clubs have really, truly become the tip of that fascist spear.”