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Riot at U.S. Capitol resonates in Europe

Far-right groups said to see potential by The New York Times | January 25, 2021 at 4:01 a.m.

BERLIN -- When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington this month, far-right extremists across the Atlantic watched.

"We were following it like a soccer match," said Jurgen Elsasser, editor of Germany's most prominent far-right magazine.

Four months earlier, Elsasser had attended a march in Berlin where a breakaway mob of far-right protesters tried -- and failed -- to force their way into the building that houses Germany's parliament. The parallel was not lost on him.

"The fact that they actually made it inside raised hopes that there is a plan," he said. "It was clear that this was something bigger."

Adherents of far-right movements around the world share more than a common cause. German extremists have traveled to the United States for sniper competitions. American neo-Nazis have visited counterparts in Europe. Militants from different countries bond in training camps in Russia, Ukraine and South Africa.

For years, far-right extremists traded ideology and inspiration on societies' fringes and in the deepest realms of the internet. Now the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol have laid bare their violent potential.

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In chatter on their online networks, many disavowed the storming of the Capitol as amateur bungling. Some echoed falsehoods emanating from QAnon-affiliated channels in the United States, claiming that the riot had been staged by the left to justify a clampdown on supporters of President Donald Trump.

But many others saw it as a teaching moment -- about how to move forward and pursue their goal of overturning democratic governments in more concerted and concrete ways.

It is a threat that intelligence officials, especially in Germany, take seriously -- so much so that immediately after the U.S. violence, German authorities tightened security around the parliamentary building in Berlin, where far-right protesters -- waving many of the same flags and symbols as the rioters in Washington -- had tried to force their way in Aug. 29.

For now, no concrete plans for attacks have been detected in Germany, officials said. But some worry that the fallout from the events of Jan. 6 have the potential to further radicalize far-right extremists in Europe.

"Far-right extremists, corona skeptics and neo-Nazis are feeling restless," said Stephan Kramer, head of domestic intelligence for the eastern German state of Thuringia.

There is a dangerous mix of elation that the U.S. rioters made it as far as they did and frustration that it did not lead to a civil war or coup, he said.

Officials are increasingly concerned about a web of diffuse international links between the U.S. far-right and its European counterparts. The officials worry that the networks, already emboldened in the Trump era, have become more determined since Jan. 6.

A recent report commissioned by the German Foreign Ministry describes "a new leaderless transnational apocalyptically minded, violent far-right extremist movement" that has emerged over the past decade.

The extremists are animated by the same conspiracy theories and narratives of "white genocide" and "the great replacement" of European populations by migrants, the report concluded. They roam the same online spaces and also meet at far-right music festivals, mixed martial arts events and far-right rallies.

"The neo-Nazi scenes are well-connected," said Kramer. "We're not just talking about likes on Facebook. We're talking about neo-Nazis traveling, meeting each other, celebrating together."

The training camps have caused anxiety among intelligence and law enforcement officials, who worry that such activity could lay the groundwork for more organized and deliberate violence.

Two white nationalists, who attended a paramilitary camp run by the extremist Russian Imperial Movement outside St. Petersburg, were later accused by Swedish prosecutors of plotting bombings aimed at asylum-seekers. Last year, the U.S. State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement a terrorist organization, the first white nationalist group to receive the label.

In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that American white supremacists were traveling overseas for training with foreign nationalist groups. A report that year by the Soufan Center, a nonpartisan think tank, found that as many as 17,000 foreigners, many of them white nationalists, had traveled to Ukraine to fight on both sides of the separatist conflict there. Most were Russians, but among them were several dozen Americans.

President Joe Biden has ordered a comprehensive assessment of the threat from domestic violent extremism in the United States.


Many far-right extremists viewed the attack on the U.S. Capitol as both a symbolic victory and a strategic defeat that they need to learn from.

Elsasser, editor of Compact magazine, which Germany's domestic intelligence agency classifies as extremist, described the storming of the Capitol as "an honorable attempt" that failed because of inadequate planning.

"The storming of a parliament by protesters as the initiation of a revolution can work," he wrote the day after the riot. "But a revolution can only be successful if it is organized. When it's crunchtime, when you want to overthrow the regime, you need a plan and a sort of general staff."

Among those feeling encouraged by the mobilization seen Jan. 6 was Martin Sellner, the Austrian head of Europe's far-right Generation Identity movement, who preaches nonviolence but has popularized ideas such as "the great replacement."

After the storming of the Capitol, Sellner wrote: "The anger, pressure and the revolutionary mood in the camp of the patriots is in principle a positive potential. Even though it fizzled out pointlessly in the storm on the Capitol, leaving behind no more than a few memes and viral videos, one could form an organized and planned approach out of this mood for a more effective resistance."

Sellner, who said in an interview that Trump would be even more galvanizing as an opposition figure, personifies the reach of an increasingly global movement with his close links to activists across Europe and the United States. He is married to Brittany Pettibone, an American alt-right YouTube star who has interviewed prominent European extremists such as British nationalist Tommy Robinson.


Several members of the Proud Boys, whom Trump during a presidential debate told to "stand back and stand by," were among those who stormed the Capitol.

On Oct. 19, the Proud Boys shared on one of their Telegram messaging app groups that they had seen "a huge uptick in support from Germany over the last few months."

"A high percentage of our videos are being shared across Germany," read a message in the Telegram group that was also translated into German. "We appreciate the support and we are praying for your country. We stand with the German nationalists who do not want migrants destroying their country."

And as America has exported QAnon conspiracy theories across the Atlantic, European conspiracy theories and disinformation are also making their way to the United States.

Within days of the U.S. election, German QAnon followers were spreading disinformation that they said proved that the vote had been manipulated from a CIA-operated server farm in Frankfurt, although millions of votes were cast by paper mail-in ballots.

The disinformation, which German researcher Josef Holnburger traced back to a German-language account, was amplified by at least one local chapter of Alternative for Germany, the far-right political party known by its German initials, AfD. It also ended up being highlighted by U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Rudy Giuliani, the Trump lawyer and former mayor of New York City.

From there, it went viral -- a first for a German QAnon conspiracy in the United States, Holnburger said.

The transnational links are inspirational rather than organizational, said Miro Dittrich, an expert on far-right extremist networks.

"It's not so much forging a concrete plan as creating a violent potential," he said.

Yet experts remain skeptical of the potential to forge more durable trans-Atlantic relations among far-right groups. Almost all such attempts since World War II have failed, said Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the European far-right at the University of Vienna.

There's even division among far-right followers about whether such alliances are valuable or viable. For many, the idea of an international nationalist movement is an oxymoron.

"There is a common mood and an exchange of ideas, memes and logos," said Sellner, the Austrian far-right campaigner. "But the political camps in Europe and America are very different."

Rinaldo Nazzaro, founder of the international white nationalist group The Base, now lives in self-imposed exile in St. Petersburg, Russia, but said he has no interest in forging ties with Russian nationalist groups.

"Nationalists in America must do the heavy lifting themselves," he said. "Outside support could only be supplemental at best."


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