Trans-Atlantic Hate Neo-Nazi 'Atomwaffen Division' Spreads Fear in Germany
German politicians and activists have been the focus of a wave of vicious, neo-Nazi threats of late, many of them signed by a new extremist group from the U.S. called the "Atomwaffen Division." Security officials in Germany are concerned.
When Donna Clark moved to Germany last year, she was hoping for a new start, away from the threats, the violence and the hate. In the United States., the activist had become a target of neo-Nazis, with right-wing extremists, including a member of a bizarrely named group called "Atomwaffen Division" (AWD), attacking her at a protest. It is considered one of the most dangerous groups in the United States and its members are suspected of having committed several murders. They appear in propaganda videos wearing skull masks and the camouflage uniform of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, modified with Atomwaffen Division's silver and black insignia.
But her respite in Germany didn't last long. On a Thursday afternoon in November 2018, a German law enforcement official sent Clark a message in English: "Please call the police ASAP concerning a security related incident."
The FBI had informed the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) that Clark was also in danger in Germany. Clark says she was told by a German law enforcement official that a neo-Nazi with the AWD had traveled to Germany, perhaps with the intention of doing her harm.
The official advised Clark to ensure that access to her address on the official government registry was blocked and to refrain from wearing headphones on her way home. "It affects me every day," the American says. "I still look over my shoulder when I walk home." It is also for this reason that we have not used her real name in this article. German officials have confirmed her account.
Even though evidence has been mounting for over a year that a German offshoot of the ultra-extremist group exists, AWD was long known only to experts in this country. Now, though, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has announced that intelligence services are "intensely" monitoring the group's activities.
The most immediate reason for the minister's attention is that Cem Özdemir and Claudia Roth, both of them members of German parliament with the Green Party, received emails on Oct. 27 threatening them with murder. "Even you, left-wing Turkish swine, have now made it onto our death list," read the email to Özdemir. It was sent by "atom11." The email to Roth read: "You are currently the second name on our hit list." Both threats were signed: "Sincerely, Atomwaffen Division Deutschland."
'On the Radar'
The emails are part of a right-wing extremist wave of hate that has been rolling across the country for months. "There is a storm going through the scene," Thomas Haldenwang, president of the German domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, recently told German lawmakers behind closed doors. "There are the hit lists. There are the death threats. There are other threats. What more should I lay out for you?" He said he could not exclude the possibility of future attacks. The intelligence authorities, he said, have multiple potential terrorists "on their radar."
Just a few days after Haldenwang's appearance, Michael Roth, a Social Democratic state minister in the Foreign Ministry, received an email in which the author threated "to cut a cross in your face with a nice sharp knife. Like a swastika, you understand." The suspected reason: Roth had described the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as the "political arm of right-wing terrorism."
Similar threats have been received in the city halls of German towns and cities as well. In one survey, one in five German mayors reported that they or their employees have been on the receiving end of hate mail. In many cases, though, it doesn't stop there. Every 50th mayor claims he or she has also been physically attacked.
Some only barely managed to survive. Henriette Reker was in a coma when she was elected mayor of Cologne in fall 2015 after being stabbed by a right-wing extremist. Reker has received hate mail on several occasions since then, and in one message she and others received this summer, the anonymous writer threatened to shoot them execution style. The note ended with "Heil Hitler."
Then, in June, the president of the municipal district of Kassel, the pro-immigration politician Walter Lübcke, was shot dead while sitting on the terrace of his home. The suspect is 46-year-old Stephan Ernst. It appears to have been the first murder of a German politician out of right-wing extremist motives since 1945. It was also tragic proof that words can lead to violence.
For the past several months, hundreds of threats from right-wing extremists have been reaching politicians, courts, lawyers, activists and journalists. The senders of the pamphlets call themselves the "Wehrmacht" (as the Nazi-era German military was known) or the "National Socialist Offensive." Many of the messages are filled with grammatical and spelling mistakes and some include grotesque requests, such as the demand that the addressee should publicly apologize for their actions or words or that the police "finally" be placed "under control." Some senders also demand payment in the form of Bitcoin.
It's not easy to determine who is behind the anonymous messages. In April, one suspect was arrested near Hamburg, a man who presented himself online as a right-wing extremist and who had spent considerable time in a psychiatric institution. But the arrest did little to reduce the flood of threats.
Politicians and authorities aren't entirely sure what to do about the new German wave of hate. According to one recent police analysis, the harassment and threats could become "increasingly acceptable or even mainstream" due to "acceleration via social media and the internet."
Earlier this month, Interior Minister Seehofer joined Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht and Family Minister Franziska Giffey in presenting a nine-point program to fight right-wing extremism. Among the list of measures is the requirement for social networks to report death threats and hate speech to a new department within the BKA. The program also calls for stricter laws, better protection for local politicians, more police officers and intelligence agents and increased funding for the prevention of right-wing extremism.
Much of it is sensible, some of it is long overdue. But the situation won't change overnight, and it will take months for the plans to become reality.
Cem Özdemir doesn't just receive threats from right-wing extremists, but also from Turkish nationalists, and he used to also be targeted by activists associated with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). He is critical of the manner in which authorities handle information, saying that he learns of concrete threats from journalists more often than he does from the public authorities. Years ago, when suspected Turkish nationalists were spying on his apartment, it was his neighbors, he says, who ultimately drove them away.
Özdemir, who is provided with bodyguards when he appears in public, says that the first step should be giving information to those affected. Most important, though, he says, is "a clear acknowledgment by the state that the fight against right-wing extremism finally is of the highest priority." He says that such an acknowledgement has thus far been missing.
Similar to Islamic State
His fellow Green Party politician Claudia Roth says that, as a member of German parliament, she has ways of defending herself. She is most concerned, she says, about local politicians or people with immigrant backgrounds who don't have access to similar protections -- like, for example, the residents of Cologne's Keupstrasse. In June 2004, a nail bomb exploded in the street, injuring 22 people, some of them seriously. It had been placed there by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terror cell that killed 10 people across Germany between 2000 and 2006, most of them of Turkish descent. Ahead of the memorial events marking the 15th anniversary of that attack, threat letters signed by the "Atomwaffendivision" were left with some area residents. "How are these people supposed to deal with their fear and the feeling that they are not welcome in Germany?" Roth asks. "Or the countless Muslims whose mosques are being threatened? The Jews whose institutions need to be guarded?"
It is unclear whether the people or person behind the threats to the Green Party politicians are, in fact, members of the German offshoot of Atomwaffen Division. They could also be copycats using the name to spread fear. According to experts, the characteristics and style of the missives don't match earlier neo-Nazi propaganda. Even the way the group's name was written differed from how the German AWD offshoot writes it in its pamphlets.
But the international neo-Nazi group is making itself felt even in places where it isn't active. It is able to find followers who act on behalf of the group's ideology. It is a similar principle to that of Islamic State, which transformed itself from a self-contained terror group into a global terrorist movement.
What is certain is that AWD is active in Germany. An insider reports that the group, in combination with an additional offshoot called Feuerkrieg Division, has at least a half-dozen members.
Reporting by DER SPIEGEL has also revealed that German sympathizers were in contact with their American idols as early as 2017. Members of the U.S. group traveled to England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Germany.
The ideology of the network, which was created around four years ago, could hardly be more extreme. AWD followers are in favor of "race war" and admire right-wing-extremist terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and the perpetrator of the mosque attack in New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant. Violence, chaos, nihilism -- these are the terror cult's goals. There are supposedly dozens of members in the U.S., with some estimates of up to 100.
Hate Camps in the Nevada Desert
The neo-Nazi network is organized into independent cells with only a few members, in accordance with the principle of "leaderless resistance" that has been advocated for decades by right-wing extremist ideologues like U.S. Nazi James Mason. Atomwaffen fans exchange guerrilla handbooks and bomb-building instructions in secretive chats.
The neo-Nazis learn how to shoot at "hate camps" that are held in places like the desert of Nevada. Some are led by former soldiers, and according to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, a German national also apparently traveled to the U.S. to take part in one of the camps.
That confirms what the European police agency Europol recently warned of in a confidential paper: namely that violence-prone right-wing extremists are increasingly networked globally and spur each other on. "Given the increasingly international nature of the right-wing extremist scene," the experts propose, suspicious groups and individuals should be placed on an EU-wide terrorist list, as is already the case with Islamists.
In the U.S., adherents of the Atomwaffen Division are suspected of being responsible for five murders. Among the victims were Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish college student from Orange County, California. The suspected perpetrator, Samuel Woodward, who was 20 years old at the time of the crime, glorified the NSU in a chat, writing: "The NSU was pretty cool."
The connections of U.S. Atomwaffen followers to Europe was also highlighted by an incident on Dec. 28, 2018, when Kaleb James Cole, the head of an Atomwaffen cell in the U.S. state of Washington and a member of AWD's leadership cadre, traveled back home from London. U.S. customs officials found photos on his mobile phone showing him and another neo-Nazi in front of the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial, both of them wearing the masks typically associated with the Atomwaffen Division. He didn't hide his affiliation with the group, either, telling the border official: "Strong dominate the weak." Because of the danger he represents, U.S. authorities have since confiscated Cole's firearms -- all nine of them, including a Kalashnikov.
Whereas the FBI in the U.S. tends to be rather reticent in discussing its investigations into the Atomwaffen network and its offshoots, British officials are relatively open about the threat. "There are similar groups in Canada, the U.S., South America, Australia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Germany," a senior British anti-terror official said recently.
'The Knives Are Already Being Sharpened'
As far back as late 2017, an Atomwaffen member traveled from the U.S. to Germany. In chats, he bragged about having visited the Wewelsburg Castle, a claim that is documented in a photo. The castle, located near Paderborn in Western Germany, was used by the SS and transformed by the Nazi organization's leader Heinrich Himmler into a cult site during the Third Reich. Later, it would also make an appearance in the only propaganda video thus far made by the German offshoot of the Atomwaffen Division.
The video shows men wearing skull masks while a computer-altered voice announces the establishment of a cell in Germany. "We are preparing for the long, final battle in the rubble, which will soon come. The knives are already being sharpened."
The clip was released in early summer 2018, but in internal chats from the Atomwaffen Division in the U.S., the production of a German propaganda video had been discussed fully six months before that. An image of the video being shot was likewise shared -- further proof of the group's international network.
DER SPIEGEL is also in possession of an email with which the neo-Nazis sought to recruit followers in Germany in 2018. "We don't want to hide the fact that we are still in the initial stages of forming the German Atomwaffen Division," the mail reads. But the email's authors claim to have "excellent contacts in the USA" and to know exactly what they want: "Our focus is on violence and killings, along with propaganda that leads to such violence and killings."
The neo-Nazis announced that the next step would be a campaign "that is to start this year." And sure enough, in November 2018, pamphlets adorned with swastikas turned up at Berlin's Humboldt University. It called on students to prepare for "the most brutal civil war in history" and to join the Atomwaffen Division Germany.
Additional pamphlet campaigns followed in a lecture hall at the University of Frankfurt and, in late May, in Cologne, on the eve of the anniversary of the NSU nail bomb attack in the predominantly Turkish Keupstrasse. The fliers were found in the entrance of a building not far from the site of the bombing and included an image of a masked figure beheading a praying person with an ax. The headline: "Message to the Muslims in Germany." It said that targeted attacks would be "starting soon."
On Its Own
Thus far, the threats have not been acted upon. And so far, public prosecutors have not been able to identify any suspects -- neither in Cologne nor in Frankfurt nor in Berlin.
But following the attacks in Christchurch, in El Paso and in the German city of Halle, security officials in Germany have come to the realization that right-wing extremism represents a global threat. Now, they want to urgently improve international exchange, similar to the ramped up sharing of intelligence information that accompanied the fight against Islamist terror following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Thomas Haldenweg, the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, told German lawmakers that he hopes that partner agencies abroad will provide information in the future "about developments, perhaps even here in Germany." He said, however, that he doesn't anticipate the volume of such information to "match the intensity it had in the fight against Islamist terror."
In other words, Haldenweg seems to believe that Germany will have to largely overcome its right-wing terror problem on its own.
By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Alexander Epp, Roman Höfner, Martin Knobbe, Sven Röbel, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Ali Winston