The plans were as sweeping as they were chilling: "Derail some trains, kill some people, and poison some water supplies."
It was the blunt, bloody prescription for sparking a new race war by a member of the Base, a white supremacist group that has come under intense scrutiny amid a series of stunning recent arrests.
Federal agents, who had secretly recorded those remarks in a bugged apartment during a domestic terrorism investigation, pounced on seven members of the group last week in advance of a rally Monday by gun rights advocates in Richmond, Virginia. Three members of one cell in Maryland affiliated with the group plotted attacks at the rally, hoping to ignite wider violence that would lead to the creation of a white ethno-state, law enforcement officials said.
The "defendants did more than talk," Robert K. Hur, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said after a detention hearing Wednesday in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland. "They took steps to act and act violently on their racist views."
The details that emerged in court and in documents from active cases in three other states - Georgia, Wisconsin and New Jersey - unveiled a disturbing new face of white supremacy.
The Base illustrates what law enforcement officials and extremism experts describe as an expanding threat, particularly from adherents who cluster in small cells organized under the auspices of a larger group that spreads violent ideology.
"We have a significant increase in racially motivated violent extremism in the United States and, I think, a growing increase in white nationalism and white supremacy extremist movements," Jay Tabb, the head of national security for the FBI, said at an event in Washington last week.
Experts who have studied the Base say it seems to have followed the model of al-Qaida and other violent Islamic groups in working to radicalize independent cells or even lone wolves who would be inspired to plot their own attacks.
They describe the Base as an "accelerationist" organization, seeking to speed the collapse of the country and give rise to a state of its own in the Pacific Northwest by killing minorities, particularly African Americans and Jews.
Experts estimate that the Base, which was formed around July 2018, has dozens of hard-core members and tries to recruit many more online, although its approach is evolving.
The arrests to head off violence in Richmond and Georgia exposed aspects of a long-running FBI investigation, involving at least one undercover agent who infiltrated the group, as well as a hidden recording device and a video camera that were placed inside a Delaware apartment where two of the men were arrested. The group's toxic blend of ideology, dangerous rhetoric and embrace of violence has made it a top priority for the agency.
The case also reflected an aggressive approach that the FBI can take when investigating an extremist group like the Base when there is a legal basis to do so.
Membership alone in a hate group is not a crime, but this case is a rare example of investigators treating a neo-Nazi group like the Mafia or a drug cartel, and allowing the FBI to legally use a wide swath of investigative tools to target its members.
In other words, the FBI suspected that the Base was operating as a criminal enterprise.
The men arrested in Maryland hoped that attacks in Richmond would spark a wider conflict.
"We can't let Virginia go to waste, we just can't," Patrik J. Mathews, a member of the Base, and a combat engineer who was expelled from the Canadian army reserve, was recorded as saying about Monday's rally in Richmond.
He and other members talked about killing police officers or ordinary participants who showed up outfitted with what they called "Gucci" gear: high-end weapons and body armor that they could steal.
Mathews, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and sporting a thick, reddish beard, sat impassively for most of the hearing in federal court Wednesday. When Judge Timothy J. Sullivan read some of his more incendiary talk from the secret recordings about derailing trains, Mathews laughed.
The activity of Mathews and the others who were arrested reflected the changing thinking of the Base, which is placing more emphasis now on real-life gatherings and acts of violence, beyond just spreading propaganda online.
In recent years, the founder of the Base, who uses the names Norman Spear and Roman Wolf, both of which are pseudonyms, has stressed making the movement more kinetic offline.
He did not want to recruit "keyboard warriors," he said in a podcast interview in September 2018, but rather dynamic members who were interested in developing military and survival skills.
"Encouraging members to be more active is kind of encouraging the creation of a base of potential," he said.
Little is known about Spear, who calls himself a veteran of the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq and has been described on some social media accounts as living in Russia. He encouraged cells to organize what he called "in-real-life" activity, consisting of anything from individual violent acts to training sessions. Even three members would be enough, he said, describing such a configuration as a "Trouble Trio." Spear is said, according to court documents, to offer prizes to participants.
One weekend gathering organized by several people who identified as members of the Base took place in Silver Creek, Georgia, in August. It included firearms training, grappling, first aid lessons and a pagan ritual that included a goat sacrifice, according to court documents.
Each event was turned into a slick promotional video to be distributed online. The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, has noted that the same men appeared at different sessions around the country, suggesting the limited size of the group.
"When this training is filmed, edited and disseminated as propaganda, it serves as a force multiplier for the group and helps it recruit and fundraise while also raising its profile," said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, which studies terrorism globally. "If the Base can seem larger or more dangerous than it actually is, this is a boon for the group and one of its primary goals."
The Base shares some ideological underpinnings and likely some members with Atomwaffen Division, another violent white-supremacist, neo-Nazi group
Both subscribe to the writings of James N. Mason, the author of "The Siege," a kind of manual on establishing a white ethno-state.
Whereas members of Atomwaffen have been linked to about five murders around the United States, members of the Base have been accused only of plotting violence and including murder, as well as illegally transporting weapons.
That does not make them less dangerous, experts said. Base members have expressed admiration for both the 2015 attack on an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine people were killed, and an armed assault on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 in which 11 people died.
"The danger is very real; we live in a country where we have mass shootings on a regular basis, sometimes with no ideology," Clarke said. "Now these are people who are committed, angry racists who could do the same thing at any time."
Members of the Base posting in various chat rooms wrote messages encouraging violence, such as "Insurgency begins as a terrorist campaign," according to court documents, and said that the current system of government "can't be replaced peacefully."
They also encouraged former members of the military to join. Mathews, 27 a former combat engineer in the Canadian army reserve, expelled from the service last year after an undercover investigation in the Winnipeg Free Press exposed him as a recruiter for the Base and he fled across the border into the United States.
Brian M. Lemley Jr., 33, a former U.S. Army cavalry scout from Elkton, Maryland, was charged along with him. Among other things, the two men built a functioning assault rifle from a kit that they intended to use in Richmond, court documents said.
Spear has said repeatedly that the United States is doomed because of its large and growing minority population. He and other members of the Base have also criticized President Donald Trump.
"Trump is a false prophet, Israel-first fraud," Lemley was quoted as saying at one point, adding later, "The Holocaust is fake news."
Aside from the plot to incite explosive violence at the Virginia rally, the court documents detailed the activities of all seven men arrested last week as well as one charged in New Jersey in November.
In Georgia, the three men arrested had, in the presence of an undercover agent, cased the house of a Bartow County couple they planned to shoot dead for being members of antifa, which has staged counterdemonstrations at right-wing rallies across the country and revealed the identities of Base members publicly.
They also planned to kill Mathews, whom they had told about their murder plans.
The seventh man arrested was identified as Yousef O. Barasneh, 22, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, who was accused of vandalizing the synagogue of the Beth Israel Sinai Congregation in nearby Racine.
The exterior of the synagogue had been spray painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic words as well as the symbol of the Base, which is drawn from Nazi Germany.
Richard Tobin, a suspected member of the Base who was arrested in New Jersey in November, told investigators that, in late September 2019, he had directed what he called "Operation Kristallnacht," named after the notorious night in 1938 when Jewish property across Germany was destroyed. The operation that Tobin described included vandalism at the Racine synagogue and another one in Hancock, Michigan.
Although the Base initially used various social media platforms to spread its message, it has been thrown off most of them, including Twitter, YouTube and Gab, a favorite among extremists.
Now it relies on Telegram, an encrypted platform, experts said. After all the arrests, a note appeared on its official Telegram account warning people to stop posting.
"Due to recent developments and the tactics of law enforcement, there will be no more recruitment or posts from The Base or Atomwaffen in order to avoid a case brought against anyone in this group," said the note, which was posted by someone using the name Fashwave. "This is for your own good."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company