Bottom Line Up Front
- White supremacist groups are touting accelerationist, siege, and Great Replacement theories during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- White supremacists have taken to mainstream social media platforms and encrypted applications to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19.
- Federal law enforcement agencies have alerted state and local police forces of white supremacists’ interest in weaponizing COVID-19.
- While improbable that a white supremacist group can successfully carry out even a low-scale WMD attack, much more likely during the pandemic would be small-arms and critical infrastructure attacks.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread worldwide, fringe groups and violent extremists, including white supremacists, are pointing to ‘theories’ and works of fiction in an effort to motivate individuals to take violent action. One theory—accelerationism—long associated with the demise of capitalism through the speeding up of the modes of production with a result that would lead to a collapse of the economic system and the rise of communism, has been coopted and amended by white supremacists. White supremacists have also taken to a number of platforms, to include mainstream social media outlets, in an attempt to explain to their supporters that COVID-19 is a conspiracy being directed by the New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros, the Chinese government, and others seeking to eliminate the white race. Encrypted group Telegram channels and freedom boards like 8Kun frequented by white supremacists have seen a significant uptick in promoting the theory of accelerationism and the concept of ‘whites being under siege and attacked’ through the weaponization of COVID-19. Accordingly, these insular communities are advocating for the white population to take up arms to spark a race war that leads to societal collapse, only to be supplanted by a new, white-led order that reigns supreme. The toxic combination of accelerationist theories, disinformation campaigns, and conspiratorial thinking during a time of national emergency represents a significant security concern.
Indeed, the white supremacist chatter over a wide array of communications has garnered the attention of U.S. law enforcement. In late February, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service circulated an intelligence briefing to state and local law enforcement agencies which highlighted that white supremacists had discussed the possibility of using coronavirus as a bioweapon to be directed against its enemies, to include the FBI and non-white communities. Interest in using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear terrorism from white supremacists groups is not new. In fact, the fictional Turner Diaries envisages a world where white supremacists use multiple nuclear weapons to overrun the U.S. government. The neo-Nazi Atomwaffen terrorist group’s name literally means ‘nuclear weapons.’ Violent white supremacist groups and individuals, however, have gone beyond rhetoric in their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the 1980s, the Arkansas-based Covenant Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) terrorist group acquired large amounts of cyanide with an intent of poisoning water supplies of major U.S. cities. In the 1990s, several violent anti-government linked groups, like Frank Nelson’s Minnesota Patriot’s Council, were thwarted after producing ricin as part of a plan to assassinate law enforcement officials.
Aside from a few historical outliers, terrorist groups successfully using WMDs have been infrequent. The best-known example is the 1995 Sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo – a millenarian doomsday cult – that killed twelve on the Tokyo subway. Similar to white supremacist groups, Aum Shinrikyo saw the use of WMD as a way to destroy the system so a new world could replace it. The likelihood of white supremacists using a WMD during the COVID-19 crisis is less probable than a conventional small-arms attack or an attack on critical infrastructure. Since 2018, white supremacists have carried out several small arms attacks that have killed scores of innocent civilians. If similar attacks were to occur during a time of national emergency, an already stressed medical system would be completely overwhelmed. The psychological fear and attendant panic induced from a critical infrastructure or small arms attack on a grocery store would go beyond the immediate targets of such an attack. Thus, law enforcement must remain vigilant and alert to the potential menace of a white supremacist attack during the COVID-19 crisis.