A couple years back, I was using Facebook to identify members of fascist groups for my research. I collected about 2,700 profiles of members involved with all kinds of far-right subcultures, ranging from skinheads and Klansmen to Siege-pilled nihilists and peckerwood street gangs. It took me about two months to locate all those using a fairly simple method. Fascists use little shibboleths to signal their beliefs online — Pepe memes, Odal runes, Totenkopfs, numerical codes, etc. — so it’s only a matter of finding a person with known white nationalist affiliations, then working your way through their friends and their friends’ friends until you map out an entire network.
Some are harder to spot than others. Proud Boys are by far the easiest because they’re all about that branding. Members are fond of posting pics of themselves in their signature black-and-yellow Fred Perry polos and throwing up “okay” signs. Often they’ll have profile frames with the group’s yellow rooster logo or write in their bios little inside code words like “POYB,” which is short for “Proud of Your Boy.”
A wild idea occurred to me: Maybe this is all by design. What if someone within the organization were working with federal agents to encourage this sort of behavior to make the Proud Boys easier to identify and track?
Far-right extremism in the 21st century is largely online, decentralized and anonymous. The FBI isn’t really cut out for that sort of thing. They’re used to dealing with groups that have a clear identifiable structure, like the mafia — not random 4chan Nazis.
It’s hard to monitor white supremacy online because the ratio of noise to signal is too high. It’s difficult to tell which actors are serious about far-right ideology or committing violence and which are racist edgelords doing it to be transgressive.
The Proud Boys, wittingly or not, are perfect tools for the FBI. Invisible online extremists are suddenly rendered conspicuous. They show up to demonstrations in uniforms, faces uncovered, making themselves easy marks for surveillance by feds and antifascists alike.
This was just a stray thought I had. It could be that the Proud Boys are an op. Maybe they’re just idiots who don’t understand why they might not want to advertise that they’re in a fascist street gang? I didn’t have much in the way of proof either way.
However, the recent revelation that Proud Boys’ top leader had been a “prolific” federal informant for many years adds weight to this theory. Could it be a coincidence that the Proud Boys are led by a snitch and they have a model of organization that seems tailor-made for drawing far-right fanatics into the open?
I’ve actually seen something like this before. A while back, I wrote about a group calling itself the Base. It’s a network of “accelerationist” neo-Nazis trying to revive age-old white separatist ideas about the Northwest Territorial Imperative, which was to be achieved via a guerrilla struggle a la the Irish Republican Army.
The group shut down its private chats after Vice published an article on them. But an antifascist researcher who had gained access downloaded a log and sent it to me. At the time, I was posing as a potential recruit and being vetted by the Base’s founder, who went by the name “Norman Spear.”
For a guy building an international terrorist network he seemed to be pretty lax about opsec. The link to join was posted on a Wordpress blog and advertised on Twitter. I tried to solicit information from him by saying I was worried he might be fed. I observed that he wasn’t really a known quantity in the white nationalist movement and he appeared out of nowhere saying a bunch of radical stuff about how they needed to train an army of Unabombers.
Race war preppers
Inside the private chats of The Base, a Neo-Nazi survivalist network gearing up for racial armageddon
Norman tried to assuage my doubts by saying that he’d meet with me in person the next time he was in Washington State. Again, the same question: Is this guy just really bad at this or is he a fed trying collect intelligence by getting me to meet him some place public where I could be photographed clandestinely and put under surveillance?
In the chats, Norman made a similar pitch to other members. He offered to meet with them in person to collect special Base patches. Norman said this would be a “badge of courage,” showing that they were not afraid of risking exposure for the cause.
The Base’s main activity was having members in different sectors of the country meet up with one another for survival training, then take pics of themselves and send them to the group. In other words, something that might be useful for the FBI.
Aside from these red flags, there was a lot that didn’t quite add up about Norman. He came across as a Boy Scott. Unlike other white nationalists in the group, he never swore or used racial slurs. He mostly just spouted off a bunch of rhetoric that seemed learned by rote.
His first appearance on the white nationalist scene came shortly after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when he went on a Neo-Nazi podcast. He then made the rounds on other alt-right shows. Once he had spent sufficient time getting his name out there, he moved to start the Base.
If one were to try to found a fake group to attract far-right terrorists, this would be a pretty logical way to go about it. It seemed targeted toward the type of people who would gravitate toward Atomwaffen, a terrorist cult based on the neo-Nazi scribblings of James Mason.
Later, the Guardian ran a story revealing that “Norman Spear” was a former army intelligence officer named Rinaldo Nazzaro.
According to the story, Nazzaro is the principal of a private military company called Omega Security Solutions that boasts of government and military contracts as well as “expertise in counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, homeland security, hostage rescue/negotiations, psychological operations, and more.”
Several members of the Base have since been arrested for terror plots, including the scheme to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Curiously, “Norman Spear” has not.
There’s no smoking gun to prove that the FBI set up or influenced the Proud Boys using Tarrio as their agent — at least not yet. However, creating fugazi organizations is a tried and true tactic. In the 1960s and 1970s this approach was used against the left as a part of COINTELPRO.
The FBI set up a fake Maoist group in order to drive factional disputes within the ranks of the communist movement. Known as the Ad Hoc Committee, the group included former Maoists who knew how to recite dogma perfectly and just what wedge positions to take in order to derail organizations.
More recently, fake FBI groups have been used against neo-Nazis. In 2012, the feds established an ersatz motorcycle gang to nab remnants of the Aryan Nations. They did it again in 2016 during a sting targeting the leader of the Vinlanders white power group.
If the Proud Boys are a trap set up by the FBI, then the feds are reaping what they’ve sown. After years of sitting on the group, letting it grow and commit countless acts of violence, federal law enforcement is finally cracking down. A number of Proud Boys have been arrested following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, including Sergeant-at-Arms Ethan Nordean, aka “Rufio Panman.”
From a political standpoint, this has worked out well. The FBI has the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its value to the new administration, which has vowed to get tough on “domestic terrorism.” At a time when the public is demanding punishment for the Capitol riots, the FBI is like a cat with bird in its teeth, moving quickly to show results.