Anthony F. Lemieux, Georgia State University
Background: Our research team at Georgia State University (Anthony Lemieux, P.I., Dror Walter, Rebecca Wilson, Katherine Kountz, John Hendry, Allison Betus, and Mor Yachin) and the University of Cincinnati (Michael Loadenthal) have been working on analyses of a corpus of leaked interviewing and vetting calls provided to our research team by the Southern Poverty Law Center ( n = 127) for membership in the white supremacist, neo-nazi accelerationist group The Base.
The calls included in this data set took place between November of 2018 and January of 2020, and were primarily conducted as vetting interviews for potential members (i.e., candidates), while some focused on core readings (i.e., James Mason’s Siege). Transcripts of the calls equal approximately 780,000 words over 1,500 pages. Some of the members, particularly those in leadership roles including Rinaldo Nazarro, the leader of The Base (using the pseudonyms Norman Spear and Roman Wolf), are present on multiple calls.
A series of posts have been created for the VOX-Pol blog to complement forthcoming journal articles, whereby members of the research team discuss various aspects of these interviews, examining such issues as motivation, catalysts for joining (so-called redpilling), survivalism, media, and concerns related to organizational and operational security.
Part 3: Operational Security Concerns
By John Hendry, Michael Loadenthal, Rebecca Wilson, and Anthony Lemieux
The Base and Internet OPSEC
The ability to establish secure communications channels and the best practices to keep those channels secure are an increasingly frequent topic of discussion in extremist groups. The proliferation of communications platforms, each with their own unique vulnerabilities, makes establishing secured communications difficult and allows groups to be exposed. This has proven to be a central factor in the story of The Base, an American white power, survivalist-accelerationist organization and network founded in 2018 by Rinaldo Nazzaro (aka Norman Spear and Roman Wolf). Despite the group’s preoccupation with discussing operational security (OPSEC) both over voice and text, the history of the organization has been marked with a series of successive failures regarding the security of their communications channels.
In 2018, the year The Base was founded, copies of their encrypted Wire chats were leaked to VICE, who subsequently published an exposé on the group. Prior to this leak, OPSEC concerns with WordPress and Riot chat software precipitated the move to Wire, which was then promptly infiltrated as well. The Base responded to this by tightening their OPSEC as well as implementing more stringent vetting and rules of conduct relating to communications practices—carefully documenting such changes in a series of policy documents which were also leaked. This progression can be seen in the two diagrams below, created from leaked materials, interviews with activists who had successfully infiltrated the network, and journalistic accounts:
After switching to new end-to-end encrypted communications platforms in February of 2019, the group had already been unknowingly infiltrated by a federal agent as early as June of that year. In-person meetups in August and October of 2019 were swiftly followed by the arrests of multiple group members in January of 2020. This culminated in the exposure of the group’s leader, Rinaldo Nazzaro, at the end of January 2020 in an article written by The Guardian.
Concurrent with and subsequent to these arrests, The Base’s communications continued to be leaked. These leaked communications contained numerous examples of the group reflecting on their OPSEC and their beliefs about the relative security of their communications channels. While these discussions show fundamental misunderstandings about their capacity for OPSEC, they also reveal how members of The Base conceptualized online communication, IT security, and the dynamics of interpersonal communication.
Discussing OPSEC: Echo Chambers and Misapprehensions
Leaked recruiting calls from The Base show the group’s fundamental misapprehensions about the security of their communications, as well as some underlying beliefs about public discourse. One member expresses this confusion by saying, “the reason that…we need to put this security stuff in place, not because we’re doing anything that needs to be hidden. It shouldn’t be hidden. We should be able to do this shit without having to worry about it.” This belief that the group’s activities should not have to be hidden shows the group’s insularity, as well as the way in which their understanding of the world has been shaped by internet-based communications. Their insularity is demonstrated by their surprise in being targeted by activists and journalists, despite their explicit and constant racism. In their discursive silo, such racism is normalized, and the only thing beyond the pale is specific and targeted calls to violence (i.e., ‘fedposting’), which themselves are only prohibited because of the potential for such utterances to be used against them by law enforcement or platform owners.
This perceived legitimacy and normalization of antisemitism and racism in itself relates to the group’s status as one founded and mediated through the internet. The Base utilizes a variety of internet communication platforms for functionality and security including encrypted email services Proton Mail and Tutanota, encrypted messaging apps Wire and Matrix, as well as unencrypted social media platforms including Gab, Twitter, Telegram, and iFunny. These technologies are incentivized to allow as much communication as possible, with the line often being drawn at explicit and targeted calls for violence, as previously noted. Terms of service for the aforementioned platforms and services have created discursive environments where just about everything short of explicit and specific calls to violence have been normalized. These discursive environments, being the site of discussion and lived experience for members of The Base, influence how they relate their discourse to society at large. The worldviews and positions that are expressed are mutually reinforced in ways that engender a level of perceived social normative support that is substantially disconnected to social norms outside of this mediated and isolated space. This misperception of what constitutes a position that is socially acceptable to express further contributes to members’ confusion about why they are being targeted for exposure. In their internet-inflected understanding of the world, their constant and explicit racism does not rise to the level that would warrant actions taken against it.
This incongruity of experience contributes to an environment characterized by “paranoia” and contradiction. Paranoia is revealed in statements such as, “when I say the vetting never ends, I mean that’s true for anyone.” One member characterizes the environment by saying “everyone’s…paranoia, they’re carrying around in their back pocket.” On another recruiting call, the group is described as “being constantly targeted for infiltration…I feel like it would be naive to think that you could eliminate that threat 100 percent.” This paranoia results in strange contradictions. For example, if these communications platforms are impossible to properly secure, then why continue using them? When a platform like Wire is lauded for its security features by saying that “screenshots are impossible,” the fact that other members disagree with this assessment is ignored, demonstrating at least some degree of groupthink that results in potentially important observations about the ways in which OPSEC might be compromised going unheard and unheeded. We see that security concerns that do not go along with the dominant narrative regarding infiltration and OPSEC are left unaddressed, with leadership saying things like “I’m not technically savvy enough to say for sure.” Without a strong understanding of the technical details of these platforms, such mistakes allowed for multiple infiltrations and leaks of the group’s private communications.
OPSEC as Branding
The Base has been subject to repeated leaks and exposure, some leading to the arrests of members. Despite this, the group continued to operate without a full understanding of the security profiles (and limitations) of the platforms they used to communicate, with leadership repeatedly claiming to be taking measures to ensure the security of the organization. Since these security measures were manifestly insufficient, we posit that discussion of OPSEC and secure communications seems to be an attempt to reassure the group of its own efficacy, to reduce any sense of dissonance about the security measures and protocols and the disconnect with the reality of the number of and publicity around OPSEC shortcomings, thereby allowing for a sustained group narrative around their ability to skillfully utilize encrypted communications platforms.
Thus, despite their numerous failures on this front, these discussions served to brand the group as security-conscious and even to reinforce that aspect of their identity and capability. In a crowded organizational environment, The Base wanted to be seen as a competent group who would not endanger its members. While their OPSEC failures are apparent to outsiders, the internal narrative was often operating at odds with reality. Potential recruits could be sold on the group as being both security-conscious and savvy to the tactics of infiltrators. Discussions around security served as focal points to solidify group identity while paradoxically failing to accomplish actual security goals.
John Hendry is a Ph.D. Candidate in Georgia State University’s Department of Communication and a Presidential Fellow at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University. His work focuses on how extremist rhetoric circulates and finds audiences online.
Michael Loadenthal, Ph.D., serves as a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Cyber Strategy and Policy (University of Cincinnati), and the founding Executive Director of the Prosecution Project. Dr. Loadenthal studies political violence focusing on far-right digital networks, operational security, and threat modeling while serving as a subject matter consultant for projects including the Bridging Divides Initiative (Princeton University), Movement Engaged Research Hub (George Mason University), and the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (King’s College London).
Rebecca Wilson, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University. She has served as a Research Fellow on research supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva program and as a fellow of the Violence Against Women Research Prevention lab. She has extensively analyzed the behavior of jihadi and far-right violent extremist groups including inter/intra group dynamics, communication strategies, cognitive and behavioral correlates of radicalization, recruitment, and operational strategies.
Anthony F. Lemieux is a Professor of Communication, founding co-director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center, and a lead researcher in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University.
Image Credit: PEXELS