By M. Dohan
In late January 2018, a group of white men armed with assault rifles and other weapons, dressed in camouflage pants, skull masks and black T-shirts emblazoned with Nazi insignia or logos of National Socialist heavy metal bands, assembled deep in the Nevada desert, near Death Valley. They had traveled from all across the United States to take part in an annual three-day “hate camp,” where they received military-style instruction in knife fighting, rappelling and the handling of Uzis. Their objective in attending was to hone their combat skills in preparation for carrying out lone-wolf attacks on natural gas lines, public water systems, electrical power grids – and synagogues. A propaganda film highlighting the violent gathering was titled, “Doomsday Hatecamp.” At a similar training the previous year, which took place at an abandoned cement factory in Washington State, shouts of Atomwaffen’s slogan, “Gas the kikes! Race war now!” could be heard amidst the firing of weapons.
Who is orchestrating these disturbing “retreats”? The answer is Atomwaffen Division, a venomous white-supremacist network that operates primarily on the virulently neo-Nazi online forum, IronMarch. Atomwaffen members celebrate Hitler, preach hatred against Jews and other minorities and promote “Total Aryan Victory.” According to the civil rights advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center, “Atomwaffen’s greatest success appears to be attracting young men who are entranced by its fetishizing of death, Nazism, violence, and mass murder.” Although Atomwaffen was expelled from major online hosting sites in early 2018, this did not deter its extremist leaders. Atomwaffen, like other neo-Nazi and terrorist groups, revived itself by commencing operations through secretive online chats on what’s known as the “dark web.”
Anatomy of the Hidden Internet
Did you know that 96 percent of the World Wide Web is actually hidden from the average user? In fact, the “deep web” (not to be confused with the “dark web”) is about 400 to 500 times larger than the surface web and contains millions of pages that are restricted to the public. For example, secure bank information and corporate internet accounts are part of the deep web.
But buried deeper in the abysses of the deep web lies the dark web, a cesspool of illegal and disquieting content where the despicable has become commonplace.
Often referred to as the “Wild West of the internet,” the dark web is a group of underground websites that can’t be accessed through typical search engines or browsers. These sites utilize an encrypted network that camouflages the web server’s location, making it extremely difficult to attack, detect, track, hack and shut them down. Dark web technology is controversial because, while it does offer some positive benefits such as protection for dissidents in oppressive regimes, it also provides sanctuary for terrorists, illicit drug dealers, child abusers and neo-Nazis.
But from where and when did the dark web emerge? The technology behind the dark web, known as the Onion Router, was originally developed in the 1990s by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a means to facilitate anonymous communication over the internet. This was done by pinging the user’s connection around many different servers across the world, making his or her actual location extremely hard to track. When the routing technology was eventually released to the public, its software was licensed as the Tor (The Onion Router) Network.
Dark web sites using Tor look pretty much like any other site except that instead of ending in .com or .co, dark web sites end in .onion. Dark web sites also use a scrambled naming structure that creates URLs that are often impossible to remember. For instance, a popular commerce site goes by the jumbled address of “eajwlvnm3z2lcca76.onion.” Tor essentially renders IP addresses unidentifiable and untraceable. The result is an experience that’s like the dark web itself: erratic, unreliable and frustratingly slow.
By 2010, the dark web had transformed into a hub of criminal activity. In fact, according to a 2016 study conducted by researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, approximately 57 percent of the dark web contained illicit material, a majority being child exploitation. The dark web also hosts dozens of illegal marketplaces, where one can purchase everything from drugs to counterfeit currency to guns and even murderers for hire. The most common information currently sought on the dark web are social security numbers, drivers’ license and credit card numbers. Although the dark web comprises less than 1 percent of the total internet, its illegal marketplaces generate more than $500,000 per day, with most financial transactions carried out via the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. This virtual money is entirely legal, easily purchased on the surface web and ensures anonymity to buyers and sellers.
Even more terrifying, many terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and IS, have taken advantage of the invisibility of the dark web to recruit new members and coordinate terror attacks. Dark web sites, such as SadaqaCoins, are often used to securely fund jihadi terrorists. Various neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have created dark web forums overflowing with the most repulsive anti-Semitic propaganda. Terrorists, white supremacists and racist fanatics use the dark web as a convenient platform with which to illegally and anonymously purchase weapons, transfer money and fundraise. According to an RTÉ radio interview with cyber-security expert Paul C. Dwyer, the dark web has emerged as a “petri dish of hatred and evil.”
One infamous neo-Nazi dark site, The Daily Stormer, takes its name from the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer. The site regularly posts profanities against Jews, displays stereotyped images of Jews with long noses and includes sections such as “The Jewish Problem” and “Race War.” During an interview on the right-wing talk radio show Radical Agenda, Andrew Anglin, founder of The Daily Stormer, stated that his site is “mainly designed to target children.” He also wrote in a blog post, “We need to get pre-teens involved in the movement. At that age, you can really brainwash someone easily … Anyone who accepts Nazism at the age of 10 or 11 is going to be a Nazi for life.”
In August 2017, after the Daily Stormer published an offensive article about Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old counter-protestor who was murdered at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the Daily Stormer’s registration to use the open internet was revoked. (The Daily Stormer was also terminated by content delivery network, CloudFlare.) The anti-Semitic blog was left no choice but to post a message saying the site would be inaccessible until further notice. After cycling through different domain names (e.g.dailystormer.com, dailystormer.ru) and being repeatedly cancelled soon after registration, the Daily Stormer finally retreated to the dark web, operating on the Tor network.
As mentioned earlier, another virulently anti-Semitic dark site is Atomwaffen (German for “atomic weapons”), a division of the fascist forum “Iron March.” It is an underground cell of neo-Nazi militants who emerged in 2015 with the express goal of provoking a violent race war to bring about an “Aryan State.” Their ideological leader, James Mason, idolizes Hitler, and many of their members canonize Nazi relics and Third Reich propaganda.
Atomwaffen has cells and military training camps across the United States, including one in New York, and are actively expanding to the U.K., Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Germany. They routinely recruit members on U.S. college campuses and have been linked to five murders, including the high-profile 2018 murder of Jewish college student Blaze Bernstein.
Atomwaffen gained national prominence after some of its members attacked counter-protesters at the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2018, a social media site suspended Atomwaffen’s account, citing “multiple or severe violations of … policy prohibiting hate speech.” Their surface websites, atomwaffendivision.org and siegeculture.biz, have both been suspended.
By far, the network considered the most dangerous of all neo-Nazi groups on the dark web is The Base, a mixed bag of white supremacists who adhere to fascist ideology and share a common ambition: the establishment of an all-white state in the Pacific Northwest. The Base’s leader, Norman Spear (an alias), has worked furiously to unify online fascists into a global web of terror cells with two express purposes: to infiltrate popular culture with neo-Nazi propaganda and to organize in-person meetings to plan violent insurgencies against minority groups, especially Jews. When 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, members of The Base conducted a heated online discussion about how these killings could advance their goals.
The Base attracts extremists from all over the world and encourages lone wolf-style attacks. Group members must be vetted to gain access to The Base’s website (many of their members are former soldiers) and are then required to read terror instruction manuals about guns, bombs, chemical weapons, guerrilla warfare and surveillance techniques. Members are paired geographically for real-life paramilitary retreats. After one recent “hate camp” experience, a member posted the following: “Got to get out in nature and do some hiking. I had a 9mm and a few extra mags, got tempted to visit the synagogue I saw near where I was staying ;).”
Another member of The Base posted that “The only thing we want is radicals … [l]ike Bowers … People who will not just agree with us but stack Jewish corpses 10 feet high.” After negative publicity, The Bases’s Twitter account, with more than 1,000 followers, was shut down. It was also banned from an alt-right social network.
Another neo-Nazi extremist site that was forced to retreat temporarily to the dark web is Stormfront. Stormfront, one of the largest and most notorious neo-Nazi forums, labels itself as “a community of racial realists and idealists” and espouses the theory that “[t]he origin of the problem with the Jews is, once again, in the blood.”
Over the last 20 years, the popular message board has drawn close to a half a million monthly visitors, enticing users with discussion threads such as, “What do you want done with the Jews?” Stormfront’s users have been linked to at least 100 hate-crime murders, rightfully warranting their designation as the “murder capital of the internet” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In August 2017, amid the heightened scrutiny of online hate sites after Charlottesville, Stormfront finally lost its domain. It was, distressingly, back up again within a short time and is now operational on the surface web.
The term “dark net” has grown to include fringe dark-web platforms, which, although unavailable through standard Google searches, are still relatively easy to access on the surface web. These sites serve as online safe havens for extremist and neo-Nazi groups. Browsing them resembles a trip back in time to Nazi Germany, as users mockingly reference gas chambers and post messages such as, “Jews are human sewage,” Jews “must report to the oven,” and “all Jews must die.”
The gunman who killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded three others at Chabad of Poway, as well as the one who massacred 50 people at New Zealand mosques in March, had posted hate-filled manifestos on a message board. After both shootings, the message board’s posters cheered on and praised the attackers with comments such as: “I’m so pleased a Jew church got shot up : ))))) Wish more Jews had died : / No worries they’ll be more synagogue shootups : )))).”
On an extremist-loving social media site, usernames often contain Nazi insignia like swastikas and the Waffen-SS logo, and user profiles promote anti-Jewish video podcasts.
International, Interagency Efforts Against the Dark Web
Law enforcement agencies such as the Office on Drugs and Crime regularly monitor the dark web and share their data with global police organizations. Recent clampdowns have resulted in successful investigations into key criminal dark-web sites and the shuttering of several sites for violation of local law. For instance, after recently joining forces with Israel’s cyber-crime unit, the FBI arrested two Israelis suspected of selling drugs, weapons and stolen credit cards on the dark web.
Even the CIA has gotten on board by launching its own dark-web site to solicit anonymous tips. However, while federal task forces do their best to evaluate the dark web, they recognize that they are not equipped to provide the most up-to-date, accessible information. In fact, U.S. law enforcement officials regularly hire private cybersecurity experts and outside intelligence firms to monitor the vast expanses of the dark web, simply because they have more advanced technology and fewer legal restrictions on intelligence gathering. By embedding themselves in the dark web criminal communities, these specialized analysts are able to collect intelligence about suspicious internet domains and then pass it on to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Unfortunately, in response to the attempts to limit the scope and reach of extremists on the dark web, neo-Nazis and terrorists have discovered even more sophisticated methods of communicating, making it increasingly difficult to track them. Many have begun using the fully encrypted Telegram messaging app to send private messages on Android, iOS and Windows devices. The Telegram app has a unique feature that allows messages to self-destruct on a timer that only users can control. Ahmet S. Yayla, noted author, professor and former counterterrorism and operations police chief, told Hamodia, “Extremists love the Telegram app, and it has become the most widespread tool for them to communicate in groups or person-to-person.”
At the 2015 TechCrunch conference in San Francisco, Telegram’s CEO, Russian internet entrepreneur Pavel Durov, admitted that his app was used by extremist groups, but said he believed that “privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.” Two months after Durov’s remarks, IS murdered 130 people in Paris. According to French investigators, the terrorists relied heavily on Telegram to plan and coordinate the attacks.
The greatest challenge that law enforcement agencies currently face can be summarized by former FBI Director James Comey, who stated, “Increasingly, we are unable to see what [terrorists/white supremacists] say, which gives them a tremendous advantage against us.”
It is critical that counter-terrorism agencies, governments and internet companies work hand in hand to gain a better understanding of the type of information that exists on the dark web. This can be accomplished by constantly developing new methods to track and analyze extremists, collaborating to appropriate all hate-filled propaganda, and creating protocols for prosecuting the anti-Semitic venom that now festers in the squalid underbelly of the internet.