Politics

Infiltrating the Base

What a Canadian journalist learned while going undercover into an international white supremacist network.

A German eagle with a swastika emblem.
A German eagle with swastika emblem is seen inside a display case at the D-Day Experience museum on May 7 in Carentan-les-Marais, France.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

When Ryan Thorpe, a general assignment reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, was tipped off to some frightening posters that were appearing around town, he wanted to figure out who was behind them. The slogans on the posters referred to the Base, an international group of white supremacists obsessed with violence. He decided to go undercover to find out more about the group, and wrote a terrifying exposé about what he learned.

I spoke with Thorpe about his experiences inside the Base on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: One day, you had a phone call with the Base’s founder and several other members. The next day, you got a message from the founder saying you’d done well, and it was time to meet a local recruiter in person. When you met the recruiter, what did you talk about?

Ryan Thorpe: At first we were just feeling each other out. This individual’s fatal mistake happened when he said: We’re gonna be working very closely with one another moving forward. So if you want to drop the online pseudonyms that we’ve been using and just use our real first names, we can do that. And that caught me off guard. I thought about it for a split second and I just said, my name’s Ryan. And he said, my name’s Patrick. We went for a walk and we started going toward secluded areas so we could talk more openly. And the conversation turned incredibly disturbing.

He told me that he was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, trained as a combat engineer doing explosives work. He started talking about committing violence against anti-fascist activists. He told me that he had been going to the United States to engage in these paramilitary training events called hate camps. He was quoting these neo-Nazi figures off the top of his head, like George Lincoln Rockwell and Tom Metzger.

All this led you to uncover the man’s identity: Patrick Mathews. He was a master corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces. And he was really into the Base.

Oh, yeah, he was a fanatic. That’s the only that’s the only word I can think to properly describes him.

What is the Base? How would you describe it in the universe of white nationalist organizations?

The Base was founded in 2018 in the United States. It’s a relatively new organization. Its stated aims right now are to establish two- to three-man cells in as many regions of the world as possible. They’ve expanded pretty quickly, given the fact that they are so young. They’re influenced by this very bizarre American neo-Nazi named James Mason. Mason used to be affiliated with the American Nazi Party, but eventually he came to the conclusion that trying to change things through mass political parties or through the traditional political process—like the American Nazi Party once tried to do—was essentially a fool’s game and that a better strategy had actually been pioneered by Charles Manson. Mason pioneered a synthesis between traditional Nazism and a veneration of serial killers like Charles Manson. He believes that the best thing these neo-Nazi radicals can do is engage in terror attacks and targeted assassinations and random murders, in order to sow chaos and create destabilization in society, hasten the demise of Western liberal democracies, and hopefully spark a race war. And from this race war, these individuals hope to be able to forge a white ethno-state.

You mentioned in your reporting that on the encrypted chat, these guys venerated people like Timothy McVeigh. They called them “saints.”

That’s the term they use for terrorists and mass murderers. We’re talking about folks like Anders Behring Breivik, who did the attacks in Norway, and Brenton Tarrant, who did the New Zealand mosque shooting. The Base explicitly cheers these events on when they happen. They want more of them to happen. They hope to carry them out themselves. And they explicitly call for high body counts.

This is a global movement. And it’s not just the Base. There is a sister organization called the Atomwaffen Division, which is very similar. They’re trying to forge solidarity among white people across international lines. I think it’s somewhat natural that you would see the membership expand across national borders.

After your report, Mathews’ home was raided by Canadian authorities. Later, he was let go and fled the country, leaving his truck at the U.S. border. He went dark at the end of August. What happens then?

For a number of months, we don’t know where he went, exactly whom he might be with, what he might be planning. Jump forward to Jan. 16, 2020: News breaks that Mathews has been arrested in Delaware alongside two other alleged members of the Base following a pretty lengthy investigation by the FBI.

Do you remember when you saw the headlines about Mathews’ arrest, and what you thought?

I was very concerned that this was going to have a violent end. But it became apparent from court documents that the Base was under a very intense investigation by not only the FBI, but also the ATF. All told, he’s facing 20 years in U.S. federal prison and 40 years in state prison.

Those court documents also detailed what Mathews was doing in the U.S. Can you elaborate?

After Mathews fled into the United States, two other alleged members of the Base drove more than 600 miles from Maryland into Michigan to pick him up. They then helped provide him safe harbor. Eventually they go down to Georgia, where there’s a member of the Base who has this sprawling large property. They host two paramilitary training events while Mathews and some of his comrades are down there. Mathews starts talking about me, saying that what I’ve done—naming him publicly—should carry the death penalty. They also begin hatching a double murder plot to take out a married couple whom they view as anti-fascist activists. What they didn’t realize was that there was an undercover FBI agent in their mix. The organization was keeping track of what they were, what plots they were hatching, and what they were saying. Eventually, Mathews goes back to Delaware, living in this apartment with another Base member, and they start ordering firearms parts. Over the course of a month, they manufacture a fully automatic assault rifle. They get their hands on body armor. And they begin talking about going down to a gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, which was held on Jan. 20, to open fire on the crowd from multiple angles. They talk about trying to find law enforcement officials who’ll be isolated so they can engage in targeted assassinations. Mathews at one point literally starts talking about “hunting” people.

You know, Patrick Mathews is one guy, but you’ve been talking about the Base as this kind of sprawling movement with small cells and lots of different places. What did you learn about the extent of this network as you were reporting these stories?

The organization has taken a hit recently because I think a total of eight members have been busted in recent months. But having said that, there are plenty of other members still out there. Some people look at the small membership number and say, well, that’s not much to worry about. But this group doesn’t want a big membership. They’re interested in what they view as quality over quantity. They’re not throwing open their doors to anyone. They’re only trying to get the most extreme and hardcore of individuals, people who are willing to commit violence. And we’ve consistently seen that it only takes one lone actor motivated by a hateful ideology to cause significant bloodshed.

Something worth pointing out is the connection with the military. One of Mathews’ co-accused in his case is a former member of the U.S. military. The Base is either seeking to recruit people who have military training, or trying to take their own members and push them into the military so they get that training and then come back and share it with everyone else.

The military in Canada produced a report in 2018 that identified 53 individuals over several years who had either been bona fide members of hate groups or who had expressed extremist sympathies. At the same time that this report was being produced, Patrick Mathews was flying under the radar. That’s a problem. We need to know how many folks with extremist views are in the military, in Canada and in the U.S., because they’re getting trained by some of the best military officials in the world. And they shouldn’t be able to take that and then try to use it to attack the state.

One silver lining in Canada, at least, is that the federal defense minister has ordered a new report from the military watchdog to say, look, I want you to launch a probe and try to figure out what is the extent of far-right extremism in the forces. That report is being carried out right now. What the outcome of that will be, I’m not entirely sure. But critics in Canada have long been saying that the Canadian military and Canadian law enforcement agencies do not properly recognize the threat that these organizations pose.

Reporting on white nationalist groups and talking about them feels vital. It also feels like this puts them even more out there into the international consciousness. I wonder what you think about that.

I think in some sense it’s a double-edged sword. I suppose it depends on what we view as the lesser of two evils in some sense. Of course we don’t want to signal-boost these people. We don’t want to aid in their recruitment efforts. But I truly believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that we effectively need to shine spotlights on these people so that they can’t operate in the shadows. When these people are operating without any scrutiny, I think they’re actually more effective in terms of not only what they’re organizing and what they might be planning but also their recruitment efforts. So while I understand that concern, and it’s certainly something I have wrestled with and try to be conscious of, I think ultimately what we need to do is keep an eye on these folks, because they are dangerous and we need to know what they’re up to.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next wherever you get your podcasts.