How Extremists Capitalized on the Pandemic

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S1: Hannah Alarm didn’t expect to be covering Kofod, 19. She reports on national security and extremism for NPR. But the funny thing about this moment, she says, is how the corona virus, it ends up touching everything.

S2: Like everyone. I mean, does it matter what your beat was before the pandemic? Everyone’s a front of his recorder now.

S1: A few weeks back, Hannah started hearing about this story. It was right at the intersection between a regular beat and the pandemic.

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S3: It revolved around a shootout in Missouri, much like the rest of the metro and the country. This dead end Street and Belton were a few businesses are located, is pretty quiet, but it was far from quiet Tuesday. That afternoon, witnesses told us law enforcement officers opened fire on 36 year old Timothy Wilson and killed him.

S4: The FBI. We heard that there was this weird operation down, a Missouri covert connection. The guy ends up dead.

S5: An encrypted messages. Investigators say Wilson would use racial slurs when referring to people of different races or religions and that he held anti-government beliefs.

S6: He did not. The man who got killed, Timothy Wilson, who was thirty six years old. He had ties to neo-Nazi groups online. The FBI had been keeping tabs on him since September.

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S2: But, you know, it wasn’t until later that we started getting details about what was going on with the investigation. And frankly, I don’t think we still don’t know the sort of circumstances of Wilson’s death.

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S6: What Hannah does know is from court documents in them, a confidential informant, an undercover FBI agent, allege Wilson had been plotting to bomb a mosque or a synagogue or even an elementary school serving black children.

S2: I mean, the court papers are quite riveting. I mean, they watched this guy for a really, really long time. They describe how Wilson was in touch with this undercover operative, discuss bomb making with him. And Wilson writes to the undercover agent that he still thinks this a fellow extremist. Well, if you’re a Fed, you’ve got me now. And if that’s the case, make sure you bring lots of body bags when you raise. Raid my house. Hello. Well. Oh, my gosh. Yet court papers also quote him as saying he wanted to create enough chaos to, quote, start a revolution.

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S7: But then the coronavirus pandemic hits. And the FBI says Willson’s target changes again and that he shifted focus to Kansas City area hospitals that were treating Copan 19 patients.

S6: Timothy Wilson’s plan was to bomb the hospital.

S1: Why did the Corona virus change how this white supremacist thought of what he was going to do?

S2: This is something that we’ve seen in a lot of other cases that extremism today and how it’s expressed is often not as clear cut as this is a white supremacist. This is an anti-government person. What we’re seeing is a hybrid, a mix of a lot of these different views.

S7: FBI agents show up to arrest him. And this is where it gets murky. Something didn’t go according to plan. Gunfire is exchanged. Wilson ends up dead. And it’s a pretty extraordinary and dramatic and violent end to a domestic terrorism investigation. And it barely made a blip because the focus has all been on the pandemic.

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S8: Today on the show, a story about the widening reach of the Corona virus with so many Americans alone and under so much stress.

S9: Far right groups are taking advantage. It’s not just the virus that’s spreading extreme and sometimes violent rhetoric is, too. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: So when I looked at your reporting and others, it wasn’t until I really read the whole story’s pretty deeply that I realized that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, all of these law enforcement agencies have basically been out there warning about this link between the corona virus and potential domestic terrorism. And that that’s been happening for a while because there have been all these little incidents that alarmed them, especially, you know, about a month ago or a month or a month and a half ago, people spraying something they say is corona virus in a business and telling people they’ve been exposed. But then also people threatening to do things like bomb the Orlando police station.

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S2: And I was surprised to read that well and well and also alleged hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans and others. I mean, a family of three stabbed in a Sam’s Club down in Texas, I believe it was. And there had been I think ABC News got a hold of this memo from an FBI field office, but it went out to a lot of law enforcement. And it weren’t that, you know, it just sort of be aware that extremists could try to take advantage and try to exploit the pandemic in different ways. And so, yes, kind of saying pay attention to this threat.

S1: You talked to a number of experts who basically said it’s not just that these more extreme members of violent sort of white supremacist groups might be spurred to action because of what’s happening with the corona virus. It’s the fact that with all of us being home and online all day, it creates a perfect sort of situation for recruitment. Can you explain that a little bit?

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S2: That’s right. I mean, we millions of kids out of school, away from their usual support system of parents and coaches and pastors glued to their devices for hours on end because they’re stuck indoors. In many cases, they’ve seen their lives upended. They don’t know when they’re going back to school. They don’t get to graduate. You know, their loved ones are sick. Their parents are laid off. They’re surrounded by despair and fear and uncertainty and many extremism. Researchers worry that, yes, this if that’s basically all the ingredients you need to make extremist views resonate. So I spoke with a woman named Shannon Foley Martinez, who is a former white supremacist who is radicalized. She’s very young. She was a skinhead by age 16. She got out of that movement and for 25 years has worked with parents in schools and institutions on prevention work. And this is her biggest fear right now.

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S1: Are we seeing any evidence that folks are being recruited into these more extreme groups now?

S2: So there’s really no metric. This is something also that extremism researchers are always asking reporters to emphasize that it’s not a traditional militant recruiting effort. It’s not like, you know, ISIS and other groups that have specific recruiters. That’s their function. And some group hate groups have that. But generally, this is a self-propagating movement. And the researchers I talked to say if you’re in it, you’re recruiting all the time because you’re sharing names and tweets and comments that reinforce and spread the ideology. So it’s not a recruiting call where they come and tell your child, you know, join our noble cause and defend your race. The message is delivered online. It’s reinforced in meme after meme after meme. And it’s often couched in humor that blunts the seriousness and often the dehumanization that you see in those messages.

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S1: Well, you know what I think about? I think about those protests we’ve been seeing in state capitals where it’s a mix of people. It’s people with legitimate grievances of wanting to go back to work. But then also a lot of organizing power from folks who might be involved with more fringe organizations. I wonder what you make of that.

S2: No, that’s right. You’ve seen, like you said, there are people who just come come out and say this my conviction, I want to work. I you know, I want to be in charge of my medical decisions. And it’s, you know, the constitutional friction between personal liberties and public health. But enter into that fray, so-called constitutionalist factions. They sometimes call themselves patriot groups, liberty groups. There’s a lot of overlap with anti-government and tiebacks or militias, gun clubs, conspiracy theorists. And and as we’ve seen from photos of the protests, you also get the kind of standard issue, racist and anti-Semite. If you’ve seen the signs and some of the symbols that they’ve that you can see in the photos from this, what was one that stood out to you? Well, I mean, a Confederate flag. What’s that have to do with the Corona virus and your ability to go back to work after a pandemic? And, you know, there’s been a lot of. To anti-Semitic phrases that have cropped up on some of the picket signs of the protesters. And, you know, yes, those kinds of things make you ask, what is this really about?

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S1: Yeah, I look at your reporting and I see these, like, concentric circles of people sort of becoming more inflamed and more engaged. Like in the center. You have folks who are committed, you know, white supremacists before this and maybe were making plans before this. But this becomes the corona virus, become something to rally around. And then maybe a little bit out from that, you have people who were maybe involved with militias and and are now online more and able to participate more with groups that they may have participated with just a little bit. And then on the outer edges, you just have folks who are stuck at home without a job and want someone to blame because who doesn’t really. These kinds of situations. And you can see how each of these concentric circles is going to get bigger and sort of more inflamed as this goes on.

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S2: I mean, the pandemic has something for every brand of extremist.

S7: I mean, the racists see a chance to blame Asians, Jews, Muslims and so on. The acceleration of say, oh, look at the chaotic fall out. We told you this is going to happen. Do you want to be part of this crumbling old order or do you want to be part of this new projects like a white ethno state or a chance to remake the country, the militias, antigovernment factions? They point to the stay at home orders and say, look at all these constitutional violations. We warned you about government overreach. So it’s really whatever your sort of lane is.

S2: You know, extremism, you can find a way to connect it to the virus and the government’s response to it.

S6: As the pandemic wears on, Hannah says she’s watching these causes converge. And for some anti-government activists, the line separating them from a hate group is becoming less defined.

S4: And it’s really been interesting to see how the groups themselves are grappling with this, how, you know, more militant groups or these kind of constitutionalist groups, because there is a camp that says, let’s all band together and who cares if this guy is out there spouting white supremacist stuff? He’s showing up for this meeting. That’s what’s important. And others say, no, we don’t have to partner with everyone and we shouldn’t. And that’s how these arguments are playing out every day. I got a call this week from a frustrated militia leader who said, you know, I don’t need to partner with everyone. Why do you know? It was kind of bemoaning the fact that the movement wasn’t doing a good enough job policing itself from, you know, the white supremacists and and others who want to kind of glom onto that, you know, banner of the Constitution and liberty and those ideals because they’re more palatable.

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S1: That’s so interesting. I hadn’t even thought about that side of it where it’s just people who are just really concerned with individual liberties. And now this becomes like a new fight that they have to take on with their own members.

S4: Yeah. I mean and I mean, you know, people would say even without the white supremacist part. But that that malicious stance on its own is extremist and belongs in that sort of antigovernment bucket.

S2: Because when the rubber hits the road, you know, it’s if these groups feel that there has been a constitutional violation, they have said, you know, they are ready to use force to defend liberties and defend the Constitution. And that’s how they couched this. So, I mean, it’s not like. There is not something to look at and to look closely at even an even without the white supremacist element in some of these protests.

S8: I wanted to talk to you about this funny call and response between these extreme groups and the president. There was this reporting a few weeks back that when Trump began tweeting about liberating states like Michigan and Virginia, it actually changed how folks on the Internet were behaving. I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit.

S2: I can’t get into, you know, too much of the politics and the president’s role in all of that, you know? But I can tell you that, you know, yesterday or day before I was online and I was looking at the account of a former white supremacist, and he was actually a former moderator on one of the biggest white supremacist forums. And he’s left the movement and he’s become really outspoken about it. And he’s he’s worried about this moment. And he wrote that that he would have found resonance with what the president was saying back when he was in those movements, and he would have interpreted it as tacit support and that tacit support.

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S6: It’s got real consequences. There’s evidence that what a president says matters when it comes to hate speech.

S2: When you look at, for example, then President Bush after 9/11 and when there were some retaliatory attacks against Muslims, Bush comes out fairly early on and says and he just basically makes a distinction between Islam, as is practiced by one point six billion people and, you know, this extremist fringe. And there was a precipitous drop in hate crimes after that speech than we’ve seen, for example. I mean, I remember covering a case right after President Trump signed our Cameron froze when he announced or signed the travel ban that day. I think hours later a guy went and torched a mosque in Texas, burned it to the ground. Was it a fluke? Was it a one off? I mean, these are things that, you know, social scientists and and others who are really, you know, academics who are tracking this stuff have to have to talk about. But there are all these other factors about, you know, that can sort of influence hate crimes. But. Yes, presidential speech speeches, one of them.

S1: You report about this other story in the last few days that I want to talk about, because it’s much more subtle. It’s not about violence, but it’s about how embedded these extremist groups can be. And just like everyday society, it was a story that had been presented on the cable news is kind of heartwarming. A farmer who had these extra potatoes that he was distributing. Can you explain what happened?

S2: Hi. Yes. Potato Gabe. So this farmer has a surplus of potatoes because he can’t sell them. You know, the supply process is disrupted. So they were going to be left to sort of rot. And a group of community volunteers in rural Idaho gets together and they say, you know, we can take these to these three little towns where, you know, people need help like this. And so one of the volunteers was a guy with a dump truck. And so they load up all these potatoes and drive them to these towns and dump them. There’s this mountain of potatoes. Everybody is really happy. People are showing up with burlap sacks, carting them off. And it’s this really feel good moment in the pandemic. You know, maybe not for the farmer who lost his crop, but at least it didn’t go to waste. And so that’s how it was presented and made.

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S1: The Rachel Maddow Show for any farms ended up giving away eight hundred thousand pounds of potatoes to regular people, to food banks, to charities.

S2: But, you know, one of my colleagues, Kirk Siegler, who actually lives in Idaho and covers militia movements to Haiti. He sent me a text and said, look at the T-shirt, you know? And it was it was a T-shirt indicate membership in the three percent, the real Idaho three percenters. And that is the militia there, the one of the largest militias in the western United States. And the guy distributing the potatoes? Yeah, he was he had the dump truck and he was, you know, rocking his three percenter T-shirt. And so he you know, this was in the photos visible that were there were green. So it’s basically it was a feel good moment. The potatoes did get to people who wanted them. It wasn’t, you know, an instance of community service and a community coming together to solve a pandemic problem. Does it make a difference that the guy helping was a zone leader for a group whose leader has been on trial twice in federal court as a, you know, in in a domestic terrorism case?

S1: What did you think?

S2: Like, does it you know, afterwards I got an e-mail, I think, from one of the organizers who said, why do you have to point? Like, basically, why do I have to point that out? Who cares? I wasn’t. There was no politics involved. Both of. He just showed up and he helped. And you know what off to do. What does the militia have to do with it? But to others watching this, if you have someone who’s who’s wearing a T-shirt affiliated with a movement that’s considered an anti government militant movement, that’s how it’s categorized by federal loan Horsman by extremists and researchers. It raises questions like what’s the what’s the role in that? And then in four extremism researchers, they will tell you that this is part of a long tradition of militant groups all over the world, you know, kind of making inroads with communities through community service. And so they’re saying, yes, they’re involved in volunteerism. But look at it with a jaundiced eye. Basically, the basically, you know, yes, today they’re delivering potatoes tomorrow. They could be in a standoff with federal authorities.

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S1: It’s interesting because I saw that and I also saw the protests in the various state houses and I thought, wow, this is interesting because it shows how embedded these groups are in just day to day American life. First of all. But also. At this moment, when the federal government. I think most would say is not doing a great job of providing a shared purpose for a lot of people who are out of work and are scared. These groups are there for them. They’re happy to provide a shared purpose and a common goal. And a lot of Americans might not like what that common goal is.

S4: This was kind of my my pet peeve in some of the coverage of Islamist extremism, a diet of like ISIS and, you know, and post 9/11 stuff that, you know, there was a period where the reporting would suggest that, you know, Muslim teens are leaving en masse to go to Syria and that it’s this like massive epidemic of recruiting.

S2: I mean, I was a huge recruit, you know, is an unprecedented recruiting effort at that time and that extremist movement. And it was a big deal, but it was also overblown in a way that I also want to make sure that our coverage of this particular threat is also responsible and that we are looking at it in the most sober and clear eyed way, based on facts, based on what we see. I mean, to do that, you really need that on the ground reporting that we don’t have right now. That’s been so frustrating. As soon as these issues become safe to do so, I’d love to go out and see what does. What do these groups really do on the ground during the crisis?

S4: Are they going to come out of this stronger or weaker? Those are some of the questions I’m going to be looking at.

S8: Hannah Alarm covers extremism for NPR.

S6: And that’s the show. What Next? Is piece by Daniel Hewat, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson for the show and a lot of our shows these days. We had some help from Allison Benedikt and from Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. Stay healthy out there. I’ll see you back in this feed tomorrow.