Foreign Fighters and the Global War for White Supremacy

Far-right activists have a long history of traveling overseas to fight for global white supremacy. Why aren’t they treated as terrorists?

Soldiers from the Azov Battalion, Mariupol, Ukraine, 6/17/2017 © Evgeny Sosnovsky / Shutterstock

A 1975 article in British Patriot magazine tells the story of John Coey, a 24-year-old college graduate from Ohio who was killed fighting for the continuation of white supremacy in the unrecognized state of Rhodesia. A member of the National Socialist White People’s Party (previously American Nazi Party), Coey had long been engaged in extremist activism. Having begun officer training for the United States Marine Corps, Coey asked for a discharge with the intent to travel to southern Africa and fought with both the Rhodesian Special Air Service and the Rhodesian Light Infantry.

He was eventually shot while tending to an injured soldier, becoming the first American citizen to die in the Rhodesian Bush War. The timing of Coey’s decision is telling. At the time of his discharge, the United States was in the twilight days of its war in Vietnam, and the British Patriot’s obituary of Coey makes it clear that in resigning from military duty and traveling to Rhodesia, he chose race over nation, deciding that the fight for white supremacy in southern Africa was more pressing than the American war in Southeast Asia.

 

Not Alone

Coey was far from alone in his decision to travel to southern Africa to fight for white supremacy, and in fact joined a group of around 300 North American expatriates who dubbed themselves the “Crippled Eagles,” referring to their abandonment by the “broken” United States government, a trope often mobilized by far-right activists. The Crippled Eagles were just one of the many foreign groups fighting in the region, and it is estimated that over 15 countries were represented in the combined forces that were propping up the regime in Salisbury.

While many of these fighters were simply mercenaries who would offer their services to the highest bidder, many were committed followers of far-right ideology lured by articles such as that printed in British Patriot. For the duration of the 1970s, the primary focus of both British Patriot and Bulldog — the magazine of the Young National Front — was squarely on southern Africa, with article after article encouraging young British men to join the fight for white supremacy in the region. Many of the articles were accompanied by reply slips calling for volunteers under the age of 45 who were willing to join either the Rhodesian armed forces or police service.

The presence of far-right foreign fighters in Rhodesia was far from unique in the context of the 20th century. However, and so-called anti-communist internationalism reached a new height in the 1980s with American “civilian” involvement in Central America. Civilian Military Assistance (CMA) gained particular notoriety as a paramilitary force in the region, backing rebel groups in Nicaragua and fighting for the anti-communist cause, growing from a group of six men from Alabama to over 3,000 fighters, many of whom were heavily armed and not afraid to use deadly force.

Part of the international Phoenix Battalion, the CMA actively recruited from far-right groups both in the US and the UK, and many members would use their training and access to weapons to benefit the white supremacist cause once they returned.

In the following decade, this tradition continued, with far-right mercenaries traveling to the Balkans to support neo-Ustashist elements within the Croat cause. Members of the French nationalist-revolutionary group, New Resistance, traveled to Croatia to join the Black Legion in 1991, where they were joined by Italian, Spanish, British and American recruits, the majority of whom were linked to extreme-right organizations within their own countries. The number of recruits grew to such an extent that a number of specific international paramilitary brigades were founded.

Tellingly, the French legion was named the Groupe Jacques Doriot, after the World War II-era fascist politician. Other groups, such as the First International Platoon, known as PIV (Prvi Internacionalni Vod) and explicitly neo-Nazi Werewolf Division, were amalgamated into the Croatian armed forces over the course of the war.

The PIV in particular came under intense scrutiny when one journalist-turned-member, Christian Würtenberg, was brutally murdered in 1992. Würtenberg was reportedly investigating the group’s links to organized crime and drug trafficking, and his death highlighted the dangerously violent tendencies of the international mercenary movement. Members of the PIV, Doriot Division and Werewolf Division were reported to have also been involved in the anti-communist struggle in Angola and with the Karens in Myanmar, clearly demonstrating the global scope of both their agenda and activism.

A Very Real Problem

While the landscape of extreme-right activism has shifted in recent years, the foreign fighter problem remains very real. The most recent battleground has been in Crimea, where extreme-right activists from across Europe and North America have joined up with the now notorious Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist Ukrainian paramilitary infamous for its political extremism and violence. The battalion has become a magnet, attracting over 2,500 “ethnic nationalist” volunteers from Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, many of whom see their battle as a “fight against the extinction of Europe.”

In Germany, former Azov members have been actively recruiting, and flyers with instructions on how to join were recently distributed at a notorious far-right rock festival. In Ukraine, these far-right activists are being trained and tested in warfare scenarios, bringing their newly found expertise, experience and extremism back to their home countries and organizations.

In the following decade, this tradition continued, with far-right mercenaries traveling to the Balkans to support neo-Ustashist elements within the Croat cause. Members of the French nationalist-revolutionary group, New Resistance, traveled to Croatia to join the Black Legion in 1991, where they were joined by Italian, Spanish, British and American recruits, the majority of whom were linked to extreme-right organizations within their own countries. The number of recruits grew to such an extent that a number of specific international paramilitary brigades were founded.

Ukraine thus threatens to offer the same kind of environment that Kathleen Belew suggests both Vietnam and the First Gulf War offered in the 20th century, in that it provides space for radicalization and training that will energize and educate white supremacist groups in the US and Europe. If Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant’s claim that he trained with the Azov is to be believed, we may already be witnessing the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the major threat that far-right foreign fighters have presented both to the security of their home nations and to international interests, very little has historically been done to combat the trend. In many cases, the US government has lent them all but official support, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, when Ronald Reagan stated that there was a “pretty well-established tradition” of US citizens traveling abroad to fight for various causes and that he was “inclined to not want to interfere with them” as a result.

In Europe, the picture is slightly better, with one Swedish volunteer who fought in Croatia arrested on his return and charged with war crimes. However, many far-right groups still do not appear on lists of foreign terrorist organizations in Europe, and membership often goes widely unpunished. While foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq in support of the Islamic State have been dealt with quickly and effectively by anti-terror legislation, the threat presented by far-right foreign fighters still looms large.

However, in late 2019, 40 members of the United States Congress petitioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to have the Azov Battalion declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Doing so would open the door for the prosecution of American citizens who travel in order to join the battalion and would limit the exchange of tactics and training between Azov and American white supremacist groups. As the signatories of the letter suggest, “terrorism is terrorism,” and the problem of far-right foreign fighters must be addressed on a global scale.

Mr Simon Purdue is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and is a Doctoral candidate in World History at Northeastern University. His profile can be found here:

© Simon Purdue. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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