Ukraine a 'playground' for white supremacist extremists, report warns

Soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard take part in tactical-special drills in the village of Stare on Sept 30, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - Apart from allegedly wanting to kill radical leftists and bomb a TV network widely reported to be CNN, 24-year-old US Army private Jarrett William Smith, charged on Sep 23, also wanted to travel to Ukraine to join the Azov Battalion.

The Azov Battalion is a far-right paramilitary, apparently integrated into Ukraine's National Guard. Its former leader Andriy Yevhenovych Biletsky is now a Ukrainian Member of Parliament as leader of the National Corps party.

The charges against Smith indicate that his apparent mentor, a man called Craig Lang, had fought with a right-wing paramilitary group in Ukraine similar to the Azov Battalion.

Ukraine has attracted around 17,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries, the vast majority from Russia. Of the 2,000-odd non-Russian foreign fighters, around 35 are Americans, says a new report from the Soufan Centre, a security think-tank.

It warns that as post-war Iraq and war-torn Syria were petri dishes for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ukraine has become a "playground" for another kind of extremist.

"White supremacists now have their own theatre in which to learn combat - Ukraine, where the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces has been raging since 2014, attracting fighters from around the globe who are fighting on both sides," says the report.

"White supremacists are forming global networks, much as jihadis did prior to 9/11, and are learning from jihadi tactics," it warns.

"In terms of organisational structure, white supremacists adopted the leaderless resistance model of terrorism before jihadists ever did, relying on attacks by lone actors as a means of minimising infiltration of the movement by federal law enforcement agents in the 1980s."

"Supremacists make propaganda warning of an alleged great replacement of whites in the same way jihadis talk about supposed war against Islam," Soufan Centre CEO Ali H. Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent who had worked on several high-profile international cases, told a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Sept 17.

"White supremacists support violence as an appropriate way to defend the purity of the race just as jihadis use violence to protect the purity of the religion," he said. "Both the groups recruit followers and reinforce their messages through social media. While jihadis make online videos, supremacists post online manifestos."

"Where jihadis travel to fight in places like Syria and Afghanistan, white supremacists now have their own theatre in which they learn combat: Eastern Ukraine," he said.

The report's warning is aimed mostly at America.

Another organisation that tracks hate, the Anti-Defamation League, has reported that over the past decade, white supremacy extremists have been responsible for three times as many deaths in the United States as have Islamists.

In May 2019, a senior FBI official told Congress that the bureau was pursuing about 850 domestic terrorism investigations, of which a "significant majority" were related to white supremacist extremists.

"By nearly every metric, white supremacy extremism has become one of the single most dangerous terrorist threats facing the United States, if not the single most dangerous," the report says, urging an update of US legal statutes to robustly deal with the threat.

Contemporary white supremacist groups may yet be small and inchoate - unlike the Islamic State which carved out territory for itself. But some ideological foundations are common to most, if not all.

Writer Renaud Camus, who reportedly lives in a chateau in France, propounds a theory of "le grand remplacement," or "great replacement" of France's original white European population by new arrivals, mostly from Africa, which has become a far right talking point cited by mass killers as far away as Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas.

"It's a slogan that dramatises the situation, talking of great replacement the same way we speak of the great barbarian invasions," Rudy Reichstadt, an expert on political extremism at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute in Paris, told the New York Times.

"Now, if you go to a horse race betting bar and talk politics, and you mention the great replacement, people will understand what you mean."

The ground in Ukraine is fertile for white males with a sense of grievance and disenfranchisement, who believe multiculturalism is degrading white values, Jason Blazakis, one of the lead authors of the report and a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Centre, told The Straits Times.

Mr Blazakis is also Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

"Russia's (2014) incursion into Crimea using separatists, and proxies on both sides, has created a zone in which white supremacists can develop tactics, techniques and procedures and general trade craft," he said.

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