Strategies for Countering Neo-Nazi Radicalization

American members of the National Socialist Movement. Source: Southern Poverty Law Center.

Decades after the end of World War II, Nazism continues to incite hatred and divide the globe. Thousands have been radicalized into what is now deemed neo-Nazi ideology from dozens of countries across the world. Although the phenomenon of neo-Nazism is well documented, research has yet to establish a common profile of those deemed vulnerable to its recruitment. Several have attempted to establish a potential profile; however, the American cases that have been studied stem from vastly different backgrounds, and their diversity is too difficult to account for with any one theory.

Though the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks stemming solely from neo-Nazi groups is relatively low, such groups present a unique threat. Neo-Nazi groups tend to be embedded with other racist extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and other anti-Semitic groups. Fringe members of these groups present an often-undetectable lone wolf threat which is extremely difficult for law enforcement to counter. Neo-Nazi groups are also often associated with the trafficking of narcotics and prostitution, potentially leading to a large indirect cost on society.

In discussing neo-Nazi radicalization, former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini has a unique take on the process. Picciolini, who become radicalized into neo-Nazi ideology after attending a gathering of a skinhead group at 14 years old, has since deradicalized and now works to help others do the same. But Picciolini does not attribute neo-Nazi radicalization to an ideology at all. In an informative interview, Picciolini stated that “I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology”. The vulnerabilities mentioned in the interview stem from both real and perceived grievances, felt by some youths as they grow and learn about the world and their place in it. Like so many youths searching for answers to their anger and frustrations, Picciolini found answers amongst neo-Nazi propaganda. Unfortunately there was not a counter narrative strategy in place to address the statements presented to him.

Exploiting vulnerabilities is a normal gang recruitment strategy. Many neo-Nazis are recruited while in prison, and the process is similar to other gang recruitment methodologies. However, neo-Nazi gangs are distinct in their provision of a more thorough ideological base for those who they radicalize. Further, the agenda of neo-Nazism is the creation of a Fourth Reich, which obviously goes far beyond the belief system associated with a typical street gang. Because of the hybrid nature of the radicalization process between extremist group and street gang that is observed within neo-Nazism, a hybrid approach to deradicalization and a hybrid counter-narrative strategy is needed.

Law enforcement’s response to neo-Nazi groups has begun to change in recent years. Whereas for a long time neo-Nazi groups and skin heads were often associated with the punk rock scene and were considered kids acting out their frustrations, now they are being considered legitimate concerns for homeland security.

Though they may pose a significant security concern, simply addressing neo-Nazi radicalization as a law enforcement matter does not properly address the underlying issues that cause some to become radicalized. In discussion about freedom of speech when it comes to hate speech and propaganda, experts suggest that education is the likely best route for countering extremism. An effective solution will couple education with a strategy in which local governments and communities adapt partnerships with organizations who have experience in deradicalization. One such organization and program is the Anti-Defamation League’s “A World of Difference” campaign, which uses mass media and education in schools to address bias, racism, anti-Semitism, and a variety of radicalization and extremist behaviors. Policy encouraging local communities to embrace programs mentioned above could potentially hold the key to severely disrupting recruitment efforts of the dozens of neo-Nazi groups operating in the United States.

John Patrick Wilson is an Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

John Wilson

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