(Mis)Understanding the transnational violent extreme-right Active Club Strategy

In early April 2024, CEP submitted a report to the inquiry of the Parliament of Australia into right-wing extremist movements. This blog summarizes the contribution of CEP´s senior adviser Alexander Ritzmann to the CEP report, where he analyzes the Active Club strategy and its possible implications for Australia and beyond. The full report can be found here.   

White supremacist Active Clubs are arguably the largest and fastest growing violent extreme-right network with more than 100 groups worldwide in at least 22 countries. At the time of writing, there are no groups visible in Australia that follow the Active Club Strategy. However, Thomas Sewell, leader of the violent extreme-right European Australian Movement (EAM) and the National Socialist Network (NSM), hosted three Twitter/X “Spaces” in recent weeks that included representatives from several U.S. Active Clubs. Between 5,130 and 9,950 X users attended the discussion. In January 2024, Sewell posted on the same platform that he is personally in touch with the leadership of almost every U.S. Active Club.

The Active Club strategy was developed in the U.S. to build a shadow militia while evading law enforcement scrutiny and counter-measures. Due to ongoing counter (violent) extremism efforts of the Australian government it is possible, if not likely, that the Active Club strategy will be implemented in Australia by (violent) right-wing extremist key actors in the near future.

(Mis)Understanding the Active Club Strategy

For the development of practical analysis and effective countermeasures by governments and civil society, it is important to differentiate between the Active Club strategy and extreme-right groups that do sports, sometimes called “Our Guy Activist Groups” (OGAG). OGAG is a much broader category that reflects a long-established and broad trend of (violent) extreme-right groups in Europe, North America, and Australia to promote fitness, combat sports, and outdoor activities like hiking. Physical training activities by OGAGs are in concert with political (party) activities and community-building efforts and often include women, who might have their own groups as wives or girlfriends of the male members. Additionally, OGAGs have a classic hierarchical leadership structure with a central command. If the legal framework in the country they are operating in allows for it, they will publicly display swastikas and Hitler-salutes and make references to their admiration of the National-Socialist Germany. The European Australian Movement (EAM) and the National Socialist Network (NSM) fall into this category.

Active Clubs: A Strategy to Fool Law Enforcement

In contrast to “Our Guy Activist Groups,” a key component of the U.S. Active Clubs strategy is to build a shadow militia while hiding in plain sight. Created in the United States in 2020, Active Clubs are supposed to present a friendly face to the public with the aim to avoid, delay, mitigate, and withstand law enforcement interventions. Consequently, Active Club members are asked to avoid threatening behavior or displaying obvious Nazi symbols in public to appear less relevant and less dangerous than other groups. This less aggressive and more mainstream looking strategy, also called the 3.0 model, is also meant to help grow the network, in particular by recruiting from the general public. It was developed as a response to the prosecution and sentencing of members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM), the predecessor of the Active Clubs, for violent acts during political rallies in the U.S. in 2018.

For the Active Club 3.0 strategy to work, the strategy instructs members to look and behave like “regular guys.” When recruiting, Active Club members should not talk about politics, Jews, or history. Instead, the focus in public should be on brotherhood, fitness, and self-defense. Organizationally, Active Clubs follow an open network approach that encourages individuals to start their own independent local group and operate it entirely independently. There is no central command structure. As a result, the March 2023 arrest of Robert Rundo, the co-founder and principal strategist of the Active Club network, had no negative effect on the fast growth of the network.

Key Active Club principles are “Make fascism fun,” “A group of strong white men is a fascist statement in itself,” “The best strategy is to be as unpolitical as possible to be as appealing as possible,” and “White unity at every opportunity”. The loosely connected but operationally independent Active Clubs are asked to carry out combat sports training and potentially illegal political activism like banner drops, stickering, and graffiti tagging to promote a risk-taker mentality and to train operational and logistical capacities like scouting target locations and avoiding law enforcement. Creating local and national leadership figures in this process is another main objective. The Active Club strategy also promotes membership in other extreme-right organizations to overcome the infighting between different extreme-right groups. Women play no visible role in the majority of Active Clubs.

Not all groups calling themselves Active Clubs follow the 3.0 model coherently. This fact exposes a weakness of the strategy, which is the lack of (central) control and the ability to enforce the rules. At the same time, infiltrations by security agencies, arrests of leadership figures, or even the shutdown of an individual Active Club chapter, should have little, if any, effect on the Active Club network itself. Considering the significant and relevant differences between the Active Club strategy and “Our Guy Activist Groups,” the two should not be conflated.

Don’t Get Fooled - Active Clubs Are Not About Combat Sports

As shown, Active Clubs claim to simply promote political street activism, a “nationalist” lifestyle, and combat sports training for white nationalists for self-defense purposes. However, Active Clubs in the U.S. are not about peaceful activism and sports. There is increasing evidence suggesting that the network’s main objective is instead the creation of shadow militias that can be activated when the need for coordinated violent action on a larger scale arises. In Canada, two Active Club members were arrested in December 2023 due to their alleged membership of the Canadian branch of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), a listed terrorist entity. According to a statement of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, many former Atomwaffen Division members joined the Canadian Active Club network.

Therefore, Australian authorities should closely monitor the potential emergence of Active Club groups in the country and their transnational connections, as these could potentially lead to an increase in violent acts in the country. As the Active Club strategy was specifically developed to evade law enforcement monitoring and intervention, cooperation with law enforcement authorities in other countries, such as the United States or Canada that already deal with growing Active Club networks and the resulting societal consequences, is recommended.

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