From a military base in Europe in May, U.S. Army Private Ethan Melzer typed out a series of encrypted messages offering support to the Order of Nine Angels (O9A), a neo-Nazi group, according to federal prosecutors. He allegedly revealed sensitive information about his unit’s upcoming deployment. Apparently he hoped the information would get to a member of al-Qaeda and lead to a jihadi attack on his unit.
Authorities arrested Melzer. On June 22, the Department of Justice announced an indictment against him. He is charged with terrorism offenses. On July 6, he pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Federal prosecutors rarely if ever charge people linked to far-right extremism with terrorism. Maybe they did so here because neo-Nazism wasn’t the only ideology involved.
Two sentences in the DOJ’s announcement seem almost contradictory: “Melzer allegedly attempted to orchestrate a murderous ambush on his own unit by unlawfully revealing its location, strength, and armaments to a neo-Nazi, anarchist, white supremacist group. Melzer allegedly provided this potentially deadly information intending that it be conveyed to jihadist terrorists.”
Why would someone linked to neo-Nazis want to help Islamic extremists? I’ve spent three years researching that question and many months working on an upcoming podcast about it.
Neo-Nazi and Islamic extremist movements seem opposed — one advocates for a white supremacist society, while the other wants an Islamic caliphate devoid of Western influences and based on a certain interpretation of the Quran. But the movements are in some ways more similar than they are different. Members of each believe that their identity is threatened. Both movements claim to have the same enemies: Jews and the capitalist West. And both advocate for the same basic desire: a new world order, focused on either religious or racial exclusion.
The similarities go beyond ideology.
Both movements often recruit the same way, using sleek-looking propaganda to draw in vulnerable people. This was allegedly the case for Melzer, whom prosecutors say possessed propaganda from both ISIS and O9A. Also, American neo-Nazis increasingly go abroad for training, as FBI Director Chris Wray warned last October, something that Americans had been doing for Islamic extremist movements since at least the 1990s. And both movements call for using violence, even against members of their own racial or religious groups.
The acts of violence are often the same. For example, in 2017, first in Finsbury Park, London, and then in Charlottesville, Virginia, far-right extremists rammed vehicles into crowds of people, long a tactic of Islamic extremists. More recently, in June, a man in Virginia who identified himself as a local Ku Klux Klan leader drove into protesters during demonstrations against racism and police violence. And the tactic is spreading outside of violent extremist groups; The New York Times counted at least 66 instances of vehicles ramming into crowds, including seven with police officers at the wheel, during the recent demonstrations. This suggests that extremist tools are even more malleable than previously thought.
Neo-Nazis have drawn inspiration from Islamic extremists beyond vehicle-ramming attacks. The group Melzer allegedly supported, O9A, openly admires al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Extremism experts believe that the founder of O9A was David Myatt. He once led a British neo-Nazi gang and later converted to Islam and supported Islamic extremism. (His alleged ties to O9A appear to be unconfirmed.) Westfield State University Professor George Michael wrote in his 2006 book, “The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right,” that Myatt “has arguably done more than any other theorist to develop a synthesis of the extreme right and Islam.”
In these ways and others, there has been crossover between neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, CEO of Valens Global, a firm that analyzes violent threats by non-state actors, has called this “fringe fluidity.” In a 2018 article in the journal “Studies in Conflict & Terrorism,” he identified eight examples of far-right and Islamic extremists cooperating, or of members of one movement switching to the other. A recent example he mentioned is that of Nicholas Young, a former Washington, D.C., transit police officer who in 2018 was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to support ISIS. Young’s home was full of Nazi paraphernalia, he had a Nazi tattoo, and he had once attended a neo-Nazi gathering, according to Gartenstein-Ross’s article.
So, if extremists lack commitment to a single ideology, what motivates them? University of Maryland psychology professor Arie Kruglanski has argued it’s a “quest for significance.” This desire to matter is a basic human instinct, but some people take it to extremes. Melzer allegedly wrote in messages that if he was killed in the attack, “I would have died successfully” because it would cause a “new war,” and “another 10 year war in the Middle East would definitely leave a mark.” His case is scheduled to move forward in August.
If extremists bounce between ideologies or embrace multiple movements at once, then extremism is more dangerous than we think. Not everyone will believe “Mein Kampf” or ISIS propaganda. But significance and meaning are things that most people are seeking.