Andrew Oneschuk and Jeremy Himmelman had been living in Tampa, Florida, for two weeks when, on Friday, May 19th, 2017, their roommate Devon Arthurs picked up an AK-47 rifle and shot them at close range. Oneschuk had just turned 18. Himmelman was 22. They’d been staying in a lush gated community near the University of South Florida, in a two-bedroom, terra-cotta condo rented by their fourth roommate, 21-year-old Brandon Russell, a rich kid from the Bahamas who worked at a gun shop and served in the Florida National Guard. Oneschuk, a prep-school dropout, was hoping to become a Navy SEAL. Himmelman also considered the military, though he was more of a drifter. Eighteen-year-old Arthurs, a pale, freckled kid who sometimes called himself “Khalid,” was unemployed and spent most of his time playing video games. All four had met one another online, in forums and chat rooms popular with the more extreme segment of the so-called alt-right.
It was about 5:20 p.m. when Arthurs, dressed in jeans and a green polo shirt, casually strolled into the community’s leasing office and announced he’d just committed murder. “He was extremely calm,” one witness recalled, and he gave “a little speech” about U.S. war crimes in the Middle East. Then he wandered across the street and into a strip-mall smoke shop, where, brandishing a Glock semiautomatic pistol, he took three people hostage. The cops arrived within minutes. “I was never going to shoot anyone,” Arthurs said as he surrendered. They drove back to the condo, arriving just as Russell, in his military fatigues, ran out the door “hysterical and screaming,” as one cop put it. Arthurs seemed unmoved. “He doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said about his roommate, “and he just found them like you guys just did.”
The bodies lay in a small bedroom at the top of a carpeted staircase: Himmelman, a beefy kid in black basketball shorts and a black T-shirt, was slumped on a futon, with the back of his skull blown off. Oneschuk, lying supine on the floor in a white tank top and khakis, had also been shot in the head. In a second bedroom, the police discovered a 12-gauge shotgun and two large metal ammunition boxes full of live rounds. Also found in the condo: several copies of Mein Kampf, a gas mask, a trove of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist propaganda, and a framed photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
The local bomb squad was called to examine the contents of the garage: a “mini lab” of chemicals, as federal prosecutors later put it. In one corner, a small cooler marked with the name “Brandon” was filled with HMTD, a white cakelike substance often used in making homemade explosives. Russell, a onetime physics major, later told police he’d used the HMTD to boost DIY rockets with his college engineering club. “It’s not illegal,” he said. “You can go on eBay and buy it.”
Arthurs told a different story. “It’s all there specifically to kill people,” he said. Sitting in a small interrogation room in his sweat socks, he explained to the cops that his roommates were “national socialists” and members of a neo-fascist group called Atomwaffen Division, German for “nuclear weapons.” Russell had founded the group, which Arthurs – who’d recently converted to Islam – claimed had about 60 or 70 members nationwide. “Atomwaffen is a terrorist organization,” he said. He’d taken part in online chats where Russell and the others discussed plans to bomb power lines, synagogues, even Miami’s Turkey Point nuclear plant. “Brandon is literally somebody that has the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb,” he said. “I’m not meme-ing about that,” he added, Internet-speak for “fucking around.”
The detective, striking a dubious tone, asked him why his friends would make bombs. Arthurs looked at him, dumbfounded. “Because,” he said, “they want to build a Fourth Reich.”
1. The Red Pill
“We knew that Andrew had some bigoted right-wing views, and of course we hated that,” Walt Oneschuk tells me. Months after the murders, Andrew’s parents, Walt and Chris, still struggle to make sense of what happened to their youngest child and only son. “I’ve seen long Facebook threads of comments from people saying things like, ‘Good, I’m glad he’s dead,’ ” says Walt, a pained-looking man with a dark mustache. “He was barely 18.”
The Oneschuks live on a wooded cul-de-sac in Wakefield, Massachusetts, an upper-middle-class suburb just north of Boston. When I arrive at their house one winter evening, Chris, a determinedly cheerful woman in jeans and a fleece pullover, gives me a prayer card from Andrew’s funeral. On it is a photo of a handsome teenager with light-brown facial hair, wearing a gray snowflake sweater. The picture was taken on a hiking trip in the White Mountains, one of Andrew’s favorite spots. Growing up, Chris tells me, he liked to don his headlamp and head into the woods behind his family’s large tan colonial to spend the night amid the trees. His parents show me photos: Andrew hiking Mount Washington; in a scuba mask during a family trip to Hawaii. “He enjoyed a lot of outdoor things,” says Walt.
Nonetheless, Andrew often seemed miserable – anger was “his default emotion,” his older sister, Emily, later tells me. He attended two different private schools, each of which he hated. Team sports didn’t interest him. Neither did most of his peers. “The antithesis of what Andrew wanted to be was a white suburban prep-school kid,” says Emily, who now serves as a junior officer in the Navy. “I think we were both looking for adventure, something bigger and more interesting.”
Like Emily and his father, a former Navy pilot, Andrew wanted a military career. In grade school, he pored over stories of the French Foreign Legion. At 12, he started collecting pins belonging to the Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces. The next year, he became obsessed with the German Wehrmacht, whose weapons and uniforms he painstakingly memorized. One day he went online and ordered a replica SS jacket – he liked the “aesthetic,” he said.
When the detective asked why his friends would want to make bombs, Devon acted like it was obvious. “Because,” he said, “they want to build a Fourth Reich.”
Emily believes that some of her brother’s problems stem from their father’s absence – in 2010, when Andrew was entering middle school, Walt, an engineer who served in the Navy Reserve, deployed to Iraq for a year, followed by a lengthy stint shuttling back and forth to Afghanistan as a contractor. “That’s when Andrew began to warp,” she says. Crushed by his father’s absence, he lashed out at Chris. “It was a rough situation without Walter there,” says Chris’ close friend Anita Roman.
Andrew began throwing around the word “nigger,” his sister says, though she repeatedly scolded him. At school, he complained the other boys were “faggots,” a favorite term he used so often that his family, finding him increasingly hard to discipline, tuned it out. Walt worried about alienating his teenage son, whose inchoate anger had become more pronounced. “You’re a cuck,” he told Walt at one point.
Increasingly, Andrew obsessed over issues like climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis. He’d also embraced an apocalyptic and conspiratorial worldview in which Western civilization was doomed, and he, a white male, was a victim. He was amazed at his parents’ complacency. Didn’t they realize blacks were responsible for 80 percent of the crime in America? he’d falsely claim, using statistics that seemed drawn from nowhere. “America is shit,” he said. “My generation is failing.”
By freshman year, Andrew was spending most of his time secluded on the third floor of the house, chatting online. He seemed to be active on various forums for Airsoft, a paramilitary game that attracts mostly white men from the U.S. and Europe, some of them soldiers, others who would like to be. Russia, in particular, has a thriving Airsoft community, which largely promotes itself through YouTube. “Andrew watched tons of YouTube videos,” Emily says.
Before long, he had an account on the Russian social-networking site VK, a central platform for Ukrainian separatists looking for idealistic recruits. Andrew, who was one-eighth Ukrainian, took to the cause, chatting with fighters and their allies. He began formulating a plan to join the Azov Battalion, a notoriously brutal band of international fighters helping in the resistance against the Russians. In January 2015, Andrew bought a fake passport and a one-way ticket to Kiev. The day before he was set to leave, having packed his camping gear and arranged for a limousine to Logan Airport, he casually told his mother on the way home from school, “I think I’m going to go to Ukraine.”
“We went into crisis mode,” Chris tells me. Two days after they canceled his trip to Kiev, the Oneschuks brought Andrew to a psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital. He had been to see several counselors by this point. “They always said he was fine, just being a kid,” she says. Chris suspected he manipulated the counselors. For the next few months, he attended regular therapy sessions but “accomplished zero,” she says. Meanwhile, Andrew completed his sophomore year in almost total isolation. “His politics were just too weird,” says his sister. “He alienated people.”
Emily had been concerned when Andrew went through his German-army phase, though some of her friends told her that they’d also thought the SS was cool when they were younger. “I don’t think they understood they were actually bad guys,” says Emily. “It’s more like the bad guys in Indiana Jones with the cool car.” But Andrew took it further, eventually adopting the online handle “Borovikov,” after a famous Russian neo-Nazi gang leader. That spring, he hung an SS flag in his bedroom as well as a giant swastika. Emily was aghast. “I pleaded with my father to make Andrew take them down,” she says. “I really don’t think my parents got how appalling it was.”
She walked into Andrew’s room and ripped the flags off the wall. “You’re a Nazi,” she said.
“I’m not a Nazi,” he replied. “I’m a national socialist.”
Andrew Oneschuk was one of a raft of alienated young men who, over the past several years, found their way into the self-reinforcing online universe of the far right. It was a phenomenon that, for a great many people, seemed to come out of nowhere: “Ordinary” boys from ordinary towns in relatively ordinary economic circumstances had suddenly aligned themselves with white supremacy. They had come to believe, through an intricate online world, that everything they’d ever learned was, essentially, a lie. In the lingo of the Internet, they’d been “red pilled,” Matrix style, their adolescent anomie exploited through a cottage industry of websites, Reddit threads, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, and scores of memes laced with a sort of deceptive irony that made it hard to know what’s a joke and what’s not. Adolf Hitler holding a PlayStation controller; Jamba Juice cups wearing yarmulkes and payot; the anti-Semitic- cartoon character known as the Happy Merchant, often portrayed making off with someone’s money. There were anime characters dressed as fascists, and “Nazi Ponies,” which was a Tumblr blog, then a VK page, a Twitter feed and a series of YouTube videos that showcased My Little Ponies accessorized with swastika armbands or clad in full SS regalia.
Between 2012 and 2016, according to a report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, there was a 600 percent increase in followers of American white-nationalist movements on Twitter alone; white-nationalist groups now outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric. Analysts who study extremism note that both the far right and groups like ISIS use similar tactics, producing high-quality videos and employing memes and jokes to make their message more appealing. “The overall goal is to destabilize people so you can then fill them with your own views,” says Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If you make racism or anti-Semitism funny, you can subvert the cultural taboo. Make people laugh at the Holocaust – you’ve opened a space in which history and fact become worthless, period.”
Many of the right’s most popular memes grew out of 4chan, the Internet’s notoriously anarchic image board, that, during the Aughts, helped launch the left-leaning hacktivists of Anonymous. By early 2012, 4chan’s tone had shifted drastically to the right. The site’s “politically incorrect” board, /pol/, home to nihilistic trolls and thrill seekers known as “edgelords,” helped spawn what cultural critic Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, calls a “leaderless, digital counter-revolution.” Some lurkers sniffed opportunity. On Stormfront, then the most prominent white-supremacist website, several discussion threads considered how /pol/ might be used to help young people become “racially aware,” as one user noted. “People seem a lot more open there in some ways,” another observed, “probably because it is a completely anonymous board so they are not afraid of saying things that are racist.”
By the fall of 2012, a 4chan user called “Stormpheus” began circulating what he called a “Redpill instruction pamphlet,” which advised others to “sweet talk [users on other 4chan boards] about things that are on topic.” Many 4chan users – on both /pol/ and other boards – pushed back against the “stormfags,” as they called these interlopers. “It was mostly because they’d show up on /pol/ and start expressing very sincere white-nationalist beliefs without the ironic-humor component,” says Matt Goerzen, of the research institute Data and Society. Which is not to say that those posting ironically might not also have had those beliefs, he adds. “You are playing with such a sophisticated irony in this anonymous culture, even people who understand how multilayered it all is can’t necessarily see through it. You are whoever you pretend to be.”
Capitalizing on this ambiguity, two longtime denizens of 4chan saw a chance to bring fascism to the masses, positioning it as both radical and cool: a new counter-culture. One was Andrew Auernheimer, 32, an infamous troll and former hacktivist known as “weev,” who in many ways embodies the ambiguous nature of online extremism. Until recently, Auernheimer was a favorite of tech journalists and digital-rights advocates (Forbes once likened him to Shakespeare’s Puck). In 2013, Auernheimer went to prison for hacking AT&T’s website. Thirteen months later, after his conviction was overturned on a technicality, he emerged from the pen sporting a swastika tattoo, and committed himself to spreading the message of “global white supremacy,” as he put it. “I converted a Bernie Sanders supporter into a race warrior in nine tweets,” he boasted in 2016.
Auernheimer found an ideological soulmate in Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, one of the most influential far-right websites on the Internet. Anglin, 33, is a former vegan from an upper-middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio, who “got into Hitler,” as he said, by hanging out on 4chan. In 2013, he decided to create a new platform for these views, launching Daily Stormer as a news site mixing the clickbait style of Gawker with 4chan’s trolling sensibility. Jews were “kikes.” Blacks were “nignogs” or “chimps.” Women were “sluts,” “whores,” “bitches,” “harlots,” “slags” and “skags.” Mainstream culture was “shitlib.” Anti-Semitism was funny – so funny that the site was awash with swastikas.
The Daily Stormer’s target audience, as revealed in a leaked style guide for potential contributors, was the “ADHD demographic” (including those as young as 11, Anglin said recently). Writers were instructed to avoid “college words” and stick to an eighth-grade vocabulary. “When I’m trying to change the way people think about things,” Anglin said in an April 2016 podcast, “it doesn’t make sense to target anyone but young people.”
The larger goal of Daily Stormer – like a host of somewhat less-extreme websites and podcasts, not to mention alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer – was to shift the so-called Overton Window, a wonky poli-sci concept describing the process of changing public opinion to accept ideas that might have previously been radioactive. The feminist movement, which mainstreamed once-unthinkable concepts like a female Supreme Court justice, was an example of an Overton shift to the left. From the perspective of white nationalists like Auernheimer (who recently floated the idea of murdering Jewish children in the name of free speech), outrageous anti-Semitism might shift the window far enough to the right that a goal of an immigrant-free, white ethnostate would look almost palatable.
The shift also served a more radical agenda. One Daily Stormer contributor, the Canadian fascist known as “Charles Zeiger,” would later wax victorious in an online essay over the “unforeseen radicalization of the younger generation Z,” who had come to see that “the mainstream media is deceptive and evil, [social-justice warriors] are stupid and annoying, and liberalism is boring and square.” This turn of events, he noted, presented modern-day fascists with a unique opportunity. “[W]e can lead the youth in a rebellious cultural upheaval against the previous generations of stuck-up boring adults,” he said. “If we can help mold a social movement like the hippies did, that should give us a huge source of radicalized and militant recruits to bolster our ranks in the next five years.”
One of Devon Arthurs’ gaming friends has seen the strategy work, firsthand. “I have personally watched a few teens go from having general, conservative or libertarian viewpoints to becoming fascist sympathizers,” he says. “It happens very dynamically.”
“The goal,” an analyst says, “is to destabilize people’s worldviews and fill them with your own. If you make racism funny, you can subvert the cultural taboo.”
It was in this swirling environment that Devon came to believe the Holocaust was a lie. Raised in a gated middle-class community in Longwood, Florida, just outside Orlando, he spent most of his time on his computer. His parents were divorced, and for much of his childhood he lived with his father, Alan, an insurance salesman, whom one of Devon’s childhood friends recalls as a caring but somewhat lax parent. When I contacted him in the fall, Alan Arthurs didn’t want to talk about Devon. “If you want to know the truth,” Arthurs told me in a text message, “I lost him to the Web five years ago.” (Laura, Devon’s mother, didn’t respond to e-mails.) “My perception was that Devon had a lot of family issues,” one of his online friends tells me. “I was in a Skype call with him once, and he put his mom in a fucking chokehold. Called her a fat fuck who was trying to take away his computer.”
Devon attended Longwood’s Lyman High School, where he immediately stood out. “He was the guy you could always find saying something crazy,” a former classmate says. Though bright and articulate, he liked to spout far-right conspiracy theories and spoke enthusiastically about Hitler. “People joked that he might be a school shooter one day, but I kind of felt sorry for him,” says Jacob Cohen, a Jewish classmate who thought Devon didn’t know what he was talking about, despite seeming deadly serious. When Cohen asked him if he was a Nazi, Devon responded, “I’m a national socialist.” The use of the term “national socialism” – the ideology espoused by the Nazis – is increasingly promoted by far-right groups as a form of rebranding. Devon frequently extolled the virtues of national socialism, about which he seemed to have an esoteric knowledge. “He had these entire alternate histories memorized,” says Cohen. “Why [the Nazis] changed the world.”
In September 2014, Alan intercepted a copy of Mein Kampf that Devon had ordered online. After Devon “physically challenged” him, Alan later told police, he kicked his son out of the house. Devon moved in with his mother, who seemed to view her son’s extremism as a phase. But he’d become so relentless in his rants about “Aryan superiority,” a teacher recalls, he was getting into fights at school. One day, during his sophomore year, a Jewish classmate, fed up with his rhetoric, pinned him to the ground. Shakily, Devon declared, “I am willing to die for national socialism!”
By that summer, Devon dropped out of high school. He became what the Internet calls a NEET – Not in Education, Employment or Training – and spent much of his time on gaming sites. He was particularly active on a Minecraft server called /int/craft, where players, generally recruited from 4chan’s right-leaning “international” board, formed alliances based on quasi-historical events and ideologies: Norse soldiers, medieval knights, the Caliphate. Devon, who went by the handle “wolfdevon,” obsessively threw himself into the game. “He was deeply autistic,” Tuckers, one of his online friends, says. (There is no evidence Devon was actually autistic – the term “autist” is used in online cultures as a multipurpose pejorative, often to describe someone with hyperfocus.) “I think he was genuinely more ‘real’ in his online persona” than he was in real life, adds Tuckers, an Australian who, like most of their online community, never met Devon in person. “But I think to a degree the ironic and sarcastic tone pushed him further down the proverbial rabbit hole.”
National socialism was a frequent topic of conversation on politically themed Minecraft servers. It was “edgy” to call yourself a fascist, says one of Devon’s gamer friends, Nero. Some people took the ideology further, using Minecraft and other gaming platforms as a gateway into the larger far-right underground. One denizen of this world was Brandon Russell, whose explorations into the darker corners of the Internet led him from 4chan and Daily Stormer into a national socialist Tinychat room loosely sponsored by the American Third Position Party, or A3P, recently renamed the American Freedom Party.
Third Position, which draws from the European neo-fascist movement of the same name, was formed during the early days of the Tea Party, and was backed by some of the leading white nationalists in the United States. Its six-man board includes Kevin B. McDonald, a former psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, whom the SPLC calls “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic.” The group’s leader, Los Angeles attorney William Johnson, has advocated for a constitutional amendment to deport immigrants and nonwhites from the U.S., notably those with any “ascertainable trace of Negro blood.” When I spoke to Johnson on the phone, he told me A3P had always made an effort to recruit young people online. Nathan Damigo, who created the white-nationalist campus group Identity Evropa, also helmed A3P’s National Youth Front. “The end goal of recruitment,” Johnson said in a 2015 interview, “is to make them nationalists and racially conscious.”
Brandon Russell grew up as a racial minority in the Bahamas, where nine out of 10 people are black, and he was educated at an elite, multicultural private school. His parents, both native white Bahamians, never married. Brandon had only minimal contact with his dad, a deputy sheriff in West Palm Beach, though his mother and grandparents doted on him. In elementary school he had been diagnosed with ADHD, and later suffered from depression, which he tried to mask with clownish behavior and off-color humor. “He’d make stupid jokes he saw on 4chan, kind of memes in real life, which isn’t a good social tactic,” recalls a friend who met Brandon through a University of South Florida engineering club. Brandon had enrolled at USF in 2012 and was the club’s resident guinea pig, offering himself up for experiments like dressing in a chain-mail suit of armor to get struck with a Tesla coil. “He was like the radioactive Boy Scout,” his friend says.
Online, Brandon adopted a new and more heroic identity. He called himself “Odin,” after the warrior god of Norse mythology. Older members of /pol/ viewed him as “completely harmless” and “intolerably autistic.” But he impressed younger kids with his “hypermasculine persona” and knowledge of radioactive material (he’d been collecting small amounts of thorium since the 10th grade). Devon met Brandon in a Third Position live chat and they soon became inseparable, joining the same online communities, where several friends recall that at various times they seemed unhinged, playing around with handguns in video chats while arguing about international fascism. “Odin will ‘sperg out one day,” predicted one online friend. “He’s a ticking time bomb.”
Gradually, Brandon and Devon were drawn into the larger white-nationalist ecosystem, where celebrated figures like Auernheimer or the Danish white nationalist and Third Position moderator “Natural Selector” served as brand ambassadors to increasingly extreme communities. It was Natural Selector, Brandon later said, who led him to Iron March, a “global fascist community” with about 1,600 members. “I am Odin!” he announced on his first visit to the site, in March 2014.
“Stop annoying us,” one user responded.
If Daily Stormer sat at the center of the galaxy of far-right websites and forums, Iron March, founded in 2011, lived in the furthest, least-ambiguous corner. Self-described hardcore fascists warred over arcane bits of dogma, debating the theories of 20th-century fascist Julius Evola against ideas like “esoteric Hitlerism.” The site’s slogan, “Gas the Kikes! Race War Now! 14/88 Boots on the Ground,” paid homage to two central precepts of neo-Nazi ideology – the number 88, or so-called double H, representing the words “Heil Hitler,” and a slogan known as the Fourteen Words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” A series of “Revolutionary Fascist Manuals” could be found on the site; so could lesser-known works like Siege, a fascist call to arms by the American neo-Nazi James Mason. Released in 1993, Siege infused national socialism with the anti-capitalist, hippie ethos of Mason’s hero, Charles Manson. “The only recourse for National Socialist Revolutionaries,” Mason’s book explains, “is to go underground and build their own armed struggle to wage war against the State.”
Brandon took this to heart. In an October 2015 post on Iron March, “Odin” announced the formation of Atomwaffen Division, which had been “at least 3 years” in the making. “We are a very fanatical, ideological band of comrades who do both activism and military training,” he wrote. No “keyboard warriors,” he added. “If you don’t want to meet up and get things done don’t bother.”
Dozens of young men responded to the thread, which claimed the group had 40-odd members across the U.S., mostly in Florida, but also in nearly a dozen other states. “Interested,” one Boston teenager who called himself Borovikov wrote on March 28th, 2016. “Who should I contact?”
2. The Trump Effect
On the night of May 1st, 2016, a series of racist fliers appeared around the campus of Boston University. Black lives don’t matter, read one. The Nazis are coming! The Nazis are coming! read a second, signed “Atomwaffen Division Massachusetts.” A grainy surveillance video broadcast widely on local TV news showed a sneaker-clad young man in a black hooded raincoat and khakis, whom Chris and Emily Oneschuk later concluded was almost certainly Andrew. The “stickercaust,” Zeiger wrote on the Daily Stormer, was the work of “heroic patriots.” “If we cause a media storm every time we put up a few stickers, we’ll own the news media,” he wrote. “[And] if they stop covering our propaganda, we also win; it means the system is now desensitized to hardcore nazism.”
Andrew had spent the previous fall at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early-college program his parents hoped would help turn their son around. One of the most progressive schools in the country, Simon’s Rock promotes itself as a school for “independent minds,” with programs like weekly stress-reduction classes and a designated “social justice and inclusion” week. Andrew lasted one semester. “He called a girl who happened to be gay a ‘fag,’ ” says Emily. On the day he was kicked out, he flashed a Nazi salute.
Back in Wakefield, Andrew had made his way to Iron March, where Atomwaffen was building a small online following. Brandon and Devon, who served as his deputy, had set up an Atomwaffen Twitter account and YouTube channel, and filmed themselves exploring abandoned buildings, posing with the group’s black-and-yellow flag and even hanging out at a bowling alley – “Atombowling,” Devon called it. They covered their faces with skull masks and wore paramilitary uniforms to pose with Airsoft guns, or, as would increasingly be the case, actual assault rifles. The group’s first public action, in November 2015, involved the Florida cell – then just Brandon and Devon – posting anti-Semitic fliers around the University of Central Florida campus in Orlando. “Very mischievous weekend,” Brandon noted on Iron March. “Absolute Sticker Holocaust,” replied another user.
Andrew was bored, working at a pizza shop and taking classes at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The SS flag remained on his bedroom wall (as a concession, he’d hung the swastika in his closet). A worried Emily attended a college lecture on “homegrown violent extremism” given by an FBI official whom she approached afterward. “You just described my brother,” she said. The agent handed her his business card. “He made it sound like he couldn’t do anything,” she says. Frustrated, she continued to work on Andrew. “I could not make him see how this stuff would ruin his life,” she says. “Even after getting kicked out of Bard, he could not conceive that his beliefs were a problem. He saw it as the fault of these hypersensitive liberals who were oppressing him.”
The theme of liberal oppression was one of the key strains of the Trump campaign, which Andrew had begun to embrace. Trump’s angry rhetoric fed Andrew’s sense of personal injustice. It also gave him hope – maybe he wouldn’t have to leave the country after all, he told his family. In the spring of 2016, a Trump poster went up in his bedroom. That summer, when the family went to New York to celebrate Emily’s 21st birthday, Andrew begged to go to Trump Tower to buy a Make America Great Again hat. “He was just ecstatic,” says Chris.
Another young man enamored with Trump was Jeremy Himmelman, an underemployed 21-year-old from Walpole, a working-class town just south of Boston. Jeremy was a sweet goofball, as his family and friends saw him, but he also struggled with ADHD and depression and drank heavily. One of five siblings whose parents divorced when he was seven, he’d dropped out of high school in the 12th grade. Since then he’d been adrift, dabbling in Boston’s music scene and getting fired from construction jobs. He found refuge in video games: Minecraft, Runescape, Call of Duty. In the middle of 2015, after several failed suicide attempts and a series of antidepressants, he agreed to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.
Jeremy was carrying around a dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf, calling people cucks and bashing immigrants, says his sister: “I told him his beliefs would get him killed one day.”
Jeremy changed after the treatment, says his younger sister Alyssa. “He would just go off about weird, random shit that made no sense.” He became political, but not in any structured way. After testing his DNA through Ancestry.com, he became obsessed with his German heritage and began calling people “cucks,” bashing immigrants and talking about “gassing kikes.” “I told Jeremy his beliefs would get him killed one day,” says Alyssa.
By early 2016, he was carrying around a dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf. Alyssa suspected the political climate was shaping his newfound beliefs. “I don’t want to blame Trump, but he had an influence,” she says, recalling her brother excitedly donning his MAGA hat before a Trump rally in January. “Growing up, Jeremy had friends of all different races. But when Trump started spewing all that cancerous bullshit about immigrants, Jeremy started saying he hated black people and Mexicans.”
A few months after the rally, Jeremy joined Atomwaffen’s Skype group, where he met Andrew. They were different from some of the other recruits, says a former member. “They were more mainstream . . . more like normies.” By the fall, they were best friends. The two shared a love of guns, and a common language. “Just meme-ing,” they’d say if anyone challenged them. “They used to get drunk and use axes to chop apart mattresses,” says one of Jeremy’s friends.
On September 18th, 2016, Andrew texted Jeremy, “Odin really wants this done,” later adding, “Would be lit if we both got on CCTV.” They were planning the next Atomwaffen stickercaust. Around that time, posters demonizing Jews had sprung up on the campus of UC Berkeley. Swastikas were scrawled on a dry-erase board at San Jose State. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, a student hung a Nazi flag in his dorm window. A month before the 2016 election, Andrew and Jeremy distributed a stack of fliers featuring Atomwaffen’s growing stock of propaganda – no kikes no fags no niggers, and do not be fooled by jewish lies! – around Boston’s Suffolk University campus. “Brandon thought the stickers were important because they made people scared,” one Florida-based Atomwaffen member told me. “But it also brought attention to the group.”
A few days after Trump’s election, an Iron March user started a lengthy thread questioning the seriousness of their efforts: “Are we larping?” he asked. The answer, almost resoundingly, was this is not role-play. Bomb-making manuals were making their way through the encrypted networks. In the shadowy realm where online braggadocio might become real-life action – including detailed planning for the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesvile, Virginia – there were discussions about which “fashy” group might be most effective: Atomwaffen was now one of several neo-fascist youth organizations, including Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Worker Party, and American Vanguard, competing for members and attention, often in extreme ways. Atomwaffen, though, as one person noted, had “zero standards.” He’d been in contact with an Atomwaffen recruiter in Michigan, he wrote, who put him in touch with a more senior member for vetting. “And that guy was a White Muslim.”
Most people saw Devon’s embrace of Islam, which occurred in early 2016, as a phase. It had been something of a trend in their circle, according to friends from Minecraft. Two other gamers who also became Muslims (“They did it for pussy,” says one online friend) were instrumental in bringing Devon to Allah, though “Devon had a weird religion at first,” says his friend Qaysar, who also converted, at Devon’s urging. “It wasn’t true Islam. It was more [about] idealizing the prophet Muhammad as a white Aryan. . . . You know, Muhammad as an ideal male form.”
Brandon, meanwhile, had joined the Florida National Guard. White-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups encourage their members to join the military, notes Matthew Kennard, author of Irregular Army, seeing it as free training for the “RaHoWa” – racial holy war. Brandon had penned long blog posts on the need for military and survivalist training. In June 2016, he emerged from boot camp “different,” recalls a longtime friend. The two hadn’t spoken much during the previous year, but by the time they reconnected that summer, Brandon had taken to playing World War II-era martial music in his car and wearing a T-shirt that read Auschwitzland in Walt Disney script. He also seemed consumed with Atomwaffen, though “as far as I was concerned, it was just Brandon and a bunch of edgy teenagers taking themselves too seriously on the Internet,” the friend says. “Maybe I should have taken it more seriously.”
The friend blamed Devon. “I told Brandon to stay away from him,” he says. The first time they met, he recalls, they’d been driving around Tampa listening to music, “and I put on a rap song and Devon flipped out and started screaming at me that I was a degenerate.” Devon’s increasingly vocal support of Islamic extremism irked the Iron March community, and he was eventually banned from the board. But Brandon stuck by him. The two had a strange codependency. Brandon treated Devon almost like his pet, leaving him $20 each morning, but also, at times, withholding his money, or food, as a form of discipline. “I think it was a power trip for Brandon,” one acquaintance says. “It was a really toxic friendship,” says another.
A few weeks after the stickercaust at Suffolk, in October 2016, Brandon and Devon went to Boston. It was the first time that Andrew and Jeremy, the “Boston cell,” would meet both Atomwaffen founders in person. “This should be epic,” Jeremy texted Andrew in anticipation. They were planning a hiking trip in the White Mountains, with plenty of Knob Creek whiskey. “Devon will embrace the haram,” Andrew joked.
The two Floridians had driven up to Boston in Brandon’s Dodge Nitro and were staying at the apartment Jeremy shared with his sisters. Unaware she’d be having houseguests, Alyssa was shocked to find them camped out in a bedroom. Devon was lying under a stack of blankets. “I’m an autist!” he said, several times. He called her a “dumpster slut.”
“You know the Holocaust never happened,” Brandon told Alyssa, who recalls that he wore his military fatigues. The two men had scrawled swastikas on the walls with a fire extinguisher. “Please just get them out of the house,” Alyssa begged her brother. “I don’t want them here.”
Over the next few days, the behavior didn’t let up. “It was very obvious that they were mentally unstable people,” said a friend of Jeremy’s who’d given the guys
a ride home from the city one day. “Brandon and Devon were, like, bouncing up and down in the back seat of my car screaming at each other. It was just weird, weird, weird.”
It was easy to dismiss Brandon, with his slow Bahamian accent, as “dumb and awkward,” as Jeremy’s girlfriend, Katie, who asked not to use her real name, did at first. He once mistook a cat for a raccoon. At a Halloween party Jeremy brought him to, “he shat on normies’ toothbrushes,” he later told Andrew. “For no reason.” To adults, he was polite, with a firm handshake and an ability to look people directly in the eyes. “He’s a charming bullshit artist,” says Alan Arthurs, who assumed Brandon was his son’s age, as he seemed to surround himself with teenagers.
It was intentional, Brandon noted on Iron March; recruiting the youngest national socialists he could find was a way to “weed out spooks.” Andrew and Jeremy sometimes called him “Daddy.” The power was addictive. “I think Brandon could have believed anything as long as it got him followers,” says Katie. “He knows what people want to engage with, and he mirrors it. He’s really good at manipulating people.”
By the time he joined Atomwaffen, Jeremy had attempted suicide three times in two years: overdosing on pills twice and slitting his wrist. So it was particularly resonant when, just after New Year’s in 2017, a person who identified himself as Brandon’s father called to tell Jeremy that Brandon had tried to kill himself and was on life support. Jeremy, who had himself been on life support after one suicide attempt, texted Katie that he might never see Brandon again. “This is such FUCKING SHIT,” he said, crying.
For months, Brandon had been urging Jeremy to come to Florida. It’ll be great, he promised him repeatedly. Brandon would be in school part of the time, or at National Guard formation, but there would still be plenty of opportunities to meme, explore the Ocala National Forest and shoot guns at the range. Jeremy might even be able to buy the Tek-9 he’d wanted. (Brandon himself would reportedly purchase a Tek-9 from the back of someone’s car in a Walmart parking lot.) Jeremy, perpetually strapped for cash, would never commit. Now, believing his friend was near death, he rushed to book a flight.
That night, Brandon called and said he was fine; he had asked a friend to pose as his father. “It was a joke,” Jeremy told his girlfriend. “What the actual fuck.” But there was no canceling his ticket: His flight left the next afternoon. Katie saw it as a callous act of manipulation on Brandon’s part. “I can’t believe you’re still going down to see them after this,” she told Jeremy.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “They’re my brothers.”
Andrew joined Jeremy in Florida, but within a week the two were on an Amtrak train back home. Brandon, as it turned out, was living in a run-down apartment just off campus, and was almost never home. Jeremy had been “cleaning up the mess Devon left in Brandon’s apartment,” he told Katie a few days after arriving. “Clothes, trash, food . . .”
Jeremy moved back into the “meme-shack,” as he called his apartment in Walpole, and was downing up to a half bottle of vodka a day. He had new roommates who hated his politics and made him sleep in the basement. “It was like a dungeon,” says Alyssa. Triggering normies, as he called it, wasn’t as much fun now that Trump was actually the president. Bostonians glared at his Trump hat and called him a racist. On Super Bowl Sunday, a couple of revelers stole his white MAGA hat and stomped all over it. The police, he told Andrew, “didn’t do shit.” Jeremy hated Massachusetts, he said, “almost as much as Florida.”
In March, after fighting with his roommates, he was ordered to move out. “I should hang myself, tbh,” he texted Andrew. That evening, Jeremy tied a noose around a beam, downed some vodka and then, crying, called his girlfriend, who took him to the hospital. While he was recuperating, Katie says, he had a revelation about Atomwaffen. “It was really a wake-up call for him, and he realized he had to change his life. ”
Andrew had come to the same decision, or at least