On April 6, the federal government took an important step toward confronting the threat of far-right extremist violence in the United States by designating the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) and three of its leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). It should take the next step and designate RIM, as well as other violent foreign white supremacist groups, as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The combination of these measures would unlock a suite of federal civil and criminal laws that not only block the assets of designated groups but also prohibit providing any material support or resources to such groups, thus opening the door to the use of more investigatory tools and information sharing necessary for an effective counterterrorism regime.
The designation of RIM and its leaders comes after a series of arrests in the United States earlier this year of members of two violent neo-Nazi accelerationist groups: The Base and Atomwaffen Division. It also comes in the midst of a trend of increasing lethal domestic terrorism incidents in the United States. As data produced by the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League highlights, there were 42 domestic extremism-related deaths in 17 separate incidents in 2019, part of a five-year trend that has seen the four deadliest years since 1970. Eighty-one percent of the extremist-related murders in 2019 were linked to white supremacy.
In announcing the designation of RIM, U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales noted that RIM’s designation was based on its “provision of training to terrorists in Europe for the commission of terrorist attacks in Europe.” RIM, which has ties to the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, is accused of providing training to Nordic Resistance Movement members who committed terror attacks in Sweden in 2016. Reports in September 2019 also suggest links between RIM and the California-based white supremacist group Rise Above Movement, whose own transnational connections to Ukrainian ultranationalist group Azov Battalion have been well documented. RIM is also alleged to have made significant connections with white supremacist leader Matthew Heimbach and his now defunct Traditionalist Worker Party, as well as with other organizers of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The State Department designation raised the obvious question: Why not designate RIM a Foreign Terrorist Organization? After all, other terrorist groups that provide terrorist training, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, are designated as FTOs, and the FTO designation triggers automatic criminal liability for anyone who provides the groups with material support or resources. In contrast, the SDGT is primarily a sanctions-related designation.
When asked this question during a press call announcing the designation, Sales again referred to the organization’s provision of terrorist training, and pointed to the president’s Executive Order on Modernizing Sanctions to Combat Terrorism, signed in September 2019: “The reason the SDGT is a better fit here is because President Trump’s order in September of last year dramatically expanded the utility of that sanctions authority.” He emphasized that “[p]rior to those changes that the President announced in September, it was more difficult for us to designate groups that provide training to engage in acts of terrorism. Now, that authority is expressly spelled out in the executive order.”
But that hardly explains why RIM wasn’t designated an FTO as well as an SDGT. Unlike the criteria for designating SDGTs, the statutory requirements for designating an FTO have included terrorist training as a basis for designation for some time. The three statutory criteria for designating an FTO are that the organization must be foreign; it must engage in terrorist activity or terrorism, or have the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism; and the terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or U.S. national security. “Engag[ing] in terrorist activity,” as used in the statute, includes providing “training” for the commission of terrorist acts. In other words, the same provision of terrorist training that supported the designation of RIM as an SDGT would appear to support the designation of RIM as an FTO.
Why does this matter? Although important, an SDGT designation is part of a complicated economic sanctions regime that is effective at incentivizing corporate compliance but is not as effective a counterterrorism investigative tool as the criminal prohibitions on providing material support or resources to a designated FTO. Thus, alone, the SDGT designation is unlikely to have a significant impact on the activity of individuals or groups drawn to RIM’s extremist and violent ideology.
The designation of an individual or entity as an SDGT is authorized by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or the IEEPA, by which Congress delegated to the president the authority to declare as a national emergency any “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States. Declarations are made by executive order and have resulted in the extensive economic sanctions regimes that are used by the U.S. government as tools of foreign policy to impose trade embargoes and combat nuclear and ballistic weapons proliferation, terrorism, and narcotics trafficking. As its name suggests, the IEEPA was intended to put pressure on countries, entities and persons by largely cutting off their ability to tap into the U.S. economy through financial and other business transactions, including trade in U.S. dollars.
Executive Order 13224—the executive order amended by the president in September 2019 to expand the criteria for SGDT designation—was designed primarily to “disrupt the financial support network for terrorists and terrorist organizations.” Thus, an SGDT designation results in the blocking of RIM’s U.S. assets (if any) and the prohibition of most transactions with RIM if the transactions have any connection to the U.S. As with other sanctions regimes, the main effect is that U.S. persons and businesses, as well as multinational companies and financial institutions that operate in the U.S. or process transactions through the U.S. financial system, must ensure that they do not do business with RIM. As others have noted, based on the SGDT designation, RIM’s YouTube channel and Facebook page are almost certain to be removed, if they haven’t been already. That’s a big deal and will make it more difficult for RIM to propagandize around the world. But an FTO designation would do even more.
Enforcement of the SDGT and other sanctions regimes is largely the responsibility of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which promulgates regulations under authority delegated by the applicable executive orders. Although a violation of OFAC’s regulations can trigger civil or criminal liability, the regulatory scheme has been used primarily to coerce compliance by corporate entities through civil penalties. Criminal prosecutions, although referred to and pursued by the Department of Justice in egregious cases of sanctions violations like those of multinational giants like ZTE Corporation, Schlumberger Oilfields Holdings and Standard Chartered Bank—all of which pleaded guilty to violating sanctions against Iran—are pursued less frequently against individuals.
By contrast, the Justice Department and the FBI are the primary enforcers of the criminal law that prohibits providing material support or resources to a designated FTO. The FBI, working with attorneys in the department’s National Security Division and U.S. attorney’s offices, investigates individuals and groups suspected of providing almost any type of resources—including one’s own self—to designated FTOs like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The material support charge is the most commonly charged terrorism offense in the U.S. Code since 9/11 and has been used to investigate and prosecute those who seek to travel to join an FTO; those who provide funding, goods and services to an FTO; and those who attempt to commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. on behalf of such organizations. It has been the predicate for the bulk of the FBI’s terrorism investigations, many of which have thwarted terrorist plots, and its use has resulted in the recruitment of cooperators who have assisted in crucial intelligence collection efforts worldwide. Indeed, the U.S. material support statute was a model for the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s 2015 plan of action encouraging countries to enact similar criminal laws; deploy investigative techniques, including undercover operations to enforce those laws; and cooperate through expanded information sharing related to recruitment and facilitation. Simply put, the material support statute has been a key to the success of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism program.
The designation of RIM as an SDGT is a positive step, and an important recognition by the U.S. government of the threat of white supremacist violence. But the Russian Imperial Movement should be designated an FTO, and the list of designated organizations should be expanded to include other foreign white supremacist, neo-Nazi groups that meet the statutory criteria. As congressional leaders have argued, there is no shortage of foreign groups that play an active and deadly role in recruiting, radicalizing and inspiring Americans and others to commit acts of targeted violence here and abroad. Expanding the FTO list to encompass these organizations would unlock important tools to combat the threat.