WASHINGTON — White supremacists discussed plans to weaponize coronavirus via “saliva,” a “spray bottle” or “laced items,” according to a weekly intelligence brief distributed by a federal law enforcement division on Feb. 17.
Federal investigators appeared to be monitoring the white nationalists’ communications on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that has become popular with neo-Nazis. In the conversations, the white supremacists suggested targeting law enforcement agents and “nonwhite” people with attacks designed to infect them with the coronavirus.
“Violent extremists continue to make bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves,” reads the intelligence brief written by the Federal Protective Service, which covered the week of Feb. 17-24. “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists have recently commented on the coronavirus stating that it is an ‘OBLIGATION’ to spread it should any of them contract the virus.”
The Federal Protective Service, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a law enforcement agency responsible for protecting buildings owned or leased by the federal government.
The intelligence brief, marked for official use only, noted the white supremacists “suggested targeting … law enforcement and minority communities, with some mention of public places in general.” According to the document, the extremists discussed a number of methods for coronavirus attacks, such spending time in public with perceived enemies, leaving “saliva on door handles” at local FBI offices, spitting on elevator buttons and spreading coronavirus germs in “nonwhite neighborhoods.”
The February document appears to show that at least some white nationalists were already taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously at a time when some in government were downplaying the threat. On Feb. 26, President Trump said that he expected the cases to go down to zero in the United States in “a couple of days.” The Washington Post reported on Friday that intelligence agencies were issuing “ominous” warnings about the virus in January and February.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the Federal Protective Service intelligence brief, the discussion of spreading the coronavirus occurred in a channel on the app Telegram that is devoted to the “siege culture” philosophies of neo-Nazi author James Mason and “accelerationism.” Mason wrote a series of newsletters titled “Siege” in the 1980s that advocated for acts of racial terrorism in order to hasten a war that would cause the breakdown of society.
In recent years, Mason’s writings became popular among members of the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division and its offshoots. Mason could not be reached for comment. Growing numbers of white supremacists have also expressed interest in “accelerationism,” which involves advocating for extremist attacks with the express goal of provoking a larger societal conflict.
Nick Martin, who is the editor of the Informant, a newsletter focused on hate and extremist groups and a former investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Yahoo News that multiple newer neo-Nazi groups with younger members have brought Mason to prominence.
“There’s a whole branch of neo-Nazism that follows James Mason’s writings and uses his work as kind of their bible. Atomwaffen is part of that, but there are multiple groups that would fall under the same category,” Martin said.
Homeland Security has identified white supremacist violence as one of the major domestic extremist threats facing the United State, and there has been a push to start tracking such groups the way U.S. intelligence agencies track foreign terrorists.
Atomwaffen Division has made headlines because of multiple criminal cases involving the group’s leadership. Martin, who has written extensively about the group, said some of his sources believe there is a possibility followers of Atomwaffen or similar groups could try to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is a big concern right now — including from people who work in counterterrorism — that it’s an opportune time for these accelerationist groups to strike,” Martin said.