Before it gained recognition as a homicidal neo-Nazi terrorist organization, Atomwaffen Division found its biggest fans among underage American boys and active-duty U.S. military personnel, leaked messages reveal.
Atomwaffen is a violent white supremacist group, with at least five murders attributed to its members. The group formed in 2015 on the now-defunct fascist forum Iron March. This week, a trove of years' worth of Iron March logs, including private messages, appeared online in spreadsheet form, posted anonymously by a user dubbed “antifa-data.” The logs contain potentially identifying information about forum participants, as well as a look into Atomwaffen’s origins.
They go back to June 2015, when a Florida teenager asked for help making a meme.
“Hey can you make an [ X INTENSIFIES] gif with this image?” Brandon Russell asked another Iron March user in a private message included in the leaks. “I want it to say [ATOMWAFFEN INTENSIFIES] please.”
The request appears to have been the first private message referencing Atomwaffen on Iron March. At the time, Atomwaffen had few members, most or all of them based out of Florida. But the group was quietly testing out recruitment material—in Russell’s case, the memes that would later give rise to Atomwaffen’s recognizable propaganda materials.
Much of the group’s early recruitment efforts focused on Iron March, where it found a community of open fascists and extremists. Founded in 2011 by someone claiming to be a fascist from Eastern Europe, the forum attracted a small but vocal crowd of extremists. Although most Iron March users went by pseudonyms, this week’s leak of the site’s internal records includes email addresses and IP addresses, which might be used to identify members, The Guardian reported.
Iron March and Atomwaffen appealed to young men. Russell started posting on Iron March as “Odin” in 2014 when he was 19, the Southern Poverty Law Center previously reported. His best friend, Devon Arthurs, started posting as “TheWeissewolfe” in 2015, when he was 15. The two would soon become Atomwaffen’s earliest members.
Some of Atomwaffen’s early membership drives involved borderline-spam messages to other Iron March members. “We are practically a militia,” Russell told another Iron March user in a July 2015 private message. “We are called the ‘Atomwaffen Division.’”
In truth, the group was small. In a September private message that year, Arthurs told a potential recruit that Atomwaffen consisted of him “and about 15+ other folks [...] mainly based in Florida.”
But many of the group’s recruitment messages landed in the Iron March inboxes of high schoolers eager to join. In a November 2015 private message, a would-be Atomwaffen member told recruiters that he’d join but he was still “picking a college” and didn’t know if his school would be in an area with an Atomwaffen chapter.
In another message, a potential Atomwaffen recruit from Oregon apologized for a delay in his messages because “I had to do some school work.”
In a May 2016 private message, a Massachusetts user who said he was 16 asked to join the group after “one of your members in the area contacted me a while ago.” In a later private message, another user mentioned that the FBI had visited the teenager’s family’s home.
In July 2016, an Iron March user mentioned in a private message that he’d been invited to join Atomwaffen, but didn’t want to join a group before graduating college. Besides, he noted, the group’s Florida members were “all a few years younger than me I’ll be 23 in October.”
A different would-be Atomwaffen recruit wrote that he would “gladly join the organization” but that “because of my young age and strict parents I am dependent on basically everything.” He added that many of his weeknights were occupied with practice for his school’s air rifle team.
Another: “I am also 16. Turning 17 in September 5. I have a job and a vehicle for transportation. I am ready for action.”
A third: “Just to tell you, I’m 16, so I hope I’m not too young to join.”
But Atomwaffen appealed to more than just high schoolers. By the time the group moved into more real-world paramilitary actions, 29-year-old Michael Hubsky led its Nevada cell and organized “hate camps” in the desert, ProPublica previously reported. A security guard who planned on obtaining a firearms manufacturing license, Hubsky suggested acting as a gun maker for Atomwaffen. (Some early private messages included in the Iron March leak also reference having a gunsmith in their ranks.) Like other Atomwaffen members, Hubsky advocated terror tactics and attacks on public infrastructure, even boasting of having a map of California’s electrical grid, ProPublica reported.
Other early Iron March messages suggest Atomwaffen appealed to active-duty military.
“I’m in Marine NROTC [Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps] at the moment so I could bring that training to the table and moreso in the future, if I earn a commission,” one prospective Atomwaffen member wrote in private messages. “I go to OCS [Officer Candidate School] next year.”
In a private chat between two apparent non-members of Atomwaffen, one Iron March member referenced “a friend in AtomWaffen who’s at Ft. Hood with the Army Engineers at the moment. He was in OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom].”
The Iron March user went on to note that “the only Fascists I role [roll] with are ex-Military.”
Already, the Iron March leaks have surfaced a number of people claiming military ties. An ongoing investigation by Bellingcat has revealed a number of potential U.S. service members involved in the forum.
Russell’s own military ties came up often in Iron March messages. Russell was a member of the Florida Army National Guard, and temporarily passed leadership to Arthurs while attending National Guard training.
But even before Iron March went offline in 2017, Russell and Arthurs would become involved in two of Atomwaffen’s first murders.
Over a year of private Iron March messages, fascists expressed concern that Arthurs had converted to Islam. While he reportedly remained an ardent fascist (and began expressing admiration for ISIS), Arthurs’ religious conversion drove a wedge between him and other neo-Nazis. In May 2017, Arthurs allegedly shot and killed two of his roommates: an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old, at least one of whom was also an Iron March user. Arthurs later told investigators the roommates had mocked his religion.
Russell, who also lived with Arthurs, was arrested after investigators searched the home and found explosives he’d built. When police first arrived at the apartment, Russell was reportedly wearing his National Guard uniform and crying. He was 21.