U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly focused on domestic extremists. Their latest target: Satanists.
In recent years, the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities have identified domestic threats linked to a variety of ideologies and movements, ranging from the “boogaloo bois” to conspiracy theorists. But a recent internal government report obtained by Yahoo News adds what may be the most surprising addition to the list of threats: an obscure satanic cult.
A special analysis report authored by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security focuses on a neo-Nazi-influenced satanic group called the Order of Nine Angles, which the intelligence community believes is making inroads among white supremacists. Nine Angles “is a largely decentralized group that advocates a violent extremist interpretation of Satanism,” the document says. “Satanism is a religion with multiple variants, most of which are not violent extremist.”
The Order of Nine Angles, which originated in the U.K., came to public attention in the U.S. earlier this year when Ethan Melzer, an Army private, was charged in a violent plot aimed at his own unit. Melzer allegedly shared details of his unit with the Order of Nine Angles.
But the intelligence community’s increasing propensity to label racist groups as terrorist threats is, for some critics, potentially a dangerous overreach by U.S. intel, which was empowered after 9/11 to pursue foreign terrorists.
“It’s problematic the same way so many of these so-called intelligence reports regarding terrorism are. It identifies some obscure ideology, defines it very poorly, implies it has some causal effect on violence but doesn’t say it, gives far too few examples and doesn’t really provide suggestions for law enforcement who receive it,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent who reviewed the report for Yahoo News.
“Are there six people who believe this and committed crimes or 6 million people who believe this?” asked German, who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.
In recent months, the NCC, which was originally formed to help coordinate intelligence on international terrorism, has expanded its role in sharing information on domestic extremists, such as militias, with no links to foreign groups. The prior director determined, after consulting with lawyers, that this expansion was within the center’s mandate, though some observers question that move.
Using post-9/11 powers to focus on what may be purely domestic threats is a legal gray area, said Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who was tasked by President Barack Obama with reviewing the National Security Agency’s data collection after Edward Snowden’s massive leak of top-secret records in 2013.
“To what extent does there have to be an international connection in order for these agencies to have jurisdiction?” Stone asked, noting that social media makes it easy to see links between international and domestic groups.
“Nazis in the U.S. are an interstate organization, no question about that. The question is whether they’re international,” he added.
So does a satanic cult count as an international terrorist organization?
The Order of Nine Angles was founded in the 1970s in the U.K., according to the counterterrorism center report and other public accounts, and it has been linked to white supremacists and neo-Nazi ideology.
Yet there is little reliable information about the group, and even the authors of the report seemed confused on the extent of its influence. “We lack reliable reporting on the number of O9A adherents, the extent of the group’s international presence, and whether it has a defined leadership structure,” the report says.
Yet even without that data, the report, which was shared among U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA and the NSA, recommends providing information on the group to social media companies so they can potentially censor its materials, and suggests former members “may be candidates for participation in disengagement programming.”
Historian David Garrow questioned whether the agencies involved in the report really even understood what they were writing about. “My most cynical reading would be that they’re trolling the web for suspicious content and they’ve come upon this stuff but that they really don’t know who it’s coming from or how many people are following or reading it,” said Garrow, who has written extensively on the FBI’s investigations into the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Much of the concern in the report appears to stem from the case of Melzer, the Army private, who was allegedly providing information to the Order of Nine Angles. But it’s unclear if he was an adherent, or even motivated by the group’s ideology. (He was also charged with trying to provide information to al-Qaida.)
He pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his lawyers did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
The NCC, a primary author of the report, declined to answer questions about the document. The center’s “role concerning domestic terrorism is one of support to the FBI and DHS, and includes ensuring that primary federal agencies and state, local and tribal partners have access to and receive all-source intelligence support needed to execute their [counterterrorism] plans or perform independent, alternative analysis,” the center’s spokesperson, Susan Miller, told Yahoo News.
In recent years, attacks by domestic extremists, particularly white supremacists, have grown, outstripping the number of plots by terrorists with a connection to foreign groups such as al-Qaida or the so-called Islamic State. At the same time, there is no federal domestic terrorism statute, although there’s been a push to create one and perhaps an even fiercer pushback from the civil liberties groups that oppose it.
A new federal domestic terrorism statute, civil liberties groups fear, could loosen the reins on domestic investigations and surveillance operations.
German, the former FBI agent, said that because intelligence agencies “see concerns with international terrorism reducing,” they are looking to expand to domestic extremism as a way to stay involved in policymaking and analysis.
For Stone, the law professor, another question is the First Amendment issue, and whether the groups are being investigated because their ideas, such as white supremacy, are abhorrent. “You don’t want the government investigating organizations because you don’t like their ideas,” he said.
“There’s no right to engage in terrorism,” Stone continued, “but there is a right to advocate for it.”
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