As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jihadology.net aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.
Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.
Fringe Fluidity: How Prior Extremist Involvement Serves as a Distinct Radicalization Pathway
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman
In January, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism entitled “Fluidity of the Fringes.” The authors argued for the recognition of a distinct individual-level pathway for radicalization to violent extremism, “fringe fluidity,” that involves a person transitioning from adherence to one set of extremist beliefs to another. They contended that the validity of this theory can be seen in an observable pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman have adapted their article for Jihadology’s readers.
This article argues for recognition of fringe fluidity as a distinct radicalization pathway in the terrorism studies literature. Most studies about individual-level radicalization examine how relatively normal people come to accept, and act in service of, extremist beliefs that counsel violence. As one prominent study said, most individuals it examined were unremarkable before they became terrorists, in that “they had ‘unremarkable’ jobs, had lived ‘unremarkable’ lives and had little, if any criminal history.” But some individuals who come to accept and act in service of a violent extremist ideology do not begin their journey as unremarkable. In some cases, individuals transition from adherence to one form of violent extremism to another—and understanding their prior extremist involvement is essential. This phenomenon can be observed frequently enough that fringe fluidity should be understood as an independent radicalization pathway.
This article demonstrates the existence of fringe fluidity by detailing the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. In recent years, over half a dozen case studies are readily identifiable in open-source literature of individuals who either made the transition from neo-Nazi beliefs to militant Islamism, or worked to advance both causes simultaneously. As this article shows, these individuals’ trajectories cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the totality of their extremist involvement.
It may seem counterintuitive or surprising that there would be a pathway between these two ideologies. After all, Islamist militants tend to view infidels writ large as adversaries, while committed Nazis view many Muslims as racially suspect. Indeed, today members of the European far right generally view Muslims as their top enemy. Yet there is a clear pipeline between the two—not necessarily a pipeline with an enormous quantitative output, but one that exists nonetheless. This pipeline has some ideological basis, including the fact that both ideologies share a common set of enemies in the Jewish people and the West (as currently constructed) more broadly. Further, the pipeline has some historical precedent.
To concretize what we mean by fringe fluidity, it is not just a process of inter-cultural borrowing and sharing of animosities that facilitate a congruence of extremist perspectives between neo-Nazi and extremist Islamist elements. Rather, fringe fluidity should be regarded as its own individual-level pathway into Islamist militancy. (We emphasize Islamist militancy as the end point because, as our case studies show, this is the direction in which fringe fluidity typically flows for these two ideologies: Rather than Islamist militants developing an interest in neo-Nazism, people with neo-Nazi sympathies far more frequently come to embrace militant Islamism.) The scholarly literature has elucidated such individual-level pathways by which Islamist militants are radicalized as personal grievance, social networks, ideology, and status-seeking. Similarly, there is an identifiable individual-level pathway by which individuals who have already embraced the belief system of neo-Nazism become acculturated into militant Islamism.
Though this article focuses on neo-Nazism and militant Islamism, we believe fringe fluidity is likely more widely applicable. Various extremist causes can likely serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other forms of extremism. We hope that future research will test whether fringe fluidity is in fact more widely applicable. It is not clear that all three of the factors enumerated above—recent cases of convergence, some ideological overlap, and historical precedent—are necessary for fluidity to exist between two fringe ideologies. Future research can examine which factors are necessary for fluidity between two extremist ideologies, but the relationship between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is sufficient to illuminate the existence of this radicalization pathway.
This article makes two contributions to the radicalization literature. First, it explicates a new individual-level pathway. Previous scholarship has outlined the convergence of some elements of militant Islam and the extreme right based on a sense of shared enemies, but without exploring how there might be a radicalization pathway between the two. Other academic work has viewed militant Islam and the extreme right as phenomena harboring significant mutual animosity, with little overlap, but that produce “reciprocal radicalization” in the course of their competition. Thus, there have been valuable scholarly explorations of neo-Nazism and militant Islam, but this radicalization pathway has not been identified in the scholarly literature. Second, the article raises—though does not answer—the question of whether individuals who have radicalized through fringe fluidity pose a greater danger of violence than do other extremists. People who have come to embrace more than one extremist ideology may have greater impulsiveness, or a lower threshold for action.
Our article first turns to the relevant literature on radicalization. It then examines the three factors that in our opinion demonstrate the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islam. We begin by explaining the ideological factors that, in the view of people who made the journey between the two extremist currents, bind them together. The article then delves into the history connecting these outlooks, before turning to contemporary case studies. The article concludes by discussing the utility of recognizing fringe fluidity, and proposing a future research agenda related to the concept.
Current Conceptions of Radicalization
There is no consensus definition of radicalization, nor is there a consensus model describing how it occurs. This section describes the conceptual frameworks that scholars have advanced, and argues that fringe fluidity has explanatory power regardless of which conception of radicalization a scholar adopts.
The lack of a consensus definition of radicalization is unsurprising, and does not call into question the concept’s validity. There is similarly no consensus definition of terrorism, nor is there a consensus definition of such critical and universally recognized concepts as war, civil war, or insurgency. As Peter Neumann has noted, most definitions of radicalization can be distinguished through their emphasis on either the progression to extremist views, or else to extremist behaviors. Fringe fluidity is relevant to the adoption of both extremist views and behaviors.
The fundamental insight of fringe fluidity is that prior extremist involvement provides a pathway by which an individual may come to engage in a new violent extremist ideology cognitively or behaviorally, at least if sufficient points of convergence exist between the prior and more newly-adopted form of extremism. These points of convergence—such as the ideological overlap and shared history that can be found in the case of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism—may allow an individual to transition between even two seemingly discordant movements. With respect to radical beliefs, an individual who has already embraced some form of extremism may find it easier to accept another extremist outlook that is also deeply counter-normative.
Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins have made the important observation that, despite sometimes heated debates in the field of radicalization studies, there is “some consensus on the key variables that produce radicalization and violent extremism.” They highlight grievances, networks, ideologies, and enabling environments and support structures as variables about which there is agreement. But Hafez and Mullins note that despite this agreement on variables that may drive extremism, the field is far from a consensus on the models tracing an individual’s transformation. In many ways, radicalization models can be seen as metaphors for how the adoption of violent extremist views or behaviors comes about.
One influential metaphor has been that of a process. Some scholarship has criticized this conception for being overly singular in its focus, and for overemphasizing the role of ideology. Thus, subsequent scholarship has tended to reject the process metaphor, instead describing variegated pathways to terrorist violence. Reviewing key work that takes this perspective, Stefan Malthaner explains that it rejects the idea that radicalization is the culmination of “linear development,” and instead sees the phenomenon “as part of an ‘activist career’, understood as ‘a long-lasting social activity articulated by phases of joining, commitment, and defection.’” Other academic work counsels against the use of processes or pathways as metaphors. Hafez and Mullins argue for the use of puzzle as a metaphor because there is no “orderly sequence of steps or procedures that produce an output.” They maintain that this metaphor best expresses the “multifactor and contextual approach” that is required to understand radicalization.
In this article, we are agnostic about the best overarching model for conceptualizing radicalization, though we utilize the language of pathways a few times because fringe fluidity possesses certain unique characteristics that can be understood as distinct from radicalization rooted primarily in, say, ideology or discrete social networks. It is clear that debates over which radicalization model is most powerful will continue for years. The concept of fringe fluidity should have explanatory power regardless of which model scholars or analysts employ.
The Role of Hate Speech. Hate speech also has explanatory power for the study of radicalization regardless of which model scholars employ. As this section shows, hate speech is a formidable mechanism for extremist groups to identify and define key out-groups. We highlight the role that hate speech plays because one of the most obvious connections between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is that both view the Jewish people as an arch-enemy—and individuals who have exhibited fringe fluidity have fingered Jew-hatred as critical to their transition from one extremist outlook to the other.
Hate speech can magnify grievances and help mobilize an audience to violence. Hateful messaging can thus aid the indoctrination of extremist groups’ potential recruits. Hateful rhetoric can break down psychological barriers to violence, while repeated exposure to and engagement in hateful rhetoric accelerates the process of dehumanizing one’s foes, and thus morally disengaging from physical harm inflicted upon them.
Experts generally agree that individuals derive a certain level of self-concept from group membership. One’s identification with a social group provides a set of norms and behaviors to adhere to, as well as a sense of pride and self-esteem. By positively differentiating our in-group from another out-group, we can bolster our individual sense of positive distinctiveness. But there are also pitfalls to this kind of social categorization, particularly when extreme priority is given to group identification, and when out-groups are vilified. One set of dangers relates to discrimination based on group identity. Even more dangerous, the cognitive prioritization of the group can depress an individual’s “psychological threshold” for carrying out acts of violence. If a group portrays violent or alienating behavior as compulsory and vindicated, then an individual belonging to that group is more likely to adopt this mentality, and engage in such acts.
Hateful rhetoric strengthens the salience of collective identity and can condition individuals to perceive members of an out-group in a highly pejorative manner. Such messaging exaggerates the differences between in-group members and out-group members. Hateful messages targeting an out-group often feature accusations and alarming statements depicting the out-group as an existential threat to the in-group. Such assertions heighten in-group members’ “lack of empathy and increased animus to out-groups.”
Hate speech can also function as a mechanism for dehumanization, which social psychologists and historians have connected to violence. Alexandra Roginsky and Alexander Tsesis note that hate speech employs “dehumanizing images to justify exclusion, discrimination, and, in genocidal cases, elimination of identifiable groups.” Put simply, exposure to the dehumanizing rhetoric and beliefs that characterize hate speech can reduce psychological impediments to violence by encouraging emotional and cognitive detachment between the actor and target. “To perceive another as human activates empathetic reactions through perceived similarity,” writes Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura. But, notes Bandura, once a target is dehumanized, it is no longer seen as possessing “feelings, hopes and concerns”—which are characteristic of other human beings—but rather is viewed as a “sub-human” object. Adam Lankford explains that “if your enemies are not regarded in human terms, it is much easier to exterminate them.”
Dehumanization is only one aspect of the psychological disengagement process that can enable militant violence. Bandura explains that normal individuals can be transformed into killers when the “moral value of killing” is restructured, and self-restraint is removed. Hate speech and extremist ideology often mutually reinforce one another. Hateful rhetoric can advance an extremist ideology by articulating group grievances and facilitating a process of moral restructuring. In turn, writes Bandura, the persuasiveness of hateful messages is stronger when paired with “religious principles, righteous ideologies, and nationalistic imperatives.” Hateful rhetoric and extremist ideologies can thus create a cyclical process wherein ideology prescribes a moral framework, while hate speech allows individuals to tune out voices opposed to their growing extremism, and lowers their moral disinclination to carry out or support violence.
As previously explained, three factors—ideological overlap, historical precedent, and recent cases—clarify the fringe fluidity pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Now that this article has situated fringe fluidity within theories of radicalization, we explore the three factors that lead us to conclude that this pathway exists. We first outline the ideological commonalities between these two extremist strains.
Ideological Commonalities between Neo-Nazism and Militant Islamism
Several ideological commonalities exist between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Both offer similar cognitive frameworks, as they are totalitarian movements that propose rigid, far-reaching, and all-consuming worldviews that divide the world unambiguously into “good” and “evil.” Both movements have revolutionary aspirations, seeking to replace the existing order with new states “built around racial or religious exclusivity.” Michaela Glaser, who works on preventing violent extremism for the German Youth Institute, sees these ideological similarities as critical to the phenomenon that we dub fringe fluidity in this article. Commenting on Sascha Lemanski, a former neo-Nazi who became an ISIS-supporting jihadist (who is discussed later in this article), Glaser noted that “extremist ideologies offer people … a clear distinction between good and evil and a sense that its adherents belong to a special, chosen group.”
Perhaps most significantly, both ideologies have clearly defined in-groups and out-groups. The Jewish people are a key out-group for both ideologies, with neo-Nazi and militant Islamist spokesmen arguing that the American government is controlled by a shadowy Jewish elite. Indeed, a shared enmity toward Jewish people frequently lies at the center of cases of Nazi-jihadist fluidity.
Jewish People as a Key Out-Group. Both Nazis and militant Islamists hold the Jewish people responsible for a disproportionate amount of humankind’s misfortunes. This perspective is articulated in copious speeches, statements and writings of militant Islamist and Nazi leaders. While this section highlights the views of Sayyid Qutb and Adolf Hitler in particular, this shared perception of the Jewish people as an enemy is unambiguous in both movements, expressed by individuals who range from the top echelons of leadership to the foot soldier level.
In his infamous essay “Our Struggle with the Jews,” Sayyid Qutb—a key ideological forebear of today’s militant Islamists—wrote: “Everywhere the Jews have been they have committed unprecedented abominations. From such creatures who kill, massacre and defame prophets one can only expect the spilling of human blood and dirty means which would further their machinations and evil.” Hitler’s sentiments were, of course, similar: Anti-Semitism was a bedrock ideology of the Nazi movement. Like Qutb’s accusation that the Jews commit “unprecedented abominations,” Hitler asked in his autobiography Mein Kampf: “Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved?” To Hitler, the Jews are universal villains, their mere existence menacing and malign. He compared the Jewish people to “maggots” in a “decaying body.”
Both Qutb and Hitler not only blamed and vilified the Jewish people, but dehumanized them. As we have explained, the dehumanization of an out-group is common among extremist movements, particularly those that seek to incite violence against, or cause the extermination of, a group. In the Nazi and militant Islamist movements, the dehumanization of Jews occurs through degradation and demonization.
Degradation includes the reduction of the Jewish people to vermin, such as Qutb and Hitler’s portrayal of Jewish people as murderous “creatures,” loathsome “maggots.” The cognitive distance that both movements create between in-group members and Jews increases the acceptability of violence. According to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Jewish people were “unconditionally exterminable,” a depiction he advanced in the Nazi party’s propaganda. As scholar David Livingstone Smith explained, “all that Goebbels could see were vermin: carriers of the Jewish disease—a disease that would engulf the world unless it was obliterated.” In one diary entry, Goebbels wrote that Jews “are no longer human beings, but animals. It is, therefore, also no humanitarian task, but a task for the surgeon. One has got to cut here, and that most radically. Or Europe will vanish one day due to the Jewish disease.” The depiction of Jewish people as the personification of malice and grime persists today among adherents to both neo-Nazi and militant Islamist ideologies.
A second form of dehumanization exhibited by both groups is demonization. David Patterson notes that both movements see “the Jew” as someone who “not only commits evil but embodies the essence of evil and is therefore beyond remission.” In Mein Kampf, for example, Hitler wrote that “no one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil as the symbol of evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” Similarly, Qutb wrote that Jews represent the “blackest devil and source of the worst anti-Islamic machinations.” Jewish people, both movements contend, are not only responsible for spreading corruption and evil, but are intrinsically wicked and immoral by virtue of their ethnicity.
This combination of demonization and degradation fuels the “exterminationist anti-Semitism” that exists within both ideologies. While comparing a particular ethnic group to disgusting, lowly creatures undoubtedly facilitates the process of moral disengagement necessary for violence, declaring them to actually be an altogether different species provides the justification for extermination. As Elana Gomel has explained, no license to exterminate a people comes from saying they are like bacteria. But “if the Jews are really parasites, a different biological species, masquerading as humans but in fact, dangerous, alien and strange, killing them becomes as morally neutral as cleansing a house from bugs.”
Hatred of Jews is further fueled by both movements’ belief in a “Zionist conspiracy,” the idea that Jewish people are secretly plotting to manipulate or control the world. Contemporary conceptions of this purported conspiracy are often rooted in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery birthed in czarist Russia that claimed to be a “record of secret meetings of Jewish leaders.” Though the Protocols were exposed as a fraud in the 1920s, the document became a key facet of Nazi propaganda. The Nazi party published at least twenty-three editions of the Protocols between 1933 and the onset of the Second World War. In “Our Struggle with the Jews,” Sayyid Qutb referenced the Protocols multiple times. Qutb further articulated his belief in a “Jewish master plan” in Milestones, declaring that the Jewish people intend to “eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations imposed by faith and religion, so that [they] may penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs.”
Anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of Jewish people plays an important role in the ability of some individuals to move seamlessly from neo-Nazism to the militant Islamist movement. The “Jewish question” looms large for both ideologies, and for some individuals, scapegoating of “the Jew” is more powerful than the movements’ differences. In addition, the fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism has historical precedent, which our next section explores.
The Historical Convergence
In the view of contemporary figures who have attempted to reconcile militant Islamist beliefs with support for neo-Nazism, the historical convergence between Nazism and militant Islamism is best exemplified by Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini. The former grand mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini is notorious for his collaboration with Hitler’s Nazi regime. Husseini was both anti-Semitic and anti-British, a combination that aligned closely with Hitler’s interests.
Though Husseini began cultivating ties to the Nazi movement as early as 1933, a publicly acknowledged reciprocal, cooperative relationship did not form until 1937, when the British Royal Commission published the Peel Report recommending that Palestine be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states. Following the Peel Report’s publication, Husseini publicly voiced his support for the Third Reich, and requested that the Nazis assist his fight against the Jews. Fearing that Jewish statehood might strengthen “international Jewry,” Nazi Germany began to see the Arabs as “assets” for their cause, and to view Husseini as a potential strategic partner. Nazi Germany began supplying Palestinian Arabs with weapons to combat the anticipated Jewish state, while the Palestinian press promoted Nazism and European anti-Semitic propaganda. Toward the end of 1937, Husseini was forced to flee Palestine to avoid arrest for inciting a rebellion against the British Mandate.
By 1939, Husseini operated out of Baghdad. He collaborated with Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to orchestrate a Nazi-backed coup. When the British stopped the coup, Husseini was forced to flee once again. In November 1941, he settled in Berlin, and almost immediately obtained an audience with Hitler, where Husseini pledged his support for the Third Reich.
In the years that followed, Husseini played a relatively important role for the Nazis. He made pro-Axis radio broadcasts designed for the Arab world, and helped to organize the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, a volunteer force in the former Yugoslavia composed predominantly of Bosnian Muslims. Husseini authored a treatise, Islam und Judentum (“Islam and Judaism”), to promote these units’ dedication to the Nazi cause. The treatise was composed of a series of crude caricatures of the Jewish people that together formed an argument for eliminationist anti-Semitism.
Following Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Hitler’s erstwhile officers fled in an effort to avoid accountability for the Nazi regime’s atrocities. Egypt emerged as a particularly important safe haven. Among other notables, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini fled there in June 1946, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup created further opportunity for Nazis to embed themselves in the new government.
Johann von Leers, who had been a high-ranking assistant to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, produced material for Nasser attacking the United States and Israel. Von Leers even converted to Islam, adopting the name Oman Amin von Leers. Corresponding with a fellow fascist, von Leers opined that “if my nation had got Islam instead of Christianity we should not have had all the traitors we had in World War II.” Martin Lee notes that several other Nazi propagandists followed von Leers’s lead in relocating to Egypt and adopting Arabic names, including Hans Appler and Louis Heiden. Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny, whom the Allies once described as “the most dangerous man in Europe,” became a key military advisor to Nasser. In 1953-54, Skorzeny planned the first wave of terrorist attacks into Israel and the Gaza Strip carried out by newly-trained Palestinian guerillas.
Some of these historical connections are not between Nazism and jihadism, but rather between Nazi figures and Arab nationalists. Nonetheless, this historical precedent has proven important for contemporary neo-Nazis who have made the transition to immersion in the jihadist movement. The fact that prominent Third Reich figures cooperated with Arab regimes and militants can help neo-Nazis overcome reservations they may have about the possible ethnic impurity of their new allies. Indeed, the next part of this article shows that the figures discussed in this section were explicitly referenced by militants who saw neo-Nazism and militant Islamism as reconcilable.
Case Studies of Contemporary Nazi-Militant Islamist Fluidity
This article has explained how fringe fluidity can serve as an independent radicalization pathway; and it has explained how individuals who exemplify the phenomenon see the ideological synergy and historical connection between some aspects of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism as proof of their compatibility. This section now goes beyond the broad case for fringe fluidity and turns to case studies that demonstrate its existence.
This section examines eight people who illustrate fringe fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism: David Myatt, Steven Smyrek, Emerson Begolly, Ahmed Huber, Sascha Lemanski, Thomas Usztics, Diego José Frías Álvarez, and Nicholas Young.
David Myatt. One the most famous examples of fringe fluidity is David Myatt, a founder of the British National Socialist Movement. Myatt converted to Islam in 1998.
According to George Michael, Myatt “has arguably done more than any other theorist to develop a synthesis of the extreme right and Islam.” Prior to his religious conversion, Myatt authored a handbook entitled A Practical Guide to Aryan Revolution, and served as the ideological leader of the British neo-Nazi gang Combat 18. In an online article titled “From Neo-Nazi to Muslim,” Myatt acknowledged the apparent irony of his conversion. He wrote: “These were the people who I had been fighting on the streets, I had swore [sic] at and had used violence against—indeed, one of my terms of imprisonment was a result of me leading a gang of skinheads in a fight against ‘Pakis’.” But Myatt eventually lost hope in the far right’s ability to combat Zionism and the West. He explained that he now believed there would never be a successful uprising “in any Western nation, by nationalists, racial nationalists, or National Socialists—because these people lack the desire, the motivation, the ethos, to do this and because they do not have the support of even a large minority of their own folk.”
This disillusion contributed to Myatt’s turn to Islam, after which he assumed the name Abdul Aziz ibn Myatt. Myatt adopted a militant interpretation of the faith, and drew a straight-line connection between his fight against the Jewish people as a neo-Nazi and as a Muslim. Much of Myatt’s public writing during his time as a Muslim focused on encouraging enemies of the Jewish people to unite under a single banner. He exhorted “all enemies of the Zionists to embrace the Jihad,” referred to Islam as the “true martial religion,” and claimed that it “will most effectively fight against the Jews and the Americans.” Myatt praised Osama bin Laden, describing the al-Qaeda leader as “an exemplary warrior who has forsaken a life of luxury to pursue his Islamic duty.”
A careful review of Myatt’s writings reveals how his hatred for Jewish people and enmity toward the “so-called New World Order” superseded the discordant elements of militant Islamist and Nazi ideology. After interviewing Myatt, George Michael described the thrust of his argument as holding that “the primary battle against the Zionist occupation government (ZOG) has shifted from the West to the Islamic world.” Indeed, Myatt perceived a synthesis between the two movements’ goals, believing that the fight between militant Islam and the West “makes the extreme right’s goals more easily obtainable.” Consequently, in an April 2003 interview with Michael, Myatt deemed an alliance between militant Islamists and neo-Nazis to be not only “possible,” but “indeed necessary.”
Myatt eventually came to reject both Islam and extremism in favor of a new philosophical outlook that he dubbed the Way of Pathei-Mathos. Despite this later conversion, Myatt provides an example of how one’s commitment to anti-Semitism can bridge the ideological divide between Nazism and jihadism.
Emerson Begolly is a Nazi sympathizer turned jihadist who hails from Pennsylvania. He had been involved in neo-Nazism at a young age, as Begolly’s father introduced him to Nazi beliefs, and dressed him as a Nazi. Begolly even posted photos on his MySpace page depicting him dressed as a Nazi while he was a teenager.
Begolly later converted to Islam and became an active member of several jihadist forums. Similar to Myatt, for Begolly anti-Semitism served as a tie binding his two distinct involvements with extremism. He established a reputation for particularly harsh anti-Semitic posts, even relative to the extremist forums in which he participated. In one post in which he referenced Hitler’s Final Solution, Begolly wrote: “The only the good about that all the jews weren’t gassed that that insha’Allah someday we will get a chance to kill jews ourselves.” Begolly was also known for collecting, distributing, and producing his own nasheeds, Islamic works of acapella music. Many Islamist militants produce nasheeds because they believe musical instruments are religiously proscribed, thus making acapella one of the few permissible forms of music. Begolly composed an original nasheed titled “When the Jew’s Blood Reds My Knife, Then My Life is Free from Strife”:
When the Jew’s blood reds my knife, Then my life is free from strife.
Hiding behind rocks and trees, I’ll find them with greatest ease.
Make them get down on their knees, Slaughter them despite their pleas.
Throw them in the ovens hot, Soap and lampshades sold and bought.
Made of the Jews that we shot, Mercy’s something I have not.
With the bomb and machine gun, Blast at them and watch them run.
We will have a lot of fun, Shoot and kill Jews one by one.
Rise up, O Salahuddin, Great and brave Mujahideen.
Like the Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, For the Love of Filisteen.
At al-Aqsa we shall meet, After Israel’s defeat.
Their dead bodies at our feet, Taste of victory is sweet.
Begolly exhorted others to participate in violent attacks in the United States. Information presented in Begolly’s prosecution showed that he was “an active administrator” of a jihadist forum known as Ansar al Mujahideen English Forum. Writing under the name Abu Nancy, Begolly “systematically solicited jihadists to use firearms, explosives, and propane tanks against targets such as police stations, post offices, Jewish schools and daycare centers, military facilities, train lines, bridges, cell phone towers, and water plants.” On December 18, 2010, Begolly uploaded a guide with instructions on how to manufacture explosives. He was sentenced to 102 months in prison after pleading guilty to soliciting crimes of violence.
Steven Smyrek. Another case of fringe fluidity is Steven Smyrek, a former German neo-Nazi. While most cases in this section involve individuals who gravitated toward Sunni militancy, Smyrek was arrested in Israel in 1997 for planning to carry out a suicide attack on behalf of Hizballah, a Shia militant group. Smyrek had converted to Islam prior to travelling to Tel Aviv. Though he was sentenced to ten years in prison, Israeli security services released Smyrek as part of a prisoner exchange agreement in 2004 after he signed a document that reportedly renounced violence.
But upon his return to Europe, Smyrek was unrepentant. “It’s an honor to die for Islam and for Allah,” he told a filmmaker in a documentary interview. “When the order comes you have to carry it out and there’s not time to ask if there is a God or not, or to think what will happen after you’re dead, without feeling you simply have to lay down your life as Allah decreed.”
The late Ahmed Huber was born Albert Friedrich Armand Huber in 1927. Like Myatt and Begolly, anti-Semitism was apparently Huber’s overarching framework, and driven by it, he found common ground between neo-Nazi and Islamist extremist beliefs—as well as between Sunni and Shia Islamist militancy.
Huber converted to Islam in his late thirties. In contrast to the other cases examined in this section, Huber converted prior to embracing extreme right-wing beliefs. His first exposure to Islam came in 1959, when he was asked to shelter several Algerians fleeing the country’s war of independence. Prior to that, Huber describes himself as having been a “young socialist journalist” and “Protestant Christian, very tolerant, liberal, and not practicing … religious, but not too much.” In his conversations with the Algerians, Huber became “fascinated” by Islam, and recited his shahada (declaration of faith) in 1962. According to Huber, upon urging from the Egyptian embassy in Switzerland, he later repeated his shahada in Cairo, where he met Gamal Abdel Nasser. By Huber’s account, Nasser sparked his later devotion to Nazism. Huber described meeting Nasser as “a complete cultural shock,” including when Nasser told Huber “some things about the Third Reich and about the Second World War, and about Adolf Hitler.” It is worth recalling that Nasser had sheltered Nazi war criminals who were fleeing justice. Also present in Egypt during Nasser’s rule was Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who likewise would be a critical influence on Huber. Reflecting on an interview he had conducted with Huber, George Michael wrote that Husseini “was instrumental in shaping Huber’s views, not only on Islam but also on the Third Reich.”
Though Huber was Sunni, he also displayed affinity for Shia militancy. This underscores how Huber prioritized the out-groups whom he opposed and despised. Huber told George Michael that he “became more deeply involved with Islam” after traveling to Iran and meeting Ayatollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s. Huber said that during this journey, he was “touched by Shi’ite Islam and felt [sympathy] for the legality of the Shi’a Muslim and especially for the Islamic republic.” Huber confirmed in his interview with Michael that his views on Iran and Shia militancy were influenced by his hatred of out-groups, describing “two great menaces, the power of Zionism in the United States over the United States, and as a consequence of this, the utterly hostile policies of the United States government.”
On November 7, 2001, Huber was named by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as one of several key terrorist financiers associated with the banking group al-Taqwa. Al-Taqwa’s support for terrorism was significant enough in the assessment of U.S. officials that President George W. Bush spoke of its closure at length in an announcement. President Bush said that al-Taqwa raised “funds for Al Qaeda. They manage, invest and distribute those funds. They provide terrorist supporters with Internet service, secure telephone communications and other ways of sending messages and sharing information. They even arrange for the shipment of weapons.”
Huber admitted to George Michael that he served as a member of al-Taqwa’s administration council from 1988 until the bank’s closure in 2002. Though Huber denied any operational link to al-Qaeda, Michael noted that he was clearly “enthusiastic over the 9/11 attacks,” as he “saw them as a catalyst that would bring together elements of the extreme right and militant Islam.” Huber told a CNN interviewer in 2002 that al-Qaeda was “a very honorable organization… If they killed a few American generals in the Pentagon, I don’t feel very sorry, because these guys have done a lot of trouble.” The same video showed the interior of Huber’s study, which featured portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden, as well as a relic Huber prized: a physical piece of Hitler’s house.
German citizen Sascha Lemanski, according to reports, had previously been part of a prominent neo-Nazi group in Germany known as the Immortals. Prior to Lemanski’s conversion to Islam, he publicly accused Muslims of causing the “creeping death of the people,” and of trying to impose sharia in Germany. In a May 2013 YouTube video titled “Tips for the fight against cockroaches,” Lemanski called for attacks against immigrants.
But Lemanski had converted to Islam by 2014. He faced court charges that year for disseminating ISIS messages online. But Lemanski’s involvement in jihadism continued to deepen even after these legal troubles. In February 2017, German authorities arrested Lemanski as he was planning a terrorist attack. In interrogations following his arrest, Lemanski “admitted to planning to lure police officers or soldiers into a trap and then kill them with a homemade explosive.” Authorities also recovered “materials required for the construction of an unconventional blasting device,” including “chemical materials required for the production of an acetone peroxide explosive device, as well as the electronic components required for remote ignition.”
Thomas Usztics is a German national. Born in 1985 to parents who had immigrated from Hungary, Usztics had ties to the far-right and neo-Nazi scenes in his youth. He converted to Islam in 2008, and radicalized quickly, joining the Deutsche Taliban Mujahideen (DTM) within a year of his conversion. DTM is a militant splinter group that was originally part of the Islamic Jihad Union, and is based geographically in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region (Waziristan and Hindu Kush). It is composed of German-speaking Islamists, and prioritizes the ouster of non-Muslim forces from Afghanistan, including German soldiers, while espousing attacks on German soil.
With DTM, Usztics adopted the nom de guerre of Hamsa al-Majaari (Hamsa the Hungarian). He received weapons and explosives training, took part in an attack against a NATO base that housed American and Afghan forces, and appeared in two jihadist propaganda videos. In the videos, Usztics proclaimed that DTM would continue fighting until all Western troops had left Afghanistan, and urged Muslims in Germany to join the jihad in the Hindu Kush, either by travelling to join the fight, or at least supporting it financially. He implored his co-religionists in one video: “Sell your belongings so we can continue buying weapons.” Usztics also contacted German citizens by email, and through this correspondence took to “demanding political and financial support” for DTM.
Despite his fanaticism, Usztics became disillusioned with DTM, and disheartened by the hardships he suffered. He later revealed the living conditions that he and his wife (also a German convert, whom he had brought to Waziristan) had to endure, which he described as unfit for human habitation. Usztics described a shocking lack of hygiene, people who “were spitting and vomiting,” and disrespectful treatment of women. Usztics said that only after he arrived in Turkey, “finally I could hold hands with my wife in public.” But the biggest factor prompting his split from DTM, according to Usztic, was the gruesome death of some of his German friends in a firefight with Pakistani soldiers.
Usztics and his wife were arrested in Turkey and extradited to Germany, where Usztics was sentenced to over four years in prison for membership in a terrorist group and preparation of a serious act of subversion while abroad. Like David Myatt, Usztics has now publicly renounced jihadism.
The case of Diego José Frías Álvarez exemplifies how a commitment to anti-Semitism can bridge the ideological divide between Nazism and jihadism. Frías Álvarez is a Spanish neo-Nazi activist and former member of the Republican Social Movement (MSR: Moviment Social Republicà), one of Spain’s most active neo-fascist and extreme right-wing political organizations. Frías Álvarez’s political activism reached its zenith when he topped the MSR’s electoral appointment list in the 2006 parliamentary elections. But Frías Álvarez won only about 0.04% of the votes. In addition to MSR’s connection to other anti-Semitic parties, it also allied with European far-right parties with anti-Muslim politics.
In mid-2015, the Catalonian police force Mossos d’Esquadra arrested Frías Álvarez for his suspected involvement with a jihadist cell known as the “Islamic Fraternity for the Preaching of Jihad.” Though he was not a Muslim convert, he was a co-conspirator, providing material assistance in the form of a weapons arsenal and suggested targets of attack.
The cell’s leader was Antonio Sáez Martínez, a Granada barber who converted to Islam in 2012 and subsequently became known as Aalí. Sáez Martínez initially used the network to send recruits to ISIS camps in Syria and Iraq. But as authorities arrested several would-be foreign fighters, the cell redirected its efforts to committing attacks around Barcelona. One example of a planned attack, designed to starkly mirror ISIS’s acts of slaughter in Syria and Iraq, was to kidnap a victim, put him in an orange jumpsuit, and behead him in front of cameras. Other planned attacks included the bombing of a Jewish bookstore, and further attacks against synagogues, the Parliament of Catalonia, and police stations.
Initially the Islamic Fraternity lacked the necessary materials to carry out these attacks. Thus, Frías Álvarez was introduced to the plot through a contact of Sáez Martínez, as the neo-Nazi was understood to be an intermediary capable of obtaining weapons and explosive materials. But the role Frías Álvarez played in the plot was not merely that of a middle man. Demonstrating how jihadists and neo-Nazis can be bound by common enemies, Frías Álvarez suggested several targets in the Barcelona metropolitan area to the cell, such as the Mossos d’Esquadra police department on the Plaza de España. This central role played by the neo-Nazi was corroborated by two witnesses who are now under police protection, and also by photos found on arrestees’ mobile phones.
Thus, though Frías Álvarez had been active in political and social groups that were overtly anti-Muslim, his deep-seated hatred for Jews led him to conspire with a jihadist terror cell. A shared out-group enabled an alliance that may seem improbable.
Nicholas Young. On December 18, 2017, a jury in northern Virginia convicted Nicholas Young of attempting to provide material support to ISIS and also obstruction of justice. (The obstruction of justice charge was recently reversed on appeal.) It was a landmark case, as it was the first time an American member of law enforcement was convicted in a terrorism case. Unlike the previous cases, Young was arrested following a so-called “sting operation” by federal law enforcement. Among other things, Young provided gift cards to an undercover agent that he thought ISIS would use to communicate.
In addition to his support for ISIS, Young appeared to have longstanding neo-Nazi sympathies. Trial testimony suggested that Young’s early interest in extremist Islam stemmed from his anti-Semitic outlook:
“Don’t discount an alliance with Muslims to combat the Jews,” Young said after attending a neo-Nazi gathering in 2000, testified college friend, Ian Campbell, an Arlington County police corporal.
Young gave Campbell a copy of Serpent’s Walk, a 1991 novel published by the white supremacist National Alliance. Set nearly 100 years after World War II, it tells a story of SS officers who continued to fight for their cause until they were poised for global dominance. Agents also found a copy in Young’s home.
In addition, Young’s home and hard drive contained a significant amount of Nazi and anti-Semitic paraphernalia. Some, but not all, could be attributed to the fact that he was a World War II reenactor. But unlike most reenactors, Young had a Nazi symbol tattooed on his arm, the official insignia of the 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen.” The license plate on Young’s truck read FRI KRP, a reference to the Freikorps German volunteer units. Though the Freikorps had existed since the eighteenth century, following World War I it became largely associated with “former World War I veterans, and nationalist students, opposed to Germany’s post-War democratic system.” Germany’s defeat in the First World War pushed many Freikorps members to employ what European historian Robert Gerwarth called “bloody rituals of retribution” against perceived enemies in the wake of this loss. “Jews and women featured most prominently as the targets of Freikorps brutality,” Gerwarth writes. “Freikorps blamed Jews, and women, for the weakening of the home front that had led to military defeat.”
Among his materials, Young had photographs of some of the key figures representing the historical convergence described in this article, including several photos of Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini and a portrait of Otto Skorzeny. One particularly revelatory document is a two-page note that Young wrote featuring prayers for family members and other figures. The prayer is divided into four sections: prayers for the dead, the living, coworkers, and the Ummah. In addition to listing close friends and family members, the section dedicated to the dead lists “Hitler, [Otto] Skorzeny, Hajj Amin al-Hussaini [sic], Mussolini, Saddam Husein [sic]. Prophet Muhamed [sic], John the Baptist & all the Companions” as individuals for whom he was praying. Figures listed in his prayers for the dead represent Nazism (Hitler), Fascism (Mussolini), and the bridge between Nazism and Arab nationalism (Husseini and Skorzeny).
Though individual-level studies of radicalization overwhelmingly focus on how normal people with unremarkable ideas come to embrace an extremist ideology, this article demonstrates that there is another pathway. Sometimes individuals transition from the embrace of one form of violent extremism to another. That transition should be recognized as its own distinct individual-level pathway, which we call fringe fluidity. This article has focused on the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism because it is clearly discernible. As outlined in this article, several factors illuminate this pathway: the ideologies have significant (though not perfect) overlap in how they define their out-groups, there is a historical connection that can be mollifying for those moving from neo-Nazism to the embrace or aid of militant Islamism, and numerous contemporary case studies demonstrate this fluidity.
The concept of fringe fluidity is important because whatever metaphor one employs for radicalization—a process, pathway, puzzle, or something else—the phenomenon will have a distinct shape for those who have already been immersed in one extremist ideology. As multiple factors seem to be propelling us into a new age of extremism, the importance of developing a better understanding of the various journeys through which people embrace violent extremism will grow.
Future research into fringe fluidity can examine what factors are necessary for this fluidity to exist between two extremist ideologies. As we have noted, there may be a variety of extremist causes that can serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other varieties of extremism. Other apparent cases of fringe fluidity that we have observed include movement from leftist militancy to militant Islamism, and movement from left-wing to right-wing extremism. It is not clear that the multiple interlocking factors driving the fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism are needed for such a pathway between two ideologies to exist.
Future research can also examine whether there are significant demographic or other differences in those who radicalize through fringe fluidity. Do they tend to be older? Do they radicalize faster than individuals who start their journey having lived an unremarkable life? Is there a greater propensity for “radicalization of action,” and not just radicalization of belief, for people who travel this path? All of these are important questions which we believe deserve exploration. This article begins the broader discussion about the relationship between and among extremist ideologies by offering an overarching framework for recognizing fringe fluidity, and demonstrating that this fluidity exists.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global and a non-resident fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Madeleine Blackman is the research manager at Valens Global.