Increased cooperation between a subset of far-right street-gangs – Active Clubs – has largely passed under the radar. Jack Wippell argues this constitutes a ‘new’ threat, and draws from research on extremist organisations to explore what might follow. He highlights several limitations in what we know, and calls for immediate collaboration between researchers and practitioners
The arrest of Robert Rundo earlier this month, founder of the now-defunct Rise Above Movement (RAM), sparked media interest in an emerging offshoot of the movement: far-right Active Clubs. These groups blend hyper-masculinity and white nationalism into an action-orientated approach to perceived social wrongs. The Active Club network has grown rapidly and now has a presence in at least 25 US states.
Another recent development, however, has slipped under the radar. In March, four Active Clubs in the Pacific Northwest announced the formation of a Northwest Nationalist Network (3N). These clubs are already among the largest; Rose City Nationalists (the Oregon chapter) has over 800 followers on Telegram.
With the formation of 3N, we will now begin to see widespread and coordinated efforts to combat the establishment’s anti-White agenda. In time, the PNW will no longer be synonymous with the BLM riots in Portland. Rather, the PNW will be seen as a bastion of hope for Our People. We will have our home again.NortHWest Nationalist network telegram channel, 25 february 2023
This move is concerning for several reasons. First, it signals that Active Club leaders are taking a more strategic approach to social change, one that increased access to material and human resources will foster. They want to make an impact.
Second, this bottom-up expansion contrasts with that of RAM's earlier strategy. Crackdowns on leaders are therefore unlikely to have as significant an effect. This is compounded by a political climate ripe for recruitment, with elections approaching and the misogyny-driven INCEL movement’s growth.
Active Clubs' bottom-up growth strategy means crackdowns on leaders are unlikely to make a significant impact
Most importantly, the move marks a fundamental shift in how far-right street gangs now operate. In contrast with the rivalries (and even outright conflicts) between historic skinhead gangs, Active Clubs now prioritise collaboration towards a shared goal. This presents new challenges.
Existing work on the implications of changing dynamics in violent extremist organisations can provide insight into how Active Club activities may now change.
To date, Active Clubs have pursued non-violent action and rhetoric. However, the existing literature is still a useful guide, for several reasons. First, Active Clubs emerged directly from violent extremist organisations. Second, extremists often use non-violent rhetoric to ‘cover their tracks’. Concerns that action-focused rhetoric will cause, or inspire, violence are justified.
To begin, increases in extremist group size and experience have been linked with higher frequencies of violence, and this in turn with a feedback loop that raises recruitment. This research analysed only violent attacks. However, with the growth this collaboration brings to each group through pooled resources, increased activity and recruitment may follow.
On top of this, strategic goals and resource constraints have long been linked with tactical choices. For instance, groups with more expansive goals tend to use firearms more than groups with narrow goals. The higher-level goals this collaboration signals, combined with the increased resources it presents, may lead to changes in the type of action pursued.
On a societal level, as the number of violent extremist groups rises, the survival likelihood of all groups declines. Interpreting this collaboration as a reduction in distinct groups – while not a merger, the formal pooling of resources among groups with near-identical goals and approaches to change is significant – the Active Club movement may become more resilient.
Finally, where there is more violent extremist inter-group competition, there is more violence. This finding is harder to relate because this collaboration exists on several levels. On the national level, an increased threat to other far-right groups’ dominant status may lead to more violence. Conversely, the reduction of competition at the local level may limit violence.
Ultimately, the changes in organisational dynamics of Active Clubs – in resource constraints, strategic goals, group size, group longevity and group competition – may lead to changes in activity, such as the frequency of action, levels of violence, weapon selection and recruitment.
Despite the insights of the work above, however, there are several limitations to how useful this scholarship can be for the current scenario. Two categories immediately surface. First, we need more information on the organisational level. The above studies focused on:
However, current Active Club growth does not fit neatly into these categories. Active Clubs are growing horizontally (i.e. pooling resources) as well as vertically (in membership / spread). They are building bottom-up cell-style rather than through top-down leadership. Finally, though Active Clubs are emerging from a violent past, they are not yet openly engaging in violence. While prior research offers suggestions on what might follow organisational change, we cannot be sure.
Active Clubs are pooling resources as well as growing membership. These 'mergers' could either threaten other groups' dominant status – or they could drive further far-right collaboration
Second, we lack information on how these formalised collaborations will affect perceptions from other extremist groups and the broader public. While this may threaten other far-right groups’ dominant status, it could instead drive further collaboration across the far right. Furthermore, we do not know how this development will affect public perceptions of the groups, nor how this will impact on recruitment.
If the Pacific Northwest is anything to go by, Active Club growth may shed light on such people's extreme views, and may alienate rather than attract more moderate nationalists. Until more research looks at this, however, only time can tell.
While prior research suggests several potential dimensions of change, much more is needed to fully understand how the creation of the Northwest Nationalist Network will impact on Active Club activity. Currently, interventionists are left stranded on how best to proceed. If we hope to limit either recruitment or action, we need to better understand what to look for, when and where these changes will happen, and who is most likely to be affected. Heading off this new threat demands immediate and significant collaboration between practitioners and academics.