ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
For two years, the basic description had appeared in reporting by ProPublica and Frontline: Atomwaffen Division is a neo-Nazi organization eager for a race war and committed to terrorist attacks against Jews, immigrants and other targets in the U.S. — power grids, nuclear facilities — that would foment fear.
The description ran in stories describing how the group had been connected to five murders in recent years, including one involving a gay, Jewish college student in California. It appeared in a Frontline film raising questions about the federal response to domestic terrorism threats just weeks after 11 Jewish worshipers were allegedly killed by a racist gunman in Pittsburgh.
So it was striking, then, when late last week those very words turned up a formal complaint filed by federal prosecutors as they announced the arrest of a 23-year-old man in Las Vegas for plotting to firebomb one or more Jewish sites in the city.
“AWD is a white supremacist extremist organization,” the complaint read. “AWD membership consists of mostly white males between the ages of approximately 16 to 30 years of age who all believe in the superiority of the white race. AWD utilizes a ‘leaderless resistance’ strategy in which small independent groups, or individuals called ‘lone wolves,’ try to achieve a common goal of challenging the established laws, social order, and government via terrorism and other violent acts. AWD encourages attacks on the federal government, including critical infrastructure, minorities, homosexuals, and Jews. AWD works to recruit like-minded members to the organization, train them in military tactics, hand to hand combat, bomb making, and other techniques in preparation for an ‘ultimate and uncompromising victory’ in a race war.”
The man arrested in Las Vegas, Conor Climo, was affiliated with AWD, shared its ideology and violent aims, communicated with its members in secret online chats and once had joined one of its offshoot groups, the authorities charged.
“I am more interested in action than online shit,” Climo said according to the complaint.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas lays out a disturbing array of action Climo was allegedly willing to undertake:
- Attacking a synagogue, maybe with a firebomb, maybe with a group of gunmen;
- A similar attack on an office of the Anti-Defamation League;
- Another against a gay bar;
- A trial-run assault on a homeless encampment.
In reporting on Atomwaffen, ProPublica and Frontline obtained the group’s secret chat logs in which members openly talked about their hatred and violent ambitions; uncovered training sites where the group conducted weapons instruction; met with the group’s spiritual founder; and confronted both current and former members.
Hanging over that reporting was a question, one asked by us and by current and former law enforcement officials worried about the threat of white supremacist terror: Where was the FBI? It seemed hard to imagine that an organization of extremist Islamists vowing to kill people and destabilize the government would not face federal scrutiny. Of course, part of the answer is that law enforcement is constrained in certain ways about how aggressively it can investigate and prosecute potential domestic terrorism threats.
But in looking at the criminal complaint filed in Las Vegas last week, it appears that FBI agents conducted the sort of sting operation against Atomwaffen that they used to infiltrate and arrest suspected Islamic terrorist groups.
Climo, according to the complaint, first became a subject of the bureau’s interest when he was featured in a local news segment about his plans for keeping Las Vegas secure. He publicly carried an automatic weapon and wore a tactical vest. Agents later became aware that Climo was allegedly affiliated with Atomwaffen, and they soon lined up a confidential informant to contact him. Climo, according to the complaint, eagerly shared his ideas for targeting Jewish sites, and in time, the FBI had an agent posing as a white supremacist ally begin dealing with Climo.
A subsequent search of Climo’s residence turned up guns and bomb-making materials. Climo, who prosecutors say talked freely with the authorities even after his arrest, has been charged with possession of an unregistered firearm, which carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison. Climo does not yet appear to have entered a plea in the case.
“Threats of violence motivated by hate and intended to intimidate or coerce our faith-based and LGBTQ communities have no place in this country,” U.S. attorney for Nevada Nicholas Trutanich said in a news release last week. “Law enforcement in Nevada remains determined to use the full weight of our investigative resources to prevent bias-motivated violence before it happens.”
At its peak, in early 2018, Atomwaffen had about 80 members across the country, as well as a handful of followers in Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries. Since then, the group had been riven by internal conflict and lost many of its communications platforms, as internet companies have moved to shut down its websites and suspend the social media accounts of its members. It’s not clear how large or cohesive the organization currently is.
Prosecutors alleged in the complaint that Climo had also associated with an Atomwaffen spinoff group called the Feuerkrieg Division.