CTEC Newsletter 1: Conspiracy Theories, a Proud Boy Civil War, and an Attack in Vienna


by CTEC Director Jason Blazakis

Dear Readers:

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) newsletter. The intent of this newsletter is to highlight the research, analysis, and ideas of our staff, fellows, and students. The concepts explored in our newsletter will hit a wide range of issues related to terrorism and extremism that span the globe. That is fitting, given the diversity of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ and CTEC’s students. CTEC's mission is to ensure that this newsletter will also demonstrate how our community's topical expertise, language and data analytic capabilities can help the public understand tricky international security challenges.

In this debut newsletter, we offer three hot takes. First, Alex Newhouse, CTEC's Research Lead, continues his analysis of the far-right group known as the Proud Boys. Alex chips away at the thin veneer of the Proud Boys' efforts to normalize its ideology within mainstream communities. Second, CTEC Fellow Julie Huynh examines the recent ISIS-inspired attack in Vienna, Austria. It is clear from Julie's work that ISIS remains a threat to Europe. And, finally, one of CTEC's graduate research assistants, Anna Phillips, provides a timely evaluation of the #Stopthesteal movement related to the U.S. 2020 Presidential election. Her piece shows clearly that disinformation and conspiracy theories have created an echo chamber designed to manipulate communities into believing victory was snatched from President Trump.

I hope you enjoy the newsletter and I encourage you to subscribe! You won't regret it and I guarantee that you will learn something new about what is happening in the world of terrorism and extremism. 

Happy Reading!

Jason Blazakis, CTEC Director

What’s Going On With the Proud Boys?

by CTEC Research Lead Alex Newhouse

Few far-right groups have garnered as much coverage in the media as the Proud Boys. The public has a special kind of fascination with the Proud Boys, due in large part to their attempts to appear “suave” and “gentlemanly,” their use of euphemistic terms like “chauvinistic” to characterize their ideology, and their efforts to rhetorically distance themselves from the explicit white supremacy of other groups on the American Far Right.

In the wake of the 2020 US Presidential Election, however, internal strife and increasingly obvious racial extremism has undermined the group’s attempts to achieve respectability within the mainstream American Right. This culminated in an attempted coup by the Proud Boys’ most notorious affiliate, Kyle Chapman, who aims to reforge the Proud Boys as explicitly racist and anti-Semitic. Although the coup seems, at the time of this writing, to primarily be limited to social media, it has exposed a deep fissure within the organization, one that goes against the public facade that the leadership has cultivated.

Over the past few years, the Proud Boys’ actions have shown that they are most accurately described as a neo-fascist, pro-Trump fight club. Started by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016, the Proud Boys gained notoriety for engaging in high-profile fights with antifascist and anti-racist activists, accompanied by explicit calls for violence against leftists. In addition, in spite of McInnes disavowing the protest, the Proud Boys had a presence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017, and it was organized by Jason Kessler, who was a member of the group.

In early 2019, Enrique Tarrio—a self-identified Afro-Cuban—took over leadership of the group. Since then, apparently in an attempt to increase the Proud Boys’ acceptance in mainstream conservative circles, Tarrio has largely organized demonstrations in opposition to leftist causes and to promote their own goals, from encouraging authoritarian crackdowns on left-wing Black Lives Matter and antifascist protesters to attempting to intimidate left-wing supporters at a soccer match. Tarrio has also frequently interfaced with journalists to verbally disavow white supremacist groups and to claim that the Proud Boys are not homophobic.

Then Donald Trump lost the 2020 Presidential Election. In the ensuing conspiracy theory-fueled reaction, some Proud Boy affiliates began expressing dismay, annoyance, and outright anger with Tarrio’s condemnations of racism and avoidance of violent clashes. In particular, Kyle Chapman—known in far-right communities as “Based Stickman,” because he was filmed beating an antifascist with a baseball bat at a clash in Berkeley in 2017—announced that he was attempting to take over the Proud Boys in order to make it an explicitly white, anti-Semitic hate group.

Chapman’s history with the Proud Boys is fraught. At the peak of his influence in the organization, Gavin McInnes considered making Chapman the President of the Proud Boys, but then assigned him to running the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK), the paramilitary wing of the Proud Boys, instead. Following his felony conviction for the Berkeley assault, however, Chapman’s reputation waned, and he became a fringe figure—still adjacent to the Proud Boys, but seemingly more interested in growing his social media following on sites like Telegram.

The first hint the public received that Chapman might not be content to fade into the background came in June 2020. On his Telegram channel, Chapman endorsed several extreme anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and parroted the white supremacist slogan, “RaHoWa” (racial holy war). He also promoted the most extreme version of the central myth attached to QAnon: that the world is embroiled in war waged by a cabal of Satanic Jews.

Chapman’s decision to wholeheartedly embrace the anti-Semitic fringe of right-wing authoritarian extremism set the stage for his most audacious and hateful move to date. A week after the election, Chapman re-christened his public Telegram channel “Proud Goys,” an obvious anti-Semitic dogwhistle. In a screed posted shortly after, Chapman bluntly promoted several white supremacist conspiracy theories and slogans, including the White Genocide theory and blaming “Zionist criminals” for society’s ills. He also referred to Tarrio in racist terms and endorsed “Third Positionism”—a political ideology built on the synthesis of left-wing economic ideals and far-right, nativist, and white supremacist social ideals.

In the weeks following Chapman’s Proud Goys declaration, it has appeared that his attempted coup has not been wholly successful. The Proud Boys have continued to organize demonstrations under the leadership of Tarrio. They made a high-profile appearance at the “Million MAGA March” in November, where they were seen marching as an informal protection force for notorious conspiracy theories Alex Jones. They also engaged in some skirmishes with antifascist activists at pro-Trump demonstrations in Sacramento. Chapman also claims on his Telegram channel that law enforcement raided his house—an experience that appears to have left him worried, as he proceeded to warn his followers of the risks involved in showing up to Proud Boy demonstrations.

But Chapman’s schism from the Proud Boys, which has been prominent online even if not in the real world, is another piece of evidence to suggest that the American far-right movement is under internal stress from ideological divisions. Although their claims were always dubious, the Proud Boys’ leadership has an increasingly difficult path forward to convince the mainstream public that they are not violent white supremacists. Chapman is just the loudest of a growing sect of Proud Boys who are fed up with attempts to cast the group as palatable. For some, joining the Proud Boys is nothing more than a stopover in a journey toward white supremacist accelerationism.

The Vienna Attacks Demonstrate the Islamic State Is Still a Threat

by CTEC Fellow Julie Huynh

On Monday, November 2nd, the last night before a city-wide lockdown, an armed man opened fire for 9 minutes in the nightlife area of Vienna, Austria, near a synagogue at 8 P.M. The attack ended when he was shot dead by the police. 

Almost 24 hours later, the so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, which left 4 dead and 23 injured, and praised the shooter as a “soldier of the caliphate.” The attacker was identified as a 20-year-old man named Kujtim Fejzullai, a dual citizen of Austria and Macedonia. Just hours before the attack, he posted a photo of himself on Instagram dressed in black, with an assault rifle, a handgun, and a machete crossed over his chest. In the caption, he pledged allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi. 

Fejzullai’s face was well-known to the Austrian domestic intelligence as one of approximately 90 Austrian extremists who had previously tried to join IS. In his teenage years, he was believed to have frequented Melit Ibrahim Mosque, which has been disavowed by the Austrian Muslim community organization IGGÖ. Then, in September 2018, Fejzullai, 18 years old at the time, attempted to enter Syria to join the IS jihadists via Turkey. However, he was arrested and deported to Austria in January 2019 to face charges of attempting to join a terrorist organization. He was subsequently given a 22-month imprisonment in April 2019. On the basis of his youth, he was released early in December 2019 after successfully completing a deradicalization program while in prison

This mass shooting comes on the heels of a beheading of a public school teacher in Paris, on October 16, and a knife attack at a church in Nice on October 29. The perpetrators of both these attacks have been linked to Islamist extremism. Whereas the attacks in France have prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to suggest that Islam is in need of “enlightenment,” which received heavy backlash across France and several Muslim countries, the Austrian government has sent a different message. In an address to the nation on November 3rd, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz stated, “We must be aware that this is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants.” He called for a unity in the fight against terrorists.

One Middlebury parent, David Sanderson, father of Travis Sanderson ’19, was enjoying dinner out with some friends after a long day of work in Vienna when he heard the gunshots. He recounted his experience of running and hiding in a basement restaurant in an interview with Critical Minds, an Austrian online magazine. “As an American … I’ve practiced this situation in my head over and over. From the frontside, police came into the restaurant, yelling for us to get out now…. we did as we were told and ran, hands in the air…. In the chaos, I get separated from my friends. ….Sobs, Hysterics. Shaking hands….we walked… and walked. Like through a war zone, police everywhere…. I finally get picked up by a wonderful taxi driver from Kazakistan [sic]. He drives me, and others, home for free. ‘It’s about being human, not money’, he said, as he dropped me off.”

This attack has shown that world governments still need to take the Islamic State seriously. Although it no longer controls vast swaths of territory, IS continues to provide ample inspiration and radicalization for recruits worldwide. Further, the attack underscores the vulnerabilities in deradicalization programs. While these programs are essential in the effort to counter violent extremism, countries have struggled to prevent extremists from simply faking progress and getting released from prison early.

The “StopTheSteal” Conspiracy Theories Sweeping Through Conservative Communities

by CTEC GRA Anna Phillips

The phrase “Stop the Steal” has made headlines over the last couple weeks, as President Trump, large numbers of Republican politicians, and a large percentage of his voter base continue to attack the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. election. In the months leading up to the election, Trump and his campaign continually pushed the baseless narrative that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud and pursued legal and policy actions to make mail-in voting more difficult. This is not the first time he’s questioned the validity of election results: during his 2016 campaign he asserted that the election was rigged in Hillary Clinton’s favor, leading former Trump advisor Roger Stone to establish an outside group of poll watchers that he named “Stop the Steal.” 

Four years later, the moniker has returned in the form of a protest movement and viral hashtag, used by supporters of Donald Trump to express anger and baseless claims of fraud in light of Joe Biden’s election win. Misinformation spread rapidly on social media throughout the election process, falsely claiming that Biden and the Democratic party were plotting to steal the election. Mike Roman, Trump campaign director for Election Day operations, posted two images in a tweet on November 3rd that he claimed showed poll workers illegally campaigning for Biden at an election site in Philadelphia, despite further analysis revealing that the two photos did not show the same piece of paper. 

A common thread appeared to be the fear that ballots were being destroyed. “Sharpiegate” started trending on social media, as reports of ballots being thrown out due to use of sharpie pens circulated on Twitter and were later reshared by House Rep. Paul Gosar. A viral tweet from investor Mike Coudrey claimed a poll worker in Erie, PA admitted to throwing out over 100 ballots, a claim dispelled by Erie’s election coordinator who publicly reported that the person in question was neither a poll worker nor a registered voter in the county. Eric Trump tweeted claims that Trump ballots were being burned, though the ballots were later determined to be samples and not official ones. 

In the midst of this wave of election-related disinformation, many Trump supporters have chosen to actively protest. At protests across the nation people have chanted “Stop the Steal,” encouraged from Trump himself as he praised their “spirit” in a press briefing on November 5th. Amy Kremer, former congressional candidate in Georgia and co-founder of Women for Trump with Tea Party affiliations, created a Facebook group called “STOP THE STEAL,” which shared information on upcoming protests and encouraged people to donate and help others fly to battleground states. The group had reached 350,000 members in just over 24 hours before being banned for promoting violence, after comments calling for civil war quickly populated their feed. Individuals such as far-right media personality Mike Cernovich helped organize the now well-known protest at a ballot-counting center in Maricopa County, Arizona, where armed protestors demanded a halt to the work being done at that location. Finally, numerous mainstream and fringe right-wing groups descended on Washington, D.C., for the so-called “Million MAGA March,” in an effort to show support for President Trump and to protest perceived Democratic (and even, in some cases, Republican) efforts to unfairly elect Biden.

As of the time of this writing, many conservative politicians and voters continue to refuse to acknowledge that President Trump lost the election. In spite of dozens of losses in court, President Trump also continues to double down on the Stop The Steal narrative, and he has recently endorsed the effort by the state of Texas to overturn election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Without any concerted effort from Republican politicians and influencers to dissuade the campaign, #StopTheSteal has continued to be virally spread across social media platforms. It is especially prominent on Parler, where it has been used hundreds of thousands of times.

This movement will, eventually, come up against intractable obstacles. Although the certification of election results in the battlegrounds has not dissipated the conspiracy theory, the convening of the electors and the eventual inauguration of Joe Biden will inevitably force many people in the mainstream and the political elite to acknowledge Biden’s victory. In addition, social media companies like YouTube have signaled that they will no longer tolerate election-related disinformation now that the results have been certified.

However, the consolidation of such a large swath of the American Right behind a disinformation campaign should serve as an alarm bell in the minds of anyone concerned about extremism. Having committed so strongly to the narrative that the Democrats committed criminal acts during the election, some conservatives—especially those already enmeshed in communities like QAnon—may lose faith in electoral politics. If that happens, the possibility of political violence becomes much more real.