HELSINKI, Finland -- He called himself “Commander” online. He was a leader of an international neo-Nazi group linked to plots to attack a Las Vegas synagogue and detonate a car bomb at a major U.S. news network.
He was 13 years old.
The boy who led Feuerkrieg Division lived in Estonia and apparently cut ties with the group after authorities in that tiny Baltic state confronted him earlier this year, according to police and an Estonian newspaper report.
Harrys Puusepp, spokesman for the Estonian Internal Security Service, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the police agency “intervened in early January because of a suspicion of danger” and “suspended this person’s activities in” Feuerkrieg Division.
“As the case dealt with a child under the age of 14, this person cannot be prosecuted under the criminal law and instead other legal methods must be used to eliminate the risk. Cooperation between several authorities, and especially parents, is important to steer a child away from violent extremism,” said Puusepp, who didn’t specify the child's age or elaborate on the case.
The police spokesman didn't identify the child as a group leader, but leaked archives of Feuerkrieg Division members' online chats show “Commander” referred to himself as the founder of the group and alluded to being from Saaremaa, Estonia's largest island.
A report published Wednesday by the weekly Estonian newspaper Eesti Ekspress said Estonian security officials had investigated a case involving a 13-year-old boy who allegedly was running Feuerkrieg Division operations out of a small town in the country. The newspaper said the group has a “decentralized structure,” and the Estonian teen cannot be considered the organization’s actual leader but was certainly one of its key figures.
The Anti-Defamation League has described Feuerkrieg Division as a group that advocates for a race war and promotes some of the most extreme views of the white supremacist movement. Formed in 2018, it had roughly 30 members who conducted most of their activities over the internet, the ADL said.
Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said children aren’t just a target audience for online forums that glorify white supremacy and violence. They also maintain such sites, captivated by their ability to join or influence an international movement from a home computer, he said.
“That young kids are getting that sense of belonging from a hate movement is more common than most people realize and very disturbing. But accessing a world of hate online today is as easy as it was tuning into Saturday morning cartoons on television,” Segal said in a text message.
Feuerkrieg Division members communicated over the Wire online platform. The FBI used confidential sources to infiltrate the group’s encrypted chats, according to federal court records.
An FBI joint terrorism task force in Las Vegas began investigating 24-year-old Conor Climo in April 2019 after learning he was communicating over Wire with Feuerkrieg Division members, a court filing says. Climo told an FBI source about plans to firebomb a synagogue or attack a local ADL office, authorities said. Climo awaits his sentencing after pleading guilty in February to felony possession of an unregistered firearm.
Another man linked to Feuerkrieg Division, U.S. Army soldier Jarrett William Smith, pleaded guilty in February to separate charges that he provided information about explosives to an FBI undercover agent while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, last year. An FBI affidavit said Smith, 24, talked about targeting an unidentified news organization with a car bomb. CNN reported that it was the target.
The ADL said Smith was associated with Feuerkrieg Division at the time of his arrest. The group expressed its “consternation” about Smith’s arrest in an expletive-laden post on its public Telegram channel, the ADL reported.
In March, a left-leaning website called Unicorn Riot published eight months of leaked chats by Feuerkrieg Division members. After “Commander" disappeared from the group's chat room in January, other members discussed whether he had been detained or arrested and speculated that his electronic devices had been compromised, the website said.
The messages don't indicate that other Feuerkrieg Division members knew the group leader was 13, according to Segal, who said the ADL also independently obtained the group’s chat archives.
Based on a comment the boy posted on Wire, ADL linked “Commander” to the gaming platform Steam. The Steam account lists his location as a village in Estonia and his URL as "HeilHitler8814," Segal said.
Feuerkrieg Division has been part of a growing wing of the white supremacist movement that embraces “ accelerationism,” a fringe philosophy that promotes mass violence to fuel society’s collapse. The man who recently pleaded guilty to attacking two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killing 51 people last year devoted a section of his manifesto to the concept of accelerationism.
The Estonian security police’s bureau chief, Alar Ridamae, said parents, friends and teachers can help authorities protect children from internet-fueled extremism.
“Unfortunately, in practice there are cases where parents themselves have bought extremist literature for their children, which contributes to radicalization,” Ridamae said in a statement provided to AP and Estonian media on Thursday.
Estonia, a former Soviet republic that regained its independence in 1991, is among Europe’s most technologically advanced nations. Estonia has paid relatively little attention to homegrown extremism. But the case of the right-wing extremist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in a 2011 massacre in Norway, served as a major wake-up call for security officials in the Baltic nation of 1.3 million.
Kunzelman reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.