One of the most dangerous organizations on the international far-right scene—the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an explicitly fascist paramilitary group that sponsors weapons-training sessions for neo-Nazis around Europe, and has cultivated connections with the American racist right—was designated an international terrorist organization on Monday by the U.S. Department of State, the first such white-supremacist outfit ever to earn that distinction.
The designation comes with sanctions against its members, and it outlaws any transactions between Americans and the RIM. However, while the group’s extreme militarism and its ongoing paramilitary training sessions are a real concern, RIM’s lack of global reach and its relatively small size raise questions about the designation’s real impact.
“These designations are unprecedented,” Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for terrorism, told reporters. “This is the first time the United States has ever designated white supremacist terrorists, illustrating how seriously this administration takes the threat. We are taking actions no previous administration has taken to counter this threat.”
Previously, the counterterrorism sanctions system overwhelmingly had been used against Islamist extremist groups. Mary McCord, a former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told The New York Times that its expansion to a white supremacist group is significant.
“It is important,” she said. “Far-right extremist causes, in particular white supremacy and white nationalism, have become more international. It is appropriate for the State Department to have been scrutinizing whether there are organizations that meet the criteria for that designation because with it, the organization becomes poison in terms of doing business with it or providing funds, goods or services to it.”
National security sources told Times reporters that, amid rising concerns about the international aspect of white-supremacist terrorism created by attacks in Europe and New Zealand as well as the U.S., officials “have been searching for a neo-Nazi-style group that the U.S. government could designate as a foreign terrorist organization.”
In order to find an appropriate candidate, these officials had to search for a group lacking in significant American ties, since a group with such connections could presented major First Amendment issues. The Russian Imperial Movement largely met that criteria because its American connections were so thin.
While the RIM has a long and well-publicized record of sponsoring far-right activities throughout Europe, its presence in North America has been limited. Matthew Heimbach, former leader of the neo-Nazi Traditional Workers Party (TWP), at one time hosted a RIM leader and visited with him at historic sites in Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Heimbach continued to cultivate those ties, traveling to Russia to return the favor by meeting with RIM leaders at their annual gathering, the World National Conservative Movement conference. “I see Russia as kind of the axis for nationalists,” said Heimbach. “And that’s not just nationalists that are white—that’s all nationalists.”
Eventually, however, Heimbach’s TWP exploded into joke nonentity after he was caught in a tryst with the wife of his father-in-law, another TWP cofounder, and Heimbach was arrested for battery. Among outside observers, the incident became known derisively as the “Night of the Wrong Wives.” TWP eventually became inactive.
The designation of RIM as a terrorist group gives the Trump administration some evidence that it takes the threat of white-nationalist terrorism seriously, but it probably will have little effect on terrorism in the United States since RIM does not appear to have had any role in paramilitary training here. However, security officials told the Times that those links continue to be investigated.
A neo-Nazi organization that recruited members online, The Base, does have potential ties to Russian intelligence, and its American founder currently resides in Russia. That group also held paramilitary training sessions in the Pacific Northwest.