The following is adapted from Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin.
It’s nearly 3 a.m. in Ukraine, but my interlocutor hasn’t gone to sleep yet. His name is David, he lives in Kiev, and he’s sending me videos about how to make a gun out of pipes. He’s trying to flirt with me. He’s Ukrainian, but he wants an American wife. He wants to make a whites-only United States, and he believes I may be his ticket to do that.
I’m in character as Ashlynn, and I’ve infiltrated the Vorherrschaft Division (Supremacy Division), a chat group composed of Americans and Europeans fixated on disseminating images of terror and discussing the need for a race war now. I’m using the screen name “AryanQueen” to say hello to the most violent racists online. Vorherrschaft is one of several knockoffs of the widely feared white supremacist terror group Atomwaffen Division. Atomwaffen means “atomic weapon” in German. The knockoff groups have Germanic names, organize primarily on the encrypted chat program Telegram, and traffic in the language of terror. (Another example is the Rapekreig Division.)
I’ve decided to use a female identity in hopes of coaxing more information out of participants, and David is ready to oblige. His screen name is “Der Stürmer,” named after the favorite tabloid of the Nazi Party, and he admires Hitler openly—though his truest hero is Christchurch mosque mass shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like Tarrant himself, David has a preoccupation with all things American. He’d like to visit me in America, and to establish his bona fides, he tells me he was once part of a group called “Cherniy Korpus”—Black Corps—a guerrilla military group that served as a forerunner to the Ukrainian far-right militia now known as the Azov Battalion. He tells me that he left in order to spread national socialist ideas throughout Ukraine, that he’s working an office job to afford ammo. He wants a white wife with traditional ideals. He shows me some photos of his militia garb and the gun he used on the front lines in the grinding Ukraine-Russia war in Donbass. I quickly find out that he is one of the administrators of a Ukrainian-language channel I’ve been monitoring for just under a year. Explicitly designed to evoke stochastic terror, it’s called “Brenton Tarrant’s Lads.”
He shows me photos of a Ukrainian translation he’s made of Tarrant’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” and tells me he’s printed and distributed hundreds of copies. The open-source intelligence website Bellingcat, which closely tracks the far right in Eastern Europe, had published, a few months before, an investigation of the translated booklet, documenting numerous selfies of men in Ukraine and Russia holding copies of the pamphlet—some reading it by the sea; a group of men holding it up while giving Hitler salutes; and an extremist anti-gay group that attacked marchers in Kiev’s Pride Parade in 2019—encouraging its members to buy copies. The fish that had landed in my net unwittingly was surprisingly big: He was single-handedly aiding in the radicalization of potentially thousands of men, disseminating a document that had already inspired copycat terror attacks. And he was proud of it.
Every day while the “Brenton Tarrant’s Lads” channel glorified terror against Jews, Black people, and Muslims, its owner was trying to seduce me. David—he assures me he’s “not a kike,” despite the name—wants to visit me the next time he comes to the U.S. I tell him Ashlynn has learned Russian because she wanted to go to Donbass to meet guys—the most hard-core guys around, the American white supremacists who go to Ukraine to fight. We start speaking in Russian and sometimes Ukrainian. (Unbelievably, he falls for this.) I record voice messages in Russian, with my voice pitched to a sexy-baby timbre and a heavy American accent. He calls me “My Ash.” He tells me he loves me.
It’s a heady, precipitous flirtation with fear—what happens if he finds out it’s me somehow, under the fake pictures, the fake phone number, the fake name? It’s also a chance to find out more about the ways in which white supremacy has spread its tentacles around the world. I tell him I’m a waitress. He asks if I serve “n—s” at my job. I say Iowa, where he thinks I’m from, is mostly white (true). I send him a photograph of “my” face—the same woman I used to create the Ashlynn persona. (I make sure the images are cropped, screenshotted, and impossible to trace back via image search on Google or Yandex.) I send another photo, and he sends me a clip from the front lines in Donbass, of someone he says is “one of his lads” shooting an automatic rifle between rows of sandbags. Above the man’s head, a swastika flag is proudly waving. I can tell he wants to impress me.
He says he’s only 22.
My blood is cold, cold, cold as I coax out more and more details—what his parents do, where he lives. Ashlynn is fleshed out enough at this point that I can continue to supply analogs of my own. I’ve memorized the dates of Iowa’s hunting season, I can conjure up sorrow when I talk about Ashlynn’s dead mother, admiration for her Aryan Nations father. I tell him not to trust anyone, but I want him to trust me, this terrorist. I want to thwart him, and I feel no remorse. I have a few ideas about how to do it, too.
In the end, the operation takes five months. There are moments that veer precipitously into the comical. In order to get him to reveal his face, I ask him to “prove he’s not a Jew,” and he offers to send me a photo of his foreskin. I decline and ask to see his nose instead.
Here’s a snippet of conversation from just after he’s revealed his face to me, in a picture in which his mouth is obscured by his phone. I’m fishing for a complete face photo, so I can send it to anti-fascists and journalists.
youre so cute:)
Did u really like me?
19:36 – Ashlynn
tak!!! ale de tviy scar [Ukrainian translation: Yes!! But where is
19:36 – Der Stürmer
I’m so nervous right now
On my mouth
I will show u tomorrow
i guess i will just have to imagine your mouth ...
19:37 – Der Stürmer
Just picked this photo
Cause of no mouth
But it’s a very small scar
19:38 – Ashlynn
i will dream of kissing your pretty scar
19:38 – Der Stürmer
I fought with my classmate in high school
And he cut me next to my mouth
19:39 – Ashlynn
19:40 – Der Stürmer
Cause I said to him that Luhansk it’s not a country
It’s city that belongs to Ukraine
He was refugee from Luhansk
19:40 – Ashlynn
are you worried i will think you are not cute
because of the scar
19:41 – Der Stürmer
It’s a small one
Just reminds me of him
19:41 – Ashlynn
bc what matters to me is the heart ❤ loving whites, hating jews
19:42 – Der Stürmer
This filthy bastards from Luhansk, Donetsk, jews, kebabs
Too many people that we need to destroy
19:42 – Ashlynn
we’ll do it together baby
19:43 – Der Stürmer
I love you.
It’s a fucked-up act. But it works. He spontaneously sends me a picture of his car, its license plate plainly visible. I discover that you can get an awful lot of information by Googling someone’s license plate. He tells me his real first and last names—David Kolomiiets. I say I’m “Ashleigh Grant.”
“Like the M1 Garand,” he responds, referring to a World War II vintage semiautomatic rifle.
I make a fake Twitter account for Ashlynn, so I can get his Twitter handle by asking him to follow me. I tweet halfheartedly about kikes and such—bare bones, but enough to be believable. I get him to prove to me through screenshots that he’s actually one of the moderators of the Brenton Tarrant’s Lads channel—perhaps the largest Ukrainian-language extremist channel, and awash in stochastic terror. He sends me a video he’s enjoying watching. It’s of 911 calls with callers who disappeared before they could complete the call. Their voices, thick with distress, are amusing to him. I tell him I think that’s hot.
What concerns me the most about David, far away on the other side of the world, is that he keeps sending me videos and images of guns. He says he has an M4. Hе sends me a screenshot of his Counter-Strike game: He’s named his AK-47 in the game “DIE MUSLIMS!!!” He says he was inspired to join the white nationalist movement by Brenton Tarrant. He says he wants to kiss me someday. And that he wants to buy an AR-15 when he comes to America. I send him heart-eyed emojis and bide my time.
Eventually, after shopping the story to a few different journalists, I start up a conversation with Michael Colborne, who had authored the investigative piece at Bellingcat about the Ukrainian translation of Tarrant’s manifesto, a project David had spearheaded. I tell Colborne I’ve got all the information on one of the Tarrant channel’s co-runners: his name, his face, his license plate, his email, the city he lives in. “Jesus Christ are you serious? How ...” Colborne messages me on Signal.
“It’s complicated, but the short answer is anti-fascist catfishing,” I reply.