The case of Devon Arthurs, a former neo-Nazi who allegedly killed his friends for disrespecting Islam, sheds light on the roots of extremism
When 18-year-old Devon Arthurs burst into a Florida smoke shop with a pistol and took customers and an employee hostage, he told them that he was upset about America bombing Muslim countries.
After Tampa police officers talked him into releasing his hostages and got him in handcuffs, Arthurs made references to “Allah Mohammed” and told the officers: “This wouldn’t have had to happen if your country didn’t bomb my country.”
He said he had already killed several people.
Arthurs directed police to an apartment, where two men he described as his friends were found dead, both of them shot multiple times in the head and upper body. A third friend, Brandon Russell, was standing outside the apartment in army camouflage, weeping, according to court documents.
The path to radicalisation Arthurs described to the police after his arrest last Friday was an unexpected one. Originally, he said, he and his three friends had all been neo-Nazis.
But at some stage, Arthurs had converted to Islam. According to police and court documents, he told officers that he killed his friends for disrespecting his new religion.
His behavior had a dual motivation, Arthurs explained, according to an affidavit from Tampa police: to raise awareness about anti-Muslim sentiment and “to take some of the neo-Nazis with him”.
Terrorists motivated by far-right extremism and by Islamist extremism share similar tactics, a similar brutality, and a similar desire to remake the global democratic order.
But they are usually considered enemies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Far right terror attacks in Europe have been motivated by opposition to Muslim immigration.
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But Arthur’s switch in allegiance raises a key question for analysts looking at the process of radicalisation: to what extent the factors that attract people to extremism are specific to a particular ideology at all.
At least two neo-Nazi sites denounced the murders, mourned the victims, and described Arthurs as a former commenter who had eventually been banned for his comments about Islam and terrorism. Both sites described the murders as “a Muslim terror plot” against a neo-Nazi group.
However, officials at the FBI and at the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, say little distinguishes the “pathways to violence” taken by extremists following different ideologies. One UK official said “the mechanics of radicalisation” were broadly similar in all cases.
“Our studies on both jihadis and rightwingers, and also school shooters and such like, found very little difference in terms of … pathways. It’s like when your immune system is down. You can guess you’ll get sick, but what sickness you contract depends on what you are exposed to,” said Paul Gill, an expert in extremism at the University College London.
Though it is almost impossible to create a typical terrorist profile, some research shows that “seekers” who are looking for a particular form of “brotherhood” or cause that can give their lives meaning are particularly prone to radicalisation.
There is also evidence that a sudden destabilising event – or even a minor incident that has a powerful emotional impact – can make an individual vulnerable.
But ideology can be secondary to a “propensity for violence”.
Devon Arthurs. Photograph: Photograph: Tampa police department/Handout/EPA
“This guy [Arthur] has only changed the T-shirt [of] what his violence is about,” Gill said.
Arthurs also accused Russell, his surviving friend and a member of the army national guard, of visiting online neo-Nazi chat rooms, where he discussed killing people and bombing infrastructure, according to an FBI complaint.
Russell confirmed to police that he had neo-Nazi beliefs and said he was part of a group called AtomWaffen, according to the FBI complaint against him. But he said the explosive materials in his apartment been used for a university engineering club, according to the complaint.
AtomWaffen, according to a thread on the online fascist forum Iron March, claimed about 40 members across the country, and had gained publicity in the past year for posting racist and neo-Nazi recruitment posters on university campuses – a tactic common in recent months among several American extremist youth groups, including Identity Evropa and Vanguard America.
On Tuesday, Iron March posted a statement mourning Arthurs’ alleged victims, Jeremy Himmelman, 22, and Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and offering support for Russell, who they said was being unfairly targeted by law enforcement and the media.
They described the attack as a “Muslim terror plot” and said Arthurs’ three friends were “completely innocent of any accusation that the group conducted or advocated, or planned for terrorist acts”.
Alyssa Himmelman, the sister of Jeremy, told the Associated Press her brother had been staying with a neo-Nazi because he needed a cheap place to live, not because he shared those beliefs.
Russell’s lawyer Ian Goldstein declined to answer specific questions about the case, but in an email said: “There is a large amount of misinformation being circulated about my client right now.”
Although neo-Nazis and Islamist militants may follow similar paths to extremism, studies have revealed significant differences in their behavior once radicalised. Recent research has showed Islamic militant attackers are more likely to tell friends or family or other associates about their plans of violence: 71% of jihadis “leak” such information, compared with 53% of rightwing extremists.
Experts said that while there were obvious ideological elements that both neo-Nazi and radical Islamic extremism shared – such as a virulent antisemitism – there were also clear differences.
“If you are looking at racist extremists and religious extremists, one thing that is striking is that religions allow entry and exit from the group – through conversion or apostasy – but you can’t change what the extremists consider as your ‘race’. They offer competing absolute visions,” said JM Berger, author of Jihad Joe, a study of Islamic extremists in America. Berger has also studied rightwing militancy.
“If someone has a profound identity crisis, you can see how they might not find the certainty they are looking for with neo-Nazism and look to the Islamic State for something even more absolute,” Berger said.
Such cases are rare, but they do occur. Joseph Jeffrey Brice once idolized Timothy McVeigh – who killed 168 people with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995 and was “a self-declared, conservative, rightwing Christian”– but became interested in radical Islamic extremism after a homemade bomb nearly killed him in 2010.
He was later jailed for terrorist offences including sending detailed instructions for “open source” bombmaking to an undercover FBI agent who he thought was an Islamic militant.
In February, a 26-year-old suspected Islamic militant was arrested in Germany on suspicion of planning a terrorist act, storing “items and chemicals” for manufacturing explosives and spreading Isis propaganda online.
Local media reported that “Sascha L” supported a neo-Nazi group, called Muslims “cockroaches” and posted videos calling for attacks on immigrants in Germany before his conversion to Islam some time in 2014.
A disproportionately high number of militants involved in plots in the west have been converts. In the UK between 2001 and 2013, 12% of “homegrown jihadis” were converts, but less than 4% of the overall Muslim population were. Meanwhile, as many as 41% of US-born alleged militants are converts, while just 23% of the Muslim population as a whole are converts.
“With lone actors, they tend to jump around,” said Gill. “They are often looking for something to give their lives meaning. Many are converts [who are] looking for identity and answers.”