CTV News | Top Stories - Breaking News - Top News Headlines
Map of hate: Publication pinpoints Canadian users of neo-Nazi site Iron March
A Blood and Honour rally in Edmonton, 2012
TORONTO -- A student and singer from Montreal. A welder from Edmonton. A graduate student in Toronto. A non-profit worker in Vancouver. The list of usernames, emails and posts of the 88 users of the now-defunct neo-Nazi site Iron March with Canadian IP addresses spans provinces, age groups and religious affiliations.
But they all believe, and call for, the same thing – terrorism, death and genocide.
Earlier this month, an anonymous anti-fascist activist performed a “data dump” of Iron March’s metadata into the public sphere, including usernames, email addresses, IP addresses, messages and posts.
Iron March was active from 2011 to 2017, and was considered a hotbed of modern fascist far-right neo-Nazi militant movements – key among them Atomwaffen, an extremist neo-Nazi group linked to several murders in the United States and formed from users on Iron March.
The site also had links with international neo-Nazi fascist groups like Britain’s National Action, Greece’s Golden Dawn and the group Azov Battalion out of Ukraine. Users on the site idolized murderers like Anders Breivek and Dylann Roof, and often called and planned for a racial holy war – which they referred to as RAHOWA.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), a U.S.-based organization that monitors hate groups, defines Atomwaffen as “a series of terror cells that work toward civilizational collapse.”
SPLC marks 2015 as the date Atomwaffen was founded out of Texas, with members “described as accelerationists [who] believe that violence, depravity and degeneracy are the only sure way to establish order in their dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the world.”
Used to working in the shadows of private forums and chat rooms, the data dump has exposed the inner network of an online hate group to the scrutiny of the media, researchers and law enforcement.
CTVNews.ca was able to verify the identity of several Canadian Iron March users through cross-referencing the raw data files and social media profiles, however it is possible that users utilized a VPN (virtual private network) that hid their actual geolocation or signed into the site while visiting Canada – therefore the number of Canadian users may be lower or higher than 88.
Map of hate
Upstate New York-based publication and activist Twitter account Jewish Worker, run by Naftali Botwin, is the creative force behind a website and interactive map that incorporates the geolocations of Iron March users by plotting their IP addresses.
Naftali Botwin is a pseudonym which CTVNews.ca has agreed to use in order to protect their identity.
“These are people [Iron March users] who were openly plotting to instigate a “race war” in America while training themselves and recruiting vulnerable young people to be the storm troopers,” Botwin said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
Botwin said one of their readers called the publication’s attention to the data dump on Twitter and “shared with us a tweet from a journalist wishing someone would make a tool that simplifies the task of searching through the data,” they said. They obliged.
The map allows users to search for Iron March participants by location, email or username, and displays an archive of posts and messages between users.
“The database provides a treasure trove of information linking individuals to Atomwaffen division, a neo-Nazi group responsible for numerous violent acts and plots targeting minority communities,” Botwin said.
Botwin said it was “terrifying” as they were feeding geolocation data from the forum’s users IP addresses into mapping software “to see just how many of them were all around us.”
“I found one living just 15 minutes from me,” they said. “It only added to the urgency of making this data accessible.”
Using Jewish Worker’s web developer to assist them in determining which data they wanted to collect from the raw files and to “identify the links between the different database tables,” Botwin and their team reverse engineered the forum software Iron March used, feeding the IP addresses and email addresses through application programming interfaces to “glean whatever identifying information” they could to populate the map.
“People have a right to know whether members of a murderous neo-Nazi terrorist group are living and plotting among them,” Botwin said. “This is essential information for targeted communities to safeguard themselves.”
Botwin acknowledged the delicate line between informing the public and being slapped with a privacy lawsuit but was emphatic that Jewish Worker is “not providing home addresses or telephone numbers and...not encouraging anyone’s harassment.”
Botwin said response to the map and database has been “overwhelmingly positive” with their tool being used by journalists and news organizations for research “some of which has exposed active duty members of military in the U.S. and [a man in] Germany connected with Atomwaffen.”
But there is always a risk when dealing with online violent extremists.
“We were targeted by the Proud Boys, a violent white supremacist group,” Botwin said. “There have also been numerous efforts to hack into the web hosting account of our web developer.”
But Botwin says the team at Jewish Worker is undaunted.
“Our website states in the footer, ‘dedicated in memory of Blaze Bernstein, so that others may not suffer the same fate,’” Botwin said.
Bernstein was a gay Jewish college student who was murdered in 2018 in his home state of California by alleged Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward.
“The goal of our project is to help journalists and anti-extremism researchers uncover and expose violent white supremacists before they can kill again,” Botwin said.
Threats to public safety
Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) is on the forefront of monitoring, exposing and countering hate groups in Canada – including supporters, sympathizers and progandists, according to their mandate.
Balgord said he and the organization had been aware of Iron March since mid-2017, and said while it was active it was “maybe the worst neo-Nazi public-facing forum in the world.”
“Iron March was the most concerning one,” Balgord said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca. “Its entire ideology was that of promoting terrorism, it was just for self-avowed fascists and neo-Nazis too extreme for anywhere else.”
Eighty-eight of those extremists were users whose profiles were linked to Canadian IP addresses, according to CTVNews.ca’s investigation of the raw data files, the Jewish Worker’s map and CAHN’s own estimate
Balgord said previous monitoring of a Montreal-based Iron March administrator known as “ZEIGER” showed messages commenting on “how surprising it was that over 70 per cent of the forum traffic was Canadian,” as the site itself was international.
“ZEIGER” is actually Gabriel Sohier Chaput, alleged to be an integral figure to the most extreme neo-Nazi circles who was unmasked by the Montreal Gazette in 2018 and went on the run after Montreal authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on the charge of “willfully promoting hate.”
His whereabouts are unknown.
Balgord said that his team at CAHN and researchers “around the world” are working on the data released in the leak in the quest to “find as many of these individuals as possible and try to hold them to account.”
CAHN is in touch with law enforcement, the Canadian Armed Forces and security services about the Canadian Iron March users “because they are a danger to the public...so we hope that if we do our job well we are thwarting terrorist attacks,” Balgord said.
“Everybody who was using that forum by nature of what that forum is, is a threat to public safety and should be identified,” he said.
A suspected Canadian user of Iron March is seen asking to join the neo-Nazi militant group Atomwaffen in this exchange with a recruiter in the United States. Identifying information and publication titles containing hateful information have been blurred. (Jewish Worker)
Canadian hate groups on the rise
Dr. Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, and a leading global scholar on hate crime and right wing extremism, reports that the number of Canadian-based hate groups is on the rise.
“There has been a dramatic growth [of hate groups] since 2016 from approximately 100 active groups to well over 200, perhaps closer to 300,” Perry said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
“This includes multiple chapters of some groups like Soldiers of Odin and PEGIDA,” she said.
PEGIDA is the acronym for the group “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” a Germany-founded nationalist far-right anti-Islamic movement.
Perry said it is difficult to say how many groups are actively recruiting in Canada as “they are moving targets and groups morph quite quickly,” but says there are probably “a dozen big players” like Soldiers of Odin, PEGIDA and the Proud Boys, who are “very active online” and off.
Online recruitment techniques for neo-Nazi and fascist groups are “extensive” Perry said, adding that the groups “use every tool at their disposal; inter-personal engagement, discourse, music, videos [and] games.”
“They will often draw people in quite gently with little hint of the true nature of their ideology,” she said. “It is a process rather than an event.”
Perry said that in the past, the differences between American versus Canadian fascist groups and was delineated over Canadian groups being “less violent for the most part,” but researchers are starting to see more “’American style’ guns rights narratives [and] glorification of weaponry.”
Perry said this change is “disturbing.”
“There was a 47 per cent increase in hate crimes [in Canada] from 2016 to 2017,” Perry said. “There was a drop of 13 per cent in 2018, but this is still higher than any other time since data has been released.”
Perry said the Iron March data dump is a “veritable treasure trove” for researchers, law enforcement and intelligence communities, and hopefully includes ideas on how to combat the spread of far-right fascist extremism.
“Youth and adults need to be better informed and more able to exercise critical digital literacy,” Perry said.
“Public figures [and] political leaders must be more vocal and adamant in their condemnation of Nazis and their ilk. Law enforcement needs to take the threat more seriously,” she said.
An introduction post was necessary for users to join Iron March, as seen here. Identifying information has been blurred. (Jewish Worker)
Hate speech and the law in Canada
The question of whether or not Canadian Iron March users can be prosecuted for their online messages from two years ago is a complex one.
“The question of a private forum with a limited number of people expressing their views back and forth on a [site] that is password and user protected...is far less clear cut,” said Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Richard Warman in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca.
Warman has litigated 16 human rights complaints against individuals from white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements who were disseminating hate propaganda online.
“In the case where a data dump occurs as a result of an anonymous publication of that material, I think the accused would argue they didn’t make it public but that it was a result of someone else leaking the material,” he explained, adding that the police would have to confer with Crown prosecution services to see if charges could be laid.
“You [also] require the provincial attorney general to lay charges in relation to hate propaganda,” Warman explained. “The speech has to be very explicit and [be] the very far end of hate speech to be prosecuted.”
Warman said historically freedom of expression is protected in Canada under section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is a constitutional right.
“However, the Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted that in context in other provisions in the charter that Canada was established as a multinational pluralistic society,” he explained, adding that prosecutions for hate speech are therefore constitutional.
“There is plenty of room for robust political discourse in Canada before you come to the limits where you’re advocating genocide or willfully promoting hatred against groups,” Warman said. “You have to be very targeted and very explicit in terms of what you’re saying before you reach those kinds of limits.”
Warman confirmed that material from Iron March could be admissible as evidence for charges to be laid, but as the material relating to the offence is over 12 months old “then the Crown must proceed by indictment which means a higher standard to meet in terms of prosecution.”
Criminal offences in Canada are generally prosecuted either by indictment, which covers more serious offences, or by summary conviction, for less serious offences.
Warman named section 3.18, which relates to the advocacy of genocide and 3.19 which covers public incitement of hatred, of the Criminal Code of Canada that would be the two charges most likely associated to what a Canadian Iron March user could face.
If convicted, the accused faces two to five years in prison depending on the charge and “whether the charges go by summary conviction or indictment,” Warman said.
Warman said that in order for law enforcement agencies to tackle targeted online hate speech like that of Iron March users, there needs to be “dedicated hate crime units for major urban areas.” These units would work in cooperation with local crown prosecutors so they “have a coordinating team,” that would dedicate the resources to treat these charges “in the same way that violence or break and enters are, and having the will to prosecute.”
Edited by Phil Hahn, interactive map feature by Jesse Tahirali