Nation/World

Cryptocurrency follows radical-right ideology across borders, evading regulators

BRUSSELS — The Daily Stormer website advocates for the purity of the white race, posts hate-filled, conspiratorial screeds against Blacks, Jews and women and has helped inspire at least three racially motivated murders. It has also made its founder, Andrew Anglin, a millionaire.

Anglin has tapped a worldwide network of supporters to take in at least 112 Bitcoin since January 2017 — worth $4.8 million at today’s exchange rate — according to data shared with The Associated Press. He’s likely raised even more.

Anglin is just one very public example of how radical right provocateurs are raising significant amounts of money from around the world through cryptocurrencies. Banned by traditional financial institutions, they have taken refuge in digital currencies, which they are using in ever more secretive ways to avoid the oversight of banks, regulators and courts, finds an AP analysis of legal documents, Telegram channels and blockchain data from Chainalysis, a cryptocurrency analytics firm.

Anglin owes more than $18 million in legal judgments in the United States to people whom he and his followers harassed and threatened. And while online, he remains visible — most days, dozens of stories on the Daily Stormer homepage carry his name — in the real world, Anglin’s a ghost.

His victims have tried — and failed — to find him, searching at one Ohio address after another. Voting records place him in Russia in 2016 and his passport shows he was in Cambodia in 2017. After that, the public trail goes cold. He has no obvious bank accounts or real estate holdings in the U.S. For now, his Bitcoin fortune remains out of reach.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a collaboration between The Associated Press and the PBS series FRONTLINE that examines challenges to the ideas and institutions of traditional U.S. and European democracy.

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Beth Littrell, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who is helping represent one of Anglin’s victims, says it’s grown harder to use the legal system to stamp out hate groups because now they operate with online networks and virtual money. “We were able to sue the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization, in essence out of existence,” she said. Doing the same today is much harder, she said. “The law is evolving but lagging behind the harm.”

CURRENCY OF THE RADICAL RIGHT

In August 2017, a week after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Anglin received 14.88 Bitcoins, an amount chosen for its oblique references to a 14-word white supremacist slogan and the phrase “Heil Hitler” because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Worth around $60,000 at the time, it was his biggest Bitcoin donation ever and would be valued at over $641,000 at today’s exchange rate. The source of the funds remains a mystery. Anglin now faces charges in U.S. court for conspiring to plan and promote the deadly march.

By the time of Charlottesville, Anglin had been cut off by credit card processors and banned by PayPal so Bitcoin was his main source of funding. In his “Retard’s Guide to Using Bitcoin,” published in April 2020, he claimed to have funded the Daily Stormer exclusively through Bitcoin for four years.

“I’ve got money now. I’ve got money to pay for the site for the foreseeable future,” he wrote in December 2020, as Bitcoin’s price surged.

Anglin’s former lawyer, Marc Randazza, argued that political censorship by financial authorities drove Anglin to cryptocurrency by shutting him out of traditional banking, which he said is “more Nazi-like than Andrew Anglin could ever hope to be.”

“Don’t create a black market and then be surprised there’s a black market,” Randazza added.

While Anglin likely turned to Bitcoin for practical reasons, part of the appeal of cryptocurrency to the radical right is ideological.

Bitcoin was developed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when distrust of the global financial system was running high. It offers an alternative that doesn’t depend on banks. Instead, transactions are validated and recorded on a decentralized digital ledger called the blockchain, which derives its authority from crowdsourcing rather than a class of elite bankers.

As one white nationalist cryptocurrency guide circulating on Telegram puts it: “We all know the Jews and their minions control the global financial system. When you are caught having the wrong opinion, they will take it upon themselves to shut you out of this system making your life very difficult. One alternative to this system is cryptocurrency.”

Richard Spencer, an American white supremacist, has dubbed Bitcoin the “currency of the alt-right.”

It’s hard to tell how large a role cryptocurrency plays in overall financing for the far right. Merchandise sales, membership fees, donations in fiat currencies, concerts, fight clubs and other events, as well as criminal activity, are also common sources of revenue, government and academic research has shown.

What is clear is that early adopters of Bitcoin, like Anglin, have profited handsomely from its increase in value over the years. Bitcoin prices are notoriously volatile. Since April, the currency has shed a third of its value against the U.S. dollar, then took a further drubbing last week when China declared cryptocurrency transactions illegal.

Chainalysis collected data for a sample of 12 far-right entities in the U.S. and Europe that publicly called for Bitcoin donations and showed significant activity. Together, they took in 213 Bitcoin — worth more than $9 million at today’s value — between January 2017 and April 2021.

These groups embrace a range of ideologies and include white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and self-described free-speech advocates. They are united by a shared desire to fight the perceived progressive takeover of culture and the state.

“These people have real assets. People with access to hundreds of thousands of dollars can start doing real damage,” said John Bambenek, a cybersecurity expert who has been tracking the use of cryptocurrency by far-right actors since 2017.

Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, Anglin’s webmaster for the Daily Stormer, has raked in Bitcoin worth $2.2 million at today’s values. The Nordic Resistance Movement, a Scandinavian neo-Nazi movement that’s been banned in Finland, Counter-Currents, a U.S.-based white nationalist publishing house, and the recently banned French group Génération Identitaire have each received Bitcoin that’s now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Chainalysis data shows.

Two social media platforms that have been embraced by the far right, Gab and Bitchute, received a surge in Bitcoin funding in the lead up to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. Since 2017, Bitchute has gotten Bitcoin worth nearly $500,000 at today’s values, about a fifth of which rolled in during the month of December 2020. Gab has gotten more than $173,000; nearly 40% came in during December 2020 and January 2021, Chainalysis data shows. On Aug. 1, Gab announced it was stepping up its fight against “financial censorship” and creating its own alternative to PayPal to “fight against the tyranny of the global elites.”

PRIVACY COIN

While cryptocurrencies have a reputation for secrecy, Bitcoin was built for transparency. Every transaction is indelibly — and publicly — recorded on the blockchain, which enables companies like Chainalysis to monitor activity. Individuals can obscure their identities by not publicly linking them to their cryptocurrency accounts, but with Bitcoin they cannot hide the transactions themselves.

Because of that public footprint, Anglin in November 2020 — just as Donald Trump lost the U.S. presidential election — abandoned Bitcoin and asked his supporters to send him money only in Monero, a “privacy coin” designed to enhance anonymity by hiding data about users and transactions. He published a new guide in February 2021 on how to use Monero, which included instructions for non-U.S. donors.

“Every Bitcoin transfer is visible publicly. Generally, your name is not attached to the address in a direct way, but spies from the various ‘woke’ anti-freedom organizations have unlimited resources to try to link these transactions to real names. With Monero, the transactions are all hidden.” Anglin wrote.

Monero, Anglin advised, “is really easy. Most importantly, it is safe.”

Others have reached the same conclusion.

Thomas Sewell, an Australian neo-Nazi currently facing charges, is soliciting donations in Monero for his legal defense fund. Jaz Searby, a martial arts instructor who headed an Australian chapter of the Proud Boys, is seeking donations — Monero only — to help “spread our message to a generation of young Aryan men that may feel alone or fail to understand the forces that are working against us.” The Nordic Resistance Movement and Counter-Currents also solicit donations in other cryptocurrencies, including Monero, and NRM has experimented with letting supporters mine Monero directly on their behalf.

“Do you really think how we operate our economy is any of your business?” Martin Saxlind, the editor of NRM’s magazine, Nordfront, asked AP in an email. “Swedish banks have abused their control of the economy to deny us and others regular banking accounts for political reasons. That’s why we use cryptocurrency ... you should investigate the corrupt banks instead of doing what I assume is some retarded hit piece on white dissidents.”

The Global Minority Initiative, which describes itself as a “prison relief charity” for American white nationalists also takes donations only in Monero or by postal money order. And France’s Democratie Participative, a racist, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ website that was banned by French courts in 2018, also solicits donations in Monero only, warning supporters not to contribute via a mainstream cryptocurrency exchange.

“Money is the sinew of war,” the site says on its fundraising page. “Thanks to your support we can continue to prevent Jews and their allies from sleeping soundly.”

The AP reached out to all the groups and individuals named in this article. Most did not reply to requests for comment. A few were unreachable. Others replied anonymously, sending anti-Semitic and pornographic content. One email, for example, read: “Stay the f--- out of our crypto you demonic k--- ... DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

GOING GLOBAL

Shortly before his suicide, in December 2020, a French computer programmer named Laurent Bachelier sent 28.15 Bitcoins — then worth over $520,000 — to 22 far-right entities. The bulk went to Nick Fuentes, an American white nationalist influencer who would spend the coming weeks encouraging his tens of thousands of followers to lay siege to the U.S. Capitol. One bitcoin went to a Daily Stormer account.

“I care about what happens after my death,” Bachelier wrote in his suicide note. “That’s why I decided to leave my modest wealth to certain causes and people. I think and hope that they will make a better use of it.”

Since getting Bachelier’s money, Fuentes has ramped up recruiting for his America First livestream and expanded the reach of his political nonprofit, the America First Foundation, which says in corporate registration documents it advocates for “conservative values based on principles of American Nationalism, Christianity, and Traditionalism.”

The transactions only became public because of a tip to a journalist at Yahoo News and the fact that Bachelier happened to leave digital traces that linked his Bitcoin address with his email. The money trail offered clear evidence that domestic extremism isn’t purely domestic and showed how wealthy donors can use cryptocurrency to fund extremists around the world with little scrutiny.

Bachelier’s money slipped quietly into the U.S., not triggering alerts it might have had it landed via traditional banking channels. That’s because much of it — notably the Bitcoin donation to Fuentes, then worth $250,000 — passed through accounts that were not hosted by regulated cryptocurrency exchanges, according to Chainalysis.

Those exchanges, which can convert Bitcoin into U.S. dollars and other currencies, are generally regulated like banks, allowing authorities to get access to information or funds.

But cryptocurrency wallets can also be “unhosted,” which means that users themselves control access. Unhosted wallets — like Fuentes’ — are akin to cash. They don’t have to go through banks or exchanges that could flag suspicious transactions, verify a user’s identity or hand over money to satisfy a court judgment.

Financial regulators around the world are waking up to the threat. The Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based multilateral organization that sets global guidelines to protect against money laundering and terrorism financing, in June released its first report on far-right fundraising, which highlighted the groups’ use of cryptocurrencies and warned that transnational links among such actors are growing. The FATF also said there is a dearth of information about both cross-border fundraising and the scale of cryptocurrency use.

“Similar to their jihadist counterparts, many of these groups have used the internet and social media to share propaganda and recruit ideologically-aligned supporters from around the world. They also may be looking to forge financial links,” the report said. “This trend has posed a challenge for law enforcement or security services which are used to combating ERWT (extreme right-wing terrorism) as a domestic threat with few transnational links.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic sealed borders, white nationalists continued to gather in virtual communities that allowed them to connect with people from around the world.

On Telegram, posts tagged with different flags stream together: There’s a burly “White Boys Club” in Kyiv, a group of “nationalists” in Minnesota and a cluster of men with pixelated faces in Greece, each posing around “White Lives Matter” banners. Images of people stomping on or burning colorful LGBTQ buttons and flags roll in from Poland, Slovakia, Russia, Croatia. Men with skull masks and rifles pose after tactical training in the woods in Poland. A person with a fascist flag stands in the rain in France, and a man draped with a swastika banner looks out from a high hill somewhere in the woods of America.

“The transnational links make people feel they are part of a much larger community, they can inspire each other and network,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

They can also raise money.

Blockchain data shows that Andrew Anglin’s donors are part of a global community of believers who sent money to entities in multiple countries. Donors to Anglin since 2017 have also given Bitcoin to 32 other far-right groups and people in at least five different countries, according to Chainalysis data.

The data also shows that money flowed into the sample of 12 far-right groups from cryptocurrency exchanges that serve customers all over the world, with Western and Eastern European-focused exchanges playing a growing role. Chainalysis uses web traffic data and economic activity patterns to estimate where the customers that use a given exchange are located.

European groups like the Nordic Resistance Movement and Génération Identitaire also received donations from North America-focused exchanges. Similarly, U.S. entities like American Renaissance, Daily Stormer and WeAreChange got money via exchanges that serve customers in Western and Eastern Europe.

Kimberly Grauer, Director of Research at Chainalysis, said the shift to using global exchanges “certainly could be in order to obfuscate detection, but it could also be a sign that increasingly donations are coming in from all over the world.”

VIRTUAL JUSTICE

While Andrew Anglin remains physically hidden and his money remains virtually untouchable, his debt grows. Each day that ticks by, he owes Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real estate agent in Montana, another $760.88, interest on a $14 million court judgment he has failed to pay.

After Gersh got in a dispute with the mother of white supremacist Richard Spencer in 2016, Anglin published her contact information and used his website to whip up an army of trolls against her.

She received death threats, threats against her as a Jew and threats against her child. Sometimes she’d pick up the phone and hear a gunshot. Gersh’s hair started falling out. She had panic attacks, sought trauma counseling and seriously considered fleeing.

The balm for all that came in 2019, when a federal court made clear that targeted anti-Semitic hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. But since that fleeting moment of victory, nothing has happened. Gersh has yet to see a penny of her $14 million.

She is not the only one.

Anglin also owes Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah $4 million, and he’s supposed to pay Taylor Dumpson, the first Black student body president of American University, $725,000 — all the results of civil litigation in U.S. courts over libel, invasion of privacy, inflicting emotional distress and intimidation on the Daily Stormer.

Last September, Gersh’s legal team sent requests to six Ohio addresses and four emails demanding that he disclose his assets. Four were returned as undeliverable, one was refused. He didn’t respond to the rest. The court then ordered Anglin to hand over information about his finances, but the April 1 deadline for that came and went. Her lawyers moved to hold him in contempt of court, which could lead to his arrest.

Anglin’s Bitcoin is his most visible asset. Gersh’s lawyers can see Anglin’s virtual fortune but so far they haven’t been able to touch it. He also keeps his cryptocurrency in unhosted wallets, according to Chainalysis, complicating collection efforts.

Meanwhile, Gersh is running up legal bills at a rate of $980 an hour.

“The problem with an unhosted wallet is what is your pain point?” said Amanda Wick, who served as a senior policy adviser for the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and as a federal prosecutor before joining Chainalysis as chief of legal affairs. “The only thing we have is civil contempt or criminal conviction. If someone is willing to sit in jail and the money is theirs on the other side because no one can access it, that’s a problem.”

The hunt for Anglin — and his pain point — continues. He may not be in the United States, but he is out there somewhere, Littrell said, and he’s not untouchable.

“He will be held accountable,” she said. “We will get his cryptocurrency.”

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