Hate forums and social media platforms have likely made it easier for atomized white supremacists and neo-Nazis to find like-minded individuals, laying the base for a resurgence in far-right organizing and violence. But that’s come with a price: a lengthy online trail that makes it difficult to stay anonymous. Leaks and loose tongues can let slip information that can be paired with open-source intelligence data from publicly available sources, like social media profiles and web accounts operated under real names, public records, and archived websites.
At the center of a recent leak is the neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen Division, a violent group whose leader, John Cameron Denton, was arrested last month in Montgomery, Texas, for plotting to intimidate journalists by duping armed police into arriving at their homes, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Denton, who goes by the online handle “Rape,” and co-conspirators allegedly made at least three swatting calls from November 2018 to January 2019 targeting Old Dominion University, the historically black Alfred Street Baptist Church, and an unnamed Cabinet official, according to an FBI affidavit. Denton was also allegedly involved in the swatting of a ProPublica reporter involved in investigating the group as well as the publication’s office, while another reputed Atomwaffen leader, Kaleb Cole, was arrested for allegedly conspiring to send threatening fliers to reporters. Neither Denton nor Cole appear to have so far entered formal pleas in their case.
Years before Denton’s arrest, Gizmodo has learned, he appears to have been introduced to Atomwaffen by David Cole Tarkington, a prolific Atomwaffen recruiter who is now a sailor in the U.S. Navy.
Tarkington, now in his early 20s, went by the username “The Yank” on defunct white supremacist forum Iron March, which disappeared from the web in 2017 but had its SQL database dumped on the Internet Archive late last year by an anonymous individual going by the handle “antifa-data.” Registered in 2011 by a Moscow-based man named Alisher Mukhitdinov, Iron March was a major hub for neo-Nazis and a prime online space for recruiting members into ever more violent, racist groups, like neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen.
The Iron March leak revealed email and IP addresses, as well as the post and direct message history, of every user who had not deleted their account before Iron March vanished. Users of the forum dropped tidbits of personal information such as their age, location, work and education histories, and accounts on other services. This trail of evidence ultimately tied “The Yank” to Tarkington’s offline identity.
Tarkington’s private messages on the board show that under his “The Yank” persona, he transformed from a 15-year-old newcomer in 2013 into a prolific Atomwaffen recruiter who attempted to enlist at least 12 Iron March members by the end of 2016. He also attempted to work with a representative of a group the UK government later classified as a terrorist organization.
The Navy is now investigating Tarkington’s apparent role in the early days of Atomwaffen Division, according to Commander Ron Flanders, the spokesperson for Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet. Flanders told Gizmodo in a phone interview that “it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation” but confirmed the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) was looking into the matter based on information provided by Gizmodo.
Naval documents show that Tarkington is an aviation machinist mate’s apprentice with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-41 (“Black Aces”) based out of Lemoore, California. He enlisted in July 2019 and graduated from the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Pensacola, Florida, in December 2019. That rank is held by sailors who inspect, maintain, and overhaul aircraft engines and propellers and who may receive advanced technical training to carry out their duties.
Gizmodo reached out to the email address associated with Tarkington’s Iron March account with a list of questions and a request for comment. We received a single reply still under the handle “The Yank,” asking, “Do you have a number we could speak on?” Gizmodo did not hear back on two further emails requesting to set up a time to talk, although an email tracker showed our emails were opened dozens of times.
Atomwaffen Division, meaning “Nuclear Weapons Division,” is a network of hardcore neo-Nazis reported to have several dozen members or more and access to a larger pool of “initiates.” Atomwaffen advocates that the end of multiracial society will only be achieved through a violent revolution using fear tactics. Although Atomwaffen hasn’t been directly linked to any successful terrorist attacks, its members do subscribe to SIEGE ideology, which advocates independent cells of white supremacists commit acts of mass violence and terrorism.
Atomwaffen and other neo-fascist groups that espouse a violent overthrow of the U.S. government have long sought to recruit members with military training and experience, viewing them as a necessity for building paramilitary capacity and bridging the gap from online organizing to physical violence. Frustrated members of Congress have inquired why the military isn’t doing more to prevent it.
Meanwhile, white supremacists have emerged as a major priority for the FBI following mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Poway, California; a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; a church in Charleston, South Carolina; a lethal car attack at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; and several other killings in the U.S. tied to far-right ideology within the last decade. The State Department also reportedly aims to classify Atomwaffen as a foreign terrorist organization, a first for a white supremacist group, according to Politico.
Atomwaffen members have been tied to at least five deaths since 2017 and linked to multiple arrests involving bomb plots and weapons stockpiles. The group also has connections to a string of other far-right organizations, including “The Base,” a group that has set up armed training camps and recently was the target of a series of FBI raids.
On May 19, 2017, 18-year-old Atomwaffen member Devon Arthurs shot and killed two of his fellow cadres and roommates, Jeremy Himmelman and Andrew Oneschuk, in Tampa, Florida, allegedly motivated in part by an ideological dispute over Arthurs’ conversion to radical Islam. A fourth roommate, Atomwaffen’s then-leader Brandon Russell, fled after the killings and was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 after investigators found explosive precursors, homemade detonators, and Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD, a high explosive compound) in their shared apartment. Arthurs was adamant to investigators that his roommates were planning terror attacks, according to ProPublica, though no one was ultimately charged with terrorism-related offenses.
In December 2017, 17-year-old Atomwaffen member Nicholas Giampa allegedly shot and killed the parents of his girlfriend, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker and Scott Fricker. Friends and family of the deceased told the Washington Post that Kuhn-Fricker had tried to stage an intervention after she found a Twitter account laden with reference to Nazism; Giampa is now facing trial. In January 2018, 20-year-old Atomwaffen member Samuel Lincoln Woodward allegedly stabbed to death 19-year-old pre-med student Blaze Bernstein, who was gay, more than 20 times in Orange County, California. Woodward faces possible life without parole over the murder; ProPublica reporting shows Atomwaffen members praised him in internal chats as a “one-man gay Jew wrecking crew.”
Tarkington kept a relatively low profile on Iron March, according to the records available in the Iron March leak reviewed by Gizmodo, ultimately using the forum as a means to recruit in Atomwaffen. According to the leaked archive, Tarkington sent 224 messages and 377 posts under the persona of “The Yank” between September 2013 and December 2016, when, according to Tarkington’s private messages, he would have been 18. He stopped privately messaging other users in September 2016. It’s not clear whether Tarkington’s involvement extends beyond that, and his account has a last login date of May 10, 2017, just over a week before the Tampa murders.
Tarkington never revealed his real-life identity on the open forum. But the Iron March leak revealed both his registration email and messages in which he was less cautious about sharing personal information, including his Skype handle.
Entering the registration email used by Tarkington on Iron March into the Skype’s user search function returned the name Cole Tarkington, as well as a photo that bore close resemblance to those on Tarkington’s other accounts on Facebook and Instagram. (Tarkington’s Facebook “likes” included Operation Werewolf—a cult-like fitness group that shares its name with Adolf Hitler’s never-enacted plan for leaderless Nazi resistance after the end of World War II.) Gizmodo also established a number of other matches between “The Yank” and Tarkington’s offline identity.
Separate research by Bellingcat has shown that in 2014 and under his guise as “The Yank,” Tarkington uploaded photographs of himself giving a fascist salute outside what appears to be the entrance to New Mount Sinai Cemetery in St. Louis, a Jewish cemetery. Bellingcat also reported that Tarkington uploaded photos of fascist fliers calling for pogroms, including one that appears to be outside the St. Louis Christian Academy.
Tarkington bragged about the photos in posts on Iron March, writing he had started the night by “sieg heiling in front of the entrance with a Jew star and Hebrew letters on it” and claiming to have passed out the fliers to members of the public.
In May 2016, Tarkington identified himself to a member of UK neo-Nazi group National Action, who went by the name “Insurrectionist,” as “overseeing Atomwaffen’s leadership” while group leader Russell was in “basic training” (likely referring to his service in the Florida Army National Guard). The two discussed the possibility of collaboration between National Action and Atomwaffen, as well as ways to attract new recruits.
Less than seven months later, the UK’s home secretary officially banned National Action as a terrorist organization. Bellingcat identified the National Action member in contact with Tarkington as Christopher Lythgoe, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2018 for membership in a proscribed organization after police began looking into an alleged National Action plot to assassinate Labour MP Rosie Cooper and a police officer.
“You are a fully-fledged neo-Nazi replete with concomitant deep-seated, entrenched racism and anti-Semitism,” Mr. Justice Jay told Lythgoe during sentencing, according to the BBC.
In June 2016, Russell told another user on the board that Tarkington was “the one processing new members.”
A key individual that Tarkington approached for recruitment into Atomwaffen was Denton (aka “Rape”), the leader arrested in February 2020. Research by ProPublica in 2018 found that Denton was central to Atomwaffen’s ideological training and propaganda design, as well as in contact with Mason. That year, Denton pushed the group’s members to buy rural land as a staging point for militant activity and raged over supposed leaks to the media from within the group on the Bernstein murder.
In the message to “Rape,” Tarkington wrote:
Heil, i’m in charge of recruitment here on Ironmarch and was informed that you’re interested in joining up with AW. Get back to me with your Skype name if you want to speak further, and we’ll set up a date and time for me to screen you.
Atomwaffen ideology has highlighted the necessity of members gaining military training and skillsets that could prove useful for militant purposes. In May 2018, ProPublica found that three active-duty Army or Navy enlistees were members of the group, while at least three others had prior experience in the armed forces.
In February 11, 2020, testimony to the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lecia Brooks said investigators have identified at least seven Atomwaffen members with military service records, constituting a large proportion of its overall membership, and that this type of experience “significantly [increases] the group’s potential to carry out deadly attacks.”
“We are especially concerned that terroristic, cell-style white supremacist groups that embrace paramilitarism, conduct tactical training camps for members, and continually encourage members to carry out attacks against both people and the nation’s infrastructure will attract veterans and active-duty servicemembers to their ranks,” Brooks added. “The recent arrests of two trained soldiers—one from the United States and one from Canada—who belong to a terroristic white supremacist group called the Base have only heightened our fears.”
During the hearing, officials with the Air Force, Navy, and Army told members of Congress that while actively participating in white supremacist organizations is grounds to investigate a serviceman, simply being a member of such a group might not result in discharge. Several members of the committee appeared shocked, according to the Military Times.
“I am flummoxed by what I’ve heard today,” Representative Jackie Speier said during the meeting.
While the number of individuals affiliated with actual white supremacist organizations in the U.S. military might be small, they are likely greatly outnumbered by other service members who harbor far-right beliefs. Polling of 1,630 active-duty soldiers released last month by the Military Times found that “36 percent who of troops responded have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military,” up from 22 percent in 2018.
“Extremist culture tends to be paramilitary—the Klan, for instance, is a clearly paramilitary organization, it was started by former military officers,” American Swastika author and Chapman University professor Pete Simi, told ProPublica. “A lot of traditional neo-Nazi groups tend to emulate military structure.”
Update: 4/17/2020 at 3:45 p.m. ET: Tarkington has been relieved of his duties in the Navy, Commander Ron Flanders, the spokesperson for Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet, told Gizmodo this week.
“He is no longer a member of Strike Fighter Squadron 41 or the US Navy,” Flanders said.
The Navy declined to comment on the specifics of Tarkington’s departure. However, the Naval Military Personnel Manual section 1910 contains regulations pertaining to administrative separation of personnel for reason of defective enlistment, which would include misrepresenting or omitting background details during the enlistment process. If that was the case, Tarkington’s separation would from the Navy would be classified as administrative and would not necessarily suggest that there was evidence of misconduct while enlisted.
Flanders emphasized that the Navy is an institution with members from every part of American society and has no tolerance for hate groups.
“We pride ourselves on being an organization where people from all backgrounds can thrive and serve as part of the Navy family,” Flanders told Gizmodo. “And anyone who doesn’t believe that is not welcome.”