Almost two decades into the War on Terror era, hundreds of designated terrorist entities operate globally. Far from posing a united front, governments’ counter-terrorism policies may be characterised as isolationist, each determining its own parameters for terrorist entities. It is within these contexts that Canada has distinguished itself in its decision to designate James Mason, an influential neo-Nazi, as a terrorist entity. The decision is one of only a handful of cases of far-right individuals being designated terrorist entities. More critically, this is the first time a state has identified Mason as a terrorist. In addition to validating concerns about the serious threat of Mason’s beliefs, his designation should serve as a catalyst for the long-stalled global debates about the ramifications of designation, online censorship, and the impact of such a moniker in the absence of a forceful global counter-terrorism programme.
If Adolf Hitler is a man-turned-god in the neo-Nazi psyche, then Mason is his most devoted acolyte. Born in the United States in the 1950s, Mason was a neo-Nazi by the age of 14 and had risen through the ranks of the American Nazi Party, and then the National Socialist Liberation Front. It was in this second group that he gained a platform, assuming the role of editor for its newsletter, ‘Siege,’ in 1980. Publishing for six years in that format, Mason anthologised articles into a monograph of the same name in 1992. Relatively obscure in early printings, his extended 2017 and 2018 editions have proven far more influential. This is not his only output, though, as Mason has spread the word through new blog posts on the website Siege Culture and video recordings.
While Mason’s Siege promotes upon tried-and-true neo-Nazi narratives (from denying the Holocaust and promoting the Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy to endorsing biological determinism), he distinguishes himself with his unrepentantly violent and novel strategic planning. Mason revels in violence—gleefully encouraging the merciless killing of all individuals unwilling to subscribe to white supremacism, mourning the death of convicted killers, and describing the aftermath of a bloody race war as a utopia. Strategically, Mason advocates that accelerationists should not join traditional political parties, but rather become lone wolf terrorists. Devoting hundreds of pages to this, Mason argues that lone wolves should strike in quick succession to cause mass panic and death. Lone wolf terrorism has been employed by terrorists in Norway, Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Halle, as well as in multiple foiled terror attacks. Further, members of the Mason-associated terror group Atomwaffen Division (AWD) have been charged with numerous counts of murder, terrorism, and hate-related crimes. Mason’s work is also viewed as required reading for individuals seeking entrance into such terrorist groups as Feuerkrieg Division, Sonnenkrieg Division, and The Base. Members of these and smaller, splinter groups have similarly faced charges of hate crimes and plotted terror attacks, all allegedly motivated by their belief in accelerationism and the merits of Mason’s merciless methods.
In designating Mason, Canada gained increased powers to restrict access to Mason and his ideas. According to the law, it is a criminal offence to fund, supply, or associate with Mason. Perhaps most critically (particularly during COVID-19), it permits the removal of his content from the Internet. This final point is likely the primary motivator, given limited evidence of Mason operating inside Canada. The Internet is truly at the core of Mason’s popularity—Iron March users found him and digitised his work, and web users circulated his work worldwide.
In light of this, Canada has said that designation may “help to facilitate the removal of an entity’s online content.” However, online censorship is controversial and difficult to uphold, even under the most ideal circumstances. These are not those. Only Canada has designated him a terrorist, and his content has had years of circulation online. While organisations such as Tech Against Terrorism have set designation by any country as the threshold to notify companies that their platforms host terrorist content, said companies are not necessarily obliged to act if they are in countries where such a designation does not exist. Many websites place an emphasis on free speech, making moderators hesitant to remove content unless required. Further, if disseminating Mason’s materials is not a crime outside Canada and can be easily shared digitally, the Canadian government may have a metaphorical game of whack-a-mole on their hands. This does not even account for the increased awareness of virtual private networks, the Dark Web, and end-to-end encrypted platforms to sidestep censorship.
This brings into view philosophical questions about the global counter-terrorism strategy and terrorist designations. Canada is the first government to categorise Mason as a terrorist, doing so despite Mason never having been charged with any crimes on Canadian soil; in fact, without his ever being charged with terrorist offences anywhere. Rather, Canada argues that Mason’s call to arms, idol status, and dispensation of information useful to terrorists is sufficient for designation. Other countries have not agreed.
If other countries want to follow Canada’s lead, they must ask themselves whether, like a canary in a coal mine, to use an entity’s actions or designation status overseas as sufficient evidence for designation, or if the entity must take meaningful domestic steps towards terrorism before state intervention. More fundamentally, they must grapple with what should be classified as a terrorist offence—how direct a link must exist between word and deed to criminalise an idealogue? This, in turn, requires decisions on their beliefs in a causal relationship between online and offline violence, as well as the outer limits of free speech. For those states who wish to resist the urge towards designation, other questions emerge. For instance, how is it that a man, advocating world domination and genocide with global reach, and aiding in the radicalisation of terrorists can be a threat to public safety in one country and not another? Further, to what extent are they willing and able to hinder global counter-terrorism endeavours in the name of online free speech? It could be argued that, without a unified approach to Mason and the likes, in this digital age, Canada’s designation will likely have a limited impact. Without a mass buy-in (state and corporate) on the issue of identifying and censoring terrorist materials online, its global proliferation will continue.
Designation’s power to restrict Mason’s online influence provides Canada the opportunity to cut off a major supplier of hate and opens avenues for prosecuting his followers. However, it also exposes cracks within the global counter-terrorism space, wherein there is no agreement on censorship, online free speech, or even what constitutes terrorism and how to combat it.
This blog post is supplementary to research on James Mason’s Siege, published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT).
Dr Bethan Johnson is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge, with a degree in history. Her work investigates the creation, legitimation, and weaponisation of the concept of ’the nation’ in the modern West. Her doctoral research studied violent nationalist groups in the Cold War West, while she has also applied her knowledge of theories of nationalism to the modern white nationalist and white supremacist movements. She is currently the Head of Strategic Advancement and Planning, as well as the Head of Interns, for the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, where she publishes predominantly on the violent subcultures of Neo-Nazism and neo-fascism. She also works with Tech Against Terrorism, formulating responses to right-wing terrorism online. In addition to her publications with CARR, Dr Johnson is set to publish multiple articles and policy briefings on Siege and “Siege Culture” specifically, and her writing has earned her the 2019 Terrorism Research Award.
Professor Matthew Feldman is a specialist on fascist ideology and radical-right extremism, and directs of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. A longstanding feature of his work is a record of public engagement and policy-based impact, including briefings for various governmental bodies, reports for leading NGOs, expert witness testimony, and several hundred media appearances. An Emeritus Professor in the Modern History of Ideas, he has published more than 20 volumes, including four book length studies and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles or academic book chapters. His second collection of essays, Politics, Intellectuals and Faith, appeared in spring 2020. He is currently writing a transnational history of fascism from 1919 to the present.