The Iron March Forum and the Evolution of the 'Skull Mask' Neo-Fascist Network.

AuthorUpchurch, H.E.

The backbone of the "skull mask" transnational neo-fascist accelerationist network--whose nodes include terror groups such as Atomwaffen, the Base, and Feuerkrieg Division--is a group of organizations that grew out of Iron March, a neo-fascist web forum that was active from 2011 to 2017. The history of the Iron March network shows that violent extremist movements can develop from online communities even in the absence of a territorial base and without regular in-person contact between members. Iron March provided a closed social space where young neo-fascists who did not fit in well in established neo-fascist organizations could create a transnational collective identity. Eventually, Iron March users sought each other out in person and created local groups that remained networked together by virtue of their common origin in the community created on the web forum. The network's transition from activism to terrorism was facilitated by the introduction of violent ritualistic initiation practices derived from the writings of the Order of Nine Angles, which helped to habituate members to violence as well as to create a sense of shared membership in a militant elite.

Most coverage of the neo-fascist accelerationist terrorist movement in the United States has, so far, treated the Atomwaffen Division as an umbrella organization and more recent groups such as The Base as its spinoffs. In the June 2021 issue of this publication, Alex Newhouse argued that, rather than an umbrella organization or the top of a hierarchical network, the Atomwaffen Division should be viewed instead as one node in a distributed transnational neo-fascist accelerationist network. (1) The backbone of this network is a group of organizations that grew out of Iron March, a neo-fascist web forum that was active from 2011 to 2017

Iron March, an online forum that was operational between 2011 and 2017, (2) was the incubator and eventually the primary organizational platform for a transnational neo-fascist accelerationist terrorist network that includes National Action (3) in the United Kingdom, Atomwaffen Division in the United States, (4) and Antipodean Resistance (5) in Australia. During the period when Iron March was active, a few existing neo-fascist groups, including the Nordic Resistance Movementa in the Nordic countries and CasaPound (b) in Italy, began to collaborate with other groups under the Iron March banner. At present, this network lacks an organization-level name: Affiliation is demonstrated through solidarity pledges and the use of common symbols, most importantly the black-and-white skull mask and badges based on the shield-shaped division insignia of the Waffen-SS, the military arm of the Nazi SS. The author refers to this terrorist network here as the "skull mask network" to distinguish it from the broader social and ideological network that grew up around Iron March.

The skull mask network's ideology is a political-religious hybrid based in large part on the work of the philosopher Julius Evola. Evola mixed fascism with "Traditionalism," a syncretic 20th century religious movement that combines Hermetic occultism (c) with the Hindu doctrine of cyclical time and a belief in a now-lost primordial European paganism. (6) Adherents of this blend of doctrines, which can be termed "Traditionalist fascism" believe that a caste-based, racially pure "organic" society will be restored after what they believe to be an ongoing age of corruption, the Kali Yuga, (d) is swept away in an apocalyptic war, and that it is their role to hasten the end of the Kali Yuga by generating chaos and violence. (7)

Although there has always been cross-border contact between neo-fascist movements, most neo-fascist terrorist groups, such as The Order (e) in the United States and the Black Brigades (f) in Italy, have been local ethnonationalist organizations. The skull mask network internationalized without a territorial base because it began as a closed international social network and only turned to terrorist violence later in its development. This process is distinct from that by which an international network forms around a geographically bounded movement, as in the case of the Islamic State, and from the process by which disparate local organizations become networked online after face-to-face interactions between their members, as in the case of earlier U.S.-based white nationalist groups. (g)

To understand the genesis of the skull mask terrorist network, it is necessary to explain both how the transnational movement came together without roots in a local territorial base, and how that network evolved toward clandestine terrorist violence. The first section of this article examines how the Iron March network acted as the online incubator of the skull mask terrorist network. The second section looks at how online members of the Iron March network built offline connections to other Iron Marchers in their vicinity and began to build in-person activist groups. Both these offline and online spaces acted as incubators for the skull mask network, the emergence of which is described in the third section of the article. The fourth section of the article examines the influence of the Order of Nine Angles on the training and indoctrination practices of the network, influences that contributed toward terrorist radicalization. The fifth section examines terrorist attacks and plots by individuals within the skull mask network and the skull mask network terrorist groups that emerged after the closure of the Iron March forum. The final section offers some conclusions. Most of the data on Iron March comes from a leak of the site's SQL database, posted to the Internet Archive by an anonymous individual on November 6, 2019. (8) Nothing is known about the identity of the leaker, although their Internet Archive username, "antifa-data," implies an activist motivation. (9) The Internet Archive removed the data shortly afterward, but it remains available via torrent links provided by Bellingcat. (10) The leaked SQL database is a complete snapshot of the forum as it appeared shortly before the site went offline in November 2017, including the text of all public forum posts, complete logs of all private messages sent on the forum, and user registration data. Other data comes from websites and public social media accounts associated with Iron March-affiliated groups and individuals. Most of these accounts are no longer available online, having either been deleted by users or banned by the platforms.

Online Incubation: The Iron March Network

The Iron March forum served as the incubator in which the strong group identity and interpersonal bonds necessary to sustain the skull mask terrorist movement developed. Specialized online communities, whether focused on Traditionalist neo-fascism or on model trains, aggregate groups of people with shared interests and values, and facilitate the formation of both personal relationships and collective identities through sustained interaction over time, requiring only that members share a common language. In the Iron March case, the constraints of the web forum format, in particular the public visibility of forum posts and the slow pace of discussion, drove members who wanted to have private, real-time interactions to other platforms more suited to one-on-one conversation or discussion in small groups. This network of private groups served as the incubator for the common identity and strong social bonds necessary to maintain a transnational clandestine movement.

From the beginning, Iron March had a transnational userbase, although it is impossible to extract complete user statistics from available archives because Iron March did not retain information on accounts that were deleted or banned. Nevertheless, the posts and messages themselves provide a rough picture of the demographics of the Iron March userbase. Young people who congregated on Iron March described themselves as having grown up on social media, internet messaging, and image boards, largely disconnected from organized neo-fascism. (11) Those who became involved with the Iron March community made their way to its forums both from other online communities where extremist political expression was encouraged, like 4chan (h) and Kiwifarms, (i) and from links shared on mainstream social media sites in the period before extremist content was extensively policed. (12)

Iron March began as the "International Third Positionist Federation" (ITPF) on June 26, 2010, when an unidentified individual created the forum under the username Kacen. (13) ITPF ran on Bizhat, an India-based web hosting service that offered a ready-to-use forum template. (14) ITPF showed no activity until April 2011, when Alisher Mukhitdinov created a forum charter and discussion topics under the alias "Alexander Slavros." (j) In September 2011, the administrators of ITPF created Iron March on a new domain, "," using Invision Power Services web forum software. (15) The same month, the administrators migrated ITPF's data to the new Iron March domain, and shortly afterward, the ITPF forum was shut down. The reasons why "Slavros" and the other administrators migrated ITPF to Iron March and closed down ITPF are not known in detail, although in direct messages, an Iron March moderator using the screen name "Woman in Black" alludes to unspecified technical issues. (16)

The majority of users on both ITPF and Iron March were English-speaking. ITPF had a section for regional topics, spanning nine European countries and the United States. (17) Activity in the ITPF regional topics was heavily skewed toward anglophone countries. Russia, Norway, Germany, and Romania also showed significant activity in the five months during which ITPF was active. (18) Individual user data is available for Iron March, where registrations from IP addresses located in Anglophone countries dominate. (19) (k) In the Iron March database...

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