This story was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

In the hours after the slaughter in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3, a final toll emerged: 22 dead, most of them Latinos, some Mexican nationals. A portrait of the gunman accused of killing them soon took shape: a 21-year-old from a suburb of Dallas who had been radicalized as a white supremacist online and who saw immigrants as a threat to the future of white America.

While much of the country reacted with a weary sense of sorrow and outrage, word of the mass killing was processed differently by members of Patriot Front, one of the more prominent white supremacist groups in the U.S.

In secret chat forums, some Patriot Front members embraced the spirit of the anti-immigrant manifesto left behind by the accused gunman. Others floated false conspiracy theories: the CIA was behind the murders; the accused killer was actually Jewish. Still other members cautioned that the group had its own “loose cannons” to worry about. It would be a bad look if the next mass murderer was one of their own.

But there was little, if any, regret over the loss of life.

“It shouldn’t be hard to believe that the group facing the harshest oppression from our ruling elite are producing shooters,” one Patriot Front member wrote. “White men are being slowly destroyed in a way calculated to produce resentment and a sense of helplessness. Of course, some of them decide to lash out.”

Several Patriot Front members alerted others to the need to be careful, for the killings in El Paso would likely make the group a target of the FBI.

“Watch your backs out there,” one wrote.

Patriot Front was formed in the aftermath of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While many on America’s far-right cheered the rally, its violence struck others as a public-relations debacle for the white nationalist brand that was sure to attract greater oversight by law enforcement.

Patriot Front aspired to help chart a new way forward: spread propaganda espousing its version of a nascent American fascism; quietly recruit new members worried about a nation overrun by immigrants and a world controlled by Jews; avoid talking about guns or violence online, but engage in a mix of vandalism and intimidation to foster anxiety; wear masks in public and communicate secretly.

“The organization is not about its members,” the group’s leader, Thomas Rousseau, once wrote to its members in the secret chats. “It is about its goals. Each person behind the mask is just another awoken member of the nation, who could be anyone who’s had enough.”

ProPublica spent several months examining the makeup and operations of Patriot Front, which records suggest numbers about 300 members.

While the group is careful not to talk about guns online, two members in the last year have been arrested with arsenals of illegally owned high-powered rifles and other weapons. While many of the group’s propaganda “actions” are legal exercises of free speech, its members have been arrested in Boston and Denver in recent months for acts of vandalism. In Boston, three members engaged in a nighttime propaganda effort last winter were arrested on suspicion of weapons possession and assaulting a police officer. What the group touts as political protests have felt to those targeted like acts of menace, as was the case in San Antonio, Texas, last year when Patriot Front members filmed themselves trashing an encampment of immigration activists.

One person whose establishment was targeted by Patriot Front in recent months spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing the group’s return.

“Ordinarily would you call the police if somebody put a big sticker on your door? No,” the person said. “However, once you find out what this is all about, and who is involved, and what they are promoting? Then, yeah, now we are in hate speech space.”

To the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patriot Front is a white hate group and a genuine criminal threat. To some of the more avowedly violent neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., Patriot Front is a laughable collection of clowns and cowards, content to chat online and put up stickers while a race war awaits.

But for law enforcement, gauging how serious a threat Patriot Front might pose is difficult. Patriot Front shares qualities both with groups engaged in real domestic terrorism and with fringe political groups.

Asked about the group, the FBI issued a statement that reflected these complexities and the limitations they place on police agencies.

“When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals—regardless of group membership—that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. We would encourage you to keep in mind that membership in groups which espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself—no matter how offensive their views might be to the majority of society.”

Rousseau, a Boy Scout and high school journalist before he founded Patriot Front, has much the same profile as the accused gunman in El Paso, Patrick Crusius: both grew up in middle-class suburbs of Dallas-Crusius in Allen, Rousseau 35 miles away in Grapevine; both were seen as unremarkable teenagers before being inculcated in their racist ideology online; both talk of a desire to reclaim America for “true” or “pure” patriots; both regard immigrants as a poisonous and present danger.

In the days after the rampage in El Paso, Rousseau told his members in the secret chats that such acts of wholesale violence were not for him. While fascist causes like Patriot Front’s could survive the blowback from such killings, he said, real success for the group would come from spreading its ideology and increasing its numbers. Of the alleged El Paso shooter, Rousseau wrote in a chat, “He’d have made more progress toward his goals by swallowing the first round in his magazine instead.”

In the months of chats obtained by ProPublica, Rousseau is by turns amateur philosopher and historian, as well as the group’s sole spokesman and its online policeman. He warns members that they will be kicked out if they don’t stay busy—pasting up flyers and conducting banner drops, joining street actions and posting regularly in the chat forums. He has put together a security guide to help Patriot Front members stay anonymous. He waxes admiringly about certain far-right groups in Europe, and he sees them as a model for how to become more serious political players in the years ahead. He has the secret chats routinely deleted, and he tells members to avoid ever writing or saying anything that might later be of interest to a prosecutor.

“It should be known,” he wrote to members recently, “that political dissidents are subject to unjust scrutiny.”

Pete Simi, a professor at Chapman University in California and an expert on white supremacists in the U.S., said Rousseau’s stewardship of Patriot Front is deeply familiar.

“It is very common for the leadership of these groups to disqualify violence, while doing things that are encouraging violence,” Simi said. “It is part of their strategy to avoid liability, while simultaneously promoting hate. When they say they are not violent, this is a lie. They are promoting violence by their goals.”

“Thomas’ Biggest Fear Is Someone Doing Something Crazy”

To gain an understanding of Patriot Front—its origins and ambitions, both the careful talk and the criminal behavior of its members—ProPublica examined hundreds of online postings, interviewed a person who infiltrated the group, obtained police records, reviewed its leader’s public statements online and in a variety of far-right podcasts, collected video material recorded both by the group and members of the public, and traveled to the homes of its founder and two of the members who had recently been arrested.

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front in recent years—posting in the group’s chats and accompanying it in its propaganda actions—sketched out a portrait of its members, which appear to be exclusively male:

They come from seven or eight regional “networks,” and the vast majority of them are recruited online; the typical member is around 25 years old and can be from blue-collar backgrounds or be working as “white-collar tech geeks”; many of them are gamers; few have wives or girlfriends; they can look like “the nerdy boys that sit next to you in high school,” but they clearly sympathize with “right-wing terrorism.”

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front said he applied for membership on the group’s website—the one with the mission statement written by Rousseau. American democracy was dead. The government had been taken over by Jews and other “elites.” Land claimed by descendants of the country’s original white settlers had been surrendered to immigrants of color. The dream was of a white ethnostate, in which all that was good and true and pioneering about the America of long ago could be restored.

The person who gained entrance to the group said Rousseau was one of three Patriot Front members who interviewed him on the telephone when he applied. He was asked to explain his political evolution, to say which political figures he hated and admired most, to state the circumstances in which the use of violence would be OK and to articulate the greatest threat to America. He was told Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism” would be required reading.

The chats reviewed by ProPublica show Rousseau spends lots of time online pressing members to take part in targeting streets, parks and colleges with the group’s propaganda. He and others delight in seeing their actions reflected in the SPLC’s nationwide map recording acts of hate and in the media. Last spring, the group tried to stage protests in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s offices in multiple cities, including New York.

“One minute of action is better than 10,000 books on ideology,” Rousseau told his members.

Rousseau, still a teen when he founded Patriot Front, makes clear in the secret chats reviewed by ProPublica that he is in charge, though he’s happy to go without a formal title.

“The title commander gives me bad flashbacks,” he wrote in a chat once. “If I absolutely had to have a title, it would probably be general director. But my name works just fine for now.”

The chats show some members regard Rousseau as a disciplined and effective spokesman for the group, and they appear to heed his repeated scoldings about preserving their anonymity.

“The enemy cannot attack you if they do not know who you are,” Rousseau wrote.

Using the pseudonym Samuel, a member from New York expanded on the idea in response.

“I would say the biggest accomplishment of masking up is obfuscating our total numbers,” he wrote. “We can make them feel as if there are thousands of us when it’s only a few hundred, and we could be anyone and no one. Next time they are at the CVS and see a white kid with a neat haircut, it could be us. Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.”

Rousseau, when he isn’t criticizing members who violate the ban on talking about guns or violence, can often be found policing the group’s ideological thinking. Nazism, however popular among members, can’t now be the goal, Rousseau said.

“This is not Germany, this is not the 1930s,” he chastised. “Get a grip on the fact that we’re activists, not re-enactors trying to scratch some self-indulgent itch for a political fantasy.”

Rousseau conducts his online leadership from the home he shares with his divorced father in Grapevine, a largely white, solidly middle-class city between Dallas and Fort Worth. ProPublica went to see Rousseau there this summer, and we found the shades drawn in every window and a rusting boat filled with fallen leaves on the property.

Rousseau came to the door, but he closed it quickly and would not talk. The following day, the red sports car in the driveway had been reparked, making it hard to see the lone license plate on its rear end.

Interviews with people in and around Grapevine—those who went to school with Rousseau, those who participated in the Boy Scouts with him, a man who dated his mother—produced a unanimous sense of surprise that he’d started an organization committed to an all-white America.

He’d mixed easily with the diverse array of students at his high school, and while he was against gay marriage, he was regarded more as a nice, conservative boy than a threat. He wore his hair long, in braids or a bun, and was obsessed with working out and the state of his physique.

At the student newspaper, he wasn’t regarded as an impressive writer, but he won a national award for editorial cartooning. Classmates saw him as a lazy student and a bit of a loner, but he had a knack for argument and a stubborn streak about never being wrong. The school had its share of racial incidents, but he was never involved and wasn’t seen as condoning them.

When Donald Trump was elected president, some senior boys at the school made a show of chanting, “Build a wall.” Rousseau, for his part, was certainly an ardent Trump supporter—he wore a Make America Great Again hat and carried a Trump lunchbox. But his enthusiasm wasn’t seen as menacing.

“He seemed Republican, but he didn’t seem crazy, said one fellow student.

To someone who was with him in Boy Scouts, Rousseau seemed serious about the organization, and he was elected patrol leader. At the same time, Rousseau could be difficult with adults, developing what the person called an “authoritarian defiance.”

“I’m saddened,” the person said of Rousseau’s embrace of white supremacy.

Simi, the professor at Chapman University, said enough research exists on modern-day white supremacists to develop a profile: young men, isolated and angry in some way despite their relatively privileged upbringing in middle class or affluent circumstances, and vulnerable to invitations to join up with others with similar grievances.

In years past, Simi said, groups like Patriot Front used to recruit potential new members by waiting outside schools for the last children to leave, the loners wandering off long after the final bell. Now such groups don’t have to work so hard to find targets. They have the internet, Simi said.

“It is a central aspect of these groups to take the frustration and anger and combine it with the special feeling and insights of being part of a group,” he said.

Rousseau, then just 18, was in Charlottesville in 2017, marching in the “Unite the Right” rally as a member of Vanguard America. The Anti-Defamation League calls Vanguard America a neo-Nazi group formed in 2016 that, like Patriot Front after it, was chiefly engaged in spreading propaganda. James Fields, the white supremacist convicted of murdering a young protester at the Charlottesville event, was photographed there carrying a Vanguard America shield, though he was not a member of the group.

Vanguard America splintered after the debacle in Virginia. Some wanted to abandon efforts to disguise their Nazi leanings and simply be brazen in their public look and violent aims. Rousseau took a different tack, and he started Patriot Front as an ostensibly more strategic, savvy, careful alternative. It would embrace more homegrown symbols—the flag, the bald eagle and patriotic language. Such shifts might attract a wider membership.

“I did go to Charlottesville. Some bad activism there,” Rousseau wrote in one of the secret chats. “I’ve done my part to learn from my mistakes.”

While Rousseau publicly and in the chats reviewed by ProPublica disavows violence, some Patriot Front members have shown support for a white supremacist group that embraces it: the Rise Above Movement. Eight RAM members have been arrested on charges related to violence in Charlottesville and in California.

“Gotta love RAM,” a Tennessee member said in the chats. “I hope they see us as 100 percent allies.”

In the chat logs, a Patriot Front member from Texas provides a list of addresses for 11 people in prison or under house arrest, referring to them as “POWs.” The list includes four members of RAM, numerous men arrested for violence in Charlottesville including Fields, and an imprisoned white supremacist in California. The Texan urged Patriot Front members to write to the prisoners and provided links to send some prisoners money directly. He also listed a donation link for a fund tied to Augustus Sol Invictus, a lawyer known for defending white supremacists.

Later in the chats, a member from New York shared a link to a white supremacist online fundraiser, saying proceeds would be given to a legal fund for RAM. He then chimed in that nearly $ 2,000 had been donated. “When they crack down we double down and become stronger,” he said. “Hail Victory!”

Observers of white hate groups credit Rousseau as a talented in-fighter, and they portray his breakaway from Vanguard America as a shrewd coup.

According to the person who infiltrated Patriot Front, Rousseau worries greatly about his members making the worst strategic mistake: carrying out an act of terrible violence. It would end his group, he has said.

“Thomas’ biggest fear is someone doing something crazy,” said the person who infiltrated Patriot Front.

“We Are Regular People”

Jakub Zak was in bed in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills when police, accompanied by his father, shook him awake. The police had been told that Zak, 19, was a member of Patriot Front, and that he might have a stash of illegal guns.

“He appeared nervous and tried to cover a few items on his bed as he put on his blue jeans,” police records say.

The police, though, had a clear view of what couldn’t be hidden: a gun safe meant for rifles, as well as magazines of ammunition on the bedroom floor.

Zak asked his father to make the police leave. His father would not.

“I advised Jakub that we would like for him to be cooperative, and explained to him cooperation goes a long way,” one detective wrote in a formal report, dated April 2018. “I explained to him the decision is for him to make, and he should think what is best for him.”

Zak spoke with his father and then offered the code for the safe. If there were guns in the house, the police wrote, Zak’s father wanted them out.

The police found a loaded 9 mm pistol and then, in a second safe, four more guns, including three high-powered semiautomatic rifles. The police records show Zak’s only concern was whether he could get his case for carrying the guns back after their confiscation.

It is unclear when or how Zak joined Patriot Front. The initial tip sent to law enforcement identified him as a member, one who often posted in the secret chats under the pseudonym “Hussar.” Postings under that name—portions of which were first published by Unicorn Riot, a media organization—suggest Zak was a frequent participant in the group’s propaganda efforts in the streets.

Online, Zak posted a mix of Patriot Front slogans and images—“America: Revolution is tradition”; “Deport them all.” But there was also much more explicitly violent material: a young black man lying prone on the street and about to be stomped; a Glock pistol.

Zak, who had no prior criminal record, ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun possession charge and was sentenced to probation. Whether local police referred his case, and his affiliation with Patriot Front, to any other law enforcement agency is unclear.

But the basic facts of Zak’s case amount to one of the hard-to-identify, hard-to-quantify, hard-to-assess threats in the U.S. today: an enthusiastically racist young man exposed to a steady diet of like-minded white supremacists, who doesn’t find it terribly hard to get his hands on dangerous weapons. Crusius, the accused El Paso killer, had no prior record; he lived with his grandparents; his mother is reported to have anonymously called law enforcement, worried once her son had bought a gun, even if it was legal; the parents of a classmate of Crusius’ told a local news organization in Dallas that their son had been encouraged by Crusius to join him in a white supremacist group.

In a brief interview at their home in Vernon Hills, Zak’s parents would not let him be interviewed.

“There is nothing to talk about,” his mother said, claiming he was not a member of any white hate group. “He is going through rough times, and he is in a better place now. I don’t want to start anything. He is getting his life together and planning [for] the future.”

“We are regular people,” his father added.

Concerns about how effectively federal authorities have been in thwarting the threat of white supremacists extends back years, covering both Democratic and Republican administrations. In recent months, though, there has been a series of arrests suggesting that federal and local authorities are being more aggressive.

In a recent report, the Department of Homeland Security took care to restate the balance law enforcement has to strike.

“The Department must take care, while addressing the scourge of violence, to avoid stigmatizing populations, infringing on constitutional rights, or attempting to police what Americans should think,” the report said.

Last February, a Patriot Front member, Joffre Cross, was arrested on gun charges in Houston. At a probable cause hearing, authorities said they got on to Cross through phone records belonging to a white supremacist in Texas who was convicted on assault charges this year.

Cross, 33, fits what experts see as another familiar profile for potentially violent white supremacists: a former Army soldier whose association with white supremacists dates back to his active-duty days. Disaffected former soldiers are a prime recruiting target for white hate groups, prized for their gun and bomb training and their possible access to weapons. Cross, while on active duty, was convicted on drug charges and imprisoned for five years. As part of the investigation, the authorities developed information that he was eager to secure weapons for white supremacist groups.

Cross, who has pleaded not guilty, was charged with felony weapons possession after police found guns and body armor in his home.

“If you don’t know me,” Cross once posted on Instagram, “consider this your trigger warning.” Cross and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Cross is a regular participant on the Russian social media platform VK, whose terms of service about extremist content are not strictly enforced. His posts are rife with Nazi videos, Holocaust denial material and white supremacists beating protesters.

One post reads: “Help more bees; plant more trees; save the seas; shoot refugees.”

In the Patriot Front chats, Cross continued to post even after his arrest.

“We have to build a foundation that can weather any storm, anything they throw at us,” he wrote last April. “We just have to keep pushing.”

“In the Aggregate They Are Disturbing”

It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 2019 when 20 or so masked members of Patriot Front made their way onto a corner of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They set off flares and smoke devices, delivered a short speech using a megaphone and fled. The police report said it lasted all of three minutes.

Blakely Lord, a high school English teacher, managed to capture the incident on video. In brief, she called the episode “profoundly disturbing.”

“I chose to film because you feel helpless,” Lord said. “I’m a dumpy middle-aged English teacher. I’m not going to get out my sword and face them down.”

She added, “I do think it’s a narrative people need to be thinking about: these little incidents may seem unimportant, but in the aggregate they are disturbing.”

Such disturbances—masked flash mobs, defacing property, distributing propaganda—are the day-to-day work of Patriot Front. Screaming outside an anarchist book fair in Texas. Plastering stickers across multiple store fronts on a busy block in Denver. Parading with flares at night in a public park in Boston. Posting an “America First” sticker at a gay pride center in Vermont. All in the last year.

Members give one another tips about where to place posters and stickers legally, and they urge one another to wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. But in practice, Patriot Front members frequently target storefronts or places of worship, which is vandalism. Additionally, many colleges and universities, another favorite target for postering, prohibit flyers from nonstudent groups. White supremacists see campuses as a strategic location for flyering: a place to recruit potential members while attracting press coverage to amplify their propaganda.

In Columbus, Georgia, three months ago, two Patriot Front members posted flyers on and around a local synagogue, Temple Israel. “Reclaim America,” read one. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of victory,” read another. And the address of Patriot Front’s website was printed at the bottom of the flyers. The temple’s leadership became aware of Patriot Front’s history and said it was clear the synagogue and its members were targeted because of their faith.

“To me, the sinister aspect is this particular group disguises themselves as patriots, Tiffany Broda, the temple’s president, told the Ledger-Enquirer last July. “Yet they are a hate group, a nationally recognized hate group. And though we don’t want to give them publicity, we think that it’s important to bring this out of the shadows.”

“Jews have been a part of Columbus almost since the founding of our city, which is almost 200 years ago,” Rabbi Beth Schwartz added. “We will remain vigilant as a congregation, vigilant as a Jewish community. We don’t hide our heads in fear.”

Patriot Front members make clear in their chats that such actions—almost always recorded by one of the masked members—have multiple aims: to frighten, to provide material for their own propaganda efforts on social media, and to recruit. The drive to recruit might help explain why college campuses are Patriot Front’s most common targets.

Late last month, Patriot Front launched what it claimed were coordinated actions to distribute flyers and stickers and posters at more than 100 campuses across the country. The group posted on Twitter what it said was evidence of success at 90 schools.

Michael Loadenthal, a visiting professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio, said Patriot Front had recently been targeting the school.

“Fascists having a public presence is organizing; this is recruitment,” Loadenthal said, adding that the simple idea that “white supremacists are individually radicalized people in their basement at home is wrong.”

“They are a network,” he said. “No particular node is dangerous until they are.”

Simi, the professor in California, said Patriot Front had hit the campus of Chapman University three times in a single month recently. The school, he said, had set up a permanent conference dealing with the nation’s southern border, and Patriot Front had singled out posted materials related to the conference to be defaced or covered up.

“People on the campus get intimidated,” Simi said.

He said the school had to add security cameras and police protection.

“This is part of their strategy,” Simi said of Patriot Front. “These are things they want to happen.”

Thalia Beaty and Lucas Waldron contributed to this report.

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