RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Over the summer, a Canadian army reservist named Patrik Mathews slipped into the United States illegally and vanished into an underground network of violent white supremacists. This week, he surfaced. Mathews and two other men were charged yesterday in connection with their membership in a neo-Nazi group called The Base. The arrests may signal a change in how U.S. authorities are handling domestic extremism. NPR's Hannah Allam is here to explain why. Thanks for coming in.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: So first off, explain what this organization is, The Base.
ALLAM: Right. Well, it started out as an online gathering place for, really, the extreme of the extreme - neo-Nazis advocating violence in hopes of triggering a race war. It made a splash because a lot of people noted that the Arabic translation of The Base is al-Qaida. The first time I heard of this group, I was thinking, is this a hoax? Are they trolling us with the name? In 2018, VICE News reported that the group is moving from the online world to the physical world with these secret training camps. Then a Canadian newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press, noticed recruiting posters around town that said things like, protect your race. Join The Base. So a reporter there, Ryan Thorpe, goes undercover, infiltrates the group and says the recruiter who vetted him in person turned out to be Patrik Mathews. The newspaper published its report in August. And within three days, authorities say, Mathews crossed the border into the U.S. and went into hiding.
MARTIN: Do we know anything about the other two men who were arrested along with Mathews?
ALLAM: Not too much. The two Americans charged are 33-year-old Brian Lemley, Jr. - he'd served as a cavalry scout in the U.S. Army. The other is 19-year-old William Bilbrough IV. Prosecutors say those two also belong to The Base and that they drove 600 miles from Maryland to Michigan to pick Mathews up and to hide him all these months.
MARTIN: So do we know if these men are suspected in any actual acts of domestic terrorism, in any attacks?
ALLAM: Right. And, I mean, that's the interesting part. The charging papers don't mention actual violence. And that's notable because federal agencies get a lot of criticism for this by now well-documented disparity in how the justice system deals with Islamist extremists versus, say, far-right neo-Nazi extremists. People ask, why aren't you watching those chatrooms? Why aren't you infiltrating those groups? And the answer is typically there isn't a domestic terrorism statute, so there's a higher bar for making a case against a homegrown extremist. You know, being...
MARTIN: You could arrest a Islamic extremist member for just talking or inciting violence. And the same standard doesn't apply domestically.
ALLAM: In connection - right - in connection with a foreign terrorist group. Same standard doesn't apply. You know, agencies typically say, we don't police thoughts. We police actions. So we don't know what triggered this investigation. But authorities evidently thought that the violence they saw discussed by members of the base met the threshold. And I have to say the tactics used to build this case sound like the tactics used against jihadist groups like ISIS. You know, the movements were tracked, phone calls recorded, online chats monitored. Federal agents even staked out a gun range and say the suspects fired an assault rifle there.
MARTIN: OK. So this morning, there are actually new reports coming out about more arrests linked to this group, The Base. What can you tell us?
ALLAM: That's right. The Rome News-Tribune, a newspaper in North Georgia, is reporting this morning the arrests of three other men associated with The Base. Authorities say they're a part of a conspiracy to commit murder. But we don't have a lot of details. It's still developing. I think the case might even still be under seal. But it's certainly something I'll be watching. I think the timing is an important factor here, as well, to consider. On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, there's also a big pro-gun rally planned in Virginia. And authorities fear it's going to be a magnet for far-right extremists of all sorts. A law enforcement official told our colleague Ryan Lucas that the three men charged in Maryland had discussed going to Richmond. We don't know if authorities worried that the guys in Georgia also might try to go. Whether the timing is coincidental or not, a sweep of arrests like this days before the rally does send a message to extremists that the authorities are watching.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Hannah Allam, thank you.
ALLAM: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.