This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
After a string of sweeping indictments and arrests, court documents have illustrated how the neo-Nazi terror group The Base discussed derailing trains and plotted the assassinations of anti-fascist activists in the United States.
But the group also had international ambitions. The Base and its leader wanted to form concrete links between Ukrainian ultra-nationalist military units and the global neo-Nazi movement.
And one American connected to The Base had already traveled to the war-torn country in search of wartime experience, VICE has learned.
Matthew Ryan Burchfield, a 20-year-old Virginia native, went to Ukraine in the fall of 2019. The affiliate of The Base was seeking to join the conflict in Donbas, multiple confidential sources, online records, social media accounts, and his own admission confirm.
It’s an absurd story, involving a young man who by his own account went from participating in an accelerationist group chat to ending up in Ukraine, where Russian-backed paramilitaries are fighting neo-Nazi factions and the regular military, as part of a quest to lead “a normal life.” It’s also yet more evidence that terrorism analysts are right to be concerned that the war in Ukraine is becoming an international insurgent hotbed, drawing in members of American neo-Nazi groups like The Base and sending out radicalized soldiers.
In much the same way jihadist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda have exploited wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to transform their extremist movements into violent, global insurections against world governments, Ukraine is serving as a training ground for the extremist right. Foreign travelers have already gotten involved in the nearly six-year-old conflict by joining Ukrainian military units like Azov Battalion and Right Sector. Both organizations have known ties to an international network of neo-Nazis and active positions on the frontlines of the war in eastern Ukraine.
The FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation into Burchfield.
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According to multiple sources familiar with his plans, Burchfield sought military training and war experience. After considering joining the U.S. armed forces, he traveled to Ukraine instead, looking to join a military unit through a contact.
Burchfield confirmed to VICE over Instagram direct message that he traveled to Ukraine intending to fight Russian separatists on the frontline of the war in the east in order to gain enough war experience for future private military contracting work. His display picture on the site is a photo of a nationalist lion statue in Lviv, Ukraine, a symbol some claim is linked to the Galician division of the Einsatzgruppen (SS) death squads.
Burchfield admitted he was “a part” of The Base and its encrypted chat room until sometime in November 2019. Throughout last year, he actively used an alias known to VICE to covertly communicate with other members of the terror group. As per its group procedures, Burchfield was vetted by senior members of The Base before he was allowed access to the chat room.
He denounced the leader of The Base, known pseudonymously as Norman Spear, after a recent story in The Guardian exposed Spear as a 46-year-old New Jersey native named Rinaldo Nazzaro, currently believed to be based in Russia.
“I do not support any group or people rooted in the dictatorial regime of the Russian Federation,” Burchfield told VICE. “I completely disavow ‘Norman Spear’ and anyone else that supports the Russian state,” adding that he didn’t travel to Ukraine with the help or for The Base. Burchfield now claims to be in Slovakia following the expiration of his Ukrainian visa.
While Spear never publicly discussed his group’s connections to the war in Ukraine, he appeared on a neo-Nazi podcast in 2018 with an American believed to be connected to the the Azov Battalion and who encourages neo-Nazis to join the war in Ukraine. In the podcast, along with other topics, Spear and the host debate neo-Nazis undertaking lone wolf terrorist attacks.
VICE is aware that Spear thought the war in Ukraine could be used as a training ground for members of The Base, where fighters could gain war experience then return stateside, battle-hardened, and contribute to a homegrown insurgency.
When first contacted, Burchfield claimed that he wasn’t connected to The Base, then said he was "added to a chat with a loose group of survivalists/preppers" and that he "didn't even realize it was an organization." (The “survivalist and prepper” description is often used by Spear as a smokescreen to portray The Base as a legal organization, though internally members exchanged bomb-making manuals, discussed terror attacks, and organized paramilitary training.)
In his latest response to VICE he admitted to his involvement with The Base, but downplayed his participation in the terror group. Burchfield claimed he stayed in the group for up to six months, out of fear for his life and the lives of his family members following his identity being doxed and known to The Base after a May 2019 post by Atlanta Antifa.
According to his ex-girlfriend, Georgia resident Arieana Love, who shared texts with VICE, Burchfield traveled to Ukraine looking for war and was a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who advocated for a white ethno-state—a key pillar to the ideology The Base espouses.
His presence in Ukraine was first reported by the North Carolinan alt-weekly, Triad City Beat, in an extensive feature about the connections between American neo-Nazi hate groups and Ukrainian militants. His affiliation to The Base was then unknown.
“It’s not an excuse, but it’s how things are, I was a young kid without a lot of life experience when I first got into all this. My doxing article back in America effectively ruined my ability to secure jobs and have a normal life,” he told VICE. “So I decided to go elsewhere (Ukraine) to have that normal life, I just wanted my family back home safe before I did. I was and still am a young kid who’s made poor choices in affiliations, and I’m actively working to move past that.”
It isn’t known exactly what Burchfield did in Ukraine. In an interview with Triad City Beat, he told the paper he was there as a food tourist. Burchfield told VICE, after extensive and misleading exchanges, that he did travel to the country with the intention of going to war, but that after the 2019 Normandy Summit—peace talks held in France between Russia and Ukraine—his plans in the country changed. He maintained that he intended to join the cause in Ukraine through “legal channels to serve in the war effort.”
Mollie Saltskog, an intelligence analyst at the Soufan Center, a non-profit terrorism watchdog, said the connections between The Base and the war in Ukraine is yet another harbinger of a global problem.
“The conflict in eastern Ukraine is to the white supremacists what Afghanistan was to the Salafi-jihadists in the 80’s and 90’s,” said Saltskog. “Remember, al-Qaeda, for which the English translation is ‘The Base,’ was born out of the conflict in Afghanistan.”
Saltskog says the threat of returning foreign fighters, affiliated to groups like The Base, presents a particularly frightening risk to national security. Counterterrorism experts hold similar fears for ISIS returnees who may come home undetected from recent wars in Iraq and Syria, battle-hardened with new tradecraft to share.
“Traveling to Ukraine allows American neo-Nazis to gain actual combat experience to bring back home,” she said. “They can then instruct others and use their skills to orchestrate violence and terrorist activities in the Homeland.”
Other open-source information points to Burchfield’s connections to The Base.
Digital breadcrumbs link Burchfield’s online activities under the alias “Alpers” to another member of The Base, Luke Austin Lane. Lane, whose online name is “The Militant Buddhist,” is now facing serious criminal charges, along with two other members of the terror group, for a plot to assassinate anti-fascist activists in Georgia.
Through archival web caches, first outlined by Atlanta Antifa, Burchfield and Lane openly appear on an extremist white-nationalist website founded by one of the senior members of The Base in 2018, who goes by the alias “Mathias.” A profile that uses the same alias as Burchfield's Steam username, outlined how he felt he could learn from his fellow neo-Nazis.
“I hope by being here I can engage with other fascists and improve my understanding of the worldview, and also improve myself in other ways in the presence of like minded comrades,” the post read.