Press play to listen to this article
When Lukas F. walks onto the site of an abandoned army barracks in the summer of 2021 as part of his training to be a terrorist, he is 16 years old, a slender boy with dark hair.
The site is about 45 minutes from the center of Potsdam, a city just southwest of Berlin, Germany. Once it was used by the Wehrmacht, Germany’s regular armed forces during World War II; later by the Soviets. There are lakes close by, popular with swimmers.
A roar of thunder echoes across the yard, a fireball flashes. First one bomb goes off, then a second.
Lukas F. films the explosions on his mobile phone. Months before, he set up a group for young neo-Nazis from multiple countries who think they are fighting a “race war.” In their online chat, Lukas F. — a pseudonym used to protect his identity as a minor — describes these bombs as a test for the group.
Lukas F. is part of a network of young people from all over the world, teenagers who exchange far-right ideas, Nazi propaganda and videos of attacks and, in the process, egg one another on to the point where some of them come to believe they must take up arms against the liberal order.
There are dozens of groups like this, linked in an international network stretching from the west coast of the U.S., to Western Europe and the remotest corners of the Baltic states.
The groups give themselves martial names, inspired by the propaganda of the National Socialists. The most prominent among them in terms of membership calls itself the Feuerkrieg, or Fire War, Division (FKD). Lukas F. from Potsdam, now 17 years old, is not just a follower: he set up his own group, closely tied into the network and called it Totenwaffen, or Death Weapons.
Reporters from Welt am Sonntag, POLITICO and Insider spent more than a year investigating the inner workings of this far-right terrorist network. Using fake identities, they gained access to about two dozen of its chat groups, spoke with insiders and secured more than 98,000 messages, including photographs and videos. In the process, they also uncovered death lists, death threats against politicians and journalists, and instructions on how to make bombs and use 3D-printers to produce weapons parts.
In the course of this investigation, the editorial teams were able to identify the real names of some of the group members, including that of Lukas F., who concealed himself online behind changing pseudonyms. His case shows how teenagers as young as this can become so radicalized that they talk of committing murder. It also reveals the role played by the network in the background, and why the security services find it so difficult to break it up.
School trip to Sachsenhausen
According to sources in his circle, Lukas F. was born in Belarus. His mother is Belarusian, his father a Kazakh of German origin. The family moved to Potsdam when Lukas F. was a toddler; later, two more sons were born. Even now, Lukas F. still shares a bedroom with one of them in their parental home in an apartment block in the centre of Potsdam.
There are childhood photos of Lukas F. on the internet, uploaded by his relatives. Birthdays with plastic party beakers, a family holiday in Poland, proud grandparents. In one of these photos, Lukas F. is sitting on a military vehicle with one of his brothers and their father, and a source said that the family went to a firing range when on holiday in Belarus, with the boys being allowed to join in the shooting.
The family still has relatives in Belarus and there are indications that they have a house there, too. Lukas F. once wrote that he kept a gun there, which another person close to him said was an air rifle belonging to the family.
In Potsdam, Lukas F. attended a secondary school where, according to several of the staff, he was not known for his diligence. However, he did once volunteer as a guide for a school exhibition, they say. The exhibition was about right-wing extremism, and Lukas F.’s role was to talk visitors through a display board of far-right symbols.
Even at this early stage, according to a source, Lukas F. was often on his computer and spent a lot of time on Discord, a social platform for fans of video games. There, he and others of his ilk harassed gays and lesbians.
At the age of 15, Lukas F. went on a school trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The aim of such visits was to teach children about Nazi atrocities and the dangers of Nazi ideology. But, as his brother later tells the reporters, for Lukas F. the concentration camp visit was a turning point. When he got home, he changed the desktop image on his computer to a swastika.
Later, Lukas F. would write that he had first become aware of his “hatred” at the age of 14 or 15. “At first i doesn’t wanted [sic] it to be real that I’m a Nationalsocialist. But now I’m fighting for this.” In his chat group he describes the Holocaust as a “purge” and writes that he cannot understand how people can think it did not really happen: “It is real and it is right.”
At some point, Lukas F. creates a profile on a Russian social network. In his profile picture he is camouflaged, his face covered by a skull mask. At the top of his page he has written, “Cover the world in a bloodbath.” His parents are “friends” with him on this network, though there are no grounds to assume they share their son’s views. “Unfortunately, my father is a communist,” Lukas F. writes at one point.
The ideologue from the US
To understand what may be going on in the heads of young people like Lukas F., we need to cast our minds back a few years and to the other side of the Atlantic, to the US State of Colorado, home of James Mason, now 69. Mason joined an American Nazi party when he was just 14 years old. Two years later, he was making plans to murder his headteacher, although in the end he did not carry them out. In the network of which Lukas F. is a member, Mason’s book, Siege, is considered a must-read. For many young far-right extremists, it is more important even than Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
In his book, Mason calls for liberal society to be plunged into civil war. This does not require the creation of mass organisations, he writes: it just needs individual assassins or tiny cells to carry out attacks on infrastructure, politicians or members of minorities. This will result in chaos and prepare the ground for a far-right revolution.
Mason and his ideas have gained many followers in the last few years: groups, cells and individuals, in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Extremism researchers call this strategy “militant accelerationism.” Thomas Haldenwang, president of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told the reporters that the Siege scene is increasingly gaining ground in Germany, too. “Young people especially, some of them still minors, are becoming followers. It is no longer unusual to find minors advocating violence or even planning acts of violence themselves.”
The list of attacks linked to this ideology is growing by the year. It includes the mass-shooting at the Olympia shopping centre in Munich in 2016 and the 2019 attack on a synagogue and a kebab shop in Halle. The attackers are lionized as heroes in the network chats, and their victim counts are turned into a contest, with the one who kills the most being declared the winner.
Arms factory in the bedroom
In the summer of 2020, a few months after his visit to Sachsenhausen, Lukas F. leaves the Potsdam secondary school and begins an apprenticeship. In November 2020 he sets up a chat group on the Telegram messenger service and calls it Totenwaffen. Its members include a few like-minded individuals whom he met on the Discord and Roblox gaming platforms. Lukas F. becomes the group leader – its Führer.
Between November 2020 and May 2021, nearly 100 users post messages to the Totenwaffen group. They come from many different countries, including Estonia, France and the U.S., and chat with each other in English. They have given themselves names like Maschinengewehr [Machine Gun], Kriegsmann [Man of War] and Joseph Goebbels Gaming.
On Telegram, they face no restrictions when sharing images of hacked-off heads among the group’s members.
These teenagers have moved on from video games. Toward the end of November, Lukas F. writes: “I remember when I said lets [sic] make a real terrorist group out of it” and adds that more group members voted for the idea than against.”
That same day, a boy using the code name Edward posted a photo to the chat. It showed an MP40 submachine gun pointing towards a laminate floor. This was the standard weapon used by Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Lukas F’s response: “Nice.”
From his digital tracks, Edward can be identified as a neo-Nazi living in Romania. At the end of 2020 he is just 13 years old. For a while he seems to be a kind of best mate to Lukas F., a younger brother in spirit. He and a user from Poland calling himself “Gas Jews”, seemingly 11 years old, were among the first to join Lukas F.’s chat group. Later, Lukas F. will describe the Totenwaffen group as a “teenager organisation,” a kind of junior unit.
Soon, new members of the group are required to take an oath, swearing that they will obey the orders of the leadership. This does not take the form of a solemn ceremony by torchlight, but is just a simple chat message, copy and paste. The new members also have to state whether or not they have read Mason’s book, Siege. For those who have not, the audio version is shared in the chat. It is 22 hours and 33 minutes long.
Group members praise the far-right terrorist who shot dead 51 people in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in 2019: “Tarrant is a legend.”
They venerate Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who murdered 77 people in Oslo and on the holiday island of Utøya in 2011. One of them calls him a “saint.”
Two days after Edward posts his photo of the machine gun, his thoughts have turned to acquiring more weapons. He writes that he wants a 3D printer so he can print guns. Lukas F. suggests some models that would be suitable.
In a message posted in December 2020, Lukas F. makes it clear how far he himself is prepared to go: “I bet sometime I get so mad that I will place a bomb on the next location where Jewgela will do her speech.” He later clarifies that “Jewgela” refers to Angela Merkel, an anti-Semitic play on her first name.
In late February 2021, Lukas F. is making himself a uniform for a propaganda video he has been planning for months. He posts a series of photos in which he can be seen cutting a swastika from a piece of cardboard for use as a template. “Now i [sic] need to paint it,” he writes. There follows a photo of spray cans, and then one of a piece of red material with a white circle and a black swastika painted on it. That same day Lukas F. posts a photo of himself wearing the swastika as an armband in his bedroom in Potsdam.
One night in early March Lukas F. goes out spreading his propaganda in Potsdam. He puts up a poster with the words, “Rebel against the Jewish system.”
The Fire Warriors
To understand how this network of teenage terrorists works, we need look no further than Estonia.
In late 2018 a young boy living on the Estonian island of Saaremaa sets up a far-right group. He calls it Feuerkrieg Division and gives himself the alias “Commander.” He is just 11 years old. The group grows, with members all over the world.
These members, mostly teenagers and young men, chat about their murder fantasies, often in detail. The Feuerkrieg Division has been proven to be behind a long list of planned and attempted attacks worldwide:
U.S., 2019: Conor Climo, 23, is arrested in Las Vegas for plotting attacks on a synagogue and a gay bar. He is sentenced to two years in prison.
UK, 2019: Police arrest Paul Dunleavy, 16, after he tries to procure a gun. He has been planning terrorist attacks. He is sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
U.S., 2019: Jarett William Smith, a soldier from Kansas, is arrested for planning an attack on a news station. He is sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Lithuania, 2019: Gediminas Berzinskas, 20, is arrested in Vilnius after trying to blow up an office building. He is sentenced to two years and four months in prison.
UK, 2019: Luke Hunter, 21, incites terrorist attacks. He is sentenced to four years and two months in prison.
Germany, 2020: In the district of Cham special forces arrest Fabian D, a 22-year-old electrician, at his place of work, for trying to build an assault rifle for use in an attack, he is sentenced to two years in prison.
All these young men were members of the Feuerkrieg Division, which has been classified as a serious threat by security forces worldwide. In the UK it was classified as a terrorist group in 2020, and other countries have followed suit. It also featured in the latest annual report of the German Federal Agency for Internal Security.
The Feuerkrieg Division is Lukas F.’s main source of inspiration. He frequently refers to it in the Totenwaffen chat group. In March 2021, for example, he writes that the group needs its own logo and that it should be based on the Feuerkrieg Division one — a skull.
An unequal battle
For the state authorities this is not a battle on equal terms. Groups disappear, only to pop up again. Group names and aliases are re-used. The connections between group members are less the product of rigid organisation than of shared ideology. The strength of the network lies in the fact that it is not a fixed group but simply a loose collection of individuals who can be based anywhere in the world. All they need is a computer, a mobile phone and a bedroom. And all they have in common is their ideology and their hatred: hatred of Jews, hatred of politicians, hatred of journalists.
According to the European law enforcement agency, Europol, it is this shift from a clear hierarchy to a loose collection of individuals that makes it so difficult to prosecute these groups: “In these complex situations we have to deal with individuals, since one or two individuals acting on their own initiative can pose a real threat.”
Miro Dittrich is an expert in far-right terrorism at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy in Berlin, which systematically monitors far-right communications on Telegram. He said it took years for the authorities to start taking digital spaces seriously and that, even now, there is a lack of law enforcement. This has allowed a far-right terrorist sub-culture to develop there unhindered — a sub-culture easily accessed by minors. “Young people are starting to become radicalized much earlier,” he says. “By the age of 14 or 15 they have often already reached the end of a spiral of hatred.” The strategy of loosely connected cells and lone wolf attackers proposed by James Mason can be easily implemented by teenagers.
In democracies, there is also the issue of the age of criminal responsibility: the Estonian authorities were not able to prosecute the young “Commander” of the Feuerkrieg Division (FKD) because he was only 13. In February 2020, after police paid the boy a visit, the FKD announced its dissolution.
A year later, however, it turned up again, both in propaganda posters and flyers and on Telegram. It now had a new leader, another teenager from Estonia, still using the “Commander” alias. Everyone is replaceable.
The Iron Order
At 5:45 a.m. on 8 May 2021, Lukas F. writes in his group that he has just been out on patrol. He shares some photos of Totenwaffen propaganda posters that he has been putting up. One of them consists of a list of names: Jewish activists campaigning for transgender rights. Above it are the words, “Death to.”
He has hung one of these posters outside his old school, which he left about a year earlier. Next morning, when staff discover the poster, they report it and the police come. Now the police have a file on the Totenwaffen group, but it seems they do not know at this stage that it was Lukas F. who set it up.
Less than two weeks later, Lukas F. has a quantity of chemicals delivered to his parental home in Potsdam: a kilo of sulphur, 250 grams of magnesium powder and similar, purchased for less than 60 euros on Amazon. These are the chemicals that he will use to make the bombs he later tests at the abandoned army site.
A few days after Lukas F. posts the photos of his chemicals in the Totenwaffen chat, he announces a new coalition: “I’m happy to have Feuerkrieg Division on our side, Sieg Heil to our alliance!”
But there is more: the new “Commander” of the FKD is a member of the Totenwaffen group, and our investigations have revealed that he was in direct contact with Lukas F.
At the time in question, the FKD was creating a kind of terrorist umbrella organisation under the name “Iron Order.” An internal document from 2021, seen by the reporters carrying out this investigation, includes the logos of eleven groups that had signed up. They describe themselves as a “National Socialist coalition”.
One of them is Lukas F.’s Totenwaffen.
Many members of the groups in the Iron Order are active in multiple chat groups; it is a loose network and the boundaries are blurred. Lukas F., for example, also posts to the Inject Division, another member of the coalition. Inject Division was set up by a Texan who was arrested in May 2021 for planning a terror attack on a Walmart store.
Later, Lukas F. starts thinking about how he, too, can acquire a firearm. An arms dealer has sent him photos of two guns and he posts them to the chat.
“First or second?” he asks.
“If you get the first one, get some spare magazines too,” writes Edward.
In the summer of 2021, Brandenburg police get a tip-off from another authority. Shortly afterwards, officers search the family apartment and seize Lukas F.’s laptop and mobile phone, along with a Nazi Party flag and chemicals apparently left over from his bomb-making experiment.
The officers take Lukas F. to the police station, question him and let him go.
The seizure of his devices means that Lukas F. is no longer able to access his chat groups. Edward replaces him as head of the Totenwaffen. In the autumn of 2021 he, too, disappears — followed by the rest of the group. A rumor goes around the various far-right chat rooms that Edward’s mother has simply taken his mobile phone away.
The investigations then drag on for months. The reporters’ research shows that, at the time of writing, police have still not secured any evidence from the site where Lukas F. set off his bombs. One of the bombs shattered a concrete base into pieces that are still there. And the school to which Lukas F. returned one night was never warned of the potential danger by police, even though the far-right scene has produced several school attackers.
Last August, for example, a 15-year-old at a school in the Swedish town of Eslöv knifed a teacher in the stomach. In January this year a 16-year-old boy injured a teacher and a fellow student at a school in Kristianstad, in the south of Sweden, again with a knife. The two teenagers were in contact with each other — and documents from the Swedish investigations show that they moved in the same kind of circles as Lukas F. Both masked themselves with tube scarves on which lower jaws were printed. This mask is used by many members of the network around Lukas F. and the wider scene. It is both an identifier and a concealer of the wearer’s identity.
A response to an enquiry from a Left Party member of the Bundestag, Martina Renner, revealed that the German Federal Republic’s Joint Extremism and Terrorism Prevention Centre, which includes the intelligence services and the police, discussed the Totenwaffen group four times last year and again repeatedly in 2022. The content of those discussions was strictly confidential.
The investigations carried out by the Brandenburg authorities have not as yet produced any results.
There have been arrests elsewhere, however: according to an Estonian intelligence report, two young men linked to the Feuerkrieg Division were arrested in the Baltic nation in October 2021. Information acquired by the reporters reveals that one of them is the second “Commander.” Two Americans then take the group over, and a Dutchman sets up a splinter group with the same name.
In late December 2021, when the investigations are still ongoing, Lukas F. turns up in the network chat groups again. He is trying to make contact with the Feuerkrieg Division, and wants to be admitted to an internal chat. The reporters have seen a private message he sent at that time to a trusted associate: “I had and still have big plans for Totenwaffen.”
In early 2022 Lukas F.’s mobile phone and laptop are returned to him.
The Brandenburg authorities involved in the investigation refuse to answer the reporters’ questions about all this. “The press’s right to information,” writes the local prosecutor general, “is limited by the interests of the persons in question, which take precedence and are entitled to protection.”
In March 2022 the reporters contact Lukas F. He writes that he does not want a face-to-face meeting but that the reporters can text him their questions.
So messages go back and forth, first for a whole day, then over several weeks. He writes that he cooperated with the police when they searched his home and that he “unfortunately” gave them his passwords — “because my mother was putting pressure on me.” But at least he now knows how to “hide from the government”, he writes.
He does not hide very successfully, however: in April he orders a copy of the 35,000-word manifesto of Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” who sent at least 16 parcel bombs in the U.S. between 1978 and 1995, killing three people. That same month, Lukas F. leaves a review of the manifesto online … using his full name.
The public prosecutor’s office in Brandenburg is still investigating him at this point, but does nothing. In their view, he does not pose an imminent threat.
In his texts to the reporters, Lukas F. writes: “I was prepared to do a lot.”
Has he changed since then?
Asked why he still posts to the old chats, he replies, “I know a few of the people, they’re very nice, I like them.” He writes that he is a “nationalist.” He writes that he might give legal activism a try, maybe join a party. But first he’ll have to find a foothold. He writes that he has always had to sort everything out by himself: he even made his police statement without a lawyer present.
What if he is charged?
“Then I’m screwed.”
More recently, there has been some movement among international investigative authorities: shortly before Easter 2022 a 15-year-old was arrested in Denmark, accused of being a member of the Feuerkrieg Division. Around the same time, several key players in the network disappeared and propaganda channels fell silent. Since then, there has been a little less activity in many of the chats. People in the movement assume that several of their comrades were all arrested at the same time, in the U.S., in the Netherlands.
But new groups have long since been set up.
At the end of May this year, the reporters ring the doorbell of a flat on the eighth floor of an apartment block in the centre of Potsdam. The door is opened by Lukas F.’s parents. His mother is a petite woman who smiles a lot but says little. His father is wearing a sports brand t-shirt and does all the talking, demanding to know who these people are and why they have turned up unannounced.
The reporters tell him they know about the police search from the chats. And that they want to speak with Lukas.
“We’re already having a conversation,” said his father, “but okay” — and he disappears inside the flat. A moment later Lukas F. appears at the door. He is now 17 years old, thin, almost lanky. His eyes are cast downwards, his dark hair comes down to his ears.
“Not interested,” he said, and slams the door shut. Afterwards he texts the reporters, telling them never to come back.
His parents do not say anything that day either. Later they write to refuse the reporters’ request for a meeting, though they do answer a few questions by text. In these replies Lukas’s father said his son is a victim of puberty and of circumstances. He minimizes: “He’s never harmed anyone.” Lukas’s mother replies in Russian, saying she is shocked, horrified and does not understand how all this can be happening.
Several family members tell us there had been an argument earlier that day, and that the father had thrown away Lukas’s Nazi literature, including Mein Kampf, saying it was making him stupid.
In early June, the Brandenburg authorities take action. A special police unit arrests Lukas F. in his parents’ flat. He is now in prison somewhere in Märkisch-Oderland. The state security service has classified him as dangerous, someone who poses a real threat to the public. Officials are still investigating. They suspect him of having been preparing a “serious act of violence against the state”: a terrorist attack, in other words.
Shortly afterwards, the reporters write to Lukas F. in prison, offering him another chance to comment. Their letter remains unanswered.
In recent months a new band of far-right teenagers has formed in Brandenburg. Their base is an abandoned house to which they have acquired access. They greet each other by forming the fingers of their right hands into an L and shouting, “Free L”: Freedom for Lukas.
This investigation is the result of a journalistic collaboration between reporters from POLITICO, Insider and Welt am Sonntag, working together as Axel Springer Investigations. The reporters used fake identities to infiltrate the network. They also spoke to insiders, scientists, terrorism experts, intelligence services, security authorities and leading figures in the network, and their families.
This story has been translated from the original German by Paula Kirby and edited by POLITICO.