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'Verified' podcast investigates the extremism network that unites Jan. 6 actors

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So far, more than 760 people have been charged in connection with the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol aimed at overthrowing the 2020 election. And so far, it seems like a motley crew with a variety of agendas. But they had one thing in common - a willingness to embrace violent extremism and a tolerance for hate symbols of the past like swastikas and Confederate flags. But a new investigative podcast says that's not an accident. These individuals and groups are influenced by - and in some cases connected to - violent, far-right movements in Europe, which is itself part of a global movement animated by white supremacy.

The series is called "Verified: The Next Threat," and it describes how disparate groups are coming together across borders in an effort to promote its goal of white Christian rule. It's hosted by investigative journalist Natasha Del Toro. Along with her colleague, Mark Greenblatt, she spent more than a year reporting this story. When we spoke, I asked her to explain the philosophy that drives this movement.

NATASHA DEL TORO: The idea is really to try to unify in a fight for white power. The leader of this movement that we talked to - and when I say movement, I'm not saying that there's only one movement. There are a lot of disparate groups. But we were able to connect with a known - somebody who's a known terrorist in the United States, who is the leader of an organization called RIM, which is the Russian Imperial Movement, the first and only white supremacist organization that's been designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department. And we talked to him. And he paints - we had an exclusive interview with this - the leader.

His name is Stanislav Vorobyev. And what he does is he paints this picture of the world he wants to see, which is one in which white people, white Christians specifically, rule. It's going back to a time of the Russian czars. And you might think, well, what does this have anything to do with me? Well, you know, what they're doing is reaching out to other people and groups across the world, finding like-minded people in Spain and in different parts of Europe and in the United States, and they're linking up.

MARTIN: So - but there's only one in the United States, and why is that? Is that because of First Amendment protections that people are allowed to associate with each other?

DEL TORO: So the main reason for that is because we don't - there's no statute to label domestic terrorists. That's the - so we treat international terrorists differently than we do domestic terrorists in the United States. Canada has designated, for example, the Proud Boys as terrorists. There's other countries that have designated some of the groups that we have right here as terrorist organizations. But in the United States, we don't have the tools to to do that.

MARTIN: Well, tell me more about this Russian group because I think that this is the one group that's designated as a terrorist organization in the United States.

DEL TORO: The only one, right.

MARTIN: So tell me more about this group. And for those who do say, OK, well, so this - Russian guy and, you know, he's doing his thing, and what does this have to do with us? What does this have to do - tell me more about this group. And what does this have to do with these organizations that are operating in the United States?

DEL TORO: The reason why they're designated terrorists is because they are global connectors of white nationalists all around the world. So the Russian Imperial Movement has held paramilitary training camps, and there have been terrorists from other groups that have trained at those camps and then gone on to bomb refugee centers. So that's the reason why the Russian Imperial Movement was designated. One could argue that other groups should be designated as well, but that's another question. That's a question for another podcast. But this guy, he has now recently, in the last few years, decided to launch a campaign called The Last Crusade.

And this campaign is him linking up with other people in other countries who are also white nationalists, in what they are saying is a global fight for white Christian rule. That's what they want to bring back. And, you know, I don't know if your listeners remember learning about the crusades when they were in college or high school, but it was a war fought over a long time. It was Christians versus trying to drive out the infidels, right? And the "infidels" - in quotations, in this case - means Jewish people, Muslims, anybody that's different from, you know, white Christians.

MARTIN: You interviewed the - a member of the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism. What did they say to you?

DEL TORO: They're also, I mean - this is a huge challenge for them because they don't really have the right tools to go after - this is what they say, that they don't really have the tools to go after some of these individuals, that they can only act after the fact, after violence has been committed, which is also really troubling. They kept telling us that, you know, they have to juggle freedom of speech protections with protecting the public. And so they haven't quite figured out a way to appropriately deal with domestic terrorists.

MARTIN: So before I let you go, is there anything else you wanted to tell us about what this - working on the series was like for you? I mean, you've - in the course of your career and also your colleagues who also worked on the series, I mean, they've dealt with some disturbing material in their time, right? And I'm just wondering about - what about this project struck you?

DEL TORO: Oh, this project, thank you for asking. This project was really hard to report. I mean, it took us more than a year. It's not easy material. I had lots of nightmares about neo-Nazis and about violence while I was reporting it. But it's stuff that we can't turn away from. When we are vulnerable, our enemies want to attack us, right? So that's just something to keep in mind. We have to - I think what I've learned through this reporting is that we really have to stay vigilant, and we really need to talk about these issues. And hopefully, when people listen to this podcast, it will spark much-needed conversations.

MARTIN: That was Natasha Del Toro. She hosts the investigative podcast series "Verified: The Next Threat." You can listen to it now wherever you get your podcasts. Natasha Del Toro, thank you so much for joining us.

DEL TORO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.