The three men in Virginia wanted to start a race war.
They planned to rob a jewelry store and use the money to stockpile guns, ammo and explosives. Then they would charge into churches and synagogues, slaughtering as many people as possible in the name of their religion.
The man in Kansas wanted to kill as many Jewish people as possible. So he drove to two Jewish centers, where he shot and killed three people, all of them Christians. He told the court that sentenced him to death that he had mistaken his victims for Jews.
“I wanted to kill Jews, not people,” he said.
Across the country in Spokane, Washington, another man plotted to kill President Barack Obama. Prosecutors say he planned a “final solution,” a battle that would ultimately be won by stealing nuclear material for dirty bombs or flying hijacked airplanes into buildings.
These men, and possibly thousands more like them across the United States, share a common religious ideology.
They’re white supremacists who have turned to an ancient heathen religion known most commonly as Odinism. In at least six cases since 2001, professed racist Odinists have been convicted of plotting – or pulling off – domestic terrorism attacks, according to a review of terrorism cases by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
And across the Atlantic, the man who carried out the 2011 mass murders at a summer camp in Oslo, Norway, Anders Breivik, has attracted new attention after telling a court he long has identified as an Odinist.
Odinism is a perfect fit for a strain of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who think Christianity, like so many other institutions, has been corrupted by outsiders and weakened by passivity.
Today’s racist Odinists say it is the only pure religion for white people, one not “mongrelized” by the Jewish prophet Jesus. They see themselves as warriors, ready to reclaim America for the white race and fight against a white genocide, driven by Jews, that has left the greatest country on Earth in tatters.
“Odinism is undergoing a renaissance,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Now is a great time for Odinism because it fits into this historical narrative about European cultural greatness and a connection between whiteness and nationality.”
Odinists worship ancient Norse gods such as Thor and Odin. They typically wear pendants of Thor’s hammer around their necks and meet for rituals in the woods, where they drink mead from a communal horn, read ancient poetry and occasionally slaughter animals in sacrifice to the gods.
For many white supremacists, Odinism’s motifs of revenge and action resonate far more than the values of Christianity, which was once their religion of choice. They believe they are fighting a battle against white genocide, and “love thy neighbor” just seems weak next to a religion that rewards warriors for fighting and dying for their noble cause.
“Turning the other cheek and it’s all going to be OK, that isn’t the answer a lot of people who are turning to Odinism are looking for,” said Daniel Burnside, a white supremacist Odinist from Potter County, Pennsylvania, who is raising his seven children in the religion. “They’re looking for the idea of, do you want to be the nail, or do you want to be the hammer?”
Odinism was spread in the U.S. throughout the ’70s and ’80s by devotees, including Else Christensen, a Danish immigrant who traveled America setting up Odinist groups in prisons. She preached that America will never become strong again until it regains its national and racial pride, and that the only cure for America’s “spiritual sickness” is Odinism.
Just as the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims or 2.2 billion Christians reject hate, only a tiny sliver of adherents to heathen religions such as Odinism subscribe to a white supremacist worldview. Nonetheless, racist, far-right domestic terrorists have accounted for a significant portion of the terrorist attacks across America in the last few decades, and experts warn that these groups are flourishing in 2017’s divided America.
‘You don’t see an Odinist church – but it’s really prevalent’
Downtown Centralia, Illinois, a once-thriving coal mining town, lies all but abandoned. Rain pelts against the windows of shuttered discount stores and soaks a mural of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe on the wall of the long-closed J.D.’s Music Emporium.
In the dimly lit den of a ramshackle, half-painted house in town, Brandon Lashbrook raises the drinking horn toward the large banners stretched across the walls. One bears the logo of the Nazi party, black and red in the gloom. The other is a huge portrait of Adolf Hitler.
“I raise this horn to Wotan, for wisdom,” he says, using an alternate Germanic name for the god Odin. “Hailsa.”
“Hailsa,” repeats the small group of worshippers.
Lashbrook takes a swig from the horn.
He is just one of at least hundreds of Odinists across America who participate in these regular rituals, known as “blots.” The 34-year-old primarily uses Facebook to bring together the like-minded at blots like this one at his house in late April.
Lashbrook, who first attended a Ku Klux Klan rally at the age of 8, says Odinism really clicked for him after he came to believe that the Holocaust was a lie. A religion of and for the white race was what he had been desperately searching for for years, he said.
“Races just don’t really mix well, especially if whites are the minority among other racial groups – if we’re under attack or we’re threatened. It just doesn’t ever work in our favor,” he said.
Lashbrook has watched his town crumble around him. He scrapes together a living selling Odinist pendants and “occult goods” like satanic bibles through a website and on Facebook. And he’s heavily involved with the white supremacist political party the National Socialist Movement.
Lashbrook says he has found true meaning and belonging in this ancient Nordic religion. After toying with occultism and satanism, he landed on Odinism, which offers heavenly rewards for action over passivity.
“We have to be prepared to fight. We need to study martial arts, weight train. We need to be prepared and unified, and ready to defend ourselves, and continue to tell society the truth, and help more souls find their way out of hell and back to Midgard,” Lashbrook said, using an ancient term for Earth. “That way they’ll unite and understand the threat that we face. It will always be honorable to die in battle.”
Despite the amount of media coverage they get, terrorist attacks in America are actually pretty rare. New America, a nonpartisan think tank, lists a total of 154 people killed by terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11, an average of about 10 a year.
A 2015 poll of law enforcement officers from across the country found that U.S. agencies “consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”
Any belief system that drives people to consider killing innocent civilians should be high on the minds of law enforcement, said Lowell Smith, a former probation officer who spent 15 years working with white supremacists across America.
Just because that religion isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean that the next terrorist isn’t out there plotting an attack in the name of an obscure god.
“It only takes one of these guys,” Smith said. “It only takes one.”
‘Praise Odin, pass the ammunition’
Frazier Glenn Miller needed a new way to connect with other white men.
He had tried launching white supremacist magazines, but they soon flopped. The local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan he had founded had fallen apart. And he’d been ostracized from the movement for ratting out some fellow white supremacists to get himself an easy prison sentence.
Frustrated and in need of venting, Miller wrote a rambling autobiography called “A White Man Speaks Out.” In it, he tested a fresh appeal to the community that had shunned him. He pledged his hatred to a new god: Odin, the ancient Norse god of war and death.
“Odin! Odin! Odin! Was the battle cry of our ancestors; their light eyes ablaze with the glare of the predator,” Miller writes in his screed. “And Valhalla does not accept Negroes. There’s a sign over the pearly gates there which reads, ‘Whites only.’ Oh, Glory day!”
Not many people bought or read Miller’s book when it was self-published in 1999. But his writings took on new meaning on April 13, 2014.
On that day, Miller packed two shotguns, a rifle, a pistol and a bottle of whisky in a paper bag, with a note saying: “do not drink til mission accomplished.” Then he drove to two suburban Kansas Jewish centers, where he shot and killed three people, including a 14-year-old boy.
Just as terrorists who kill in the name of Allah often haven’t visited a mosque in years, there’s little evidence Miller was a practicing Odinist. He didn’t have much contact with anybody for months before his rampage, and at his 11-day trial he ranted about everything from Christianity to Hitler, without zeroing in on Odinism as his inspiration.
“He was all over the place,” his defense lawyer said.
But the numerous, overt references to Odinism in Miller’s autobiography speak to his attraction to this ancient religion. And Miller’s own words, years before his deadly attack, offer a chilling look at the toxic brew of influences building inside him.
“Praise Odin, pass the ammunition, Seig (sic) Heil, and Heil Hitler!” Miller writes in the very last line of his book.
President Donald Trump has had no qualms linking terrorism to religion – but so far he has focused on only one.
Trump has broken with his predecessor by explicitly calling some terrorist acts “radical Islamic extremism.” And he has set his sights squarely on eradicating radical Islamism, whether at home or abroad.
Targeting and investigating just one religion – Islam – at the expense of others that are inspiring hate in America would be a grave mistake, several terrorism experts said. Just as a tiny faction of extremists has twisted Islam to inspire terrorists to go out and kill people, strains of Odinism are driving American terrorists to wage their own form of jihad.
“What this stuff does is it puts those people on steroids,” said Stuart Wexler, an expert on the religious roots of domestic terrorism. “Maybe they’d be willing to put a swastika on a synagogue, but the religion puts them in a place where they’d be willing to blow the synagogue up.”
And it’s not just America.
Norway’s worst-ever mass shooting, the 2011 slaughter of 77 young men and women by Anders Breivik, was pledged to the Nordic gods.
In his trial, Breivik told the court that he named his rifle “Gungnir” after Odin’s magical spear. His handgun was named “Mjolnir,” for Thor’s hammer, and his car was named “Schleipnid” after Odin’s eight-legged horse.
“I’m an Odinist, I believe in the only god, Odin,” Breivik said during a recent trial related to his treatment in prison.
Breivik said he had been an Odinist for years and had never truly believed in Christianity, a theme he expanded on in a letter to a Norwegian newspaper: “There are few things in the world more pathetic than the Jesus figure and his message, and I have always despised the weakness and the internationalism that the church represents.”
‘A living expression of our true gods’
Leo Felton wasn’t your average white supremacist.
For starters, he’s biracial, the son of a white mother and a black father.
Imprisoned at 20 for almost killing a Cuban-American taxi driver in an assault in New York City, Felton was a confused and violent young man. That violence only crystallized in prison. His three-year sentence became 11 years after he stabbed two inmates, almost killing one.
Within prison walls, Felton’s high intellect (he claims to have an IQ of over 130 and to have been a member of Mensa) drove him to books. He had gone to prison a Catholic, but on the inside, he hooked up with fellow white supremacists and met dozens of Odinists. In phone interviews from federal prison, he said he found some of the Odinists he met smart, engaging and, above all, committed, ready to die for their cause.
They told him who to study and what to read.
He dug into the ancient Nordic poetic texts known as the “Eddas,” and found them thrilling and inspiring. He read and re-read “Imperium,” the 1940s screed by the anti-Semitic philosopher Francis Parker Yockey that has inspired legions of white supremacists. He subscribed to Odinist magazines and joined a loose-knit group of Odinists who called themselves the “White Order of Thule.”
“There are very nationalistic things that inhere in the religion: ideas of land, of homeland, obviously of race and the political implications of race,” Felton said. “It’s tailor-made for radicalization.”
Stripped by the prison system of any sense of worth or ability to contribute meaningfully to society, Felton said he, like so many prisoners before and after him, found new purpose in the cocktail of religious and philosophical hatred he was greedily drinking down.
Gradually, the Christian Gospels began to grow cold for Felton. But the poetic writings of Odinism vibrated within him, eventually catching fire.
Here was a religion that rewarded action over passivity. Here was a philosophy that understood that the world was being manipulated by Jews and overrun by amoral mixed-blood people with no self-control and no shame. This was a vision he could fight for and die for, to be rewarded in the great beer hall of Valhalla.
“I had come to prison as aimless as a leaf in the wind, but after ten years in, my reason for living had been chipped, filed and chiseled into razor-sharp relief,” he writes in his 2014 autobiography, “Beige: An Unlikely Trip Through America’s Racial Obsession.”
Felton began planning to unleash chaos upon his release.
It would be a short, triumphant taste of freedom, capped with an explosion of hatred and retribution. He planned to kill as many people as possible, with a final suicide mission at a high-profile Jewish organization.
“I would become a living expression of our true Gods, transmitting Their blessed rage into the mortal world, like an overcurrent that flows through a fuse, causing it to burn brighter than it ever has and at the same time, destroying it,” he wrote.
Released in 2001, Felton put his plans straight into action.
Needing cash, he printed rudimentary bills at home and traded them for real bills at convenience stores and dimly lit bars. With the help of a former prison buddy, he robbed a bank in Boston, using some of his proceeds to buy the first makings of a bomb – a 50-pound bag of ammonium nitrate and a coffee machine, whose entrails he gutted for a makeshift time-delayed fuse.
But Felton never had a chance to release his “blessed rage.”
A $20 bill he had faked was spotted by an off-duty police officer in a Boston Dunkin’ Donuts, and he and an accomplice were arrested. The feds charged him with the bank robbery and also with conspiracy, claiming he planned to bomb the Holocaust memorials in Washington, D.C., and Boston. He was sent down for 21 years and 10 months and is currently incarcerated in a high-security prison in Philadelphia.
While only a small minority end up manifesting their hatred as violence like Felton did, the threat of homegrown Odinist terrorists is more real than ever in today’s America, said Daryl Johnson, who spent six years as the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s a jihadist view,” he said. “Extremists tend to hijack these religions and these beliefs and adopt them into their worldview and use them for justification for carrying out violent attacks.”
For Felton, however, that jihad is a thing of the past. He became a white supremacist as a young man in prison, driven partly by anger and confusion about his own lineage and partly by the inherent segregation of the prison system. But a few years ago, after sending off for a DNA test and discovering that he was descended from the Yoruba, an ethnic group living in what is now southwestern Nigeria, he embraced his African lineage.
He now goes by Leo Olamidu.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Stephanie Rice.