A swastika found at Temple Jacob in Hancock, Michigan, in 2019
A swastika found at Temple Jacob in Hancock, Michigan, in 2019. (Photo courtesy of David Holden)

Nessel, FBI snag the leader of The Base, which had targeted a congregation in the U.P.

State and federal authorities announced Thursday they had arrested and charged the leader and an “associate” of a Michigan-based neo-Nazi group that had previously been responsible for targeting a synagogue in the state with antisemitic graffiti.

A team of FBI agents arrested Justen Watkins, 25, of Bad Axe, the self-proclaimed leader of The Base, and Alfred Gorman, 35, of Taylor, during a pair of raids.

The Base says it seeks to impose a white ethnostate on the country. The group has a presence in the Upper Peninsula, where a member also spray-painted hateful messages on Temple Jacob, a congregation in Hancock, in September 2019.

The group is believed to have emerged in mid-2018, with member footprints reaching Maryland, Delaware and Georgia.

“Using tactics of intimidation to incite fear and violence constitutes criminal behavior,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in a press release. “We cannot allow dangerous activities to reach their goal of inflicting violence and harm on the public. I am proud to work alongside law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels to safeguard the public’s safety from these serious threats.”

Nessel’s office charged the men with felonies including gang membership and using a computer to commit a crime.

Richard Tobin, 18, of New Jersey, was arrested for the Temple Jacob vandalism in November 2019 and for allegedly ordering the vandalism of two synagogues in other states.

Tobin was accused of using The Base to find volunteers for the September 2019 graffiti attacks on synagogues in Michigan and Wisconsin.

At the time, Tobin allegedly said he planned the attacks as part of a nationwide campaign he called “Operation Kristallnacht,” a reference to the 1938 pogrom against Jewish homes, synagogues and Jewish owned-owned businesses in Germany and Austria.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

The Base also terrorized a Dexter family at their home in December 2019, after wrongly believing the family was associated with an Antifa member. The men allegedly used intimidation tactics on the premises, including sharing their address with other members of the group.

According to the AG office’s release, Watkins reportedly ran a “hate camp” for the other members of the group, where he led “tactical and firearms training for participants with the goal of being prepared for the violent overthrow of the government.”

The conspirators in the foiled kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, many of whom were members of the militia “Wolverine Watchmen”, reportedly had plans to “violently overthrow government” as well, but the new arrests are not related to the kidnapping plot.

David Holden, President of Temple Jacob, was grateful to hear the news of the arrests and that authorities are taking these hate groups seriously.

“The initial reaction is one of thanks for the federal agents and the continued work of the FBI in monitoring these hate groups and keeping us safe,” Holden said. “They’re obviously an ongoing threat and concern, I mean the vandalism that happened at our synagogue, it was quite shocking. I’m glad to see the FBI is continuing their efforts to monitor these groups.“

With his synagogue experiencing it first-hand, Holden is concerned about the rise of these types of hate groups and antisemitism as a whole.

“It’s a troubling trend and one that certainly feels like it’s accelerating, and the nature of the discourse we have in our nation right now, especially as we’re leading up to the election, is doing nothing but heightening the anxiety and concerns we have that these groups are going to cut loose and do something really atrocious.”

Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus gave statements on the arrest, commending AG Nessel and authorities for their actions.

“We are tremendously grateful to Attorney General Nessel, federal, state and local law enforcement for their efforts to disrupt and bring to justice the alleged perpetrators of this heinous act,” said Carolyn Normandin, ADL Michigan Regional Director. “There is no place in Dexter, no place in Michigan, and no place in the United States for this type of criminal and threatening behavior.”

“Antisemitic, far-right extremist groups like “The Base” have threatened the State of Michigan – and Jewish Michiganders in particular – for far too long, and I am grateful for Attorney General Dana Nessel’s decisive action today to hold them accountable for their crimes,” said MDJC Founder and Chair Noah Arbit. “Our community owes a debt of gratitude to Attorney General Nessel, who has prioritized the prosecution of hate crimes and ethnic intimidation since she was elected.”

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