The journalist who infiltrated The Base

Ryan Thorpe of the Winnipeg Free Press talks about his extraordinary experience going undercover in the neo-Nazi group and outing an army reservist as one of its recruiters.

Hi, and welcome to The Informant, a publication covering hate and extremism in America, written and edited by me, Nick R. Martin.

Today, I’m bringing you a special interview with a journalist who infiltrated the neo-Nazi group The Base, leading to a wild series of events. I really liked this interview, so I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

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The journalist who infiltrated The Base

Ryan Thorpe didn’t quite know what he was getting himself into on that summer evening.

The Winnipeg Free Press reporter was undercover and had arranged to meet with a Canadian recruiter from the neo-Nazi group The Base, an organization that advocates terrorism and mass shootings to bring about the collapse of modern civilization.

To hear Thorpe talk about it now, the plan was a little slapdash. He wanted to bring an audio recorder but was afraid he might get patted down. He worried that if he brought his wallet, his ID card would expose his true identity. But, he wondered, who doesn’t carry a wallet? Those thoughts were running through his head just before he was to meet the recruiter in a park in Winnipeg without anyone else there to back him up.

What happened next would set off an extraordinary chain of events. Thorpe eventually published an article exposing The Base recruiter as Canadian army reservist Patrik Mathews. Days later, Mathews went on the run and wound up crossing illegally into the U.S., where he met up with other members of The Base, hid out for months on a compound in Georgia, and then allegedly talked about shooting up a major pro-gun rally in Virginia.

The next time the two men saw each other, Mathews was shackled in a federal courtroom in Maryland, and Thorpe was there to cover the proceedings.

I spoke to Thorpe recently about his experience, including his reaction to seeing court documents in which Mathews allegedly called for the journalist to receive the “death penalty.” He told me he is considering turning the episode into a book that also would look broadly at far-right extremism in Canada. But in the meantime, he’s going to continue covering hate in Manitoba and keeping an eye on the Mathews case in the U.S.

I’m embedding some links to Thorpe’s coverage of the Mathews case throughout this interview, but you’ll also find a list of some of the key articles at the bottom.

The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nick Martin: When you saw Patrik Mathews in court in Maryland, what was that experience like?

Ryan Thorpe: It was definitely an interesting little moment between the two of us. Obviously, I hadn't seen this individual in person for about five months, and so I'm sitting in the courtroom waiting and the side door to the courtroom is swung open and all of a sudden I hear these shackles jangling. I'm pretty sure he's about to be led in, and then emerges Mr. Mathews. I'm used to seeing him in the photos wearing Canadian Armed Forces uniform, and this has been exchanged for this orange prison jumpsuit and his beard is fully grown out again and his hair is long.

He looks exactly like the same person I had met months earlier and he's scanning the faces in the crowd. Then he seems to notice me and his eyes just narrowed to slits and he just begins glaring at me really intensely. We just hold each other's gaze for the next few seconds.

It was quite the moment.

Talk to me a little bit about your background and what your beat is at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Yes, for sure. I've been working at the Free Press since the summer of 2017. I graduated from journalism school in April of 2017. I did an internship at the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Canada. Then I came to the Winnipeg Free Press and did an internship here. I've pretty much been at the paper since then. In terms of a beat, technically I'm a general assignment reporter. I could be covering anything that's going on in the city on any given day, but I tend to report on a lot of crime, a lot of homicides, and thankfully, increasingly, since I've been here, the editors are freeing me up to pursue these more longer-term investigative projects, which is really the stuff I enjoy doing the most.

Let's go back to your decision to go undercover. What went into that decision? I know The Base doesn't really talk to journalists, so I assume that was the only way you thought you could get access. Tell me a little bit about that.

Yes, absolutely. Last summer, these recruitment posters started popping up all over the city, various neighborhoods. I did a quick look online just an internet search about The Base and I came across 2018 exposé that VICE News had done by Ben [Makuch] and Mack [Lamoureux] over there who do really great work on this beat. It quickly became apparent to me that this was a very concerning organization. This wasn't just your run-of-the-mill group of racists. It was worrisome that they seem to be recruiting here.

I took what information I had found and I went to our city desk editor here, and I said, look, there's two ways we could approach this one. I could essentially track where these posters are turning up in the city. I could reach out to an academic that studies this stuff, perhaps speak to some anti-fascist activists and we could call it a day, but that was going to be quite limited in terms of what we would find out about what was really going on here.

Then I pitched a second approach, saying, look, they have the email address included on these posters that you can contact them. I could create a throwaway email account, create a fake persona and pose a white nationalist interested in joining. Thankfully, I got the green light to take that second approach. That's what I did, I reached out and we took it from there.

Were your editors supportive of this approach from the start? Doing the undercover thing is pretty unusual for journalists to be able to do. Were they skeptical? How did that work out?

They were supportive from the start, but I don't think any of us at that time knew what it was going to turn into or even how long we were going to take it. We were going step by step in the beginning, and each time I felt like I was making some progress with my attempt to infiltrate this group, I would go back to my editors, we'd have a conversation, and they would give me approval to take it a step further. The undercover thing is quite unusual and it's fraught with ethical concerns as well from a journalistic standpoint. But I think from our perspective, this truly was the only way we were going to get at the real story here.

Yes, absolutely. How did you present yourself to The Base? Do you use a fictitious name, for instance? What was the profile that you used?

One of the first things they do is they send you a questionnaire, essentially, that they asked you to fill out. When they asked for your name, they specifically put, if I remember correctly, in parentheses, “pseudonym acceptable.” I used the name Mark. I just gave a first name. And then I kept a lot of the details true to my life just because I knew it might become difficult at some point to keep all these details straight in my head. A lot of it was accurate. I said I was in my mid-20s. I said I had grown up in a rural area. I had been taught how to shoot firearms from a young age.

The things that I changed, I said I was a university student. I said that I'd consider myself a white nationalist for the past three years, and I was disappointed with the state of the movement here, that I took heart when I saw these posters popping up in the city because I figured that there might be some like-minded individuals in our community.

As that vetting process kept unfolding, I was essentially doing simultaneous research so that I could correctly parrot back white nationalist talking points to these people. I was frantically googling things and taking notes and reading excerpts of James Mason's "Siege, " and all these different bizarre texts that are important to this group so that I would come across as believable, prior to doing a voice call interview with them, which was another step on this vetting process.

I did it at home one night, and I just had pages laid out in front of my desk in front of me of just notes on things that I told them in terms of this fictitious persona and then talking points and then quotes from Mason or these other figures so that, if off the top of my head I couldn't think of something to say, I could just refer down to the page.

There's been new reports now showing that the leader of The Base who went by the aliases, Norman Spear, and Roman Wolf is an American living in Russia. His name is apparently Rinaldo Nazzaro. You spoke to him as part of your vetting process, didn't you?

That's correct. Actually, when I first reached out, I was exchanging emails with this group. I'm pretty sure I was communicating with Roman Wolf, the pseudonym he was going under at the time. Eventually, they invited me to download the encrypted messaging app Wire, which was the platform they were using to communicate. I communicated with him further on there. Then they told me I was going to have to do this voice interview again over this application and I thought it was just going to be between myself and Roman Wolf, but it turned out that there was six to eight other members listening in on the line who were then —

Is that right?

Yes, which caught me off guard because they only revealed that to me like moments before I was set to speak to them. It made me a little more nervous because I had to be convincing to a wider group of people, but the conversation was primarily between myself and Roman Wolf. I recorded this whole thing. It lasted about an hour in length. I have a lot of audio of this individual speaking. I did see the reports that came out recently, the one by Jason Wilson in The Guardian, which I thought was just absolutely fantastic work. Then also the BBC report as well.

Talk to me about meeting Mathews and what that was like.

After that voice call interview, they essentially said, "Look, get off the line. We're going to communicate amongst ourselves. We'll discuss how you went and then we'll have a phone call and then we'll be in touch within 24 hours." The next day, I was just sitting at the newsroom, and I got a message from Roman Wolf saying, "You did well last night. Final step is to meet our guy in person."

I set up a time and a place. I set it up for 8 p.m. at Whittier Park here in Winnipeg. Originally I had asked to meet in a bar or something like that. I didn't realize Mathews, he later told me he was sober, so I'm sure he didn't want that, but he wanted someplace more private. He had suggested a park, kind of way out on the edge of town, and I didn't feel comfortable with that, so I chose one more centrally located. Essentially, I just had to provide a physical description of myself to him in advance so that he would be able to pick me out of the crowd.

I'd been so busy at work that day, it didn't really sink in truly what I was about to do. Then I ran home to make a quick bite to eat, and then I'm preparing to go out there, and I started getting pretty worried and scared a little bit. I was definitely overthinking — well, maybe not overthinking, but it was like, "OK, well, I want to record the conversation, but I can't bring an audio recorder. What if he pats me down? That's going to be too dangerous." And then I thought, "Well, I can't bring my wallet either because what if he asked to see my identification? Then that'll certainly blow my cover because one internet search will reveal I'm a reporter." Then I started to worry, "Is it going to be weird that I don't have a wallet on me? Who walks around without a wallet?"

I'd mentioned that I was a jogger. What I decided to do was I messaged Mathews, although I didn't know if that's who it was at the time. I said, "Look, I usually go for runs on Wednesdays, but I was too busy today so I'm going to jog over to the park." If he wondered why I didn't have a wallet on me, that was my reasonable explanation. I was just getting pretty nervous going into this, but I jogged over to the park.

I was just sitting there waiting and everyone that's walking by me, I'm thinking, "Is this the person?" Everyone's a potential neo-Nazi.

Then all of a sudden this guy walks up to me and he's got hair that's slick and long on top. It's clipped a bit closer at the sides. He's about 5-foot-10. He's got a backpack on. He's got this big, bushy beard, and he approaches me and we start engaging. We quickly established that we're the people we're there to see, and we established a rapport. Then very quickly, and this might've been Mathews’ fatal mistake, maybe 10 minutes in, he said, "Look, we're going to be working quite closely with one another, so if you want to drop the online pseudonyms and just go by our first names, we can do that." He caught me off guard, and I think I thought about it for a second and I was like, "All right, my name's Ryan," and I shook his hand and he's like, "My name's Patrik."

We took it from there and we ended up walking. It's quite a big park with some secluded areas. We ended up walking around it for probably an hour and a half, maybe even close to two hours. Meanwhile, my editors — I told them it wouldn't last longer than an hour, and they wanted me to contact them as soon as it was over so they knew I was safe. As the thing keeps extending later and later into the evening, I think they're getting more worried like, "Where the hell is he? Why isn't he letting us know he's OK?" It was a pretty intense meeting, but I would say about 10 to 15 minutes in, I was no longer worried for my safety. I quickly got the impression that this guy wasn't overly suspicious of me or he didn't have any idea that I wasn't who I was portraying myself as.

I'm interested in the fact that you did drop the name Mark, and you went with your real first name in that conversation with him.

Yes, well, I don't know. I suppose I figured if he's going to be honest with me, maybe I should be honest with him up to a point. It was just such a split-second decision that I didn't really think it through too much.

Absolutely. Did he talk at all about his contacts in the US or his travels to the US?

Yes, he did. At that meeting, he walked me through his political trajectory over the years, how he had come to his views. I remember the phrase he said to me was, "How long have you known?" I remember him asking, “How long have you known the truth?” or “How long have you seen through the bullshit?” Which I remember really striking me. He'd talked about how he got involved at The Base. How he'd come to adopt neo-Nazism as his political perspective. He'd talked about what he was aware in terms of other members in Canada. He revealed to me that he was a combat engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

He openly started talking about derailing trains and committing violence against activists and how I needed to get guns so we could begin ramping up paramilitary training. Then he'd also revealed that on a couple of occasions he'd been traveling stateside to engage in these paramilitary training events called "Hate Camps" with the fellow neo-Nazi comrades down in your neck of the woods.

Did he refer to them as "Hate Camps"?

I don't think he used that term on that occasion. No. But just certainly in that milieu, that's a term that's thrown around a lot for these events, but I'm not sure if Patrik directly called them that.

After that meeting, you were given access to the secret chat room on Wire. How long were you inside of those chats and what did you see?

Well, so I knew my time in the centralized secret chat room was going to limited because Mathews very quickly wanted to start engaging in paramilitary training and there was no way I was going to be running off into the bush with this guy carrying firearms. I wasn't going to take it that far. Essentially, for the next like two, two and a half weeks, I was just coming up with excuses for why we couldn't commence paramilitary training together, and at some point, it's going to be one excuse too many and it's going to raise a red flag.

I had about a two-, two-and-a-half-week period inside that centralized chat room where I was essentially just documenting everything that was said. One of the features of Wire is that the messages self-destruct, so I had to keep pretty constant watch on the chat room just to screenshot everything. The stuff I saw there was incredibly disturbing.

Actually, one thing that was interesting is that there's quite the juxtaposition. On the one hand, you had stuff that was just very every day, very banal, people complaining about their work or talking about barbecuing or things like that. One guy posted a photo of a newborn baby and was like, "Oh, my sister gave birth last night." And people are congratulating him on becoming an uncle. The stuff that you would see in any collection of likeminded individuals or any social group.

Then you also had the polar opposite. You had people praising terrorists as the saints. I remember one guy who said, "[Anders] Breivik and [Timothy] McVeigh are the gold standards. High body counts or stay home." Well at one point, while I was in there, there was news breaking that there had been an attempted shooting at a mosque, I believe in Europe somewhere. I forget the details of that case, but as that news is breaking, everyone's cheering it on and waiting to hear the news about how many killed.

One person posted a letter that was apparently from Tarrant, the New Zealand mosque shooter. Whether or not he was directly a pen pal with this person or he had gotten this letter from someone else, I don't know, but it was direct photos of a handwritten letter from Brenton Tarrant. They're talking about signs that they think point to the fact that there's a race war on the horizon or talking about paramilitary training, exchanging tactics, talking about weapons. They're all posting photos of their arsenals, which is just mass amounts of guns and things like that. They're posting photos from in-real-life meetups, so it's clear that these people are active in the real world. Then just the language is out of control. The anti-Semitic, the racist, homophobic, misogynistic slurs are just peppered into the texts constantly.

When your initial report came out, how The Base react to it?

By that time I was no longer in that internal chat room. I didn't get to see the reaction from the inside, unfortunately. In that first article that dropped, which was on August 16, 2019, there's quite a long feature article and we didn't name Patrik Mathews. I didn't have his ID 100 percent confirmed yet, although I had suspicions. Essentially what I did was I threw out as many breadcrumbs into the piece as possible because I knew it was going to be a big story, and I figured that someone was going to be able to connect the dots and then approach us with a tip identifying this guy.

That's exactly what happened. I think that dropped on a Friday, and then over that weekend, even though I was technically off, I just continued to work nonstop and I developed a source within the Canadian Armed Forces who indeed confirmed to me that this guy was Patrik Mathews. He was a combat engineer and he held the rank of master corporal on the Canadian Army Reserves.

That was the thing that really struck me going back over the timeline of your pieces, was how quickly things moved after your initial report. You were able to identify Mathews by his full name as an explosives expert within those three days. Then the authorities raided his house, and then it was not too long after that that he went missing. That must have been a whirlwind.

It was definitely a whirlwind. It was like we dropped that story, it's blowing up and then behind the scenes, I'm just busting my ass over the weekend. Yes, I was incredibly stressed, I was incredibly tired. The other thing was that we publicly identified him on a Monday the 19th, but the Canadian Armed Forces hadn't confirmed to us that they had anyone named Patrik Mathews who held that rank and served in the army. We went to publication prior to getting official confirmation from them on the basis of my anonymous sourcing within the military itself, but you're going out on a limb when you do that.

I made the claim to an editor that I will stake my reputation on this one. I was certain of it, but that even of itself it's just draining, trying to get to that point. The piece comes out that morning on August 19, and then that night RCMP raids his home, seizes his firearms, briefly takes him into custody, releases him shortly thereafter without laying charges. Then, we don't know exactly when, but within the coming next couple of days he disappears. Then about a week later his truck turns up near the Manitoba-Minnesota border. It seems clear to me that he likely fled stateside, but we also didn't have that confirmed for a couple of months.

In those months that he was missing, what were you thinking about?

I certainly wanted to continue reporting out the story, and I did continue to report it out from here, but I was somewhat limited. I wasn't going to be able to track this guy down myself. I was trying to monitor things online. Whenever there was a new twist or turn in the case, I'd file a piece. To be perfectly honest, what was mostly going through my head was that this was someone who I had seen talking about murdering people. This was someone who had been trained by the Canadian military to make explosives, to engage in explosives work and fire guns and who knew military tactics.

I was concerned that this was going to take a very violent turn. I was worried that someone or people were going to end up dead. That was my main concern. To be honest, I was also worried for Mathews in some sense. His worldview is absolutely despicable. I have no sympathy for it. But when he went missing, I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying, "Are you okay? Are you worried for your safety?" To be perfectly honest, my first thought was for Mathews' safety. I wondered if he was going to harm himself in some way, and I certainly didn't want that to be the outcome here either. I wanted it to be a safe conclusion for all involved.

What was your reaction when you heard that he was arrested by the FBI?

It was relief that we did get that safe conclusion. Then, it was immediately curiosity, "OK, what can I find out? What's going on here?" As his court documents started to be made public, it was wilder than anything I could have imagined. Actually, I wrote a column based on my experience going down to his detention hearing. One of the things I said was that the plot to the story reads like a thriller novel, and not just like any thriller novel, one so chock full of twists and turns, it's overwrought. It's like the stuff of bad fiction, almost.

As his documents started being made public, it was quite the experience going through them and then filling in the gaps, figuring out where he was, what he was up to, who he was with in the time period between us exposing him and then him going missing, and then his ultimate arrest.

Your work featured pretty heavily in those court documents. He apparently even mentioned you by name a couple of times in one of his video manifestos. That must have been a little bit chilling.

Yes. I'm pretty even keel, it takes a lot to get me shook, but yes. I'm sitting at my desk in the newsroom reading through these documents on deadline trying to put together a story and make sense of this stuff and piece it altogether, and then all of a sudden, I see that apparently Mathews was in Georgia, talking about me and essentially claiming that I was an anti-fascist activist, not a journalist, and that what I had done should carry the death penalty. Obviously, I knew who I was dealing with here. I knew he was probably not very pleased with me. All of a sudden, to see yourself referenced in a FBI affidavit was definitely a surprise.

Finally, are you going to continue reporting on white supremacists and neo-Nazis and things like that there in Winnipeg?

This wasn't my first foray into this. I think when we initially got a news tip about these recruitment posters popping up in the city, one of the reasons they kicked it over in my direction was because I've covered this stuff in the past. [Neo-Nazi] Paul Fromm tried to hold a conference here when I was still pretty early at the paper. I reported on that pretty extensively. Some other recruitment drives I've reported on. As this stuff comes up in Winnipeg and in Manitoba, I imagine given my background knowledge on it, at this point, that it would likely be assigned to me.

Also, just in terms of the Mathews case in general, I hope to continue reporting this out and continue coming down to the States to report out the court process until it reaches its conclusion. I've also been kicking around the possibility of potentially tying this all into a book, not only on the Mathews case but also just taking a bit of a wider look at the state of the extremist right movement in Canada.

That'd be great. I'd love to see that. There's so much overlap that takes place between the U.S. and Canada with a lot of these groups. The movement doesn't end at the border.

Certainly not, yes. One thing, after all this stuff started to break, I started purchasing books. There's been a lot of great books on, say, the movement in the U.S. In terms of Canada, we've had very few books that reflected the movement here. There's been a couple. There was one by a reporter named Julian Sher. I think it was on KKK, but that was published in the early '80s or something. Warren Kinsella did a book in the '90s that looked at the extremist right here, but, certainly, we're in need of an update on the definitive account of the state of far-right hate movements in Canada today.

Ryan Thorpe’s coverage of Patrik Mathews:

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