Members of neo-Nazi group The Base convicted in domestic terrorism probe in Michigan

Justen Watkins

Four men with ties to a white supremacist group that advocates for violence against the government and has aspirations of creating a white ethno-state have pleaded guilty to gang membership and weapons charges. 

The convictions follow a years-long investigation into The Base, which has a loose network of cells around the U.S. That includes in Michigan, where members sought to establish training sites in preparation for what they describe as a coming race war. 

Two of the members convicted, including the suspected leader of the group Justen Watkins, had been arraigned on charges of being associated with a gang and using computers to commit a crime after they intimidated a family in Dexter in 2019. 

He was also charged with conspiring to train for a civil disorder, a first in Michigan's history.

Following those charges, a wider investigation was launched with the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force, which uncovered plans by other members of The Base to assess Michigan prisons as potential paramilitary training grounds. 

"The pleas serve as an example of the FBI's continued commitment to work alongside its law enforcement partners at every level to protect the security of our nation—even when Federal criminal statutes may not be available," said James A. Tarasca, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI's Detroit Division.

What is The Base?

The Base is a small militant neo-Nazi organization that formed in 2018. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group embraces "Hitlerian ideology coupled with a mission to prepare for an impending race war."

The Base, which is the English translation of "Al-Qaeda" has largely operated in the virtual space, the ADL said. But actions by its members increasingly show a presence on the ground. Some of those actions have included criminal activity in recent years.

"The group sees non-white people as enemies of the white race and envisions a coming race war, which will be sparked by 'non-European races.'," the ADL said. 

Criminal charges have been brought against members in Georgia, Wisconsin, and now Michigan. 

A white ethno-state in Michigan

Among the states that The Base was most interested in operating out of was in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The region's population is largely white and, according to a report from Vice News in October 2020, was considered a potential place that members could conduct paramilitary training. 

Watkins, of Bad Axe in Michigan, who took over the group's leadership in 2020, had wanted to purchase land in the peninsula as part of plans to house and train members. 

According to a release from Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, two other members of the base not charged in the initial case had entered former and vacant Michigan Department of Corrections sites near the rural community of Caro. 

They were assessing the properties as potential future training grounds for "hate camps" - a term The Base used to designate their training exercises.

Mistaken identity leads to arrest

Watkins and Alfred Gorman first appeared in the Michigan court system after a December 2019 incident when they targeted a house in Wastenaw County, which they alleged to be the home of an antifascist podcaster.

The men posted threatening images online, which included a photo of Watkins wearing tactical gear in front of the home. 

But the house was wrongly identified and instead housed a family in Dexter. 

Following their arrest, both men were charged with gang membership, unlawful posting of a message, and using a computer to commit a crime. The penalties ranged from two-year to four-year felonies, and fines of $5,000.

Felony charge for planning civil disorder

After Watkins and Gorman's arrest, more evidence in the case broadened the investigation in Michigan. Federal agencies specializing in domestic terrorist groups were assigned to the investigation.

More charges were announced when the Tuscola County Prosecutor identified Thomas Denton and Tristan Webb as being members of The Base who were planning future training grounds for the group.

Both were charged along with Watkins with counts of larceny in a building, gang membership, conspiracy to train with firearms for a civil disorder, and felony firearm.

The third charge regarding training for civil disorder, a four-year felony, was the first time it had ever been used against a defendant in Michigan history, the AG's statement said. 

Plea agreements

All four men pleaded guilty to respective charges.

Web, Denton, and Watkins all plead guilty conspiracy to train with firearms for a civil disorder, felony firearm and gang membership. Watkins faces two rounds of sentencing, one in Washtenaw County on June 13 and one in Tuscola County, which hasn't been set yet.

Denton was sentenced to between two and four years in prison. Webb has yet to be sentenced.

Gorman, the only individual charged in Washtenaw County and not Tuscola County was sentenced to four years probation. 

"Securing these convictions on the conspiracy to train for civil disorder holds significance for many reasons," Nessel said. "They reiterate this office’s commitment to protecting Michigan residents, they create a historic precedent in our state’s court system, and they convey the real danger domestic terrorism poses here and around the country."