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Jarrad Searby (center) flashing “white power” hand gestures alongside fellow white nationalists at a gym in Australia

Gateway Extremism: How Australia’s neo-Nazis use combat sports to radicalize and recruit

Karim Zidan delves into Australia’s far right National Socialist Network and how they weaponize combat sports for recruitment and radicalization.

In August 2021, 60 Minutes, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age published the first part of an eight-month major investigation into the Australia’s largest neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Network (NSN). The in-depth expose revealed the identities of the extremist organization’s senior members and how the group is attempting to infiltrate Australian politics by having candidates elected who could help push their far-right policies.

With the help of an undercover mole who was able to secretly film the group’s activities, reporters Nick McKenzie and Joel Tozer unmasked some of the key figures within NSN, several of whom have since lost their jobs. Counter-terrorism police have also launched new investigations while the group is also being evicted from their headquarters, “Racism HQ.”

The investigation, which caused politicians on both sides of the aisle to call for NSN to be banned as a terrorist organization, also revealed how the extremist group used mixed martial arts to radicalize and recruit disenfranchised youth—a strategy masterminded by Jarrad Searby, a former MMA fighter, gym owner, and head of an Australian chapter of the far-right, neo-fascist hate group known as the Proud Boys, and Denis Nikitin, the founder of the extremist MMA lifestyle brand White Rex and one of the most dangerous extremists within the MMA landscape.

A Gateway to Extremism

Jarrad Searby was about to take a hit from the bong when he was asked a question about the future of the National Socialist Network.

Unaware that he was being filmed by an infiltrator working to bring down the NSN, Searby proceeded to explain how he was brought into the extremist organization to funnel gullible young men to the far right. As both a gym owner and the longtime leader of the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys, Searby was uniquely positioned to help NSN and its white nationalist leader Thomas Sewell.

“I was with the Proud Boys. I had planned to be a gateway to Tom [Sewell], you know,” Searby told the undercover mole in a conversation that was captured on film and published at The Age. “I was going to funnel people in that direction, you know basically funnel people to do their own research, but we would generally lead them in that direction anyway.”

Prior to joining NSN, Searby was at the helm of a wave of anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne throughout 2020. He orchestrated demonstrations and posted open calls on anti-lockdown groups on social media seeking “trained in some form of combat” to confront and “lawfully arrest” police officers working at the protests.

Jarrad Searby

A month after posting the open call on an anti-lockdown group on social media, Searby was among a group of Proud Boys who were pepper sprayed by law enforcement during a protest on Melbourne Cup day where several hundred people were detained. Searby can be seen in Guardian footage alongside Proud Boys members wearing their signature Fred Perry polo shirts. In the clip, Searby appears to be detained after confronting officers who were arresting protesters.

“They hit us with pepper spray which disabled us instantly and ended any chance we had to again best them,” Searby later wrote in a prominent anti-lockdown group. “Our numbers where [sic] few and we made mistakes but we learnt and we will now become more organized.”

Searby, 37, continued to take part in more anti-lockdown protests, including an Invasion Day rally in Melbourne on 26 January, 2021. He was also filmed stalking the homes and workplaces of people he claimed were “Antifa” members. One of the people Searby targeted was a 65-year-old man who made fun of him online.

Soon thereafter, Searby was approached by Sewell, whose right-hand man, Jacob Hersant, believed the former fighter’s martial arts gym would be an excellent gateway to NSN, as well as an offshoot operation that could function outside of government scrutiny.

“It is just a good way of sort of like protecting ourselves as well,” an NSN senior member told the mole. “If our organization gets proscribed as a terror group, you know Jaz [Searby] can still operate, because he is not affiliated, he can still operate as a gym, just an MMA gym.”

By April 2021, Searby had risen through the ranks of the NSN. According to The Age, Sewell had directed Searby to offer financial support to a teenager facing alleged neo-Nazi facing terrorism charges. The former fighter also agreed to start training neo-Nazis in MMA. However, Sewell was remanded and charged by police in an alleged violent armed robbery in May 2021, leaving an opportunity for Searby to usurp power from Sewell and interim leader Jacob Hersant.

“That’s my only problem with Jacob; he is definitely very smart, but he’s a very soft kid,” Hersant confided in the mole at an undisclosed location away from the NSN headquarters. “I’m not going to follow a 22-year-old. I know all eyes are on me at the moment and I need to make the right decision.”

Given that Hersant Is also facing assault charges as of August 2021, Searby appears to be one of the key figures within the NSN.

White Boy Fight Clubs

In May, 2021—just a few short weeks before Sewell was remanded by the police—Searby hosted White Rex founder Denis Nikitin on his video podcast, where the two discussed their mutual love for fight culture, hooliganism, and white nationalism—a combination that Nikitin smugly describes as “white boy fight clubs.”

“I think you’re a pioneer and would love to help build your brand over here [in Australia],” Searby said during the interview. “You have a good message and the people here will be inspired to see you standing up.”

Nikitin founded his MMA lifestyle brand, White Rex, in 2008 as part of his attempt to fuse MMA subculture with far-right political ideologies. The White Rex logo featured as stylized Black Sun Nazi symbol, while the company name stands for “White Heterosexual Reactionary Xenophobe”. The company produced shirts, hoodies, pants, sports gear, and other items branded with white nationalist and Nazi symbols, as well as slogans such as “Zero Tolerance,” “Angry Europeans,” and “White Rex Against Tolerance.

A selection of White Rex merchandise available to purchase

Nikitin used White Rex to market his ideology to disenfranchised youth whom he viewed as the next generation of hooligans and fighters. White Rex used hyper-masculine men and women with blonde hair and blue eyes to strategically market their clothing brand to the young men who are inclined to join their cause.

Nikitin also used his business to spread his far-right agenda. In interviews, Nikitin speaks openly about his ideology as a white supremacist. “If we kill one immigrant every day, that’s 365 immigrants in a year,” he told the Guardian in 2018. “But tens of thousands more will come anyway. I realized we were fighting the consequence, but not the underlying reason. So now we fight for minds, not on the street, but on social media.”

Denis Nikitin aka Denis Kasputin

White Rex has not held an MMA event since June 2015 but has continued to expand as a far-right clothing brand and as a financial backer for several other flourishing far-right MMA promotions. To date, White Rex has affiliates in Germany, France, Russia, Poland, Italy, Greece, and the United States. Through NSN, NIkitin has now also established ties with Australia’s neo-Nazis, further expanding his international network of fascist fight clubs.

NSN’s training regimen consists of combat sports such as boxing, kickboxing, and MMA. Among those who attend are former convicts, skinheads, biker gang members, security guards, IT consultants, government workers and disability care workers, many of whom boasted about their racist antics towards their subordinates. Recruits as young as 16 are taught to channel their anger against Muslims, migrants, Black people, and Jews.

“We do not kneel and die,” Sewell said during a training session that was recorded by the mole. “We stand and fight and live.”

MMA provides a unique platform for white supremacists such as Sewell and Searby to promote their ideology and recruit new members. It allows far-right extremists to draw parallels between their training regimens and the appropriation of faux-culture and history to suit their racist aims. Many such groups, including White Rex, NS Fight Club, RAM, Generation Identity, Pride France, and Pro-Patria view their MMA gyms as training grounds for upcoming race wars. They romanticize their nationalist fervour, while brainwashing youth into “defending” their homeland against a common threat.

NSN’s mission, which is to establish a network of well-trained neo-Nazis capable of imposing fear and defending their hate-fuelled narratives, is no different, though it remains to be seen whether the group will continue to operate in the face of mounting government pressure.

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