“The only hope I have of returning to the land I love, where I was kidnapped at gunpoint and had my house bulldozed, is if there is a such a consistent level of change that most of the agents of the federal government are dead. I want to go home but I can’t.”
It’s late on a Tuesday evening and I’m sitting with Andrew Auernheimer in the posh environs of east Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood. The man most people know by his online handle, “weev,” is seated across from me at a cozy cafe just down the street from the city’s flagship Western-style shopping mall. Auernheimer, 29, is explaining why he’s been living in Beirut for the past month, and why he can’t return home to America.
Weev’s road to Lebanon began in a New York City bar in May. He was just a few weeks out of federal prison, sprung on appeal after 14 months of incarceration and years of legal and public sparring with the federal government over hacking charges. Weev wanted to catch the televised spectacle of NASCAR driver Josh Wise racing around the track at Talledega in a car emblazoned with the head of the celebrity Shiba Inu, Doge, and the name of its honorary cryptocurrency, DogeCoin. As a native of Arkansas and the internet, Auernheimer says he couldn’t miss it.
We’ve tells me how he’d met his girlfriend that night. A Syrian Alawite and a tattoo artist, she has introduced Auernheimer into her circle in Lebanon and covered a significant amount of him with Norse symbology in permanent black ink.
The mass-market appeal of their whirlwind modern romance is complicated by the fact that one of those tattoos is a painstaking rococo swastika over his chest. (Thankfully, Gawker has already covered that extensively – it got me off the hook when Auernheimer offered to show it to me.)
The star-crossed love angle goes part of the way toward answering the question that had compelled me to seek out Auernheimer during a recent trip to Lebanon. Namely, why in hell would an avowed white nationalist super-troll and hacker be living in Beirut?
Internet connectivity is pretty atrocious in Lebanon, not to mention the frequent electrical outages. I hardly need to mention that the Middle East isn’t entirely reconciled to the idea of Western supremacy, or that the current vogue of right-wing nationalist movements throughout Europe (which weev describes as “promising”) is antagonism toward immigrants from the former lands of the Ottoman empire.
Over the course of a couple of hours, coffee, cigarettes and a plate of french fries, the pieces of an explanation come together.
Auernheimer describes himself as the “point person for the press” for the loosely organized crews of which he is member, and has written that “I make art… I see federal courts, financial markets, world media and the very act of human perception as the canvas.” Perhaps by meeting Weev and reporting our conversation, I’m acting as a conduit for the expression of this sort of “art.” If so, I’m taking in mind the words of one of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde:
“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admire it intensely. All art is useless.”
By this token, the cyber-activity of weev is either useless art or unforgivable, harmful provocation and quite possibly both.
He says he’s encouraged by recent militia movements like that of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, but that they don’t have their priorities straight. He tells me that he views Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a hero, and explained his vision of sending tiny drones laden with high explosives to the personal residences of US federal government employees.
“We are close to having atomically precise engineering for asymmetric warfare. Cheap, 3D-printed drones. The tech is simple. The drones that the US uses for airstrikes are crap. Several generations behind. Pretty soon anyone who wants will be able to have something better.”
“Somehow we need to get the ‘soldier types’ connected with the people who have the ideas about who should be targeted and how,” he says. “It’s about the ideological preparation of a segment of the population.”
Auernheimer was freed from prison when his conviction was overturned as unconstitutional in violation of his 6th amendment rights to a fair trial in the jurisdiction where an alleged crime takes place. But he doesn’t get misty-eyed about the benefits of America’s rule of law.
“I’m pro-constitution. I think it’s probably the greatest political document ever written. But it’s been totally and systematically corrupted. It’s not rule of law, its rule by lawyers. The only language the government understands now is fear and violence. And if you’re willing to go far enough, they’ll listen. There was no Waco after Waco. They blinked.”
A big part of the reason for weev setting up his home base in Lebanon seems to be frustration and desperation stemming from his first-hand experience of mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government.
“I’ve got nothing to lose. I was rich and successful in my industry and they took that from me,” he said. “From now on I plan to be even more offensive to the American government.”
Auernheimer says he’s currently taking in donations on the order of $ 2,000 per month through various channels, including Patreon and Gratipay, but mostly the funds come in Bitcoin. He explains that many of his supporters don’t want to be linked to him by a paper trail.
“It’s not taxed and it can’t be shut off. It’s stupid not to own Bitcoin, I’m always telling my libertarian friends that. Bitcoin is to gold what Instragram is to photographs. Actually, though, the best asset class is ammunition, since it’s especially strong in exactly the same situations where all others fail.”
He says his entire net worth is currently in Bitcoin, which sells above market price in Lebanon.
“Bitcoin saved my life,” he says.
Lebanon has no extradition treaty with the United States. Weev says that was a crucial criterion for him in choosing a new home. Other candidate countries were Serbia and Andorra, which he says is still his first choice, if he can ever afford it. He also tells me that he would prefer to live in Syria, but is waiting, confidently, for things there to “cool down.”
* * *
Of course, trolling doesn’t work unless it elicits profound reactions of disgust, hate or anger. And weev is one of the internet’s most famous trolls. He is also, somewhat uncomfortably, a dandy of digital civil libertarians due to his intransigence in the face of federal harassment, out at the bleeding edge of the first amendment.
Weev’s three-year scrap with the federal government has been chronicled in great detail in the media and through his own channels (here’s the 2010 Gawker article that started it.) It’s a thorny story with no sympathetic protagonist, and all sorts of legal, technological and social implications. It was a prominent battle in the so-called “hacker-wars,” and he has received support, on civil rights grounds, from the EFF and Glen Greenwald.
Recently, weev has jumped into the fray of the online brouhaha around Pando reporter Yasha Levine’s reporting on the origins and funding of Tor, a confusing miasma of alliances that has seen Tor evangelists claiming they are underpaid by the government and a prominent ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project staffer invoking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Auernheimer’s swastika tattoo is not a rhetorical device. Nor is his relocation to Beirut a simple farce. I can attest that the sort of vitriol weev regularly writes on the internet springs as readily from Auernheimer’s lips as his keyboard.
“America doesn’t have a gun violence problem, it has a minority problem,” he says.
Both Beirut and weev are notorious for intrigue: weev for things he says on the internet, Beirut due to a centuries of historical events that have made it a warren of spooks and a pungent political bouillabaisse. Auernheimer insists that he has no interest in getting involved in Lebanese politics, but is just as emphatic in his support for the Syrian government in the current war.
“Syria, even right now, is more free by orders of magnitude than the United States,” he says. “I think [Syrian president Bashar al] Assad fucked up. He should have gone full Hafez [al Assad, former president and Bashar’s father] on the bedouin at the start and none of this would ever have happened.”
Claims about the current liberties to be enjoyed in Syria are difficult to verify because so many of the country’s bloggers and free speech activists are being extrajudicially and indefinitely incarcerated by the government. Weev repeatedly uses the jingoistic term “bed0uins” to characterize the opposition to Assad’s rule.
“Lebanon might not have freedom of speech, but no one here is going to challenge my right to speak out against Israel and the U.S. government,” he says.
One telling example of the way freedom of speech plays out in Lebanon: in 2009 the late contrarian author and journalist Christopher Hitchens was assaulted on one of the city’s busiest streets in broad daylight, after he defaced the flag of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a political organization formed in Lebanon during the French protectorate days which today has a limited Lebanese presence but is currently a coalition partner in Syria’s government. The SSNP favors the elimination of national borders to form a Greater Syrian state based on cultural geography (rather than religious sect) – it supports democracy and capitalism…and its flag looks a lot like a swastika. Hitchens was reportedly knocked down, punched, followed and nearly kidnapped by a group of thugs that emerged out of the woodwork when he’d taken a black marker to the flag.
“I mean, their anthem is sung to the tune of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles,’ you know? And I get the feeling they are digging into some pre-Abrahamic religious shit. I like their style,” Auernheimer said of the SSNP. He also describes Hamra, the part of town where the Hitchens incident took place, and which still flies the SSNP flag, as his favorite of the city’s several swathes of nightlife.
“I never go to Gemayzeh,” he says of another popular strip of bars, clubs and restaurants. “It’s for tourists.”
It’s difficult to describe Auernheimer’s look without referencing one mythical forest creature or another. Short, stubby-limbed and red-bearded, with an incipient dreadlock jutting out of the side of his head, he’s more dwarf than troll and more faun than elf.
After studying the Norse Eddas while incarcerated in Pennsylvania, he says he has taken inspiration from one legend in particular, that of Volund the Elf.
“Volund was basically a proto-hacker. He was a blacksmith who was imprisoned by a tyrant but later escaped and smote his enemies, killing the king’s sons and raping his daughters,” he says.
But Auernheimer is not your archetypal basement-dwelling introllvert, and he’s not one of those stuttering skinheads Oprah used to showcase in the ‘80s. He’s articulate, engaging and has passable table-manners. He seems to be having a ball in the shambholic Paris of the Middle East.
“I love it here. People are so nice. The first day I was here I witnessed a car accident, and the guy gets out and is like ‘Habibi, you hit my car,’” weev said, throwing his hands up in an amicable shrug. “You have to admit, that would just never happen in the U.S.”
He’s also a big fan of the food.
“If I had to have just one condiment, it would probably be toum [an otherworldly Lebanese garlic sauce]. And I eat the yogurt with everything. I even dip, like, grapefruit in it, and my woman tells me I’m crazy.”
One aspect of the culture that weev obviously enjoys is the concept of “wasta,” an entrenched organizing principle in Levantine neighborhoods, economies and political life, which roughly means “clout” or “influence” or “who you know.” It also signifies protection.
“I’ve got some wasta,” weev says. “Enough to mitigate a controlled kidnapping situation. But there is a much greater risk that the US government could just kill me.”
He refers to wasta frequently throughout our talk, and clearly relishes the idea of a network of protection that doesn’t cave to threats of prosecution or violence. He says he owes his wasta to his girlfriend’s family ties in Beirut.
“In Arkansas, where I was born and raised and the only home I’ve ever really known, no one was willing to step up for me,” he says.
Weev has written of his own parents, who cooperated with investigators in his case, that they “are perfect examples of how secular liberalism destroys families and will rot out the foundations of our very civilization,” and that he pities his mother as “a brainwashed drone of a state gone mad.”
These family issues, writ large as cultural symptoms, may explain his enthusiasm for the fierce family solidarity that girds Lebanese social life, though Auernheimer would probably disagree with looking too deeply into that significance. He’s not a big fan of Sigmund Freud.
“The Jew Freud taught me that western civilization was obsessed with its butthole and wants to fuck its mother,” he says, explaining why he’d dropped out of James Madison University and committed himself to a life of autodidacticism.
While his political sentiments regarding Jewish people, the American government, gays, snitches and the racial underpinnings of identity might find more favorable ears in a typical Lebanese bar than in his home country, I’m curious how he fits into the broader sociology of the place.
The British radio journalist Alice Fordham recently reported on the troubles encountered at the city’s checkpoints by local hipsters, whose luxuriant beards have triggered mistaken accusations of jihadist sympathies. Auernheimer seems to have a foot in each camp: a bearded and tattooed Lord of the Rings fan and super-tweeter, with ambitious plans for violent insurrection of a global flavor. I wonder how he would account for himself in such a situation, wasta notwithstanding.
One question that I’d taken with me to our meet-up grows only more pressing as he explains his pro-Assad views, Alawite wastaman vibrations and dedication to offending the West’s tolerant, liberal sensibilities: Is he currently, or would he consider in future, working with the Syrian Electronic Army, an anonymous group of cyber warriors that has made its name exploiting security flaws to place pro-Assad messages on the websites and in the feeds of western media organizations, NGOs and corporate entities?
“No. I’m not going to get involved in that kind of stuff. But let’s just say I’m a big fan of their work,” he says.
Whether for love, cultural affinity, desperation or war craft, Auernheimer can now be found doing Bitcoin key handoffs in Beirut’s bars, and sending out bilious missives from its coffee shops. He’s apparently fallen in with a rich strata of local chauvinism that he finds relatable, and if he can be taken at his word, is giddily anticipating leveraging his newfound enclave of protection to challenge the world’s greatest sovereign power.
“In Norse mythology, hell is the place you go if you don’t die in battle,” he says. “And it’s not even torture, it’s just really boring. I just want to go where I can drink, fuck and kill, you know?”
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]