American Fighters Bring War and Murder Home from Ukraine
On July 13, 2013, the day after his son’s birth, Army Specialist Craig Lang left Fort Bliss without notifying his commanders. Armed with a handgun, he drove 1,800 miles to his wife’s house southwest of Raleigh. A month earlier, a Harnett County district court judge had signed off on a domestic violence protective order based on Lang’s threat to go AWOL and come to her home to kill her, a plan he had also shared with fellow soldiers on base.
A couple days later, according to his wife’s testimony during a custody hearing, Lang showed up at her house “with a gun and threatened to kill her neighbors and other family members.”
More than six years later, Lang, 29, and another U.S. Army veteran, Alex Zwiefelhofer, 22, are wanted on federal charges related to the murder of a Florida couple during a robbery. Zwiefelhofer, a Wisconsin native who was assigned to Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, went AWOL in 2016, and joined Lang as a foreign fighter with the Right Sector militia in Ukraine.
Later, the two unsuccessfully attempted to fight as mercenaries in South Sudan and Venezuela. After Zwiefelhofer and Lang were prevented from entering South Sudan, a customs agent and an FBI special agent interviewed him as he was flying into Charlotte Douglas International Airport and found child pornography on his cell phone. By the time his hearing came up in Mecklenburg County court in early 2018, Zwiefelhofer had disappeared again.
Lang and Zwiefelhofer’s criminal misadventures highlight a growing concern by the FBI about young, white men, and in particular military service members’ attraction to the Ukrainian war zone as a hotbed of far-right radicalization with the potential to feed dangerous extremists prone to causing violence and instability back into the United States.
An infantry soldier in the U.S. Army who was stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas and was charged in a separate federal criminal complaint with distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction is also linked to Lang.
The complaint alleges that Jarrett William Smith, 22, communicated by Facebook with Lang in June 2016 about Smith’s interest in joining Azov Battalion, another militia similar to Right Sector.
Smith, who had not yet enlisted in the U.S. Army at the time, told Lang, according to court documents: “No former military experience, but if I cannot find a slot in Ukraine by October I’ll be going into the Army…. To fight is what I want to do. I’m willing to listen, learn and train. But to work in firearms is fine by me too.”
Lang reportedly responded: “Alright, I’ll forward you over to the guy that screens people; he’ll most likely add you soon.” Lang added, “Also, as a pre-warning, if you come to this unit and the government comes to shut down the unit you will be asked to fight. You may also be asked to kill certain people who become on the bad graces of certain people.”
The U.S. government alleges that Smith and Lang met at Fort Bliss on at least one occasion. The base, located on the New Mexico-Texas border, was Smith’s first assignment; Lang was discharged from the military two years prior to Smith’s enlistment.
Later, in December 2018, the government alleges that Smith led a Facebook group chat that included Lang. Smith reportedly said, “Oh yeah, I got knowledge of IEDs for days. We can make cell phone IEDs in the style of the Afghans. I can teach you that.”
In August 2019, the complaint alleges, Smith told a confidential source cooperating with the FBI that “a major American news network” would be an ideal target for a vehicle bomb. In September, at the prompting of the source, Smith contacted an undercover FBI agent through Telegram, a messaging app favored by far-right extremists, and advised him on how to build a homemade bomb to assassinate a politician, mentioning then-Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke as a potential target.
In addition to the news media and progressive politicians, Smith also had antifascist activists in his sights: Signing off on a Sept. 27 detention order, a U.S. magistrate in Kansas cited evidence that Smith once texted someone that his “bucket list” included a desire “to KO an antifa member” to support that releasing him would endanger the community. Smith has pleaded not guilty.
Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, said the fact that Azov Battalion is taking concrete action is appealing to American white-power activists.
“What they’re saying is, ‘Here’s a group in Ukraine that’s going beyond ideology,’” Mayo said. “They’re a militia group that’s actively recruiting for the cause. That’s appealing to people who want to promote white nationalism or preserve European-American culture. The fact that they’re fighting is in and of itself important.”
The FBI has taken notice, too. During an Oct. 30 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray on the matter of domestic terrorists traveling to Ukraine for training “and coming back to do God knows what.”
“I think you’re on to a trend that we’re watching very carefully,” Wray responded. “We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals overseas online certainly, and in some instances, we have seen people travel overseas to train.”
In an affidavit filed to support a criminal complaint against members of the Rise Above Movement, which violently assaulted counter-protesters during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, FBI Special Agent Scott J. Bierwirth described Azov as “a paramilitary unit of the Ukrainian National Guard which is known for its association with neo-Nazi ideology and use of Nazi symbolism, and which is believed to have participated in training and radicalizing United States-based white supremacy organizations.”
Azov and its political wing, National Corps, have avidly courted far-right extremists in the United States, particularly those with a military background, to promote their own geopolitical aims. Alongside the Right Sector, Azov promotes an ultranationalist agenda and seeks to fend off the influence of both Russia and the European Union over Ukraine.
The UK-based media organization Bellingcat has reported that Olena Semenyaka, a spokesperson for Azov, said during a 2015 podcast in Russian: “We are not resigning ourselves to the boundaries of thinking in terms of single region. We defend not only the Ukrainian nation, national identity, but also the Slavic element, the European element, and in the end — the white race.”
The Right Sector, the militia that Lang and Zwiefelhofer joined, maintains a similar stance.
In a February 2014 YouTube video, Dmytro Yarosh, then the militia’s leader, said, “We are fighting… For a great Ukrainian and European Reconquista…. Everything is only beginning! From our Maidan [the wave of protests that resulted in the resignation of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych], the rebirth of Kyivan-Rus/Ukraine commences, the rebirth of Europe commences.”
Semenyaka told Bellingcat in January that “Americans with army experience” who understand the conflict with Russia and the strategic aim of building an alliance of Eastern and Central European countries as a counterweight to both Russia and the European Union “are welcome here,” particularly if they could help establish contacts with the American military.
American white power activists have responded to a call for an international alliance. Members of the Rise Above Movement traveled to Germany, Italy and Ukraine in the spring of 2018 to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and network with European fascists. An Instagram post later showed members meeting with Semenyaka, according to the FBI.
The Paneuropa Conference, a right-wing international gathering held in Kyiv in October 2018, attracted Greg Johnson, an American white supremacist with longstanding ties to infamous white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Speaking alongside representatives of far-right movements in Italy, Sweden, Norway and Germany, Johnson said, “I think what’s happening in Ukraine is a model and an inspiration for nationalists of all white nations, and I wanted to learn as much as possible about what you’re doing here, and see as much as possible. And I’m enormously impressed.”
Johnson continued by saying that Ukrainian ultranationalists were “building an alternative social order” that needs to be replicated “in all white countries.” He added that white power activists around the world need “to have some kind of organizational nucleus that can demonstrate that it can do all the things necessary to secure a society’s future, because that will give us the ability to actually take power someday.”
Craig Lang wrote on Facebook on June 23, 2016 — the same day he counseled Jarrett William Smith on how to join Azov — that he had come to Ukraine a year earlier even knowing that “I may face jail time when I return. I did so because I felt I had to do something.” Lang wrote, “I left my family who to be honest has a lot on their plate and would like to have me home,” — a statement that should be regarded with skepticism considering that as recently as April 2015 a district court judge in Harnett County had renewed the protective order against him based on the finding that his ex-wife believed he would “act on threats to harm her and/or take the minor child away” from her.
In the post, Lang declared, “My passion is fighting, a gift from God … I came to Ukraine over a year ago having seen the Euromaidan, having seen the annexation of Crimea, having seen the war in Donbas. I came fully understanding the hazards and risks involved. I came because I wanted to help, because I have a responsibility to God to help in any way that I can.”
He closed by saying he was confident that Ukraine would “one day return to its former glory, and that my children who may not know me will one day understand why I left home. May they be able to walk in the streets of Kyiv having known what their father defended and the struggle of our second home.”
There is no direct evidence that Lang has specifically espoused white supremacist views. In an interview with a reporter for Vice, also in 2016, Lang presented himself as politically conservative, describing himself as a “strict constitutionalist” and someone who “despises communism.”
Other reports paint a picture of a troubled person. Lang, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq during his enlistment in the U.S. Army, testified before a Ukrainian court on Sept. 28 that he has problems with vision in his left eye and suffers frequent headaches as a result of a combat injury. “Basically, I was in a position,” he said. “A round came in. An explosion caused a brain injury.”
His ex-wife testified during a custody hearing that Lang had threatened suicide multiple times, including once when he was hospitalized by his fellow soldiers at Fort Bliss for threatening to shoot himself in April 2013.
Prior to serving with the Right Sector in the summer of 2016, Lang fought with another militia comprised mainly of foreign fighters — the Georgia National League. A Ukrainian news documentary broadcast in April 2016 show Lang and another American, Brian Boyenger, an American who had served with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division as a sniper in the Iraq war, attending a swearing-in ceremony and signing contracts, traveling in a military vehicle together and surveying a battlefront together.
Boyenger, who now lives in Winston-Salem, acknowledged in an interview with Queen City Nerve that he and Lang fought together in Ukraine.
“We served together in the Ukrainian Army for a few months,” Boyenger said. “Afterwards, he left and went on to do his own thing, and I have not had much contact with him since then. These allegations are as much a surprise to me as to everyone else.”
Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgia National Legion, told Queen City Nerve that all of the foreign fighters under his command signed contracts with the Ukraine Army, underwent security service testing and checked in with their respective embassies, contrasting his unit with Right Sector and Azov, which he characterized as “volunteer battalions.”
Mamulashvili characterized Lang in a Facebook message as “a very good soldier” who “never had any inclination to Nazism or racism.” Of his own organization, Mamulashvili said, “We do not tolerate racists, Nazis or any kind of xenophobes. You can be black, white, Arab, Israeli, [as long as] you agree that Russia is [the] aggressor and occupier.”
Mamulashvili said the Georgia National Legion’s entry into the conflict between Ukraine and Russia reciprocated Ukraine’s commitment of volunteers to support his country during the Russian-Georgian war of 1991-1992. Mamulashvili said he fought as a child soldier in that war.
After Lang left the Georgia National League to join the Right Sector in 2016, he met Alex Zwiefelhofer, who went AWOL just 17 months into his enlistment in the U.S. Army, first attempting without success to join the French Foreign Legion and then landing in Ukraine.
In contrast to Lang, there is no ambiguity about Zwiefelhofer’s ideology. A September 2018 post on Zwiefelhofer’s Facebook page, which remains active, depicts a T-shirt with text expressing classic eco-fascist sentiments: “Help more bees. Plant more trees. Save the seas. Shoot refugees.”
In 2017, according to federal court documents, Lang and Zwiefelhofer traveled to Kenya with hopes of fighting against Al Shaabab, an Islamist group based in East Africa. While attempting to enter South Sudan, they were detained by authorities and deported back to the United States.
When an FBI special agent joined a Customs & Border Protection official to interview Zwiefelhofer at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Aug. 1, 2017, they discovered child pornography on his cell phone. According to the federal complaint, Zwiefelhofer was charged under North Carolina law with five counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, and booked into Mecklenburg County Jail, where he stayed until he bonded out on Nov. 16 and returned to live with his father in Wisconsin.
By that time, he had been AWOL for more than a year, although he was still formally enlisted in the U.S. Army. Zwiefelhofer was scheduled to appear in Mecklenburg County Court on April 30, 2018 to plead in the child porn charges.
Instead of returning to North Carolina to face his charges, federal court documents indicate Zwiefelhofer rode a Greyhound bus in early April from Minneapolis to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he joined up with Lang and they continued to their final destination in Miami.
FBI Special Agent James M. Roncinske wrote in an affidavit signed on Aug. 16 that he believes Lang and Zwiefelhofer traveled to Florida with intention of committing crimes “to obtain U.S. currency to fund travel to Venezuela to participate in an armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
After checking in at the La Quinta Inn near Miami International Airport on April 5, 2018, the FBI investigation noted that Lang took a selfie of himself wearing a button-down T-shirt with navy and light blue hibiscus flowers and leaves printed throughout, with Zwiefelhofer lying on a bed in the background while wearing a black Hawaiian-style martini glass shirt.
The FBI would later look at Zwiefelhofer’s Google records and discover the following search phrases during the time he and Lang were in Miami: “Miami ArmsList, Classified Miami Handguns, Hotwire Boat Ignition Switch, Cheapest Hotels Miami, How to Smuggle Myself to South America, as well as multiple searches of videos to include a particular scene from a movie in which subjects were shown inside a vehicle and then ambushed by multiple shooters.”
Investigators would later link an ArmsList posting made from the Miami area on April 7 to Zwiefelhofer. The seller offered multiple Glocks, 9-millimeter handguns and upper and lower receivers for AR-15s.
At 12:10 a.m., a man named Danny Lorenzo from the Tampa area texted the number listed to inquire about the guns. Within an hour, the parties settled on a price of $3,000. At 7:12 p.m., Danny Lorenzo and his wife, Deanna Lorenzo, left home, traveling to meet a man they knew only as “Jeremy” to transact the gun purchase. Meanwhile, the cell phone associated with Zwiefelhofer began to ping out of Miami at about 7:48 p.m. as it headed westward across the Everglades toward Florida’s southwest coast.
At 10:37 p.m., Danny Lorenzo texted the seller to notify him that he was at the appointed rendezvous, a church off Interstate 75 in the village of Estero, just south of Fort Myers.
At 10:55 p.m., the Lee County Sheriff’s Office received multiple 911 calls reporting rapid gunfire in the area. Deputies later found Danny Lorenzo lying dead on the ground near the passenger side of the truck, and Deanna Lorenzo seated in the front passenger seat, also dead. Crime scene technicians collected more than 63 spent shell casings.
“Based on the trajectory and precision of the shot groupings at the scene, it appeared that the shooting was perpetrated by at least two suspects,” Agent Roncinke wrote in his affidavit. “One suspect fired from the rear into the passenger side of the truck where [Deanna Lorenzo] was seated, and the other suspect fired towards the front passenger side of the truck where [Danny Lorenzo] was located.”
Lang and Zwiefelhofer face multiple charges related to the murder of the Lorenzos. Zwiefelhofer was arrested by a U.S. deputy marshal in Madison, Wisc. on Sept. 6.
Lang would later return to Ukraine. He denies the charges, according to a report in Kyiv Post.
Mamulashvili told Queen City Nerve that during his second tour of duty, Lang served with the Right Sector, but stayed at the Georgia National Legion’s base when he was in Kyiv. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is reporting that a Ukrainian court ordered Lang into custody on Oct. 8 amid uncertainty about whether he will be extradited to the United States.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.