Alex Zwiefelhofer was itching to fight. 

In 2016, the nineteen-year-old went AWOL from Fort Bragg and flew to Europe. He tried to join the French Foreign Legion, a storied, often romanticized branch of the French military that draws from foreign recruits, often fugitives living under assumed names. When that didn’t work out, he continued east to Ukraine. There he took up with Right Sector, a militia fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.

Along with other ultranationalist groups operating in eastern Ukraine, Right Sector has attracted thousands of white supremacists and far-right extremists from across Europe and the U.S. who have made its cause their own. Among them was Craig Lang, a twenty-six-year-old former U.S. Army specialist who grew up in Pitt County. 

Zwiefelhofer and Lang became comrades. A year later, they were back in the states; Lang told a British journalist there wasn’t enough action in Ukraine anymore, just “trench warfare.” They soon hatched a plan to sneak into South Sudan and fight the Islamist group al-Shabaab. The two flew to Kenya but got caught sneaking across the border and were deported. 

On August 1, 2017, Zwiefelhofer landed in Charlotte and was interviewed by Customs and Border Protection and an FBI agent. They searched his phone and allegedly found child porn. He spent three months in the Mecklenburg County jail before bonding out and returning to Wisconsin to live with his father. He was due back in Charlotte in April 2018 to face charges. 

He never showed. Instead, Zwiefelhofer took a Greyhound from Minneapolis to South Florida and reunited with Lang. They wanted to get back in the fight—this time in Venezuela, where anti-government forces were battling the leftist regime of Nicolás Maduro. But they needed money to get there. 

They checked into a La Quinta Inn near the Miami airport on April 5. At the hotel, Zwiefelhofer googled articles on how to slip into South America and conducted “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,” as the FBI later described it. Two days later, he put Glock and 9mm handguns and AR-15 components for sale on the website ArmsList. 

Shortly after midnight, a man named Danny Lorenzo texted to inquire about the weapons. They quickly settled on a $3,000 purchase price. 

Lorenzo withdrew the cash the next day, and just after 7:00 p.m. on April 8, he and his wife left their home north of Tampa and drove to a rendezvous point, a church off Interstate 75 just south of Fort Myers. Meanwhile, investigators say, the cell phone associated with the ArmsList post headed west from Miami, across the Everglades, toward Florida’s southwest coast. 

At 10:37, Lorenzo texted the seller to say he’d arrived. 

Eighteen minutes later, 911 calls reported rapid gunfire in the area. 

Sheriff’s deputies found the Lorenzos’ bodies riddled with bullets. Crime scene technicians counted at least sixty-three shell casings at the scene. Lorenzo’s cash was gone. Investigators soon connected the ArmsList post to Zwiefelhofer’s phone and, from Zwiefelhofer’s internet records, him to Lang. 

Lang and Zwiefelhofer fled Florida, but they didn’t go to Venezuela. (Zwiefelhofer’s father later told the FBI that their boat captain had been murdered.) Instead, they traveled to the Pacific Northwest, where authorities say Lang sold components of a rifle used in the murder to a Seattle pawn shop. 

Zwiefelhofer made his way home to Wisconsin. This May, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrested him there for making a false statement during a gun purchase. Then, on September 11, a federal grand jury indicted him and Lang on a slew of charges related to the double murder. 

Zwiefelhofer pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. But Lang was no longer in the country. 

He’d gone back to Ukraine—back to the fight. 

The war in Donbas, which has claimed more than fourteen thousand lives and displaced more than a million people, is also at the crux of the biggest story in American politics. 

The same day indictments came down against Lang and Zwiefelhofer, President Trump released nearly $400 million in military aid meant to help Ukraine fight the separatists. That money has become central to the ongoing impeachment inquiry, as mounting evidence indicates that Trump withheld the aid to coerce Ukraine’s new president to open investigations into political rival Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory that Ukrainians framed Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The scheme unraveled after a whistleblower came forward. 

The former Soviet state sits at a cultural crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe. It’s an American ally but not a NATO member, divided internally between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions. America sees Ukraine as key to keeping Russian ambitions at bay; Russia sees the country as an important satellite. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist movement in Donbas to counter the growth of what it deemed a dangerous Western influence.

Right Sector, the far-right militia Lang and Zwiefelhofer joined, formed in response to the separatist movement in Donbas, but it has no affinity for the West. 

Like other ultranationalist battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine—the only shooting war in a white, European country—its goal isn’t simply to defeat pro-Russian separatists but to root out all foreign influence and establish a third geopolitical bloc that could stand up to both Russia and the European Union.

White power activists have rallied to this cause. Last year, speaking alongside representatives of European far-right movements at the Paneuropa Conference in Kyiv, prominent American alt-right publisher Greg Johnson put it bluntly: “I think what’s happening in Ukraine is a model and an inspiration for nationalists of all white nations.” The ultranationalists are “building a new social order,” he continued, that could be “replicated in all white countries.” 

Indeed, Donbas has become a global nexus of radical white supremacy. In an eye-opening report in September, the New York-based research group The Soufan Center noted that, because of the Ukraine conflict, “White supremacists are forming global networks, much as jihadis did prior to 9/11, and are learning from jihadi tactics.” 

The Ukrainian militias have become a beacon for white extremists, including former military members looking for combat, the report said. More than two thousand foreign fighters, many of them white supremacists, have flocked to Donbas to fight the separatists, most from nearby countries like Germany, Georgia, and Belarus. (Another fifteen thousand fighters have come from Russia, which is increasingly reliant on relationships with far-right and nationalist political parties throughout Europe.) 

“That’s, in some ways, not too different than what you saw with ISIS” in the early days of the Syrian civil war, Soufan Center senior researcher Jason Blazakis told Voice of America

Ukraine, he added, could offer the same “galvanizing effect” for white extremists that Syria did for Islamists. 

“It’s given them, for lack of a better word, a playground in which there is turmoil and chaos, a kind of playground that doesn’t exist in a conventional sense in places like the United States,” Blazakis told VOA

At least thirty Americans have traveled to Ukraine to fight for either the pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian forces. But while the U.S. closely tracked Americans and other foreigners who went to Syria to fight for al-Qaeda or ISIS—both designated terror groups—it hasn’t done the same for those traveling to Ukraine to fight for ultranationalist militias. 

That might be changing. 

Asked by U.S. Representative Lou Correa  about right-wing extremists traveling to Ukraine “and coming back to do God knows what,” FBI director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee in late October that “this is a trend that we’re watching very carefully.”

The bigger threat right now, Wray added, “is racially motivated violent extremists who are inspired by what they see overseas.” 

In a Facebook post in June 2016, Lang explained why he went to Ukraine: “My passion is fighting, a gift from God. … 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 said he was confident that Ukraine would “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.”

It’s not clear if Lang has a familial connection to Ukraine. More likely, that statement referred to his commitment to the Ukrainian nationalist project. 

By Lang’s account, he had a troubled home life. In 2016, he told a Vice reporter that his father attempted to murder his stepmother in a drunken rage when he was twelve. At sixteen, Lang was charged in Pitt County with assaulting a government official, though he later pleaded to disorderly conduct. A year later, in 2008, he enlisted in the army. He told Vice that he saw the military as “his best way out.” 

Lang was dishonorably discharged in 2014, Vice reported. Deep in debt, he went to Ukraine in 2015 after being laid off from a North Dakota oil rig. 

The mission became his calling. Even if he was imprisoned upon his return, Lang wrote on Facebook, “I felt I had to do something. … I left my family who … would like to have me home.”

That last statement should be viewed skeptically. 

On July 13, 2013—the day after his son’s birth—Lang went AWOL from Fort Bliss in El Paso and drove eighteen hundred miles to his wife’s house in Harnett County. He showed up “with a gun and threatened to kill her neighbors and other family members,” she later testified. (The couple divorced in 2014.) A month earlier, a judge had issued a protective order after Lang had threatened to kill her; the order was renewed in 2015. 

Lang, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, has said he suffered a combat-related brain injury in the Middle East, causing him frequent headaches and vision problems in his left eye. His ex-wife testified that he’d threatened suicide multiple times; once, he was hospitalized by fellow soldiers at Fort Bliss after threatening to shoot himself. 

Lang joined Right Sector soon after he arrived in Ukraine. In 2016, he served with the Georgian National Legion, a militia comprising mostly foreign fighters, before rejoining Right Sector a few months later. 

A documentary broadcast in April 2016 shows Lang and another former U.S. soldier, Brian Boyenger, signing contracts with the Ukrainian army and then traveling in a military vehicle to survey a battlefront.

“We served together in the Ukrainian army for a few months,” says Boyenger, who now lives in Winston-Salem. “Afterward, he left and went on to do his own thing, and I have not had much contact with him since then.”

The murder allegations, he adds, “are as much a surprise to me as to everyone else.”

Georgian National Legion commander Mamuka Mamulashvili says his militia entered the conflict to reciprocate Ukraine’s commitment to his country during the Russian-Georgian war of 1991–92, which he fought as a child soldier. 

Unlike other militias operating in Ukraine, Mamulashvili says, his foreign fighters sign contracts with the army, undergo security testing, and check in with their embassies. Also unlike other militias, he says, the Georgian National Legion doesn’t tolerate neo-Nazis or white supremacists. 

“You can be black, white, Arab, Israeli, [as long as] you agree that Russia is [the] aggressor and occupier,” he says. 

He recalls Lang as “a very good soldier” who “never had any inclination to Nazism or racism.” 

There’s no direct evidence that Lang is a white supremacist. In his interview with Vice, he presented himself as a conservative and “strict constitutionalist” who “despises communism.” 

But Right Sector has aligned with racists. 

In a YouTube post in 2014, the militia’s leader said the group is fighting “for a great Ukrainian and European Reconquista” and “the rebirth of Kyivan-Rus/Ukraine [and] the rebirth of Europe.” 

That language is familiar to white supremacists. 

“Kyivan-Rus” was an East Slavic state that ruled over Slavic and Finnish peoples from the late ninth to mid-eleventh century. The Reconquista, on the other hand, references the reassertion of Christian control over present-day Spain in the fifteenth century. 

In this context, however, the Reconquista refers to a white supremacist geopolitical initiative spearheaded by Azov National Corps, a neo-Nazi organization whose paramilitary wing is the most notorious militia in Ukraine. Through Reconquista, Azov wants to create a “new European unity” under the banner of “traditional values.” 

As Azov’s founder explained in 2014: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.”

In the early days of the Donbas war—for which the Ukrainian army was woefully ill-prepared—Azov’s paramilitary wing did much of the heavy fighting. 

That track record has made the Azov Battalion attractive to white supremacists who want more than rhetoric, says Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. 

“They’re a militia group that’s actively recruiting for the cause,” Mayo says. “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.” 

Earlier this year, Azov spokeswoman Olena Semenyaka told the UK-based investigative reporting outfit Bellingcat that “Americans with army experience” who understand the strategic goal of forging an alliance of Eastern and Central European countries to counter Russia and the European Union “are welcome here.” 

The FBI believes Azov has “participated in training and radicalizing United States-based white supremacy organizations,” according to an affidavit. It has also courted far-right extremists in the United States. 

Last year, Congress passed a law prohibiting Azov from receiving American military assistance, though there’s no mechanism in place to enforce that ban. 

It’s not clear whether Lang joined Azov. But in 2016, while Lang was fighting with Right Sector, he received a Facebook message from William Jarrett Smith, a twenty-two-year-old who expressed interest in fighting with Azov.

According to a federal criminal complaint, Smith told Lang he had “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.”

Lang responded: “Alright, I’ll forward you over to the guy that screens people; he’ll most likely add you soon. … 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.”

Several months later, Smith enlisted in the army, but he stayed in touch with Lang. In December 2018, authorities say Smith led a Facebook group chat that included Lang in which Smith boasted, “I got knowledge of IEDs for days. We can make cell phone IEDs in the style of the Afghans. I can teach you that.”

This August, according to the complaint, Smith told an FBI informant that “a major American news network” would be an ideal target for a vehicle bomb. A month later, at the informant’s prompting, Smith allegedly contacted an undercover FBI agent through the messaging app Telegram and advised him on how to build a homemade bomb to assassinate a politician, mentioning then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke as a target.

Smith was arrested on September 23. 

In August 2018, four months after the Lorenzos were killed, Lang traveled to St. Louis to meet Matt McCloud, a fellow veteran he’d served with at Fort Bliss. McCloud had planned to join Lang and Zwiefelhofer in Miami for the Venezuela expedition, he later told investigators, but he was arrested in Arkansas on an outstanding warrant for writing bad checks. 

McCloud and Lang traveled to North Carolina, where, according to another indictment, they met another veteran, Dameon Shae Adcock, at a Hampton Inn in Roxboro. Lang and McCloud told Adcock about their plans to go to Ukraine, and Adcock helped them secure fake identification so that they could obtain passports, according to the indictment. Lang allegedly paid Adcock with weapons and $1,500 in cash. 

On September 17, 2018, Lang and McCloud obtained one-way plane tickets from Atlanta to Kyiv, according to investigators. The next day, McCloud posted a selfie at the Kyiv airport on Facebook and told friends that he planned to either teach English or join the Ukrainian army.

They didn’t stay long. A week later, according to Homeland Security, Lang traveled from Mexico City to Bogota, Colombia. McCloud announced his arrival in Bogota on Facebook on October 12. McCloud later told investigators that Lang was able to obtain firearms from law enforcement in Bogota. Lang then boarded a bus to Cucuta, a border town from which he planned to cross into Venezuela and join the anti-government forces.

McCloud’s Facebook posts abruptly ended after October 15. Investigators found him in prison in Missouri the following May.

Homeland Security tracked Lang flying from Bogota to Madrid on November 23, 2018. Based on his social media activity, the feds concluded that he was back in Ukraine. 

In August 2019, Ukrainian authorities detained Lang after he crossed the border from Moldova to seek an extension for his permit to stay. He told a judge that he came back to Ukraine because he “wanted to help. You still have a war going on. There are still people dying.” 

Lang has reportedly denied the murder charges. A friend told the Kyiv Post that he wanted to stay in the country so he could marry his Ukrainian girlfriend.

Lang is currently in jail awaiting extradition hearings. His lawyers argue that he shouldn’t be extradited because he could ultimately face the death penalty in Florida.   

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One reply on “Combat Vet. Ukrainian Freedom Fighter. Alleged Murderer: Craig Lang Was Always Looking for a War.”

  1. The comparison of ISIS terrorists and pro Ukrainian fighters is absolutely disgusting

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