Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, & Sheikh Ali Executive Summary: This article explores prison-based radicalization to…
The Spread of the Sovereign Citizen Movement Around The World
ICSVE Guest Research Report
Dr. Christine M. Sarteschi
as published in Homeland Security Today
Sovereign citizens are anti-government, loosely affiliated extremists who deny the legitimacy of their respective governments. Illegitimate governments, according to sovereign citizens, cannot produce legitimate laws and thus they claim they are immune from all laws and all government authority. They refuse many aspects of citizenry, for instance, to pay taxes, acquire driver’s licenses, register their vehicles, and they ignore laws requiring them to possess car insurance.
Engaging in resistance, they often flood courts, government offices and more recently, school boards, with excessive, meaningless paperwork. This tactic has been defined as “paper terrorism.” Sovereign citizens also engage in real estate and mortgage fraud. They move into repossessed homes or otherwise empty buildings, file quick deed transfers, and then claim the property as their own. Some sovereign citizens have committed acts of extreme violence including murder, rape, child abuse, kidnapping, among others although how these crimes link to their ideology is not always clear. Sovereign citizens have been labeled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a serious domestic terrorism threat. Estimates suggest that there are 300,000 to 500,000 sovereign citizens in the United States, and their numbers are growing.
In the United States, sovereign citizens are especially problematic for law enforcement. A 2020 analysis found 94 instances in which sovereign citizens attempted to harm, did harm or killed law enforcement officers (LEOs). Since then, sovereigns have been involved in the death or critical injury of an additional five officers. Ray Kelly allegedly killed a police officer when attempting to drive away from a traffic stop. Jessica Worsham shot and killed a female police officer who had been called to the shooter’s residence. Lashawn McNeil, who authorities suspect is a Moorish sovereign, shot and killed a New York Police officer and critically wounded another. Ronald Troyke, ambushed and fatally shot an officer in Colorado.
Routine traffic stops are often especially dangerous for LEOs because sovereigns are notoriously confrontational, argumentative and combative. They typically refuse to comply with police, at even simple traffic stops, and this behavior has led to the death of officers and sovereigns. Nevada officials state that sovereign citizens are the number one threat to uniformed officers and have deemed them the “largest terroristic threat” facing their state.
Moorish sovereign citizens are a subgroup of the sovereign citizen movement. The Moorish Militia, much like other Moorish sovereigns, falsely believe that the United States of America, is actually the country of Morocco based on a fictitious 1787 treaty and that they are immune from U.S. law. A group of Moors were involved in a nine-hour police standoff which occurred over the July 4, 2021 holiday weekend in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The heavily armed group of 11 men were prominently brandishing weapons while refueling on the side of a highway. They called themselves the Rise of the Moors (now the Moorish Militia). They were arrested after refusing to put down their weapons and refusing to comply with law enforcement orders. They also attempted to escape into the woods. None had a license to carry firearms. As of April, 2022, some members of the Moorish Militia, including the group’s leader, remain incarcerated awaiting trial.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identified four other subtypes of sovereigns. The first includes Common Law Court and National Assembly members who hold pseudo court trials in which they formally indict the offending guilty parties. More recently, some focus has been on trying and “convicting” public officials associated with government covid-19 vaccine mandates.
The second subtype are constitutional sovereigns who believe the federal government is illegitimate and is overstepping their bounds. For instance, the Anti-Defamation League released a report in 2021 on the ever-expanding efforts of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) who were founded by Richard Mack. The ADL report noted that CSPOA has effectively mimicked ideas from sovereign citizen movement in their belief that the power of county sheriff supersedes that of any other authorities, and that they can pick and choose which laws they want to enforce.
The third are the galactic sovereigns. This is not a very common subtype but they generally believe in aliens and that a law was passed in the year 2000 that abolished the IRS and instituted maritime law. The fourth type are tax protesters, a movement that can be traced back to the 1950s. Like modern-day sovereigns, they were known to use snippets of law and biblical quotes to justify their belief in the unconstitutionality of federal income tax.
Tax protesters might be the earliest version of the sovereign citizen movement. Various other movements hold similar beliefs and use similar tactics. These include Posse Comitatus, Christian identity adherents, the patriot/militia movement, and anti-Federalist groups. While each of these groups have different beliefs, they share similarities namely their anti-government attitude and their willingness to use the court system to target public officials with whom they disagree.
The sovereign citizen movement’s growth is accelerating, not only in the U.S. but in other countries around the world. The spread of this movement has coincided with the pandemic and the resultant government-imposed vaccine mandates unpopular among this group that rejects government controls and oversight. Sovereign citizen ideology and tactics have been adopted by many anti-vax groups and QAnon supporters.
Governments are beginning to notice. For instance, news reports referring to New Zealand security intelligence assessments recently warned that there is a “realistic possibility” of violence by anti-vaxx extremists whose rhetoric increasingly echoes QAnon and sovereign citizen ideologies.
There is evidence of the sovereign movement in at least 26 countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, England, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Scotland, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Wales. Reputable researchers, contend the actual number of countries involved may exceed the 26 named in this article.
Despite the movement gaining traction globally, there is very limited research documenting their international spread. To attempt to remedy this, open-source information was searched to capture sovereign citizen movement activity outside the United States. For purposes of this article, sovereign citizens are defined in the following way: any individual who is legally considered to be a citizen of their country and who simultaneously believes that their country is not a legitimate government, and as a result of that claimed illegitimacy, believe themselves to be exempt from the laws of their country. Others who were categorized as sovereign citizens were those who referred to themselves as a natural man, natural woman or natural person, free citizen, free person, flesh and blood person, among other terms commonly used by sovereign citizens to describe themselves or if a court or public officials deemed them as such because they were espousing views consistent with sovereign citizen ideology.
Cases in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and France, exemplify the global spread of sovereign citizen ideology. It should be noted that some of the named countries have had existing sovereign citizen adherents, however their numbers have risen significantly in response to governmental pandemic measures. What follows is a review of some of the more recent, noteworthy cases.
Sovereign citizen ideology was prominently on display during Canada’s “Freedom Convey” protests. Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security advisor, Jody Thomas, has since determined that those who organized the “freedom convoy” were attempting to overthrow the government. Videos, emerged showing persons who were deputizing themselves as “peace officers” or naming themselves to be “constables.” Persons so designated, claimed the “legal” authority to arrest Canadian police officers and other public officials. A similar tactic has been used elsewhere. A UK group, claimed to have trained 850 “common law constables.” These types of tactics are also commonly used by sovereign citizens in the United States.
A Canadian woman (Romana Didulo) who claims to be the “Queen/President of Canada” (as well as Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, and a star seed) has been sending “cease and desist” letters, to persons around the world, who support vaccination. The letters incorporate sovereign citizen rhetoric, QAnon ideology, and threats of extreme violence. In December of 2021, she published, in social media, a series of posts encouraging her 78,000 followers to “shoot and kill” anyone who administers vaccines to children. One of her followers was subsequently arrested for making threats to his daughter’s school.
She states that many heads of state have committed genocide and 75 have been convicted of such by the “International Criminal Court.” Though these convictions were imaginary, the “Queen” encouraged her followers to assist “common law constables,” to be appointed by the group with mass arrests. On her social media channels, she regularly makes royal decrees, declares martial law, and reiterates her claim that Canada is a corporation. She is currently traveling across Canada in an RV, meeting with supporters and has recently announced that she is planning a trip to the United States for April 2022.
In August 2021, a group of about 20 people entered Edinburgh Castle to try and “seize” it. They claimed sovereignty over the landmark castle, under Article 61 of the Magna Carta. Invoking the Magna Carta is common sovereign citizen practice reflecting their ideology, which has been thoroughly debunked in the courts.
A few months later, in October 2021, a group of sovereign citizens tried to set up their own school system in the English city of Sheffield. The schools were to be guarded with self-appointed “peace constables,” whom they believed could shield them from prosecution. These beliefs stem from the false idea that common law gives them the right to overrule governmental laws, rules, policies, etc.
The Alpha Team Assemble (formally Alpha Men Assemble), a newly formed group interweaving anti-vaccine and sovereign citizen beliefs, amassed over 8,000 members in its Telegram group. They regularly hold military-style training sessions (and now boxes matches) urging their followers to “wage war” and target individuals administering vaccines. They particularly rail against vaccines being given to children and regard themselves as “sovereign beings under common law.”
The Alpha Team Assemble and others, have been spreading claims on social media that the Metropolitan Police of London have launched a criminal investigation into Britian’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout and were planning to shut down vaccine centers. Individuals, receiving the vaccine, were encouraged to report any supposed adverse reactions and would then be given an “imaginary” criminal reference number. This prompted visits and calls to police stations. In a February 22nd statement the Metropolitan Police stated that they have not and “will not be launching any criminal investigation and no action would be taken in relation to the allegations.”
In another instance, four members of the Common Law Information Centre, a sovereign citizen group based in Donegal, Ireland, removed a very ill man from a hospital who later died. News reports have linked Irish Professor Dolores Cahill and anti-vaccination activist/Italian National Antonio Mureddu to this incident. Mr. Mureddu is currently facing charges in relation to the incident. This was not a solitary event. Others, have occurred in the UK.
Angry about vaccine mandates, members of the We The Sovereign People group had been regularly protesting outside the homes of public officials in Ireland. Members, of this group have made threats against the President of Ireland and called for politicians to be hanged. This group regards all governmental laws to be illegitimate, since the group never “consented” to them. In normal sovereign citizen fashion, they believe that Ireland is a corporation.
Australia’s Convey to Canberra, was inspired by Canadian protests. At least 10,000 protesters converged on Canberramid-February 2022, costing police an estimated $2.5 million. More than 20 arrests occurred during the Canberra protests, including the leader of a sovereign citizen movement. He was alleged to have possession of a loaded sawn-off rifle and the floor plans of Parliament House in his truck. As of early March 2022, approximately 500 protesters remained active.
In another instance, a group of sovereign citizen activists called the Original Sovereign Tribal Nation Federationallegedly set fire to the Old Parliament House, a museum in Australia. The plot was to effectively mirror the U.S. Capitol Hill insurrection. Their goal was to “evict” the current, legitimate government and establish a “people’s council.”
Former policeman Wayne Glew was arrested after allegedly posting videos encouraging others to “arrest” government ministers and other officials. Two others were arrested for impersonating public officials after alleging sending “arrest warrants” to government ministers.
Of increasing concern is Former Australian Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel, Riccardo Bosi, a major figure in the Convey to Canberra protests. Mr. Bosi leads the “Australia One Party” and has a large Telegram following (40K followers). He has called for officials to be charged with treason, hanged and executed. Experts believe that the intentions of these protest groups are “far less hygienic” than what they espouse publicly.
Western Australia authorities, under a rarely used incitement provision, arrested the leader of a sovereign citizen movement who had threatened Premier Mark McGowan. Authorities reportedly are reluctant to utilize incitement laws due to a concern that it might provoke violence from extremists. The director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), warned recently “that the greatest-security threat facing the nation was from conspiracy theory extremists and anti-government sovereign citizens…”
In Germany, sovereign citizens are referred to as Reichsbürgers (“citizens of the Reich”), or the Reich Citizens movement. Much like sovereign citizens everywhere, they do not recognize the authority of their current, legitimately elected, government. Though loosely affiliated, they do have a large network of others with whom they can rely. Estimates indicate that there are about 21,000 Reichsbürgers in Germany, some of whom having committed serious offenses including having large caches of weapons, human trafficking, attacking and killing police officers.
In early February 2022, a Reich citizen was accused of intentionally hitting a police officer with his vehicle. He has since been charged with attempted murder. Reich citizens were among the several hundred people who attempted to storm the Reichstag, the federal parliament building in Berlin on August 29, 2020. Authorities have noted that Reich citizens have shown an “increased willingness to use violence” and their numbers are growing.
Reichsbürgers are mostly male, are approximately 50 years old, are socially disadvantaged. Their ideology is a mixture of antisemitic, right-wing, and neo-Nazi-oriented thoughts. Recent reports indicate that their followers have joined alliances with groups protesting anti-vaccine mandates. This includes the new age, COVID-denying, neo-Nazis group called the Querdenken (“lateral thinkers” or “outside the box”). Officials report that those in the Reichsbürger movement have been welcomed at Querdenken rallies. Because the Querdenkers have been energized by the pandemicto potential violent actions, they are currently under surveillance by domestic intelligence officials.
Like other countries, New Zealand experienced its own version of a “freedom convey,” populated by sovereign citizensand other far-right extremists. Demonstrators are spurred on by Counterspin Media, a large platform for conspiracy theorists, that pushes extremist online content to a growing audience. In what experts described as “unprecedented in the country’s conspiracy scene” an online discussion quickly descended into real life chaos, resulting in the arrest of more than 100 people. Protestors believed that if arrested, simply repeating the phrase “I do not consent, I do not understand” three times, would force the police to release them. That ludicrous, fallacious notion comes directly from the sovereign citizen playbook.
Well-known New Zealander sovereign citizen/anti-vaxxer Brett Power filed civil complaints against Health Minster Andrew Little, accusing him of murder. Power subsequently attempted to storm the offices of the Taranaki Daily News. He was arrested in February 2022 (and again one month later), outside Parliament, after attempting to breach the police line and perform a citizen’s arrest of the Health Minister. Reportedly, Power had planned to put Minister Little on trial and execute him.
In a December 2021 sovereign citizen case, “John the living man” was sentenced to seven years for aggravated robbery and intent to injure, after he and three others broke into a man’s home, assaulted and robbed him. While in court, “John” was combative, refused to be identified, and claimed that the court, the police and the prison had no jurisdiction over him. Like other sovereign citizens, he filed bogus “legal” paperwork. He told the court, “I am me, in my natural flesh and blood and natural states.”
Another noteworthy New Zealand case involves the “Sovereign ‘Hīkoi’ of Truth“. In October 2021, members from the ‘Hīkoi’ of Truth, intentionally blocked traffic lanes with dozens of vehicles. The ‘Hīkoi’ of Truth’ members, utilized sovereign citizen tactics, including the use of bogus “serving documents” in an attempt to get past police checkpoints. The documents appeared to be issued by the “Common Law Embassy of TE IKA A MAUI AND TE-MOANA-NUI-A-KIWA EMBASSY.” They claimed to be on a “diplomatic mission.” Members of this common law group have been known to use fake license plates and issue fake diplomatic immunity cards. These tactics are like those used by sovereign citizens in the United States. It is not known how large the group is but their Facebook membership exceeds 20K. Their leader is a regular contributor on Counterspin Media.
In other instance, a man who has repeatedly called for the execution and hanging of public officials involved in the pandemic response was arrested in late March 2022 after an armed standoff. Reports indicate that he had been on the police national watch list for having allegedly made death threats against Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern. The arrest took place on property that he did not own but claimed to have possessed by “allodial title,” an illegitimate tactic used by member of the U.S. sovereign citizen movement in the early 1980s to protect their property from creditors.
One group of sovereign citizens in New Zealand and Australia have deputized themselves as law enforcement officials and are in the process of recruiting more Sheriffs. To be a Sheriff, they claim, one must join their Telegram group, fill out an online form, print it out and convince a Justice of the Peace to sign it, urging followers to “trick them if you must.” Observers noted that the group sometimes uses violent rhetoric, some calling for the death penalty to be used against public officials. They recently held a 20-plus person Zoom “grand jury,” with the primary goal of removing those in power, and to “evict a corporate government that have come in full tyranny and in treason.” The group believes that they have the right to arrest public officials under common law and have officially put them on notice.
In France, a sovereign citizen/New Age group, “One Nation” was formed in 2019. It was run by Alice Marin-Pascual (AKA Alice Pazalmar). Much like other sovereigns, they regard their French government as illegitimate. In September 2021, the group tried to buy rural property in a small town, of only 124 inhabitants, to build a Center for Arts and Science, and a research laboratory. Money was raised for the project via crowdsourcing. In only a few days, they raised close to $250,000. The French government intervened and stopped the purchase.
Ms. Pazalmar’s legal troubles continued to mount as she refused to send her children to school and did not provide for their home school education. Instead of appearing in court, she has been known to send letters and read them on her Telegram channel. In June 2022, she posted a video of herself setting her passport on fire. She was recently convicted on traffic offenses and sentenced to six months in prison.
Ms. Pazalmar has also been linked to the high-profile April 2021 kidnapping case involving Mia, the 8-year old child of Lola Montemaggi. Montemaggi is a member of One Nation and subscribes to the sovereign citizen ideology. Soon after joining One Nation, Montemaggi was deemed unstable and lost custody of Mia to Mia’s grandmother. She was increasingly radicalized by online interactions, becoming convinced that there was a pedophile network operating within the government and that Mia was in danger. Online friends advised Montemaggi to contact the former French regional councillor-turned conspiracy theorist Rémy Daillet-Widermann about her custody issue. Mr. Daillet-Widermann is currently facing unrelated charges for attempting to overthrow the French government.
Upon Montemaggi’s request, Daillet-Widermann allegedly put together a team of five men with the goal of rescuing Mia from sexual predators. On April 13, the men arrived at the grandmother’s home in a gray van claiming to be doing a reference check on the young girl. The grandmother allowed it but quickly realized that they were not legitimate. It was too late. The men took Mia to the Swiss border, where her mother was waiting in an abandoned factory. They would spend three days together. The police had been surveilling Daillet-Widermann supporters and arrested all parties involved. Mia was returned to her grandmother. Lola Montemaggi is scheduled for trial. She is allegedly planning a sovereign citizen defense. This is one example of the growing overlap between QAnon and sovereign citizen ideologies.
Similar child custody cases have occurred the United States. A woman who is both a known supporter of QAnon and sovereign citizen ideology, is alleged to have killed a man who specialized in teaching his followers bogus court services. She sought his advice regarding child custody issues, with the hope of winning back her children utilizing his sovereign citizen tactics. She eventually believed that he was working against her, trying to keep her from regaining custody of her children. She allegedly shot and killed him and has been charged with his murder.
Three other women, expressing sovereign citizen and QAnon ideology, have recently been involved with law enforcement over issues concerning their children. Included are Emily Jolley and Cynthia Abcug, the latter of whom is scheduled for a May 2022 trial for a foiled plot to kidnap her son from foster care with the assistance of other QAnon members. The police first learned of the plot from Abcug’s daughter, who felt compelled to report the planned kidnapping after her mother acquired a gun and discussed the possibility of one or more people dying “in a raid by QAnon members.”
The third case involves Sarah Stanley who is refusing to follow a court order to return her son to his father. The mother and young son supposedly have been “granted sanctuary in a safe house” operated by an individual (currently wanted on a bench warrant) well-known for spreading false QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories of child-trafficking rings in Arizona. Consistent with sovereign citizen ideology, she says that “courts don’t have power over you” and since she does not consent to the rulings of the court, she is not obligated to follow the law. Relatedly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Vice News have documented additional instances in which QAnon supporters are adopting sovereign citizen ideology.
The aforenoted instances, are only a sampling of sovereign citizen activities around the world. Certainly, their numbers and activities are increasing. Freedom from taxes and laws is very seductive to those who get drawn in. Consider this brief account by a New Zealand journalist who described a freedom protestor named Winona. She had been participating in the “freedom village” event, outside on the lawn of Parliament. “Winona” claimed to be a sovereign citizen but had only just learned about it on her way to the event.
Though sovereign citizen ideology seems relatively new, it is not. The phenomenon of common law among sovereigns, stems back to the Posse Comitatus groups which emerged during the 70s and regarded the U.S. government as being illegitimate. Shared tactics include the creation of common law courts, self-appointed judges and juries. Tribunals are created which issue ‘rulings’ based on their unique interpretation of Common Law or based on their interpretation of the Bible, the Magna Carta, etc.
Sovereign citizens, both here and abroad, self-interpret laws and deny the legitimacy of their respective governments. Their invalid beliefs, result in disruptive and or criminal activities around the world. More must be done to reign in this ever-broadening, anti-government movement.
Though sovereign citizen beliefs are not in themselves illegal, their behaviors, as illustrated by the above examples, certainly are. Crimes committed by sovereign citizens, should not be overlooked or minimized. Instead, they should be penalized to the fullest extent of the law.
Bio: Dr. Christine M. Sarteschi, LCSW is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Criminology. She researches and teaches courses in behavioral science that cover a wide range of topics including human behavior, juvenile justice, mental illness and crime, cold case research, problem solving courts, mass murder, psychopathy, and extreme violent crime. Dr. Sarteschi has published over 30 empirical articles, and two detailed research monographs for SpringerBriefs Psychology, one called “Mass and Serial Murder in America” and the other entitled “Sovereign Citizens: A Psychological and Criminological Analysis.” She also has written articles published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Just Security, Salon, New York Daily News, MedPage Today, New York Law Journal, The Legal Intelligencer, New Jersey Law Journal, and Texas Lawyer. Dr. Sarteschi’s work has been featured in a number of national and international news outlets and she has been quoted in The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Rolling Stone, USA Today, CBC, The Daily Beast, The IndyStar, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Boston Globe, among others.