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Of Richard Engel, Kate Benyon-Tinker and Kennett Werner
LONDON – Russians who have been linked to interference in the 2016 US elections discussed ambitious plans to fuel unrest and even violence in the United States in 2018, according to documents reviewed by NBC News.
The documents – communications between members of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch linked to the Kremlin indicted by special adviser Robert Mueller for previous operations of influence against the United States – have traced a new plot to manipulate and radicalize African-Americans. Plans show that the Prigozhin circle sought to exploit racial tensions far beyond Russian social media and disinformation efforts related to the 2016 elections.
The documents were obtained through the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative project financed by the character of the Russian opposition Mikhail Khodorkovsky. NBC News did not independently verify the materials, but the forensic analysis of the Dossier Center appeared to support communications.
One document stated that the election of President Donald Trump had "deepened the conflicts in American society" and suggested that, if successful, the draft of influence would "undermine the territorial integrity of the country and the military potential and economic ".
The revelations arrive as US intelligence agencies warn of probable Russian interference in the 2020 elections.
The documents contained proposals for different ways to further exacerbate racial discord in the future, including a suggestion to recruit African Americans and transport them to camps in Africa "to prepare for combat and train for sabotage". These recruits would then be sent back to America fomenting violence and working to establish a Pan-African state in the southern United States, including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
There is no indication that the plan – which is light in detail – has ever been implemented, but offers a new example of the mentality around Russian efforts to sow discord in the United States.
The project, entitled "Development Strategy of a Pan-African State on US Territory", launched the idea of recruiting previously imprisoned African American poor "who have experience in organized criminal groups" and members of "radical black movements for the participation "in actions of civil disobedience".
The objective was "to destabilize the internal situation in the United States".
Frank Figliuzzi, former counter-intelligence assistant at the FBI and a contributor to NBC News, who reviewed the documents, said he offered a warning to the United States.
"Regardless of whether or not these plans are an experiment in amateur thought, the fact that these people are talking about doing this should disturb Americans of all kinds," Figliuzzi said.
"The unfortunate reality is that we are seeing an opponent who will consider practically anything to get what he wants, and if that means violence or breaking America along racial lines or eroding our trust in institutions, they will."
Some of the documents appear to have been sent by Dzheykhun "Jay" Aslanov, an employee of the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm in St. Petersburg that played a key role in the 2016 Russian meddling campaign. Aslanov was one of the 13 Russians indicted by Mueller in February 2018 for his role with IRA.
The plan was shared with Mikhail Potepkin, a Russian business man, who then spread it more widely, according to communications revised by NBC News.
Both Aslanov and Potepkin were linked to Prigozhin, a Russian catering magnate often described as "Putin's chef". Prigozhin was also indicted by Mueller for financing the IRA. Widely perceived as a Kremlin agent, he was linked to an obscure mercenary group known as the Wagner Group, whose rental guns would be involved in Russian military operations in Syria and in the east of the Ukraine, according to US military officials.
Mueller's report revealed how the Russian trolls, employed by Prigozhin's associates, deliberately ignited racial tensions spreading false and incendiary stories to African Americans through social media. Among the objectives was to suppress the influx of blacks in the 2016 US elections.
Another of the newly obtained documents is a map of the United States superimposed on information on the size of the African-American population in seven southern states. Also included are the number of subscribers to websites and social media accounts that were created by Russian trolls at the IRA to spread rhetoric about racial bait, the second of which was later removed by the companies of social media.
Representative Val Demings, D-Fla., Who was briefed on the documents, said he emphasized how racial issues in the United States could be used in disinformation efforts.
"Russia understands how critical the African American vote is in determining the outcome of the election," said Demings, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "And since we have not effectively tackled racism as a nation, I believe we have become vulnerable to foreign powers like Russia to continue trying to undermine."
The documents also discuss how to expand Russia's weight on the African continent and win business there, from arms sales to mining contracts. They stress propaganda efforts to hit Africans and elicit negative opinions on Europe and the United States.
Developing elaborate interference patterns is a standard practice within the Prigozhin circle, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian intelligence expert and author of "The Red Web", a book on the Russian information war.
"This is typical of the way Prigozhin and his team operate," Soldatov said. "They come with shots, some of which are very ambitious. They discuss many possible ideas and then send throws to the Kremlin to be authorized or rejected. It's their modus operandi."
The idea of African-American statehood has an intellectual precedent in Russia. During the 20th century, the communists in America proposed to form a "black belt nation" in the south. Some party members went to the Soviet Union for training.
"Although this type of initiative by the Russians is not new to us, the novelty is the speed with which they can spread this message on social media and saturate the American consumer with this kind of thoughts," said Figliuzzi, a former official of the # 39 ; FBI. "This puts the Russian initiative on steroids and should scare us all."