By Richard Engel, Kate Benyon-Tinker and Kennett Werner
LONDON — Russians who were linked to interference in the 2016 U.S. election discussed ambitious plans to stoke unrest and even violence inside the U.S. as recently as 2018, according to documents reviewed by NBC News.
The documents — communications between associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked oligarch indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for previous influence operations against the U.S. — laid out a new plot to manipulate and radicalize African Americans. The plans show that Prigozhin’s circle has sought to exploit racial tensions well beyond Russia’s social media and misinformation efforts tied to the 2016 election.
The documents were obtained through the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative project funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. NBC News has not independently verified the materials, but forensic analysis by the Dossier Center appeared to substantiate the communications.
One document said that President Donald Trump’s election had “deepened conflicts in American society” and suggested that, if successful, the influence project would “undermine the country’s territorial integrity and military and economic potential.”
The documents contained proposals for several ways to further exacerbate racial discord in the future, including a suggestion to recruit African Americans and transport them to camps in Africa “for combat prep and training in sabotage.” Those recruits would then be sent back to America to foment violence and work to establish a pan-African state in the South, particularly in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
There is no indication that the plan — which is light on details — was ever put into action, but it offers a fresh example of the mindset around Russian efforts to sow discord in the U.S.
The blueprint, entitled “Development Strategy of a Pan-African State on U.S. Territory,” floated the idea of enlisting poor, formerly incarcerated African Americans “who have experience in organized crime groups” as well as members of “radical black movements for participation in civil disobedience actions.”
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The goal was to “destabilize the internal situation in the U.S.”
Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI and an NBC News contributor, who reviewed the documents, said that they offer a warning to the U.S.
“Regardless of whether or not these plans are an amateurish thought experiment, the fact that these people are talking about doing this should disturb Americans of all stripes,” Figliuzzi said.
“The unfortunate reality is that we’re seeing an adversary that will consider virtually anything to get what it wants, and if it means violence or splitting America along racial lines or eroding our trust in institutions, they’ll do it.”
Some of the documents appear to have been sent by Dzheykhun “Jay” Aslanov, an employee of the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that played a key role in the 2016 Russian meddling campaign. Aslanov was one of 13 Russians indicted by Mueller in February 2018 for his role with the IRA.
The plan was shared with Mikhail Potepkin, a Russian businessman, who then circulated it more widely, according to communications reviewed by NBC News.
Both Aslanov and Potepkin have been linked to Prigozhin, a Russian catering magnate often described as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin was also indicted by Mueller for funding the IRA. Widely perceived as a Kremlin operative, he has been connected to a shadowy mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group, whose guns-for-hire are reported to have been involved in Russian military operations in Syria and Eastern Ukraine, according to U.S. military officials.
The Mueller report exposed how Russian trolls, employed by associates of Prigozhin, deliberately inflamed racial tensions by spreading false and incendiary stories to African Americans via social media. Among the objectives was to suppress black turnout in the 2016 U.S. election.
Another of the newly obtained documents is a map of the U.S. overlaid with information about African American population size in seven southern states. Also included are the number of subscribers to websites and social media accounts that were set up by Russian trolls at the IRA to spread race-baiting rhetoric, the latter of which were later removed by the social media companies.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who was briefed on the documents, said they highlight how ongoing racial issues in the U.S. can be used in misinformation efforts.
“Russia understands how critical the African American vote is to determining the outcome of elections,” said Demings, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “And because we have not effectively dealt with racism as a country ourselves, I believe we've made ourselves vulnerable to foreign powers like Russia to continue to try to undermine.”
The documents also discuss how to expand Russia’s clout on the African continent and win business there, from arms sales to mining contracts. They outline propaganda efforts to target Africans and stir up negative opinions about Europe and the U.S.
Cooking up elaborate interference schemes is standard practice within Prigozhin’s circle, according to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian intelligence and author of “The Red Web,” a book on Russian information warfare.
“This is typical of the way Prigozhin and his team operate,” Soldatov said. “They come up with pitches, some of them very ambitious. They discuss many possible ideas and then send the pitches 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 early 20th century, communists in America proposed forming a “black-belt nation” in the South. Some party members traveled to the Soviet Union for training.
“Even though these kinds of initiatives from the Russians aren’t new to us, what is new is the rapidity with which they can get this message out on social media and saturate the American consumer with these kinds of thoughts,” said Figliuzzi, the former FBI official. “That puts the Russian initiative on steroids and should scare all of us.”
Richard Engel has been NBC News' chief foreign correspondent since 2008.
Kate Benyon-Tinker is a senior producer for NBC News, based in London.