Simon Wald is on a mission to ‘Defend Europe’.
The tall, fair-haired, multi-lingual, 30-year-old German makes an almost comical sight in the baking Sicilian sun as he takes photos of a docked ship whilst trying to avoid the suspicious stares of its crew.
“The first step on this mission is to achieve a complete documentation and observation of the doings of those NGOs,” he tells me.
“Those NGOs” are charities such as SOS Méditerranée and Save the Children operating search and rescue ships off the coast of Libya, whose mission is to save the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Aboard the subject of Wald’s camera, an NGO vessel named Aquarius about to set out to sea, three people peer in our direction - one holds up a walkie talkie.
“I think they’re calling the port police - we should go,” he says.
Wald is an affable and passionate young man who spends a lot of time talking about history and politics - albeit rather selectively.
He is part of the Génération Identitaire (Identity Generation or GI) movement that views the ongoing and vast movement of migrants a threat to the identity of native Europeans, a view which has been described as nothing more than “thinly-veiled racism” and has even drawn the ire of top-level European politicians.
Approaching midday the heat is unrelenting. We find some shade and sit on the concrete of the pier and talk for nearly an hour.
Wald talks - he speaks quickly in English with a sharp German accent, quicker than most native speakers, and he’s fond of an analogy.
Describing his fears that the European Union is promoting a mixing of cultures which will lead to “monoculture”, he compares the EU to the mixing of beer, apple juice, water, cherry juice and Prosecco - individually they’re pleasant “but you would never mix them all together in a big glass and drink it because it would taste bad”.
He then does a similar thought experiment only this time using colours.
Wald goes on:“[The NGOs] believe that millions of migrants may come to Europe but the left-wing thinking in this case completely ignores that if you bring the whole of Africa to Europe, you will not save the African people but you will make Europe another African failed state.”
The ‘Identitarian’ Mission To Defend Europe
He and a small number of his fellow Identitarians, around 14, have taken it upon themselves to put an end to the migrant crisis by chartering their own boat, the C-Star, hoping to find evidence of collusion between the NGOs and the people-smugglers.
The original plan for the C-Star was to sail to Catania via the Suez Canal in late July, pick up its contingent of five Identitarians and continue to the search and rescue area off the Libyan coast on the 20th under the banner of ‘Defend Europe’.
But political pressure and a series of setbacks - including, ironically, accusations of people-smuggling - meant the crew were forced to fly to Cyprus in order to avoid those opposing their mission.
The ship was detained in the port of Famagusta after at least 20 Sri Lankan nationals were found on board and the ship’s crew and owner, Sven Tomas Egerstrom, appeared in court charged with preparing and circulating false documents.
They were later released.
Anti-extremism group, Hope not Hate, has been particularly active in monitoring the group which it has labelled “a far-right outfit with an anti-Muslim, extreme agenda” working to “block humanitarian work and put the lives of refugees at risk”.
The Globalist Plot
Undaunted, the crew, including leader Martin Sellner, insist the mission has so far been a success.
Speaking to HuffPost UK from the C-Star as it docked briefly in Crete on Tuesday, the 28-year-old Austrian graphic designer said: “For us it’s already a big success to be on board the ship and heading to the search zone because so many people and powerful lobbies tried to prevent it at any cost.
“We want to go there and film [the search and rescues] and show it from a different angle because every picture and video we have is basically filtered and catered for the narrative of the NGOs.”
Sellner is joined onboard by 23-year-old Clement Galant from France, 23-year-old Italian, Lorenzo Fiato and 26-year-old German, Robert Timm.
This idea of a “powerful lobby” set against the C-Star is one that permeates many of the group’s statements.
Sellner expanded upon it in a video posted on the Defend Europe Twitter feed in which he describes the mission as “the worst nightmare of all the [leftists] in the world, of Soros, of the NGO’s and the whole migration lobby”.
“Soros” refers to George Soros, a multi-billionaire and 19th richest man in the world who has donated huge sums to liberal and progressive causes over decades.
To many people he is a champion of human rights and democratic ideals but to the extreme far-right he is, despite no actual evidence, the leader of a secret, Jewish-led, globalist plot to flood Europe with Muslims and take control of the global economy.
Wald also referenced the financier when discussing what could be done to fix economies in African nations, telling me: “We cannot control Soros or Goldman Sachs, these [people] are not any of our kind but what we can do is make the migrations stop.”
Supporting The Mission
The C-Star has been paid for through crowdfunding and has attracted worldwide support, most notably from two young right-wing YouTubers, Canadian, Lauren Southern and American, Brittany Pettibone.
The two are well-known in alt-right circles and in May of this year Southern took part in a similar Génération Identitaire mission in which the boat she was aboard actively tried to block the Aquarius as it approached Sicily.
She live-streamed the event and at one point can be heard saying: “If the politicians won’t stop the boats, we’ll stop the boats.”
The media focus and setbacks have at times turned the mission into more of a circus with individuals seemingly more concerned with YouTube views than saving Europe.
For the Identitarians and Defend Europe this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it has the effect of amplifying what is a relatively small movement. It’s difficult to put an exact number of GI members, but protests draw crowds in the tens and hundreds only.
But the hype around Defend Europe and Southern’s ongoing dispute with her critics does threaten to distract from the group’s stated aim.
The Bigger Picture
More importantly, political developments in Rome and beyond betray the fact Defend Europe is a tiny detail in a far bigger drama.
No one is denying there is a migrant crisis of which Italy is bearing the brunt, turning the issue into a heated debate ahead of elections next year and giving populist movements in the country a significant boost.
The Italian Government has become increasingly concerned with migrants and the people-smugglers and wants other EU countries to share the burden.
On Wednesday it authorised a limited naval mission to help Libya’s coastguard curb migrant flows.
It has also been fighting with the NGOs over a new code of conduct to regulate rescue missions which culminated this week with the seizure of a vessel belonging to Jugend Rettet, one of the five of eight groups which did not sign up to the new rules.
Ambrogio Cartosio, chief prosecutor in the western Sicilian city of Trapani, has accused Jugend Rettet of aiding the people-smugglers but stopped short of saying there was a “coordinated plan between the NGOs and the Libyan traffickers” as Defend Europe claim, adding that such a thing is “fantasy”.
Indeed, the group has found itself in the position of playing catch-up before it even reaches the search and rescue zone.
And its latest tweet appears to try and take credit for the developing political situation even though events on the ground are happening completely independently of the group.
It is difficult to deny NGOs have unwittingly become part of the migrant crisis chain that stretches from countries such as Sudan and Niger, across the Mediterranean and into almost all the countries of Europe.
It is also undeniable that people-traffickers and smugglers push boats from the Libyan shore knowing those aboard could be rescued by an NGO ship, which often are only 12 miles from the coast where international waters end.
In their defence, the NGOs insist they are on a purely humanitarian mission to save lives, which despite their best efforts, have not been enough to prevent around 2,400 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean this year alone.
‘Migrants Are Cowards’
To Wald, the solution to the migrant crisis is simple: “There is an easy answer: these migrants have to stop fleeing their countries and rebuild their nations, but these people are cowards.
“They flee, they’re left their families, they’ve left their friends, their parents and their grand-parents.
“They left them just for a better life in Europe.”
This is easy to say for a seemingly well-off German in designer sports gear whose generation has never seen conflict of the scale of those now fleeing to European shores, but their logic is being challenged on a number of levels.
Firstly, if Defend Europe did succeed in preventing the operation of NGO ships, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) points out they only account for around a third of rescues, the others being carried out by navy and coastguard vessels as well as merchant boats which are obliged by international law to come to the aid of craft in distress.
In addition, the notion that migrants are “cowards” appears ludicrous in the face of how perilous the journey is, not just the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean but the constant threat of kidnapping, torture and rape these people face in lawless Libya.
Indeed, whilst HuffPost UK was aboard the Aquarius we witnessed at least eight bodies being transferred from another rescue ship and one man who had been shot by the Libyan police as he tried to clamber onto a dinghy - all in one day at sea.
“Some are trapped in Libya and some die along the way - so many people die on the desert crossing for example, it’s one of the most dangerous moments of the journey.”
Opponents of Defend Europe also say it fails to even acknowledge the hugely complex interplay of poverty, human rights abuses, colonial legacy, exploitation of natural resources (often by Westerners) and geo-politics that plague African nations and inspire people to leave in the first place.
Linardi added: “Migrants are seen as a commodity, they’re not seen as humans and it’s a business you can engage with very easily and make a lot of money out of it.
“So you have militias, criminal groups, criminal gangs, private citizens, you have... everyone that is potentially involved and in a place like Libya, yeah you have the government but you also have over 100 tribes and over 100 militias so it’s really difficult to say who’s doing what.”
Pettibone alluded to this in a recent tweet saying a diplomatic tussle between a Libyan warlord and the Italian government was “proof of the necessity and importance” of the mission.
But quite what five civilians on a small research vessel can do about an international standoff involving national governments, the United Nations and Libya’s armed militias is unclear.
The Ideology Of Defend Europe
Similarly, Defend Europe’s idea of what represents European and African “identity” and why the two can’t, in their eyes, mix, appears unworkably broad.
Sellner tells HuffPost UK:
“It’s the overall combination of our history, of our languages, of our European people and we think that this is something that is ever-changing, it is a dynamic thing.”
While Wald told me:
“A white German rocket engineer couldn’t make it a day in Africa chasing a lion and on the other hand, an African wouldn’t get used to a roundabout and everyday traffic. This is not a question of equality as such, this is just differences. Of course I said this is as a humorous comparison but you have to admit, Africa is not famous for its engineers and Europeans are not famous for living in the Sahara and managing hard desert life.”
Regardless, the Defend Europe mission continues. The C-Star, an old Finnish Navy vessel, is currently approaching the Tunisian coast at a sedentary 6.3 knots (7.2 mph).
But the reality of what at first may have appeared to be a sun-filled Mediterranean cruise for a bunch of mostly young men, has at times turned into a precarious-looking trek across the high seas.
Indeed, a more recent video suggests at all but one of the five have been suffering from sea-sickness and may not be enjoying their new life at sea.
What happens if they reach their intended destination and find no evidence of NGO collusion is unclear, but the 2,754 people (and counting) who donated a total of $194,000 (£149,000) to the mission are expecting results in what has become the Identitarian movement’s biggest stunt to date by a large margin - the pressure is on.
The group appears muddled about what it wants to achieve and so far doesn’t have any plans for the future - both Defend Europe men I speak to come across as disbelieving that they’ve even set sail, never mind think about the future.
Wald told me in an email on Saturday, the same day the C-Star reached the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya: “By now our mission is wider and more successful, than we had ever expected.”
He also promised a “another big surprise for NGOs, traffickers and the pro-migration media” in the coming days”.
Despite the secrecy and muddied vision, the group does have a definite idea of what it thinks will happen if it fails.
Sellner tells me: “The worst case scenario would be at some point it kills our democracy.
“At some point in the future Europe could have a democratic vote for Sharia law. The basis of a functioning democracy disappears, the people, the culture and the community, and mass immigration is destroying it.
“I think at some point this process is irreversible and it could destroy our identity and our democracy.”
German Wald is more direct: “We started this mission to save [our families] and protect them, to preserve Europe and stop it becoming a multi-cultural hell, another Islamic continent with civil wars and Sharia law.
“We do not want Europe to become a second Africa.”
Finally, Wald has to leave me. We shake hands and despite fundamentally disagreeing with almost everything he has said, it’s hard not to be slightly charmed by the permanently-jolly German.
But it doesn’t last long.
An hour later I’m sat aboard a small speedboat watching an array of kayaks and other craft symbolically block the port of Catania in protest of what is believed to Defend Europe’s imminent arrival.
A handful of the boats had passed Wald and I as we sat talking on the pier. He had said sarcastically: “Ooh, so many of them.”
Later that day Defend Europe releases a video showing they have already arrived in Cyprus and will now skip Catania to avoid the demonstrations.
Wald lied to my face - he said that morning the C-Star was still headed for Catania. For a split second I’m hurt he would do such a thing as I remember how we sat on the pier in the sun talking for over an hour.
Then I remember something else Linardi said to me the day before.
“Defend Europe from what? From a 26-year-old who’s been tortured day and night and he’s lucky to be alive, skinny and completely empty and... just fucked.
“That’s quite shameful if that’s what you have to defend yourself from.”