They gathered in a snowy forest dressed in their menacing best: combat fatigues and military-style boots, their faces obscured by ski masks.
One group jogged off into a thicket of beech trees while another watched an instructor demonstrate, with a 6-inch hunting knife, the proper technique for stabbing an assailant in the chest and throat.
The training session in the rolling woods near the Turkish border was not a military exercise, and the participants were not soldiers or police. They were members of a far-right vigilante group with a simple goal: stopping Muslim migrants from entering Europe.
Alarmed by what they describe as overly permissive European policies on immigration, the vigilantes have tapped into a deep vein of xenophobia across the continent. Their English website calls on Europe-born citizens to “help close and defend the southern border … from the hordes of radical fake Islam adherents, terrorists and [Islamic State] fighters pouring in and headed for Europe.”
“We’re ready for a war,” said Vladimir Rusev, a burly former military man who is one of the group’s founders. “We’re guarding against criminals and terrorists who are working against the interests of Europe and the United States.”
His organization — which on a recent weekend mustered about 40 camo-clad men and two women at a rustic guesthouse three miles from the border — claims to have 800 volunteers patrolling at any given time.
They have prevented hundreds from crossing the 140-mile border illegally, sending them back to Turkey or handing them over to Bulgarian authorities, Rusev said.
Rusev said they aren’t a paramilitary force because they don’t carry lethal firearms, and they don’t stop Syrian refugees or genuine asylum seekers. But they chronicle their exploits vigorously on YouTube, where one undated video shows masked volunteers rounding up about 20 bewildered-looking young migrants.
They praise President Trump, whose effort to ban citizens of seven (later amended to six) mainly Muslim countries from entering the United States was “an important measure,” Rusev said.
Rusev lamented that they only have a few bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles and a drone. Despite soliciting donations online, he said they pay for transportation, equipment and the occasional weekend training meeting out of their own pockets.
“Sadly we do not receive any help from any country in the world, nor from the Bulgarian government,” Rusev said. “We finance ourselves with our own salaries and pensions.”
His organization is made up of two branches that date to Bulgaria’s struggle to overthrow five centuries of rule by the Ottomans, an Islamic empire based in Turkey. The civilian wing, Shipka, is named for a 19th century battle in which Russian troops and Bulgarian volunteers defeated Ottoman forces; a unit made up of ex-military men is dubbed Vasil Levski, after an independence hero.
Mistrust of Turks runs deep among the members, who view the Ottoman period as a dark era of enslavement by Muslim outsiders.
“That’s the world I want to keep from harming my family and my child,” Radoslav Kamenov, a 34-year-old warehouse worker with an 8-year-old daughter, said over a dinner of grilled fish and potatoes during the training weekend.
Bulgaria granted refugee or protected status to 1,341 of the 19,418 people who applied for asylum in 2016, according to official statistics.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights advocacy group, says the vigilantes’ calls for armed action and anti-migrant propaganda violate the constitution. It filed petitions last year to have the Shipka and Vasil Levski groups’ nonprofit licenses canceled, but the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office so far has declined to bring a case.
The Helsinki committee — whose chairman, Krassimir Kanev, has been assaulted and spat upon in public — is a favorite target of nationalists including Rusev, who said human rights groups prioritize the protection of migrants over native Bulgarians.
Rusev also criticized the border police, whose officers have been found taking bribes from human smugglers. Last summer two top officials resigned after it emerged that the police gave a contract for transporting detained migrants to a businessman who had been connected to a smuggling ring.
“They’re supposed to be stopping illegal immigration but they’re doing the exact opposite,” Rusev said.
As the meeting drew to a close, the volunteers had an idea. Several men donned white plastic jumpsuits — snow camouflage — and ran to the hills near where a handful of border police were parked in a truck. The goal was to show the officers that migrants could be tricky.
They weaved between the bare trees, then lay waiting for several moments. Finally they jumped up and ran toward the police, waving their arms and shouting.
The officers looked on, but did nothing.