A spate of recent incidents has focused renewed attention on the longstanding and increasing efforts of violent far-right extremists to recruit and radicalize serving and retired members of the United States military. The Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol highlighted this issue, with the arrests of over 100 active duty personnel, reservists, National Guard members and veterans. In our new book “God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America,” we find that the military-extremism nexus dates back as far as the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan was founded by defeated veterans of the Confederacy.
A variety of analyses focusing on issues of extremism within the military have often exaggerated the threat to the public – drawing caricatures of trained killers targeting fellow Americans, as Timothy McVeigh so devastatingly displayed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The military’s generally more conservative ethos, coupled with the diminishing percentage of citizens who have served in our armed forces and therefore understand its unique culture firsthand, supposedly make serving military personnel and veterans more susceptible to radicalization than the general public, analysts often insist.
Accordingly, many of the counter-measures they advocate focus on addressing this dangerous culture within the military itself – initiatives which the Biden administration has itself adopted. For instance, a military-wide stand-down – implemented to various degrees by commanders – was ordered within weeks of President Biden’s inauguration, aimed at explaining why extremism is incompatible with service in the U.S. military. However well-intentioned, the day of service-wide education, discussion and introspection was criticized as placating the administration’s own base by mandating extensive diversity trainings. The same sentiments account for why these efforts are also unpopular with America’s service personnel.
Perhaps most importantly, it remains unclear whether this training is achieving the goals and objectives defined by the Pentagon’s senior leadership when there is limited evidence that political extremism starting in the military is actually all that widespread, much less, pervasive.
The solution must be holistic: We must address extremists entering the military and veterans exiting it, rather than simply focusing on cultural issues inside the institution itself.
(Columbia University Press)
In focusing on military culture, the Defense Department is ignoring a more serious internal threat: the deliberate infiltration of the U.S. military by individuals intent on acquiring the wherewithal to plot future attacks, leak classified information, pilfer weapons stockpiles and even target their service brethren.
In a growing trend, white supremacist and neo-Nazi militants have volunteered for military service explicitly to abet the seditious intentions of the violent extremist movements whose ideologies they embrace.
Precisely this strategy was chosen by 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, a veteran of the famed 101st Airborne division, whose memoir recalled, “The plan was to acquire knowledge about weapons and small unit tactics – get as much training in as short an amount of time as possible – and then get out. When the real war came, I’d be ready.”
A similar testimony was offered by one former member of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi terrorist group founded in Florida, who said of his group’s efforts to infiltrate the military that “these people join the military specially to get training” and “to get access to equipment.”
The danger was further highlighted in June of 2020, when a private serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade was arrested for leaking classified information to the white supremacist satanic cult Order of the Nine Angles, hoping to facilitate an al-Qaida attack on his own unit during a deployment to Turkey. The Department of Justice called him “the enemy within.”
A similar issue arose last spring, when a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman leaked classified documents about the war in Ukraine on social media site Discord, which is often used for gaming. Although his motive is still unknown, this lowly airman railed against government overreach at Waco and Ruby Ridge, two defining moments from the early 1990s for America’s anti-government, violent far-right. He was also reportedly seen on camera firing weapons and shouting racial and antisemitic epithets, per The Washington Post. He also claimed that the white supremacist shooting targeting a Buffalo supermarket in May of 2022 was a so-called false flag operation – that the government had known in advance, but allowed it to proceed in order to obtain increased funding for law enforcement.
Accordingly, the source of one of the most serious leaks of classified information in recent memory appears to have drank deeply from the well of a variety of conspiracy theories that have previously resulted in violence. The fact that vital and classified U.S. government secrets had been entrusted to an individual who was actively peddling violent hate online is deeply alarming.
A study of insider crime published in 1990 and written by one of us concluded that successful breaches or information leaks most often depended less on detailed planning or expert execution than on the exploitation of existing security flaws. Indeed, most of these crimes did not require sophisticated planning; they were carried out against targets of opportunity. Even those facilities that were heavily secured had their security compromised simply through the use of routine access to exploit situations where security was lax – as appears to be the case here.
Even 30 years ago, this report found that “insider criminals may be among the most difficult and dangerous adversaries to defend against.” In addition, the report noted, “Insiders can accomplish great damage acting either alone, in cooperation with fellow insiders, or in league with outsiders.” The report was written before the social media era, in which the immediacy of access to digital information and in turn to the public makes such breaches even simpler.
Service personnel who quietly hold views hostile to the U.S. government clearly pose both a grave security risk and endanger the institution as a whole.
Despite this vulnerability, an even more serious development afflicts American veterans. Throughout the country’s history, former service members have played leading roles in standing up a variety of far-right extremist organizations – including the KKK, Aryan Nations and Oath Keepers – and thereafter sustaining their existence. Veterans, particularly those with combat experience, are often sought by extremist groups across the ideological spectrum, not only for their expertise with weapons, but also for their knowledge of logistics, communications, insurgency and counterinsurgency.
Additionally, veterans may be particularly vulnerable to radicalization given their personal lives, especially if substance abuse, chronic unemployment or mental health issues – including post-traumatic stress disorder – are involved. The military also often fails to provide sufficient counseling to persons leaving the services who may not have successfully transitioned from the battlefield to civilian life. As one U.S. Army veteran who was recruited into the KKK explained in a 2023 interview with WBUR, “When a soldier’s mission is taken away from him and he’s left without a mission, he’ll create one.”
The embrace of extremist political views justifying the use of violence should not be viewed only as a threat to the American public but also as a serious threat to veterans themselves. In recent years, as the issue of veteran suicides has garnered more attention, important programs have been put in place to prevent these deaths. A memo released by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in September, for instance, outlined a series of measures to reduce suicides, including “Foster a Supportive Environment” and “Address Stigma and Other Barriers to Care.” Moreover, the report noted that “these lines of effort are in line with the Secretary’s Taking Care of Our People initiative and emphasize the Department’s commitment to the well-being of the Total Force.” Elsewhere, nongovernmental organizations and veterans groups actively engage with veterans to ameliorate this problem.
These initiatives should also be replicated to combat extremism among veterans. More healthy and productive pathways for transitioning veterans will not only promote “the well-being of the Total Force” by reducing suicides, but also by countering efforts to radicalize and recruit former service personnel.
For the insider already indoctrinated into extremism, a stand-down, or indeed additional mandated training, will not be helpful. The already-avowed extremist has longer-term aims and will continue to blend unseen into the ranks. Another reason that the 2021 stand-down proved so unpopular was that many service personnel felt tainted by being associated with ideologies that were not theirs and, moreover, believed that their service to the country was not being respected.
Greater efforts to screen bad recruits in the first place is thus critically important. At the same time, far more needs to be done to strengthen veterans’ services in order to ensure that the unique situation of those who have served are sufficiently cared for, including a smooth transition back into civilian life.
The Biden administration, accordingly, has inadvertently made a serious miscalculation in its efforts to counter extremism in the military. In focusing their efforts on stand-downs that are dismissed as diversity measures to satisfy a particular constituency, the administration has allowed critics to let this be written off as another issue in America’s ongoing culture wars.
Instead, this problem should be regarded as a grave and pressing threat both to the military itself and to veterans. Longer-term efforts to strengthen screening and improve veteran quality of life will likely prove more effective in keeping both the military and the American public safe from extremism.