This piece is excerpted and adapted from a larger research publication, which can be found here.
In February of 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced that the U.S. military needs the troops’ help to both prevent and eliminate extremism and extremist ideologies within the ranks. The statement was made in response to the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot.
George Washington University’s Program on Extremism showed that 12 percent of those charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6 2021, included military veterans or active-duty members. More than 25 percent of the rioters with military experience were commissioned officers, and 44 percent had been deployed at least once, raising legitimate concerns that they were weapons trained by our military and could be potentially very lethal actors. Perhaps the starkest finding regarding rioters with military experience, however, was that 37 percent of those with military experience were associated with violent extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, making them four times more likely to be part of a such a group than rioters without military experience. Even more recently, Franklin Barrett Sechriest, a member of the Texas National Guard, was charged with using an accelerant to set a fire outside of an Austin synagogue, causing $25,000 in damage. According to NBC News, the offender had stickers in his car displaying swastikas and anti-Semitic statements.
The problem of extremism in the military in the U.S. and in other Western democracies is not new but increasingly visible and perhaps growing of late when it comes to white supremacists. Over the years, some of our most notorious domestic violent extremists have had military experience and weapons training that may have helped them to be more dangerous than regular citizens: In 1995, former soldier and Bronze Star recipient, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring more than 650 others. Later that year, a Black couple was murdered by a Fort Bragg white supremacist group which included several active-duty soldiers. In 2009, Army doctor Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured more than 30 others at Fort Hood. Outside of the United States, we have seen a similar trend with members of the German military having planned “false flag” terror attacks to kick off a race war, as accounts of members of the German special forces and police being involved in far-right groups continue to surface, despite the German authorities being more attuned to and wary of far-right authoritarian tendencies in their military and law enforcement.
Why do violent extremists recruit military members?
Through analysis of 50 in-depth psychological interviews with current and former members of far right, white supremacist, and hate groups, researchers at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism have identified four primary reasons why violent extremists seek active-duty and former military to join their groups:
- First, all military members, regardless of their ultimate role, undergo basic training during which they learn how to handle weapons, and many learn far more during their time in the military than what is offered in basic training. They can bring this training to a violent extremist group, teaching members how to use firearms, run drills, and act as bodyguards and enforcers for the group’s leadership. They also have access to the military itself, to intelligence and to weapons — all things that can be valuable to those who seek to enact insider or violent extremist attacks.
- Second, military members develop a sense of discipline and structure while serving, qualities that are highly valued by violent extremist leaders. A violent extremist group cannot survive or achieve its goals if its ranks are full of rowdy young men who are interested only in drinking and picking fights. Indeed, such actions are seen as detrimental to the group’s reputation.
- This idea dovetails with our third finding — that having military members in one’s group lends it an air of legitimacy. In contrast to disorganized groups like the skinheads of the 1990s and early 2000s, or notoriously violent prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, white supremacist groups with many military members are able to paint themselves as orderly and rational, and thus are less likely to be viewed by those they hope to recruit — respectable members of society such as lawyers, doctors, and politicians — as violent or extremist movements.
- Fourth, members with military experience help far right violent extremist groups to appear patriotic. Faced with accusations of fighting against the government, these groups might easily point to their military-linked members, arguing that current and former soldiers would never associate themselves with an unpatriotic or antigovernmental organization. Instead, violent extremist groups may deploy these members as recruiters and hold them up as symbols of their deeply patriotic support of the United States (or other Western country) and defending its European heritage from foreign “invaders.”
Why are military members susceptible to violent extremist recruitment?
Our ICSVE in-depth interviews with current and former white supremacists also highlight several primary motivations for active duty and veteran servicemembers to join these violent extremist groups. The need for belonging is frequently cited as a motivation for joining terrorist and violent extremist groups of all different ilks. For people with prior military experience, the need for belonging often comes in the form as a desire for a lost sense of community and brotherhood. The closeness that is developed amongst soldiers in the same unit is difficult to replicate in the civilian world. Military veterans may feel lonely and without a support system after discharge, so the opportunity to join a group that can offer them a similar sense of camaraderie, mission, and loyalty can be incredibly enticing.
Beyond the loss of a sense of brotherhood after discharge, veterans may also feel aggrieved toward the government for not offering them physical, psychological, or vocational support that they need to succeed in civilian life. But, in contrast to feeling angry at the government, other people with military experience may see far right violent extremist groups as a chance to continue fighting for a noble cause. As detailed previously, many white supremacist groups aim to portray themselves as patriotic defenders of America’s heritage and culture, which they claim are under attack. They use this narrative to radicalize and recruit former servicemembers, especially those who were deployed to combat zones, telling them that they will be able to continue fighting for American values, albeit this time against domestic enemies who seek to destroy the country from within.
Finally, for those struggling with the transition to civilian life, and especially for those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, a continued command structure, a semblance of order, and a clear mission can offer feelings of safety and certainty, which in can in turn assuage anxiety and other features of PTSD, such as hypervigilance and hyperreactivity. Additionally, in a violent group, the hyperarousal and hypervigilance that are common in PTSD are more normalized, as one is still, in a sense, in a combat role, preparing for, if not already fighting, a war. Likewise, the camaraderie, attachments, and drinking culture may help mitigate some aspects of PTSD. As such, PTSD symptoms may also be treated, albeit maladaptively, through participation in a violent extremist group.
An opposite challenge: Violent extremists joining the military
This article focuses primarily on the radicalization and recruitment active duty and veteran service members. Another area of concern is when people who are already radicalized join the military seeking to gain weapons training, access to the military itself, and access to weapons. While some of these might openly espouse their ideology and try to recruit others, others will hide that they are radicalized, lest they be discharged or not admitted into the military at all. Therefore, the challenge for the military lays not only in intervening when servicemembers become radicalized, but also in effectively screening out potential recruits who already hold violent extremist ideologies so that they do not receive any training to bring back to their groups (or take any weapons) or gain access to mount insider attacks, nor do they radicalize and recruit their fellow servicemembers.
What should be done to counter violent extremist radicalization and recruitment in the military?
The problem of people in the military being radicalized and recruited to violent extremist groups, particularly those adhering to far right and white supremacist ideologies, as well as members of those groups joining the military in order to receive weapons and tactical training, must be addressed from a holistic perspective. In the past, including during the 2021 stand-down days in which the first author participated, many have claimed that a lack of clarity and specificity regarding military policies surrounding extremism has contributed to the continued spread of violent extremist, particularly far right, ideologies within the ranks. Several routes for dealing with violent extremists in the military have been proposed, each with its own benefits and disadvantages.
Dishonorable discharge may appear to be the simplest course of action. This option allows the military to remove a violent extremist from their ranks who might have radicalized other service members, recruited them to join their group, or even carried out an attack on civilians, military personnel, or military infrastructure. However, dishonorably discharging such a person who has not yet been violent without first taking any other actions can also be dangerous. First, doing so creates a sense of grievance against the military and the U.S. government, which could be exploited by violent extremist recruiters. Second, the need for a positive identity and belonging as key motivators for joining violent extremist groups and being dishonorably discharged essentially nullifies one’s identity and belonging as a member of the military, creating a void to be filled even further by a violent extremist group. Finally, dishonorable discharge without treatment puts the wider community at risk by sending a weapons-trained individual who is aggrieved and searching for an identity out into society, ripe for further radicalization and possible mobilization into violent acts. Therefore, intervention and treatment before or as an alternative to discharge is likely a more responsible option than dishonorable discharge.
Violent extremism and radicalization occurring in military members may be approached as a psychological issue similar to PTSD and substance abuse, which then would lead to promoting rehabilitation, rather than simply discharge, leading to grievance, and thus abate rather than enhance risk following discharge. Although violent extremism is not a mental illness, and those who commit acts of violent extremism should by all means be held accountable, violent extremism usually begins by becoming aligned with violent actors and ideologically indoctrinated into virulently hateful beliefs and does arise as a result of a myriad of psychological and social factors that can be addressed in a similar manner to other interventions where unhealthy choices are being made. Violent extremists can be rehabilitated with a combination of psychosocial treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses the underlying needs and vulnerabilities which contribute to radicalization as well as addressing the cognitive distortions, emotional needs, ideological challenge, and redirection that usually needs to occur.
There are detriments to the treatment pathway as well, however. Treating violent extremists similarly to servicemembers struggling with PTSD and substance abuse risks reinforcing to both perpetrators and victims of violent extremism that such ideologies and actions are somewhat tolerated in the military and could be interpreted as military leadership being sympathetic to violent extremists. Given these varied benefits and risks to dishonorable discharge and treatment, we propose a middle ground, wherein violent extremists once identified are required, if they have not already committed a crime, to undergo an intensive treatment program but are dishonorably discharged if treatment is refused or if the individual is noncooperative in treatment.
Researchers from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, along with researchers from RAND Corporation, will host a virtual panel about countering violent extremism in the military on Dec. 1, 2021. Those interested can register for the event here.
Dr. Anne Speckhard is Director of the ICVSE and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the ICSVE.
TM Garret Schmid (born Achim Schmid) and publicly known as TM Garret is an extremism researcher and analyst at ICSVE. He is a German-American public speaker, human rights activist, consultant, author, extremism researcher, interfaith activist and founder of C.H.A.N.G.E, a non-profit organization which engages in anti-racism and anti-violence campaigns, food drives, inter-faith work as well as an EXIT program which helps individuals leave extremist groups and ERASING THE HATE, a nationwide tattoo campaign and movement that covers up racist and hate tattoos for free.
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