The Challenge of Extremism in the Military Is Not Going Away Without a New Perspective


In honor of Veteran’s Day, we are publishing our new ICSVE research report about supporting the U.S. military in preventing and eliminating extremism among its ranks. We are thankful to and want to honor all of our service members who have given their time, risked their lives and in some cases given their lives for duty, honor and country. Thank you. We hope this bit of research helps make the service even better.

Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, and TM Garret

[When I was in the Army National Guard], there were people that knew [I was in the Aryan Nations]. I joined prior to 9/11, but after 9/11 they didn’t care […] I ended up getting kicked out for being racist, but it took a lot. I protested the Martin Luther King parade wearing a swastika. I ended up getting arrested […] [I] should have been kicked out immediately with a dishonorable discharge […] they gave me a month of probation because I was under 18, so [I could] go to basic training […] I ended up getting kicked out for being a skinhead because I was very vocal […] [I joined the] Army again, they gave me a year, got kicked out again, they said you need to renounce this, I was like, ‘screw you, white power.’

 – Sean Gillespie, former member of the Aryan Nations and Army National Guard

Introduction

U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, announced in February of 2021 that the U.S. military needs the troops’ help to stamp out extremism and extremist ideologies and “views and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in, and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution.” This statement was made in direct response to the shocking findings that 12 percent of people charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol Hill riot on January 6, 2021, events that were viewed by some as domestic terrorism and others as acts of insurrection, included military veterans or active duty members. Indeed, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism’s reported that 93 percent of those with military experience involved in the riot were veterans, and the rest had either active duty, reservist, or Guard status. Additionally, more than 25 percent of those with military experience were commissioned officers, and 44 percent had been deployed at least once. 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 (Milton & Mines, 2021). Although the vast majority of the Capitol Hill rioters were not members of organized extremist groups, having previously served in the military clearly was a meaningful predictor of membership in such a group.  The military took notice and the Secretary of Defense announced “stand down” put in place to begin to address the problems of extremism in the military.

The problem of extremism in the military, both in the U.S. and in other Western democracies is not new, but appears to be a growing one. Some of the most violent extremists in the U.S. military include former Army soldier and Bronze Star recipient, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building killing 168 and injuring more than 680 others; the active duty soldiers who were part of a white supremacist group at Fort Bragg and carried out the horrific murder of a Black couple in 1995 (Reed, 2003); and Army doctor Nidal Hassan, who carried out the Fort Hood shootings, killing 13 and injuring more than 30 others. Hassan became an active shooter going to his own death after growing concerns about fighting Muslims in Afghanistan led him to consult with jihadist ideologue Anwar al Awlaki and commit himself to “martyrdom.” Aside from these infamous bad apples, the U.S. has increasingly faced militant jihadists as well as white supremacists recruiting within the ranks, or joining to gain military knowledge and access to weapons, or trying to infiltrate the ranks to carry out insider attacks. These problems are not limited to the U.S. military, with Germany for instance also recently cracking down on a group of white supremacists who were spreading propaganda, infiltrating the ranks, and even plotting for civil war. Members of the German military have planned “false flag” terror attacks, and accounts of members of the German special forces and police being involved in far-right groups have been surfacing in concerning numbers, despite the country being more attuned to and wary of far-right authoritarian tendencies in their military and law enforcement. (Flade, 2021).

As the U.S. military recently held stand down days to address these problems, fundamental terms necessary to discuss the problem were defined by the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG).  According to the U.S. military, a supremacist is characterized by a fundamental tenet that members of one race, color, gender, national origin, or ethnic group are genetically superior; thus membership in a supremacist group is usually restricted to those of that particular trait. Extremist are defined by the U.S. military, according to the JAG, as non state actors that are characterized by the use or threat of force/violence to obtain the goals of a belief that may otherwise be politically/socially acceptable. U.S. military regulations prohibit soldiers from active participation in groups that espouse supremacist causes, attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, religion or sex or that advocate the use of violence and criminal activity. However, private beliefs are not regulated, nor is mere membership, receiving mail from such groups or attending their meetings while off duty and out of uniform. Active participation is impermissible, including the behaviors of fundraising, demonstrating or rallying, recruiting, training, organizing or leading members, distributing material (posting online), knowingly wear gang colors or clothing, gang or group tattoos or body markings, or engaging in activities furthering the gangs or organization’s objectives that are detrimental to good order, discipline or mission accomplishment or are incompatible with military service.

Over the past two decades, experts have highlighted the challenge of preventing and countering violent extremism in the United States military. Although extremism in the military is not a uniquely 21st century problem, the fallout from 9/11 was linked to several issues that brought the problem of violent extremism in the U.S. military and others involved in Coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to the foreground as a more widespread issue that goes beyond a few bad apples. First, in the case of the U.S. military the need for more troops to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in higher quotas for recruiters, and hence, lowered standards for new recruits.  As one former white supremacist said of that time period, “After 9/11, they didn’t care. We need bodies. They needed meat for the grinder.”

Likewise, combat experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq in which Muslim and Arab (in Iraq) combatants were dehumanized as the enemy, referred to as “ragheads,” and otherwise denigrating them contributed to some military members later generalizing these views to all Muslims or all Arabs. 

With the increase in troops, lowered standards for recruits, and attempts by violent extremists from all sides of the spectrum to join the military, gaps in prevention and intervention were already apparent. In 2005 and 2006, an investigator with the Department of Defense [DoD] identified 320 extremists in the ranks, but only two were discharged (Koehler, 2019). Additionally, a 2005 analysis from the Defense Personnel Security Research Center found that “recruiting, MEPS [military entrance processing stations], and basic training personnel do not appear to be receiving systematic, up-to-date training on recognizing and reporting possible insider threats.” The report also highlighted problems with the screening process itself. The screening process relied on self-report, and the questions that were asked regarding involvement in extremist groups were not likely to be answered honestly by extremists, nor were they effective at identifying behaviors or sentiments that would make potential recruits vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and recruitment while serving (Buck et al., 2005). While Vice News recently reported that “most extremists join the military not to seek training for violent insurrection against the government but for the same reasons other people join: They come from a military family with a history of service or need a good job,” the results presented in the present study also highlight that many violent extremists are encouraged to join by their group’s leadership to gain status, position, weapons training and access to weapons, and recruitment of those already in the military was also a priority for many groups. In the case of militant jihadists, penetrating the military allows for carrying out insider attacks. As will be discussed in the forthcoming sections, in the case of white supremacists, active duty and veteran military members are valued for the skills they can impart to other members, their potential access to weapons, and the air of patriotism they can lend to the group for its recruiting purposes. These issues make clear that extremists seek to join the military, and that many are recruited after joining, as well. Thus, military policies must cover continuous action to prevent and counter violent extremism, not only screening processes for new recruits (Gault & Feiger, 2021).

Unfortunately, researchers have argued that while extremism in the military has been on the rise, little has changed since the early 2000s. Dawson (2021) pointed out that “according to Army Regulation 350-1, Army Training and Leader Development, the only significant annual requirement for soldiers or commanders related to extremism is antiterrorism training.” This training would not allow leaders to identify if those under their command held extremist beliefs, particularly white supremacist beliefs, especially if they were expressing those beliefs primarily online. This finding is particularly jarring, considering that reports as early as the 1990s recommended that “leaders receive periodic training in the indicators of extremist activity and information on local extremist groups” (Curtin, 1997). Additionally, the very definition of extremism is not clear within military regulations – military training materials have in the past included Evangelical Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and the Ku Klux Klan under one umbrella (Posard, Marcellino, & Helmus, 2021). Anecdotally, when asked to participate in a standdown day, the first author noted that reporting procedures and protocols for responses and interventions appeared undefined and lacking to both the author and many military members who commented or questioned about them.

Another consequence of 9/11 was the War on Terror, which created and exacerbated grievances and extremist beliefs among military members both against Muslims and for Muslims who found it against their religious beliefs to engage in war against other Muslims. A study of militant jihadist lone actor terrorists found that those with military experience frequently spoke before their attacks about feeling marginalized and wanting to defect from the military due to their opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these individuals applied to be considered conscientious objectors and committed their attacks while their applications were pending or after they were denied (Katon et al., 2020). Fort Hood’s Nidal Hassan is perhaps the worst-case example of this type of military member. In contrast to these individuals who felt that they could not fight against Muslims, the broader Islamophobic sentiment associated with the War on Terror allowed far right and white supremacist violent extremists to recruit adherents who were already primed to see outsiders, and Muslims in particular, as threatening to American culture and heritage (Welch, 2006). This may have been further exacerbated in the Trump presidency by his claimed and implicit support of such views.

With regard to militant jihadists, the greatest risks to the military itself come from those who may launch insider attacks against the military killing many either on their home bases or by sabotaging their combat missions. They may penetrate the military either by their managing to join the ranks already radicalized or by taking on the militant jihadist ideology after joining. Nidal Hassan, for example, committed the Fort Hood attack after consulting with Anwar al Awlaki about his conscientious objections to fighting other Muslims in Afghanistan. When one looks at the risks of personnel radicalizing while already in the military, however, the risk is far greater for radicalization to far-right violent extremism than that of personnel radicalizing to militant jihadist violent extremism, as evidenced by Smith and colleagues’ finding that far-right terrorists were more than twice as likely to have military experience as “international terrorists” (i.e., militant jihadists), and four times as likely to have military experience as far-left terrorists. Moreover, military experience was strongly associated with holding leadership roles in the individuals’ terrorist groups, particularly in far-right groups (Smith et al., 2011). Yet, efforts to identify the reasons why the risk exists have often been ignored or dismissed as attacks on conservatism (Koehler, 2019). Polls indicate that this risk continues to grow, however. In 2018, Military Times reported that 22 percent of active-duty troops said that they had seen “examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism in the ranks.” By the following year, that proportion had grown to 36 percent, including more than half of minority servicemembers, reporting witnessing such examples (Shane III, 2020).

The Current Context and the Present Study

As mentioned above, 12 percent of those charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol Hill riots had military backgrounds, with the vast majority being veterans versus active duty. While 44 percent had been deployed at least once, all had certainly learned to use weapons in basic training. Moreover, 37 percent of those with military experience were associated with a violent extremist group such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys (Milton & Mines, 2021). These statistics indicate a clear and present danger inside the U.S. military and among veterans. That former and active-duty military would take part in such an event – alternatively labeled a riot, an insurrection, and an act of terrorism – in the home of the U.S. democracy is deeply concerning.

The risks posed by violent extremism in the military are plentiful. Violent extremists in the military threaten unit cohesiveness and resilience in combat. As one Hispanic servicemember recounted to the first author, “In Iraq, the guys in my unit always thought I was a Muslim and would say things like, ‘You might get a bullet in the back someday.’ I’d answer, ‘I’m Hispanic! I’m not Muslim. I’m Catholic!’ But I was always wary of them.” This statement exemplifies not only the danger of minority members of the military not being able to trust the other members of their unit, but also the division that is created between minority members of the military, such as when a Hispanic member feels forced to prove that he is not Muslim, thus distancing himself from, if not actively alienating, Muslim service members, as well as feeling alienated himself. Of course, this statement also highlights the harms that may befall Muslims in the military from their own fellow service members. Additionally, minority service members may also be alienated by institutional denial of a broader problem beyond “a few bad apples,” as these minority service members may identify aspects of the military culture that are conducive to extremism that may be overlooked by leadership. Indeed, denial of a broader problem may pose a threat to unit resilience in and of itself, as it may be perceived as intentional ignorance or even implicit acceptance of some extremist ideologies. Another Hispanic military member admitted to the first author that he encountered a white supremacist on base but did not report it because he did not think the leadership would do anything.

Up until Secretary Austin brought the problem to light, denial of a larger problem has led to vagueness about which violent extremist groups are prohibited for service members to join, as well as vague reporting procedures and undefined repercussions for those reported as well as those who do the reporting. This vagueness, along with potential retaliation against reporters, is likely to discourage victims of violent extremist rhetoric and action from coming forward, thus allowing the disruptive or even destructive behavior to continue. Beyond the threat to the military’s own personnel and missions, violent extremism within the military can also be a threat to the society at large. Violent extremists may receive training from the military, either because they became radicalized after joining the military, or, in rarer circumstances, because they joined the military specifically for the purpose of receiving training. This weapons training and access to weapons makes these individuals even more dangerous to their potential victims. Also, violent extremists with military experience may funnel out weapons or provide training to their groups, thus increasing the lethality not only of the individual, but to his or her entire violent extremist network.

In February of 2021, less than a month after the Capitol Hill riot, Heather Williams of Defense One posed a series of questions as to why far-right extremists “disproportionately possess military experience,” beyond the simple assumption that they were targeted for recruitment by far-right and white supremacist groups. Those questions were: “Was [military] trauma left untreated? Are some veterans predisposed to these beliefs [and groups] because they are more tolerant of violence than the general population? Were some individuals separated from the military precisely because they held extremist views? And could discharge – with its loss of a job and sense of identity – put them at greater risk of [further] radicalization?” (Williams, 2021). The present article aims to answer these questions by exploring the intersection between far right and white supremacist violent extremism and the military from a variety of perspectives, based on a qualitative analysis of in-depth psychological interviews with 50 current and former members of white supremacist, far right, and hate groups. First, we examine why violent extremists seek out and recruit people with military experience, including active duty servicemembers. Then, we delve into the reasons why people with military experience might be attracted to these types of groups. We also briefly discuss the risk of violent extremists joining the military in order to receive training. Finally, we discuss possible directions for countering violent extremism within the military.

Method

The research method for this study was to attempt to gain access to any current or former member of a far-right violent extremist group and to then conduct a semi-structured, video-recorded, in-depth psychological interview with that person. Participants were recruited through a snowball system, though two of the interviewees referred the majority of the other interviewees. All interviews were conducted over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sample for this study is by necessity a convenience sample, as it is difficult to gain access to this population and to obtain their informed consent for an in-depth interview; thus, random sampling is not possible. Nonetheless, the researchers attempted to obtain a representative sample in terms of men and women and a diverse sample of white supremacist groups. Once access was granted, the interviewees went through a video-recorded informed consent process wherein they were informed of the risks and benefits of participating in the interview and were warned not to self-incriminate and offered various options of confidentiality. At the end of the interview, the participants were also asked if they had exited their group and were disillusioned with it, and if so, if they would they be willing to denounce their groups on video and give advice to others thinking of joining, which would subsequently be used to create a counter narrative video, as part of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]’s Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project. If they agreed to participate in that aspect of the project, the participants also indicated whether or not they were willing to reveal their faces and names in the video and if there was any information they wished to keep confidential. If they were not comfortable with their identities being revealed, there was an option to have their faces blurred and to use a pseudonym, although none took the blurred face option and very few refused to be in a counter narrative video, even those who were out of their groups but still held many of the ideological beliefs. While it was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the interview as a possibility, the discussion of and consent for the counter narrative videos was held until the end of the interview in order to make clear that the interviewer would not be biased in the interview based on whether or not the participant agreed to be featured in a counter narrative. This also allowed for the interviewee to be able to review any material they might wish to hold back as confidential. We have found that participants are generally more comfortable discussing the possibility of being featured in a counter narrative video after they have already discussed their experience at length and have developed trust in the interviewer and are aware of what will be possibly featured in the video.

The interview itself began with a brief life history of the interviewee, focusing on early childhood and upbringing, and covering life experiences prior to becoming interested in their group or the far-right ideology more broadly. Demographic details were gleaned during this portion of the interview, as were vulnerabilities that may have impacted the individual’s decision to join the group. Questions then turned to how the individual was introduced to the ideology and the group, and how and by whom they were influenced to join their groups. Questions explored the various motivations for joining and obtained a detailed recruitment history: How the individual interacted with their group prior to joining, whether recruitment took place in person or over the Internet, or both; and intake and initiation procedures for the group. The interview then turned to the interviewee’s experiences in the group, namely the roles they held, whether they attended events such as protests or rallies, and whether they ever witnessed, participated in, or were victims of violence. In the case of participation, the subjects were warned not to self-incriminate and were stopped if they began to report criminal acts for which they had not been arrested and/or convicted. Finally, interviewees were asked about changes in orientation toward the group, including any sources of disillusionment with the group or its ideology.

In accordance with the American Psychological Association [APA] guidelines and United States legal standards, a strict human subject’s protocol was followed in which the researcher introduced herself and the project, as described above. Participants were warned not to incriminate themselves and to refrain from speaking about crimes they had not already confessed to the authorities, but rather to speak about what they had witnessed inside their groups. Likewise, the participants were told that they could refuse to answer any questions and could end the interview at any point. By nature of the subject matter, many of the interviews touched on highly traumatic material and sometimes required psychological expertise to support the individual to continue speaking about painful events. The interviewer is a research psychologist who has been conducting in-depth psychological interviews for decades and is highly experienced dealing with traumatic material and quickly building rapport in the interview setting Therefore, interviews generally went smoothly, and the interviewees opened up and shared a great deal of information and frequently reported afterwards that taking part in the interview was highly cathartic and helpful to understanding themselves. The rapport built and the interviewer’s expertise often, but not always, helped the researcher to detect if and when the interviewee was not being truthful. With regard to criminal activity carried out by the subject or highly traumatic experiences, the interviewer probed lightly and backed off if the subject began self-incriminating or was having a hard time with posttraumatic recall. In general, the interviewees took between an hour and a half and two hours.

Risks to the subjects included being upset by remembering their time in violent extremism as well as the more pressing risk of being harmed by members of their respective groups for denouncing the groups, and those who judged it a significant risk for taking part in the counter narrative aspect of the research asked for a pseudonym and an imprecise location to be used in the counter narrative video, or they did not participate in the counter narrative at all. The risks of becoming emotionally distraught during the interview was mitigated by having the interview conducted by an experienced psychologist who slowed things down and offered support and feedback when discussing emotionally fraught subjects, alongside referrals to interventionists. Rewards of participating for the subjects were primarily to protect others from undergoing a similarly negative experience in their respective groups as well as having the opportunity to sort through many of their motivations, vulnerabilities, and experiences in the group with a compassionate psychologist who did not recoil at discussing some of the more disturbing aspects of their involvement in white supremacism. Although the interviewer made clear that she was not acting as their therapist and that the interview was for research purposes, many of the interviewees nevertheless found the experience therapeutic and thanked the researcher for the interview.

Statistical Analyses

The data presented in this article consist of descriptive statistics and qualitative analyses. The researchers used the interviewer’s notes, transcribed interviews, and videoed interviews to perform a comprehensive thematic analysis, which, along with the open-ended interview questions decided a priori, was then used to create 252 variables on which the semi-structured interviews were coded. Thematic analysis was an appropriate method for this type of qualitative research, given that past research has found that 15 individual interviews is generally enough for a clear, comprehensive thematic scheme to emerge and for future interviews to not add additional qualitative information (Guest, Bunce, & Johnson, 2006).The present sample includes 50 interviews. The variables related to the participants’ demographic information, life experiences, motivations and influences for joining the group, roles and experiences in the group, sources of disillusionment with the group, and feelings about the group and the participants’ actions in the group. Thematic analysis focused on interviewees’ experiences either in the military or with members of their groups who had military experience. The second author used SPSS to code all of the interviews on these 252 variables.

Results

The present sample includes 40 men, nine women, and one person who identified as non-binary. Thirty-six of the interviewees were American. Another five were Canadian, five were German, three were British, and one was from New Zealand. Their ages ranged from 24 to 70, with the interviewees reporting having joined their groups at vastly different ages – two interviewees were raised in their respective groups and had their first official experiences in their groups at ages five and six, while another interviewee did not join his group until age 56. As such, the sample includes people who joined white supremacist groups between 1978 and 2020. Four in the sample were still relatively active in their respective groups at the time of the interview, but one interviewee contacted the interviewer to say that he had decided to quit permanently (after having quit multiple times before) as a result of having the opportunity to think more deeply about his experience during the interview. It is unknown whether he has remained out of his group. Descriptive statistics for the sample are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

Why Do Violent Extremists Recruit Military Members?

“Former military were the people I targeted. They were looking for camaraderie from the military, looking for that brotherhood. [I was] sometimes successful. We had a lot of former military. Thirty percent were former military.” – Shane Johnson, former Imperial Knight Hawk of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan

As Lauren Manning, a Canadian former Hammerskin, recounts, “Ex-military have that very tribalist mindset [so it is] very easy to go to a group like this […] They were valuable. They can bring their former combat training and impart those skills.”

Scott Shepherd, formerly of the Ku Klux Klan [KKK], said that his group got “the most elite training,” for free: “They had access to Stinger missiles, all kinds of high-powered military weapons. They [the KKK] are recruiting veterans out of the military because all of these veterans have the best training in the world you can get. Who better to recruit? They would get weapons from military contacts.”

Through analysis of the 50 in-depth psychological interviews with current and former members of far right, white supremacist, and hate groups, we identified four primary reasons why violent extremists want people with military experience to join their groups. First, all military members, regardless of their role, undergo basic training during which they learn how to handle weapons. 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. Phoebe Rose, a former member of the English Defence League, explains the training her group received from police and active-duty military members:

How to avoid the police, how to corral a crowd, how to have a fight and not get caught, how to defend yourself. If you start picking up weapons that’s a problem. Doing graffiti is a problem. Don’t pick up a gun, knife, or can of spray paint; they can put you in prison, proscribe you. Stick to the streets, rhetoric, keep fights away from the rally and only with counter protests, and make sure the police are in the middle. How to defend yourself. Some would provide protection for more valuable members. I had at least two police officers who were at the rallies protecting me on either side of the stage. Military guys would blend in very well and keep order amongst the people in the rallies.

Maik Scheffler, a German former Hammerskin, describes the training his group received:

We definitely had advantages through those high-ranking military [members]. There were training camps almost like military camps, where we learned to handle weapons, fighting, and battle strategies […] In Germany they are very secretive and saw themselves as elite, and they also had contacts inside the military. Some were with mercenary experience, some had military experience in Bosnia.

Said Tony McAleer, formerly of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada, “[We were] stockpiling guns and ammo, two assault rifles, shotgun, and a pistol. Everyone had them. We were waiting for the race war to come […] I joined the military to get training; 1989 to 1992 [I was in the] reserves, one weekend a month.”

In addition to learning operational skills, military members also 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 often detrimental to the group’s reputation if they seek to present themselves as legitimate political organizations. In contrast, disciplined active and veteran servicemembers help violent extremist leaders maintain their group’s image as a serious, respectable, and patriotic group. About the veterans in the NSM, Jeff explains, “they liked that we had ranks and they followed orders and were disciplined, so they were good for us to recruit.”

In a similar vein, 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, even as patriotic, and thus are less likely to be viewed by those they hope to recruit as violent or extremist movements. Finally, 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 antigovernment organization. Instead, violent extremist groups may hold up these members as symbols of their deeply patriotic support of the United States (or other Western country) and defending its European heritage from foreign “invaders.” Military members make great recruiters for extremist groups for these very reasons. They are looked upon as respected and patriotic citizens and thus lend legitimacy to the group as a type of militia that can function alongside, or in place of the military, which many of these groups claim to be in the process of being infiltrated by the so-called Zionist Occupation Government [ZOG], which they say aims to destroy white culture replacing white people with people of color, particularly immigrants.

Some interviewees were recruited into the white supremacist fold because of this military aspect, which affirms their patriotism and manliness. Timothy Zaal, formerly of the White Aryan Resistance and Hammerskins, was rejected when he tried to join the military. Instead, he says, “I got into skinheads. I thought it was my patriotic duty. If the military is not going to take me, I’ll join this other thing, they were very militaristic.” A current leader in the KKK, Kevin, said that he wanted to be in the military growing up but would not have been able to pass a medical screening due to his having severe respiratory problems as a child. Similarly, Søren, a former member of the NSM, said that he knew that his asthma and other medical conditions would prevent him from being able to join the military and deploy to Iraq in the early 2000s. He saw that the NSM had a militaristic aspect that attracted him: “We wore those crazy uniforms. It was actual brownshirts like Germany. Now I see they switched to black uniforms. Something about that appealed to me.” Beyond the uniforms, the NSM “used military terminology. Everyone started as a private and […] there was some guy that had worked with George Lincoln Rockwell that was a colonel. That appealed to me.”

Across the Atlantic, TM Garret recalls that,

When I was the leader of an overseas Ku Klux Klan group based in Germany, I often thought about our actual goals to achieve those. It was clear to me that recruiting Skinheads and people with no or low education will lead nowhere. I created a policy of banning Skinheads and open Neo-Nazis from membership and recruiting educators, businesspeople, and especially members of military and law enforcement.

TM’s group was particularly successful in recruiting police officers, eventually bringing in so many local police officers that they had to create “a separate ‘Klavern’ (local unit) to keep their identities secret. One of the officers also became a member of our internal secret police, the ‘Klavaliers,’ a group [which] regular members did not know about […] The goal was to organize paramilitary training camps.” As he explains about recruiting both military and police in Germany and the United States, “The tactics and goals […] were the same in both countries. Access to weapons and the knowledge about how to use them, self-defense training, and influence in government structures.” He continues, “It was clear that once the movement got to the point of revolution, we could not do it without the help of law enforcement or military.”

Why Are Military Members Susceptible to Violent Extremist Recruitment?

Ryan Lo’Ree, a former Hammerskin who served in the U.S. Army, recalls,

I was deployed to Iraq for 18 months. It was probably one of the worst deployments for the units. It was 2004 [when] I joined […] We had a lot of mass suicides, guys killing themselves, killing their families. When we got home, [it was] hard to find a job. GM left our area […] [The recruiter] played on my anger at the time, my father, my childhood, the army abandoned me and did nothing for me.

Ryan recalls that the discipline he had developed in the military was immediately appreciated by his recruiter. He quickly won respect and moved up into a leadership role in the group during a time after his discharge when he was feeling lost and unappreciated.

Says Ken Parker, a U.S. Navy veteran and former member of the National Socialist Movement [NSM],

Eleven years in [the] Navy, E-7, I should be able to get a job […] economy was so bad […] so I couldn’t get a job […] [The] military has a real hard stance on many issues. I was already in at 9/11. I already had bad feelings about Muslims. Once you hate one group, it’s easy to hate others […] When you are in the military for so long, you lose that sense of camaraderie and rank structure.

Ken was already primed to hate by the dehumanization of the enemy he had learned in the military and easily generalized that to all Muslims. As he points out, this hatred for Muslims was easily spread to other non-Christian religious groups and other immigrant groups as well. The KKK and later the NSM offered him the lost sense of camaraderie and rank structure after leaving the military, while also respecting and valuing him for his prior military service and skills he could impart to the group.

As noted in the previous section, violent extremist recruiters seek out military members because they can provide weapons training, possibly weapons themselves, access to the military, a sense of discipline, an air of legitimacy, and an appearance of patriotism to their group. The recruiters also have a great deal to offer current and former military members in return. The interviews with current and former white supremacists 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 (Doosje et al., 2016). 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, as Ryan recounted above. Keith Schneider, formerly of the NSM, says that the majority of his group’s “stormtroopers” had military experience and a subsequent anti-government sentiment: “They are very resentful; the government is not doing everything it could, stabbed them in the back, put them in combat and turned their back. They are willing to join anything that is of a subversive nature.” Shane Johnson says that those he recruited with military experience grew to believe that the government was even more sinister than just having turned their back on them:

Thirty percent were former military. They’d get into those conspiracy things, government conspiracy, they weren’t even racists necessarily, militant more […] they’d wear full camo to the rallies, [they] wanted to be like a militia, anti-government. We believed the Jews controlled the government, ZOG [Zionist Occupied Government], that’s what they believed, in control of the banking system, all major government, media.

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. Jeff Schoep, who led the NSM for over two decades, recalls his reasons why he thought his group would win a potential race war: “A lot of guys had military training. There was some training in the group in different areas, [but] mostly we were so ideologically committed, that it was righteous and true, that there was no way to be defeated.” Josh Pruitt says of his fellow Proud Boys who rioted at Capitol Hill, “A lot are ex-military and just don’t want our country taken over.”

Also valued by violent extremists is military members’ sense of discipline and structure. In turn, these recruiters and group leaders can offer military veterans a chance to maintain that discipline and structure after re-entering civilian life. For those struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in particular, a continued command structure and 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. Being in a violent group can also offer a context for those suffering PTSD. For example, 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.

Lauren Manning spoke of one man in her group who was “in the Canadian Armed Forces. [He] got discharged for his severe PTSD from Iraq; he was out when he joined us.” Lauren said that the frequent drinking in the group helped “lessen the symptoms for him.” Still, Lauren recalls that some “guys would call him weak and make fun of him” when he was emotionally triggered, and once “he broke his leg in a mosh pit, went to the ER, woke up there, and freaked out.”

As such, PTSD symptoms may also be treated, albeit maladaptively, through participation in a violent extremist group. These groups offer a justification and an outlet for a veteran’s anger that they feel deeply but may not be able to explain (Blevins et al., 2015), as well as a drinking culture that may help keep posttraumatic flashbacks and nightmares at bay.

An Opposite Challenge: Violent Extremists Joining the Military

The prior sections each focused on the mechanisms by which violent extremists radicalize and recruit 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.

Sean Gillespie, formerly of the Aryan Nations, is quoted above regarding the way his ideology ultimately got him discharged from the Army National Guard, although he admits that the Guard tolerated his radicalization for far too long. In Sean’s situation, his membership in the Aryan Nations was not kept a secret – he protested at a Martin Luther King parade while wearing a swastika while he was serving. More insidious is when violent extremists join the military for the distinct purpose of gaining operational skills, if not actual weapons, to bring back to their groups. Elisa Hategan, a former member of the Canadian Heritage Front, recounts,

Everyone was encouraged to join the military to get free military training, particularly munitions. We had the Canadian Airborne Regiment in our group, we had Heritage members who were part of that unit […] Some [members of the now disbanded Regiment] had put a swastika in their barracks in Somalia. There was another who said he wanted to go to Somalia to kill [n-word].

As noted earlier, and also in Canada, former White Aryan Resistance leader Tony McAleer admits, “I joined the military to get training, 1989 to 1992, [I was in the] Reserves, [it was] one weekend a month.” Viktoria, a German-born former member of the American white supremacist/Odinist group, Wotansvolk, describes how she and others in her group attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps: “Me and seven other people went to join the Marine Corps for combat training, access to resources, to get up the ranks. Two tried to get up to General. Five got in; I don’t know their names.” Viktoria was not admitted into the Marines but a friend who did was able to get her a job as a security contractor, which allowed her to gain similar military and security knowledge. Raine, an American former member of the National Alliance, says that “a lot of guys who came to cookouts were veterans and there were active-duty. We had a guy who came to our cookout. Everyone got a weird vibe then it ended up in the news. He was trying to steal weapons from a base.”

While Sean did not hide his ideology, these other individuals might not give a clear indication 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 and preventing them from radicalizing others, 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, nor do they radicalize and recruit their fellow servicemembers.

Conclusion: 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, reports the Anti-Defamation League, “the military has tended to respond to major incidents with partial revisions or updates to the regulations or with investigations of specific units or groups.” This piecemeal approach is part of the reason why so 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 (Anti-Defamation League, 2021; Buck et al., 2005; Dawson, 2021). Several routes for dealing with violent extremists in the military have been proposed, each with its own benefits and disadvantages.

After acknowledging that there is an extremism problem in the military that needs to be routed out, in April 2021, Secretary of Defense Austin called for standdown days, during which extremism in the ranks would be addressed within the military leadership. During at least two of these standdown days, during which the first author was a speaker, a video of Secretary Austin was played. About extremism in the military, he said:

What is new is the speed and the pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today, thanks to social media and the aggressive and organized and emboldened attitude that many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are now applying to their recruitment and to their operations […] You know, it concerns me to think that anyone wearing the uniform of a soldier or a sailor, an airman, marine, or guardian, or Coast Guardsman would espouse these sorts of beliefs, let alone act on them. But they do. Some of them still do. […] Share with your leadership your own personal experiences with encountering extremists and extremist ideology in the military, should you have any. And I want your leadership to listen to those stories. And I want them to listen to any ideas that you might have to help us stamp out of the ranks the dangerous conduct that this ideology inspires.[i] 

Alas, such sharing of experiences were not the focus of the standdown days in which the first author took part. Rather, they simply went through defining terms and existing rules about impermissible behaviors which moved from thoughts and beliefs which are not regulated, to impermissible actions and behaviors, which are. However, there was confusion among the participants over whether it was impermissible to take part in violence in the situation where one might need to defend themselves if they were counter protesting an extremist group. Others wondered if the Secretary of Defense would be publishing a list of banned groups, which was later done. Finally, there did not appear to be clear reporting guidelines in place nor clearly defined intervention protocols. Indeed, leadership provided only vague answers about what would be done if one did report extremism.

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 are key motivators for joining violent extremist groups and being dishonorably discharged essentially nullifies one’s identity and sense of belonging as a member of the military, creating a void to be filled even further by a violent extremist group (Simi, Bubolz, & Hardman, 2013). 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.

After his discharge from the Army National Guard, Sean Gillespie, quoted earlier, committed a series of seven hate crimes, including horrific acts of violence against Black men and attempting to firebomb a synagogue. Had there been an intervention rather than simple discharge, maybe he would have been pulled out of the group before, as he callously describes it, “[I] ran over some Black with my truck…beat up some Black guy with a baseball bat…etc.”

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, vulnerabilities, and cognitive distortions which contribute to radicalization, and ideological challenge, and redirection, which consists of serious conversations with credible messengers (for militant jihadists this messenger is often a conservative Islamic scholar who can point out the manipulations of sacred texts made by jihadist groups; for white supremacists this might be a former violent extremist or a religious leader about the fallacies of their violent extremist narrative, including Christian Identity, a warped interpretation of Christianity which is espoused by many white supremacist groups (Speckhard, 2011).

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 the 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.

References

Anti-Defamation League. (2021, March 9). Extremism in the U.S. military: Problems and solutions. ADL. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/blog/extremism-in-the-us-military-problems-and-solutions

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[i] https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/lloydaustinextremismmilitarypsa.htm

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, and Ellenberg, Molly, and Garret, TM. (November 11, 2021). The Challenge of Extremism in the Military Is Not Going Away Without a New Perspective. ICSVE Research Reports.

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally.  Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing 25 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the ps

To contact Professor Anne Speckhard please use the following link:

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