Last month, a Coast Guard officer was arrested after an investigation found he was stockpiling weapons and preparing to attack politicians in Washington, DC. But it also highlights a more specific link, publicly recognized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2009, between far-right domestic terrorism and the American military and veterans.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and DHS, the agencies tasked with collecting information and investigating domestic terrorist groups, once had task forces focused specifically on far-right terrorism. In 2009, DHS released a report on far-right terrorism that highlighted the threat of far-right groups recruiting veterans for their extremist causes. Conservative politicians and the media have jumped at the report, calling it an unfair assessment of both conservative groups and disrespectful of American veterans. The backlash was so severe that then DHS chief Janet Napolitano publicly apologized for the report and dismantled the team tasked with tracking down far-right threats.
Despite the outrage, the link between far-right terrorism and the US military has a long history. From the early days of the KKK after the Civil War, white supremacist and anti-government groups specifically recruited military personnel and veterans for their causes. The first leader of the KKK was a former Confederate General, Nathan Forrest, chosen for his ability to lead and attract other Civil War veterans to their cause. White supremacist figurehead and author William Pierce wrote a pamphlet in the 1970s that urged white supremacists in uniform to actively seek out other members of the service for recruiting.
According to a 2006 Southern Poverty Law Center report, in the 1990s, far-right leaders were pushing young members of their groups to join the military in order to develop skills with weapons and explosives – skills that military personnel would then use to train their comrades. extremists, as well as carry out attacks.
The Defense Department has long maintained that it has zero tolerance for white supremacy or anti-government extremists within its ranks, but history suggests that many white supremacists have joined it nonetheless.
The threat that active-duty military personnel and veterans will radicalize with far-right rhetoric is hardly theoretical: in the 1990s, a gang of white supremacists formed in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Brigade. , stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1995, two members murdered a black couple, which sparked public outcry and an alleged crackdown on neo-Nazi activity in the ranks.
But the crackdown did not stop other extremist groups from thriving in the military. The SPLC report notes that a military investigator in 2006 “identified and submitted evidence on 320 extremists at Fort Lewis in Washington state, but only two were fired.”
More recent reports point to neo-Nazis and far-right extremists in the military. In 2012 alone, a member of the Missouri National Guard was arrested for supplying weapons and running a neo-Nazi paramilitary training camp in Florida, two soldiers were arrested after murdering a former soldier and his baby friend in order to cover up their murder plot. against then-President Barack Obama and a Marine Corps sniper team in Afghanistan posed with a Nazi SS flag. A segment of Vice News from 2014 showed that the KKK was actively seeking to recruit veterans of the United States Army, and a few were responding to their call.
While a majority of ex-combatants turned national terrorists are far-right or racially motivated, there have also been instances where servicemen or ex-combatants have been inspired by other extremist ideologies. Fort Hood gunman in 2009, Nidal Hassan, described his mass shooting as an act of jihad during his trial. But according to data from the non-partisan New America think tank, right-wing national terrorists committed twice as many attacks in the United States as jihadists between 2001 and 2013. Despite this, law enforcement efforts continued. are focused on the prevention of soldiers and veterans. terrorism have been largely eviscerated.
The majority of US military personnel who have committed domestic terrorist attacks are veterans, not on active duty. According to the same New America data, 21 military veterans were identified as having committed or attempted an act of violence as a right-wing extremist between 2001 and 2013. While some radicalized before or during military service, others appeared to first participate in right-wing extremism after leaving the military, as they sought identities as civilians.
According to Daryl Johnson, author of the 2009 DHS report and who has followed far-right extremism for the US military and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, it was during the period immediately after leaving the military service that veterans are most exposed to radicalization efforts. . Johnson says those who leave the service frustrated or disenfranchised are most at risk. “Some may feel ostracized, as if they can’t understand [to civilians]. They are looking for a sense of community. Some find this community in far-right groups or anti-government militias, because it “always gives them that adrenaline rush,” Johnson says. “Going out into the woods is like being on an FTX, or a field exercise.”
Many far-right extremist ideologies shrouded in nationalism can also appear patriotic on first interpretation, which has an initial appeal to veterans. “They reinterpret or use a very narrow interpretation of the US Constitution,” Johnson says, “but it plays [a veteran’s] desire to do something for their country.
Unfortunately for investigators, collecting information on far-right terrorists, especially those currently in the U.S. military, is not necessarily enough to justify an arrest or dismissal. As Johnson points out, there is an often exploited loophole in the Defense Department’s ban on white supremacist groups, but not related anti-government militias. “They are more proactive about white supremacy, especially after Charlottesville,” Johnson said. “But for anti-government groups and militias, there is no departmental policy that prohibits being a member of these groups.”
As long as a serviceman does not hold a membership card for a white supremacist organization, there is little that Defense Department investigators can do except track individuals and pass information to the FBI and the Department of Justice. once the member leaves the army. .
But Johnson suggests soldiers and veterans can have a more proactive hand in spotting and reporting neo-Nazis in the ranks. “When you see someone say something drastic or extreme, just ask them, ‘Hey, where did that come from? “Engage the person, do it in a humorous way, or ask a follow-up question to see if they really believe what they’re saying,” Johnson said. “Of course if the person gets agitated or increases their drastic rhetoric, you must inform his command or inform the police. But law enforcement only gets involved when they’ve switched to threats and criminal activity. “