The issue of Right Wing Extremist (RWE) groups taking advantage of military veterans and service members is not new. The military represents the aspirations of many RWE groups as a symbol of power and force which they view as good and legitimate. RWE groups in turn seek to exploit service members whose identities have been destabilized by their military experiences and who have difficulty reintegrating by offering them continuity of mission. Although this issue is limited to a very small minority within the military, the question of how and why these groups find fertile ground in niche populations of the military is vital to prevent and respond to infiltration of the armed forces by RWE elements.
Extremist groups have drawn military influence for well over 150 years. The Ku Klux Klan was formed from Confederate veterans in order to continue their mission of racial oppression. Investigation into right-wing extremist incidents, from Posse Comitatus and The Order to Atomwaffen Division (AWD), indicates that the most active members usually have a military background. “Lone wolves” such as Timothy McVeigh, who have incubated in RWE circles but who lack official affiliation, often also have military backgrounds.
While these groups have always taken military influence, their militarization is fairly recent. The Order (1983-84) is considered the first RWE paramilitary cell and the predecessor of the 1990s militia movement. The Turner Diaries (1978), which specifically recommends the recruitment of veterans and those with combat skills in order to perpetrate terror acts, has been cited as a major influence in this militarization.
According to DHS, veteran membership in RWE groups is likely to increase at moments when large numbers of returning veterans coincide with economic downturns and challenges to “traditional” norms. Surges in RWE activity and militia membership in the late 70s, early 90s, and late 2000s coincided with troops returning from Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as poor economic climates and sociopolitical stressors (mass immigration, abortion, the Rodney King Riots, the election of Barack Obama, etc.).
The military appeals to extremists because it represents the aspirations of right-wing extremist groups. Not only do RWE groups covet such training, but the military is one of the few institutions they respect. The military is a symbol of action, heroism, machismo, anti-pacifism, American exceptionalism, and the authority to force--all values RWE groups hold. Many of these groups already adhere to the metaphor that they are soldiers in a “culture war;” the military grants them not only skills but ideological legitimacy.
Military duty strains and reshapes individual identity through training and duress. RWE groups appeal and manipulate this change through physical and online communication and propaganda. While the percentage of military soldiers who engage in RWE comprises a very small minority, infiltration remains a threat The 2009 DHS report stated that military veterans were susceptible to the effects of recruitment by RWE groups after significant military events such as Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990. In conjunction with a 2008 report from the FBI, veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan were also deemed at risk.
The politicization of personal experience can result in discontent and eventually lead to political action. Identity Theory, constructed by Sheldon Stryker, argues that an individual’s sense of self is compiled of multiple identities that interact with one another to shape social roles. Loss of identity can lead to a search for self-esteem and certainty, which can facilitate radicalization into extremist organizations not limited to RWE. Issues with reintegration resemble “Involuntary Role Exits,” when an individual experiences a permanent interruption of status or position within a highly structured system such as the military.
Militias represent community and continuity of mission. Militias usually claim to be fighting to uphold the constitution and protect the “real” America from “enemies, foreign and domestic,” just as in the oaths taken by veterans. Military service and militias both tend to attract people with similar values (gun rights, patriotism/nationalism, personal liberty) and many veterans feel disillusioned with their government after service. For veterans who face difficulty reintegrating, militias and RWE groups offer like-minded communities.
The primary recruiters of veterans and active-duty personnel are militias and militia movements which directly appeal to ex-servicemen. These groups openly brag about veteran membership as an indicator of legitimacy and present themselves as a direct continuation of the mission “to protect and serve.” Hate groups such as Atomwaffen Division are less common, but often include military personnel in their ranks and adopt military aesthetic and behaviors in order to appear legitimate.
Extremist groups primarily seek to adopt training in weapons, tactics, and strategy, as well as military discipline. Militias and groups like AWD mimic military tactics and weapons training for their members. Preferred skills include firearms handling, explosives, survival, and squad tactics. Some groups also adopt the aesthetic of the military, such as uniforms and (nominal) ranks, in order to appear legitimate. Examples include the Doomsday Hatecamp that was run by AWD in 2017, as well as the training camp Nathan Wooden was suspected of running before his arrest in Florida in 2012.
Right-wing extremist groups have increasingly sought to acquire ex-service members and their training. Groups such as AWD have pushed to recruit veterans as well as active-duty service members in order to exploit them as instructors during training camps (“hate camps”) and to divert resources from the military. It has also been alleged by insiders that AWD and like-minded groups have also attempted to infiltrate the military in order to acquire further skills and recruit. Propaganda and online instructions can help a potential extremist join and navigate the military to the benefit of the RWE group.
Extremists have come from every military branch without discrimination. They may be more likely to choose the Army due to its focus on weapons and combat skills, but extremists have been found in the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force. However, stateside soldiers are far more likely to be expelled for extremist activities than deployed soldiers, and peacetime soldiers are more likely to face consequences than wartime soldiers, due to the need for personnel.
The Extremist Team at The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) has been monitoring the activity of Right Wing Extremist groups and military connections. By watching these groups closely, CTG will learn their recruiting techniques, identify their supporters, and be able to better monitor for any extremist behavior in support of these Right Wing Extremist groups. As these groups evolve we intend on closely analyzing individual parties and creating profiles to better prepare and protect against any potential threats. Please contact us with any information.
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