Posted on February 11, 2021

Military Struggles to Answer How Many Extremists Are in Ranks

Missy Ryan et al., Washington Post, February 9, 2021

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin faces an early test as he races to advance a major initiative targeting far-right extremism in the ranks, a challenge that officials acknowledge is complicated by the Pentagon’s lack of clarity on the extent of the threat following the U.S. Capitol riot.

Austin’s highly unusual order for a military-wide “stand-down,” slated to pause normal operations in coming weeks so troops can discuss internal support for extremist movements, underscores the urgency of the task ahead for the former four-star general, who last month became the nation’s first African American Pentagon chief.

The Jan. 6 events at the Capitol, in which Trump supporters stormed Congress in an attempt to prevent President Joe Biden from taking office, laid bare the appeal of white supremacist and anti-government groups among some veterans and, in smaller numbers, currently serving troops. Among the 190 people charged in the siege, at least 30 are veterans. Three are reservists or National Guard members.


Officials attribute support in the military for far-right movements among troops to larger trends in American society. But experts say the stakes are particularly high for the military, which imbues specialized training and skills that could make far-right groups more powerful, and dangerous.


Historical data from outside the government has suggested a correlation between military experience and right-wing terrorism. An academic analysis published in 2011 by the Justice Department’s Terrorism Research and Analysis Project found that right-wing terrorists have been significantly more likely to have military experience than other terrorists indicted in U.S. courts. They were also more than twice as likely to assume a leadership role in right-wing groups.

According to Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s START Center, 15.6% of a sample of 1,534 individuals arrested for ideologically motivated crimes were veterans or serving in the U.S. military, significantly higher than the percentage of the population that are veterans or currently serving in the force. {snip}


One reason for the military’s limited understanding of the problem is that current rules permit troops to join extremist organizations, so long as they don’t become “active” members who fundraise, recruit or take part in other prohibited activities. While the distinction is rooted in troops’ First Amendment rights, it means supporters of extremist causes can go undetected.


Even more consequential is the difficulty of establishing a common definition of extremism that officials can use to track internal trends, a challenge enhanced by a rapidly changing ecosystem of extremist groups, symbols and technological access. In some cases, an individual’s extremist beliefs might not pose a threat to society at large but could jeopardize order and discipline in the military.

To effectively identify signs of extremist ideology, experts say military commanders must make themselves more familiar with relevant external signs like flags, patches or tattoos. The creation of a military-wide tattoo and symbology database would help, they say.


Lawmakers including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services’ military personnel subcommittee, are calling for the Biden administration to mandate stronger screening of social media for service members. Under her proposal, recruits would be required to provide social media handles when they apply for security clearances.


Another problem for the Pentagon is deciding which of the movements proliferating online are extremist and how involved service members must be before they are counseled, disciplined or removed from the armed service.

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the military has relatively clear rules concerning involvement in white supremacy groups, but not for anti-government organizations or QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat.

In another sign of increasing congressional concerns, the annual defense policy bill, passed after Congress overrode a veto by Trump on Jan. 1, established a deputy inspector general to conduct oversight of diversity and inclusion in the military and also track supremacist, extremist or criminal gang activity.

The law requires the Pentagon to include questions about anti-Semitism, racism and white supremacy in its annual workplace climate survey, potentially showing how many service members have encountered racists and extremists in the ranks.

Last year, Speier proposed including a provision in the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would explicitly name violent extremism a crime under military law, but it was removed when Trump threatened to veto the bill, according to Speier’s office.

But in December, a Pentagon report recommended a similar change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would “address extremist activity.” Speier’s office said they believe changes to military law could be made by the end of 2021.

Some experts have suggested the military should create deradicalization programs for service members, many of whom are in their teens when they enter the military. {snip}