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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Far-Right Violent Extremist Radicalization Among Veterans and Active-Duty Servicemembers by the Numbers

This study clearly reiterates and expands upon the problem of extremist activity among active-duty and veteran military members that needs to be addressed.

As demonstrated by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, and Ruby Ridge standoff leader Randy Weaver, cases of far-right violent extremist radicalization among veterans and active-duty members of the U.S. military may be few in their numbers, but they are lethal in their results. Over the past five years, the challenge of violent extremist radicalization among military members, particularly far-right violent extremist radicalization, has been brought ever more into the American psyche. Recent estimates suggest that approximately 12 to 15 percent of people charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol Hill riot on January 6, 2021, had military experience, a number which far exceeds the proportion of Americans with military experience. Even more alarmingly, a report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism’s found 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.

In order to glean further insight into the phenomenon of violent extremist radicalization among American military members, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] compiled 72 cases of active and former military members involved in white supremacist and far-right violent extremist incidents committed between 2017 and 2022. Using open-source reporting, we analyzed these cases on 17 variables. The study revealed the following key findings:

First, Marines were disproportionately represented in violent extremist groups compared to people associated with other military branches, particularly the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard, and were also more likely to be leaders in their groups. Former Marines who founded and/or led violent extremist groups included Vanguard America founder Dillon Hopper, Identity Evropa founder Nathan Damigo, and Wolverine Watchmen leader Joseph Morrison, among others.

Second, a small but non-negligible minority of the sample was found to have already held violent extremist beliefs before joining the military. Clearly, the military must be able to identify potential recruits who hold these beliefs, including by conducting more thorough background checks and social media searches. Both of these steps would have revealed the violent extremist beliefs of many of the cases in this sample. Similarly, it is important to understand that adherents to far-right violent extremist ideologies and members of militia groups typically do not perceive themselves as “anti-government,” and would therefore state truthfully that they did not hold any anti-American beliefs or group memberships. These types of intake questions should be amended to better assess violent extremist ideologies. Among those who joined the military with already established violent extremist beliefs were Matthew Belanger, who wrote the manifesto for the brutally violent white supremacist group Rapekrieg, and Brandon Russell, a founder and leader of Atomwaffen Division.

Third, disciplinary actions taken by the military against active-duty servicemembers and reservists, when made public, seemed inconsistent. There appeared to be no difference between actions taken against those who posted racist statements online or were found to be members of violent extremist groups and those who made direct threats of violence. This finding reinforces the conclusions from previous reports that military personnel still struggle to understand what constitutes violent extremism, which behaviors and memberships are and are not acceptable, and what the consequences are for engaging in proscribed behavior.

Finally, veterans and training dropouts were more likely than active-duty servicemembers and reservists to engage in violent behavior. In some respects, this finding is positive in that it suggests that those still employed by the military are either psychologically deterred or physically prevented from engaging in more violent acts. It is notable that previous ICSVE research with former violent extremists found that some violent extremists, such as members of the National Socialist Movement, tried to infiltrate the military to prepare for a coming race war but were instructed to keep a low profile until they were to be activated.

The psychological factors underlying veteran radicalization and subsequent extremist violence include the finding that very few of the individuals in the sample were commissioned officers. Rather, many held non-commissioned officer ranks, meaning that they had leadership experience while in the military but were not necessarily sought after for civilian jobs upon leaving the military, whereas as commissioned officers are often recruited for lucrative positions in private security and defense contractors. Thus, these individuals likely experienced a drop in purpose in their lives, as well as respect received from others, after leaving the military. This could have made them susceptible to promises made by violent extremist recruiters to give them significance, dignity, and a noble cause for which to fight. This effect may be especially pronounced for veterans of unpopular and highly traumatic service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This study clearly reiterates and expands upon the problem of extremist activity among active-duty and veteran military members that needs to be addressed. The stand-down days ordered in 2021 by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appear to have resulted in better definitions of what are and are not prohibited behaviors, but the military responses to violent extremism among active-duty members remain opaque. The military must consider the cascade of effects of taking disciplinary action without psychological rehabilitation, particularly if an individual with weapons training and extremist beliefs is kicked out with no intervention and sent out into the general public with a newfound grievance against the military and the U.S. government. Additionally, the results of this study emphasize the role that Veterans Affairs and nonprofits dedicated to helping veterans transition into civilian life have to play in this prevention and intervention work.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
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 three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), 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 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. 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, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.

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