(US Army Photo by 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment)

PERSPECTIVE: How Can We Stop Extremists from Infiltrating the U.S. Military?

Far-right violence, right-wing extremism, and/or racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist (RMVE) terrorism are on the rise globally – including in Western countries such as the United States. FBI Director Christopher Wray has implied that the white-supremacist threat is significant, increasing, and the RMVEs are the “top threat” to U.S., domestically. Two reports published this year, one from the United Nations and one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), support Wray’s argument. For example, the 2020 CSIS report states that “right-wing extremists pose the most significant terrorism threat to the United States, based on annual terrorist events and fatalities.” A 2019 International Centre for Counter-Terrorism Policy Brief  offered a similar conclusion, noting that white-supremacist and violent extremist groups are believed to have been trying to infiltrate some countries’ military forces, including those of the United States.

Does the United States, particularly its military commanders and military officials, do enough to counter the actions of violent extremist groups that have or may attempt to infiltrate the ranks of the U.S. military? What security measures and preventive actions can be taken to stop such infiltration?

Infiltration and Recruiting by Active and Former Military Personnel

An FBI intelligence-assessment report from July 2008 indicated that white-supremacist and violent extremist groups have long been interested in “recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence.” Some recent incidents prove the accuracy of the FBI report. For example, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Cory Reeves was found to have ties to a violent extremist group called Identity Evropa (now known as the American Identity Movement) in 2019. The same year, eleven other U.S. military members were under investigation for alleged connections to the same group. Atomwaffen Division (AWD) is another violent extremist group that has active and former U.S. military personnel among in its ranks, including Vasillios Pistolis, an active U.S. Marine, who was not only a member but also a cell leader, and Joshua Beckett, a U.S. Army veteran who had served as a combat engineer, provided firearms training to AWD members and encouraged them to enlist in the military. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, also an ex-Marine, was arrested on February 15, 2019, as he was preparing for and planning a mass terrorist attack as part of a race war. During Hasson’s arrest, 15 weapons and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition were found in his apartment. Army Spc. Jarrett William Smith was arrested on September 21, 2019 after investigators found distributing bomb-making information he had posted on social media. Many other active and/or former members of the U.S. military have been affiliated with the Boogaloo group. Alleged former U.S. armed services members were recruited by the Azov movement, a Ukrainian white-nationalist group that seeks to defend the white race. According to a poll conducted by Military Times in 2019, more than one-third of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members said that they had seen signs of white nationalism or ideological racism within the U.S. military or had themselves been the target of such racism by fellow soldiers. The poll results suggest that people have begun to question whether the U.S. military is taking the issue of white nationalism among its ranks seriously and whether military officials are doing enough to counter the problem.

Opinions vary on how active and former U.S. military personnel are recruited or radicalized by violent extremist groups. The four opinions voiced most often are that the military personnel were (1) radicalized before they applied for military service, meaning that their extremist mindset and ideology predated their service in the military; (2) radicalized during their military training by peers within the academy or by people to whom the trainees were connected outside of the academy; (3) recruited and radicalized while they were on active duty; and (4) recruited and radicalized after they completed their military service and were discharged or retired. Knowledge of these potential routes to radicalization and recruitment should make it easier to track these processes and to develop and implement preventive measures.

‘Don’t be Afraid of the Black Rock in the Rice; be Afraid of the White Ones’

When the terrorist or enemy is an outsider, it may be easier to identify who it is and thus respond accordingly to the threat. When the terrorist or enemy is an insider or former insider (i.e. active-duty or former member of the military), it is much harder to identify it and develop a strategy to overcome the threat.

What could be more dangerous than a threat that is in the body but unnoticed – a threat from an individual who is greatly trained and highly skilled in using lethal weaponry and killing; a threat from an individual who knows the loopholes and gaps of the body; a threat from an individual who can direct the barrel of a weapon toward its own values and people?

In 2012, four U.S. soldiers were arrested for plotting to overthrow the government and assassinate then-President Barack Obama. The soldiers planned to take over an Army base and seize its ammunition control point in Georgia and to bomb a dam and poison the apple crop in Washington state. They were all members of a group called FEAR (Forever Enduring Always Ready).

Such recruited individuals are like the Trojan horse. Imagine that a terrorist group based in Russia has among its members men and women actively serving in the U.S. Army. One day, a war breaks out between Russia and the United States. Who will these people fight against, the Americans or the Russians? Most likely, it will be the Americans.

It would be wise, then, to heed the Turkish and Japanese proverb: “Don’t be afraid of the black rock in the rice; be afraid of the white ones.”

Even Small Numbers May Have Massive Impact

The number of radicalized individuals within the ranks of the U.S. military may not be known even by Pentagon officials unless the individuals showed some signs of their violent extremist ideology. The number of such individuals, however, is a minor issue for two reasons. First, the ideology is so toxic that a small number of individuals can spread and influence others and quickly turn those small numbers into big numbers. Second, these individuals are highly trained, well-equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to plot violent acts, and have easier access to military vehicles and weaponry than other terrorists. Even a small number of such individuals, therefore, are capable of committing mass killings and causing significant destruction of buildings and infrastructure. In one sense, an individual with these characteristics is like a one-person army.

A good example is Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran and the recipient of several military-service awards – and the person responsible for bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that left 168 people dead and numerous others wounded and became the deadliest homegrown terrorist attack in U.S. history. For a fictional example, imagine this: An F-35 fighter aircraft pilot who adheres to a violent extremist ideology and is filled hatred of the United States terrorizes, attacks, and kills a massive number of people with that single aircraft. Such a catastrophe would be no different than the tragic 9/11 attacks and their consequences. These highly trained individuals are not and should never be put into the same category of threat assigned to ordinary terrorists.

Left unchecked, such one-person armies could damage the reputation of the most trusted institution in the United States – the U.S. military – for generations and be difficult to rebuild. Some might even find it appropriate to attach fascist label to the U.S. military, hindering its ability to effectively defend one of the world’s leading democracies. It is essential, therefore, that the U.S. military and the federal government work to prevent the actions and consequences of violent extremists and to respond swiftly should any of these groups breach the military’s carefully crafted preventive measures.

What Can Be Done?

The application of a traditional counterterrorism approach to the threat posed by violent extremists is only part of the solution. The threat is internal, rather than external, and therefore presents unique challenges that must be addressed with different short-term (i.e., tactical) and long-term (i.e., strategic) strategies such as the ones discussed below. It should be noted that some of the strategies may be within the purview of the U.S. military, while others may not be; however, all strategies that are adopted must not violate the constitutional rights of the people. The following arguments are presented for consideration by those officials responsible for crafting a solution to threat from violent extremists:

From a sociological (and historical) point of view, society, and especially families, have great responsibilities. If a family still believes in slavery and looks at non-white people as second-class citizens, then the fruit will not fall far from the tree. In other words, these people do not come from “nowhere land” and are not aliens; they come from families and from the society in which we all live. Put differently, if there are only white candies in a box, we would not expect a colorful candy to be found. Society and families are the candy box and the members are the candies. Therefore, these still-living-in-history families should be educated and persuaded to adopt a new and more inclusive multicultural democracy that allows them to reject their biased mindset. This is more of a long-term solution, though probably the best and most substantial one to address the problem. The U.S. government therefore should develop policies to help people embrace the new democracy. The U.S. military has nothing to do with this solution, as it is not within its purview.

Public awareness is important. The results of at least one research study show that not all members of the public are aware of the threat posed by extreme white-nationalist groups. Again, these people do not come from “nowhere land” and are not aliens; they are part of the society in which we all live. They need to be mindful observers. As the study results showed, “making the public aware of the problem can lead to greater concern … [and] … may bring pressure on lawmakers and the Pentagon to address the issue.”

Military policies should be revised. The problem of infiltration of extreme white-nationalists among the ranks of the military may stem from the historical roots of and justification for U.S. military policies. If that is the case, the U.S. military should change accordingly. For example, if some military institutions and academies still bear the names and symbols that honor the “whiteness” of the military, then those names should be removed as signal to violent white-nationalist groups that their extreme ideologies are not acceptable in a diverse democratic society.

Early identification is highly important. One of the basic strategies for identifying violent extremist groups before they strike is conducting thorough criminal background checks on the group’s members. This approach, however, does have limitations. For example, individuals who do not have a criminal record would not be detected through a criminal background check.

It is not easy to detect leaderless structures. Violent extremist (i.e., white-supremacist) groups tend to engage in “leaderless resistance,” a practice that enables, and perhaps even encourages, individual members to form small cells or engage in violence as lone wolves or lone actors. These small cells and lone wolves are difficult to detect before they strike. The federal government’s intelligence capability therefore should be used to detect and prevent attacks by violent white-supremacist groups. Intelligence cooperation and collaboration among institutions at all levels of government (i.e., federal, state, local) is essential.

Training and educating are strong tools. Training at military academies should be grounded in not only patriotism but also fairness, equity, inclusion, and diversity. The foundation of U.S. policies and the value of the military should be emphasized in the curriculum. Trainees should be made aware that commission of or involvement in the commission of acts of violent extremism are violations of the oaths of enlistment and office that have been in place since the establishment of the U.S. military and that true patriotism involves acting and behaving according to U.S. Constitution and military values. Trainees should be taught that patriotism is not the sole province of white people in the United States. In other words, patriotism can be expressed by anyone – regardless of their skin color. Trainees should be reminded that members of the military are required to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and its founding values at all times.

Ongoing training for members of the military should include ways to detect conspiracy theories and fake stories used as tools for manipulating, brainwashing, and radicalizing individuals within and outside of the military and the facts needed to disprove the conspiracy theories and fake stories before violence erupts.

A unit that has a similar role and function as the counterintelligence unit in the intelligence field is needed for the U.S. military. This unit should be limited to internal affairs and military personnel only. Its main goal should be to detect and reveal possibly disguised military personnel who have violent extremist ideologies and intentions and who directly or indirectly might choose to serve the interests of their ideology and/or the ideology of a terrorist group and/or a foreign country. A screening process that can detect the signs of violent extremism should be implemented and used on a continuing basis.

Cyberspace plays a critical role in terms of countering the activities of violent extremist groups and individuals. The Internet has been used to create terrorist groups, recruit terrorist-group members, spread propaganda, share instructions for orchestrating violent attacks, and raise funds to carry out violent acts and maintain daily operations. White racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists use virtual platforms such as 4chan, 8chan (replaced by 8kun), Telegram, iFunny, Discord, and even online game portals frequently. Some terrorist groups are formed and developed entirely in such virtual environments. In addition, some terrorist groups conduct their operations and instructions about those operations entirely over the Internet. The ability to track cyberspace programs and platforms could give authorities clues about terrorist groups and their intentions. Such tracking, however, is not easy to do. Plans for tracking terrorist groups on the Internet should be developed in collaboration with technology companies, the creators of cyber platforms, and social media companies in order to effectively prevent groups and individuals from spreading their violent, extreme, and toxic ideologies around the world.

Some terrorist groups also make frequent use of Internet chat rooms to spread conspiracy theories, such as those propagated to QAnon, that are based on lies and fake stories. The chat rooms are used to influence and indoctrinate listeners into adopting the QAnon view of the world. A counternarrative team and environment are needed to disprove the fake stories and prevent false information from being used to indoctrinate and radicalize susceptible people.

International connections and cooperation are necessary. Some violent extremist groups are formed in the United States virtually but may be controlled by entities outside of the country (i.e., The Base, whose leader resides in Russia). The members of many violent extremist groups in the United States are sent to Ukraine for training, exchange of knowledge, and support some white nationalist groups; therefore, expanding the investigation of such groups beyond U.S. borders would be prudent. Successfully countering these international and global structures requires international cooperation, collaboration, and coordination. If the threat is global and international, then the counterterrorism approach and related policies should have a global and international focus. Even if one country does not consider violent white-nationalist groups to be a threat, then the efforts of all countries that do recognize and acknowledge the threat could be undermined. For example, if Ukraine continues to be a hub and a training paradise for violent extremist groups, then the counterterrorism approach will never be successful. With an analogy, if one of the links of a chain is weak or broken, then it does not matter how strong and solid the other links are. A holistic and all-in approach is important.

As with most terrorist organizations, the flow of money does matter. Unusual or uncharacteristic transfers of funds from the accounts of military personnel to account holders in foreign countries (e.g., Ukraine or Russia) should be scrutinized by authorities for connections to violent extremist groups. Such groups also collect money through virtual companies. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, found that at least 69 hate groups use online companies to collect money through the sale of merchandise and from direct donations. In that regard, companies that process online payments should be included in efforts to impede terrorist financing. An approach that involves mutual cooperation with financial institutions is needed to prevent such groups from raising money for terrorist purposes.

Most white racially and ethnically motivated terrorist groups adhere to a survivalist philosophy. Given that belief system, such groups may be inclined to purchase and stockpile large quantities of guns and ammunition in preparation for a race war that may or may not materialize someday. Unusually or uncharacteristically large purchases of guns and ammunition therefore should be flagged for investigation by authorities. For example, the soldiers who planned to overthrow the government and assassinate Obama in 2012 bought $87,000 worth of guns and bomb-making materials for their plans. These details should not be overlooked.

A zero-tolerance policy should be applied. A zero-tolerance policy that prohibits the promulgation or practice of any kind of extreme ideology should be implemented and apply to all members of the U.S. military. The U.S. military exists to serve and protect all Americans, regardless of their race.

The perspective presented here about the role of the U.S. military in neutralizing the threat posed by violent white-nationalist groups may not sit well with people who hold opposing views. In a democracy, the expression of different views on the same issue are welcome and should be encouraged. Constructive and enlightening discussions can follow. Problems can arise, however, when those different views turn from words into violence, hate, killing, and destruction.

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 HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Dr. Zakir Gul joined the Criminal Justice Department at State University of New York Plattsburgh in 2016 as an associate professor. He began his career as a ranking police officer and worked more than 16 years for the Turkish National Police. His policing career also includes being a police chief of two cities in a region where terrorism was an issue and the population was diverse. Dr. Gul founded the International Security Graduate Program (in English) at the Security Sciences Institute in Turkey and served as founding director and professor. He worked in several research centers, such as the Intelligence Studies Research Center and the Center for International Terrorism and Transnational Crime. Dr. Gul was the graduate coordinator of the Erasmus Program and the deputy editor-in-chief of a peer-reviewed journal on policing. He also served on several selection and recruitment committees. Dr. Gul has been teaching both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, such as terrorism/counterterrorism, security intelligence, strategic intelligence, intelligence-led policing, international security policy and strategic intelligence, introduction to policing, policing and society, and white-collar crime, since 2010. He also gave course workshops to several international police forces, including the Kosovo Police (strategic assessment), Afghani Police (problem solving and stress management) and the Sudanese Security Forces (leadership strategies in policing).

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