Anxiety is growing among pundits, politicians and former generals about the rise of right-wing extremism in the US military and the potential threat it could pose to American democracy.
Even as the US Department of Defense issues new policies to stamp out extremism from its ranks, some experts warn that safeguards do not go far enough, leaving the next election vulnerable to attack and fears of a wider violent “insurgency” by right-wing extremists. radicals.
“We’re behind the ball about what we know about domestic terrorists in the United States,” said Paul Eaton, a retired U.S. Army Major General and senior adviser to the nonprofit VoteVets.
Eaton and two other retired army generals wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last month warning of the threat of a coup in the 2024 election. The generals warned it could succeed with the help of rogue military elements. They considered the possibility of a collapse of the chain of command, along partisan lines, in the wake of a contentious election with “rogue units organizing among themselves to support the ‘rightful’ commander in chief”.
Eaton said in an interview that the US military and law enforcement have underestimated the threat posed by the far right in the past.
“It’s the Timothy McVeigh problem: what did we know about McVeigh and what did we do about it?” said Eaton.
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 650 when ex-army soldiers Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols parked and detonated a rented truck full of homemade explosives outside a federal building one morning. . It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. The two men harbored anti-government and racist beliefs.
“The McVeighs of the world are still there, we had about 4,500 crawling over the Capitol of the country [during the 6 January attack]said Eaton, adding that the increased power of the Internet and the rise of social media had greatly magnified the threat since McVeigh’s attack.
“The infection of extremism in our state and local police and armed forces is a very serious concern that needs to be monitored,” Eaton said.
Eaton added: “There is recruiting locally, they go to school boards, like missionaries who are sent to the islands to convert people. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are definitely recruiting.”
In many ways, the aftermath of the Washington DC Capitol attack has exposed the vulnerability of US military personnel to extremism. The 727 suspects indicted in the January 6 Capitol riot include: 81 with ties to the military while five were on active duty. A 35-year-old woman, Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, was fatally shot when she tried to break the doors to the room of the house.
The appeal of extremism among active duty and veterans is a longstanding problem with a track record of violent incidents.
Last year’s army private Ethan Phelan Melzer confessed to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York to plot an attack on fellow soldiers of his unit. The federal indictment says Melzer confessed to sharing sensitive information about his soon-to-be-deployed unit with members of a neo-Nazi group to facilitate an attack that “would kill as many of his fellow service members as possible.” ”.
In 2018, Marine Corporal Vasillios Pistolis was jailed after assaulting people during the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally. Pistolis was discovered as a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen after bragging about violence in chats with other Atomwaffen members, which were eventually leaked.
From 1990 to July 2021, according to data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
The data suggests the problem is growing in the US as there were an average of six cases a year from 1990-2010, but in the past decade “that number has more than tripled to nearly 21 people a year.”
The generals’ public appeal for election guarantees in the military comes after the Pentagon issued new guidelines aimed at stamping out extremism from its ranks. Defense chief Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day “halt” early last year to come up with rules to stamp out extremism among the various branches of the military. The new rules passed by the Pentagon last month specify that members of the agency are prohibited from engaging in extremist activities and face disciplinary action if they even “like” extremist content on social media.
The new guidelines specify that commanders must not be “indifferent” and hold service members who participate in extremist activities accountable. The Pentagon defines extremism as advocacy for violence to achieve goals that are “political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature.” It includes efforts to overthrow the government and advocate for widespread illegal discrimination “based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity or sexual orientation”.
But the Pentagon’s attempt to eradicate extremism in the military may not go far enough. A Associated Press investigation found that the new guidelines do not take into account racism among the ranks, membership in groups such as the KKK, and longstanding racial inequalities in military justice.
The new guidelines do not prohibit membership of extremist groups such as the KKK as long as they do not “actively participate”. The new rules seek to control actions rather than associations or beliefs. Some former military personnel say it is absurd to allow military personnel to also be members of violent extremist groups.
“Seriously? Do you want to be in a foxhole with a man who is a member of the KKK? Is that really what we want to do here?” said Eaton. “The idea that service workers should be around card-carrying members of the Proud Boys, as long as they’re not ‘marching’, she just doesn’t get it,” he added.
Some experts have also criticized the approach as ignoring the very real threat posed by white supremacists. “It reflects the institutional bias that permeates our entire administration that even proclaiming white supremacy is politically charged,” said Mike German, a former FBI special agent and current fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
German is concerned that the classification could have unintended consequences. “It opens the door to a strange political ‘both sideism’,” he said. “As a result, anyone who expresses anti-racism can be seen as an extremist under that description.”
Experts view the far right and other extremists as actively trying to recruit members of the military, including foreign agents seeking to promote disruption within the US.
“We are in the early stages of an insurgency in the United States,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, a war veteran and researcher in Iraq.
In a 200-page report published by Vietnam Veterans of America, Goldsmith found that between 2017 and 2019, foreign entities, such as Russian hackers, “coordinated online targeting of US military personnel, veterans and their families” in an effort to disrupt American democracy.
“We found 10 different ways foreign entities targeted veterans online,” Goldsmith said, including through advertisements, fake veteran accounts that sent friend requests to other veterans to penetrate the “relatively small community of veteran attorneys, and found large social media pages run by foreign admins that spread veteran-tailored disinflation in an effort to influence the election.”
Goldsmith sees anti-democratic, white supremacist and fascist movements targeting veterans for the same reason as foreign opponents. “Veterans are an economically efficient target for campaigns because when you get one, they often bring their immediate social environment with them,” Goldsmith says.
Goldsmith warns that the upcoming election is vulnerable to a growing insurgency. “We have seen a violent uprising, we have not witnessed a peaceful transfer of power. It was an attempted coup. Each failed coup is just an exercise for the next,” Goldsmith said.