The Violent Far-Right Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Military
Analysis of rising domestic far-right terrorism typically focuses on the threat it poses to minority communities, the political left, and liberal democracy. Not much attention has been given to the danger it poses to the broader American right and institutions typically cherished by conservatives. In this three-part series, CFR research fellow Jacob Ware assesses the violent far-right and white supremacist terrorist threat to these entities, including the Republican Party, the United States military, and American law enforcement. The first post can be accessed here. The second post can be accessed here.
As violent far-right extremism has risen to the fore as a significant national security concern over the past decade, researchers have increasingly discussed the pernicious infiltration of extremists into the U.S. military and among veterans. These extremists either join the service in order to gain combat and logistical training, or are recruited once their service ends by radical groups preying on the combination of trauma and loss of purpose and community that often plagues veterans (or first inspires military service).
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
The bulk of this research has focused on the threat that radicalized soldiers and veterans pose to the American public. Pointing to Timothy McVeigh—a decorated army veteran who perpetrated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—as a worst-case scenario of extremist ideology fusing with military experience, researchers have warned that ignoring extremism in the military will inevitably harm American communities. The prevalence of veterans participating on January 6, coupled with a 2020 Military Times poll that found that “more than half of minority service members say they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically-driven racism within the ranks in recent months,” has compounded concerns. This led the Department of Defense (DOD) under the Joe Biden administration to implement a range of measures to address the issue, which also alienated a swathe of veterans who felt the finger-pointing did not reflect their own experiences of a diverse and vibrant military and unfairly demonized the overwhelming majority of veterans who served honorably and patriotically, with no extremist inclinations.
But underreported in this story is the threat that far-right extremists pose directly to the military itself—to soldiers, to readiness, and to recruitment.
The danger posed by far-right extremists to the U.S. military begins with insider threats. In June 2020, a private in the 173rd Airborne Brigade was arrested for plotting an attack on his own unit. A white supremacist linked to the British satanic cult Order of the Nine Angles, Ethan Melzer released classified troop movements to the group, hoping to help facilitate an al-Qaeda attack on their position during a deployment to Turkey. He did not care if he himself was killed, as he “would’ve died successfully.” Melzer had joined the military to advance the group’s neo-Nazi activities. “It’s great for training,” the would-be terrorist had written, explaining his decision to enlist. “All of these places the vast majority deserve to be burned.” In charging documents, John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security in the Donald Trump administration, said, “Our women and men in uniform risk their lives for our country, but they should never face such peril at the hands of one of their own.” Melzer’s case demonstrates that extremists in the ranks also pose a counterintelligence problem for the Pentagon.
In 2011, four U.S. Army soldiers, who had formed a militia called Forever Enduring Always Ready, killed a recently discharged soldier for fear he would betray their plans to assassinate President Barack Obama and overthrow the government. They had also planned to kidnap army officers and take over Fort Stewart, GA. One of the soldiers had relayed fantasies of committing “active shooter situations” at the base, and had “mapped out the sewer system for use in a sniper assault.” In June 2006, Airman First Class Andrew Dornan was dishonorably discharged for messages glorifying Adolf Hitler and for threatening to detonate an explosive on a military base. And another insider attack in Syria last year, which injured four troops, was not definitively linked to an ideology but further underscored the threat that insiders can pose. Seemingly understanding the threat, the U.S. Army lists “engaging in paramilitary training with radical or extremist organizations, either home or abroad” as one of its “Indicators of a Potential Insider Threat.” Allies have faced similar issues. Germany has also suffered from rising extremism in the ranks, and was even forced to dismantle an elite special forces unit because of far-right infiltration, extremists storing materiel on military bases, and the threat it posed to the country. Meanwhile, an officer in the Italian carabinieri was arrested as part of a plot to attack a NATO base.
But the far-right terrorist threat against the military does not just come from active insiders. In March 2010, for instance, a 9/11 truther with an eclectic blend of anti-government views and a history of mental health issues opened fire at the Pentagon, wounding two police officers. In 1997, two militia members—neither of them veterans—were arrested for plotting an attack on Fort Hood, TX, believing it was being used to train Chinese soldiers. And James Mason, a longtime neo-Nazi and advisor to the violent American neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, was militantly opposed to the military and to the concept of service. “Besides—if you are a young White Man or Woman,” Mason wrote in his SIEGE newsletter, “do YOU wish to be drafted into any of the services alongside the dregs of society and under Black officers, possibly to be sent to DIE in fabricated wars, possibly to be sent—a la Little Rock—to violently suppress your own White Brothers and Sisters? No, let the military continue to crumble as it is doing for it is merely one more instrument of terror and coercion in the hands of the Enemy.”
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
Disillusioned veterans of U.S. wars abroad, meanwhile, could also turn their rage against the government they once represented. As an FBI assessment warned [PDF] in 2008, “White supremacists more often interpret the Iraq War as an ‘Israeli war,’ or a ‘Zionist-led Iraqi war,’ and direct their hostile rhetoric against the perceived ‘near enemy’—the hostile ‘Zionist Occupational Government’ (ZOG)—at home.” Should civil war ever erupt again in the United States, as many on the violent far right desire, veterans in domestic extremist groups could provide the sharp end of the spear. “Right now, any white supremacist in Iraq is getting live fire, guerilla warfare experience,” a former Hammerskin racist skinhead and Marine veteran said over a decade ago. “But any white supremacist in Iraq who’s a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL or Marine Recon, he’s doing covert stuff that’s far above and beyond convoy protection and roadblocks. And if he comes back and decides at some point down the road that it’s race war time, all that training and combat experience he’s received could easily turn around and bite this country in the ass.” There is precedent for such conflict: the American Civil War, after all, was defined by white supremacists killing members of the U.S. military.
Extremism also poses a range of dangers to honorably discharged veterans already suffering with post-traumatic stress or substance abuse problems. Suicides rates are perilously high in the veteran community, and some violent far-right extremists, such as Oath Keepers founder (and former Army paratrooper) Stewart Rhodes, have pointed to their movement as filling an important role in providing purpose and belonging to those leaving service and struggling to readjust to civilian life. But extremism, and a life of hatred and possibly violence against the government they once served, hardly seems like an answer. Rhodes himself was convicted for seditious conspiracy for his role in the lead-up to January 6; the end result of such organizing is rarely a sense of belonging, but often further violence and, ultimately, incarceration.
Beyond the terrorism threat to the military itself, extremist elements within the ranks also pose a threat to readiness and cohesiveness. In one of its more controversial regulations, the military prohibits “active” participation in extremist groups, but avoids policing membership—an effort to regulate acts instead of beliefs. “Seriously? You want to be in a foxhole with a guy who’s a member of the KKK? Is that really what we want to do here?” one retired army major general responded, incredulously. “The idea of service members having to be in close proximity to card-carrying members of the Proud Boys, as long as they don’t ‘march,’ that just doesn’t get it.” Elsewhere, political disagreements with the commander in chief can lead to unrest. For instance, the commanding general of the Oklahoma National Guard, in opposition to the Pentagon’s COVID vaccine mandate, declared that his commander in chief was not, in fact, President Biden, but instead Oklahoma’s Republican governor. Such discord undermines the Guard’s very purpose—its preparedness to defend the United States from invasion. There is also a history of white supremacists stealing U.S. military property for use in the far-right movement. In 2007, for instance, two 82nd Airborne Division privates were jailed for trying to sell stolen ballistic vests and a combat helmet (and offering a Humvee and howitzer) to an FBI agent they believed to be a white supremacist.
Far-right extremists also likely threaten the military’s image and attractiveness at a time when recruitment is already low. Ensuring racism has no quarter is essential to ensuring the military retains its attractiveness to would-be recruits. “Far-right nationalism in the U.S. military and veteran community has a destructive effect on civil-military relations and how the American people view the armed forces,” writes Jeff McCausland, retired army colonel, adding, “It is corrosive to morale and security among military personnel.” One must also consider the reputational hit the United States and its military could take among foreign partners when white supremacists act out. Some white supremacists claim to join the military for the opportunity to kill people of color abroad and at home, and could commit atrocities on deployment, undermining the mission.
Unfortunately, comprehensive data on the extent of extremist infiltration of the military is lacking. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found that the Oath Keepers had at least 373 active law enforcement employees and at least 117 active duty military servicepeople, but those numbers both seem low given that the Oath Keepers organization has up to 38,000 members and was founded explicitly to appeal to veterans. Another estimate suggested that around 25 percent of militia members came from a military background. A decade ago, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement claimed it had 190 members in the services. Meanwhile the Military Times continues to release and publicly report on annual polls revealing eye-opening reports of white supremacy in the services. Although these numbers are concerning enough, without more conclusive data, it remains hard to gain a complete understanding of the threat.
Conversely, data is made less critical by the violent far-right’s enduring lone actor strategy, where acts of violence are frequently perpetrated not by groups but by networked individuals—like Melzer, who did not need any white supremacist brothers-in-arms in his unit in order to plot his attack. Lone actor violence underscores an observation made by a former army criminal investigator. “The numbers might be small,” Carter F. Smith said, “but they are like a drop of cyanide in your drink. They can do a lot of damage.” Efforts to counter extremism in the ranks are therefore a matter of national defense. As a Center for Strategic and International Studies brief concluded, “The DOD and law enforcement agencies should conceptualize efforts to counter domestic extremism as an issue of self-defense and support for their personnel.”
And even beyond the threats to the military and its readiness and recruitment, violent far-right extremism is simply anathema to the concept of a national military protecting a diverse country. As Trent Kelly, Republican congressman from Mississippi and major general in the Army National Guard, said during a February 2020 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on white supremacy in the military, “no group is more diverse or culturally integrated than our United States military. None. Anywhere. We must keep it that way.”