The House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) in a Wednesday hearing called on the federal government to do more to protect veterans from manipulation by extremist groups.
Although they represent only about 6 percent of the population, veterans are responsible for 10 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots since 2015.
Multiple witnesses — including me — testified about the growing and disproportionate danger of veteran engagement in violent extremism, and called on the federal government to do more to protect veterans from manipulation by extremist groups.
Although they represent only about 6 percent of the American population, veterans are responsible for 10 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots since 2015. Veterans are demonstrably more vulnerable to recruitment and engagement in the extremist fringe, compared to the civilian population, and they are disproportionately involved in violence. Preliminary data from a new survey underway by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) shows that 30 percent of respondents have personally witnessed extremism in the military.
It is clear that we need more data to fully assess the scope and the scale of the problem; but there are multiple indications of a growing threat. In 2020, the number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks in the United States reached its highest level since 1994; two-thirds of those were attributable to white supremacists and other far-right extremists.
Violent extremist acts attributed to veterans have caused tremendous harm for decades. Veteran and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the worst domestic terrorism attack in U.S. history, for example, taking the lives of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Last year, an Army reservist and two veterans were arrested in Las Vegas for plotting violence against a Black Lives Matter protest there, while an active-duty Air Force sergeant with ties to the “boogaloo” movement — a crusade of gun-rights activists and white supremacists who seek to start a civil war — went on an eight-day rampage of shootings and attacks, in which he murdered a federal security guard. Seventy-one of the 620 people facing federal charges for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol have military experience, representing 12 percent of those arrested so far.
Active-duty service members and veterans are often targeted for recruitment to extremist groups because of their tactical skills, communications training, security clearances, and access to munitions, weapons and facilities — all skills that could be invaluable to extremist groups involved in violence or terrorist plots.
But veterans themselves also have specific vulnerabilities that put them at risk of targeted recruitment. Post-traumatic stress from soldiering can increase vulnerability to extremism, as can the dehumanization and binary “us versus them” view of conflicts that soldiers are trained to embrace as battlefield tactics.
Far-right extremist groups seek to manipulate the values that attract many individuals to enlist in the armed forces in the first place. Extremist propaganda uses appeals to brotherhood, heroism, defense of the nation or one’s people, a chance to be a part of a meaningful cause, and protection of an oath or the constitution — often arguing that they are called upon to defend the country against liberals, traitors, or tyrannical leaders.
Far-right extremist groups seek to manipulate the values that attract many individuals to enlist in the armed forces in the first place.
Extremist groups and movements also falsely present violent, antidemocratic, and antigovernment actions — including lethal threats against elected officials and law enforcement, kidnapping plots, and even murder — as courageous revolutionary acts.
Of course, the vast majority of active-duty service members and veterans never engage in extremist movements or violence. But as the German minister of the interior recently said about that country’s investigations into extremism in the military and security services, “Every case is a scandal” — meaning any extremism within the ranks of highly-trained individuals who are charged with protecting the public should be cause for great concern.
Given what we already know about the susceptibility of veterans to far-right recruitment, we need to devote more resources to preventing that engagement. This includes better research and data collection, along with transparency to the public about the scope of the problem. It requires support for veteran reintegration after service through counseling and treatment of psychological needs and other contributory causes of vulnerability. Veteran support organizations also need training to better recognize warning signs of extremist radicalization and to know where to go for further help.
But most importantly, we need to invest in blanketed, preemptive education to teach veterans about the persuasive techniques that extremists may try to use to exploit them. Every U.S. service member who exits the military should be equipped with the tools to recognize disinformation, resist propaganda, and defend democracy from extremist threats and the manipulative efforts an extremist fringe might try to use against them.
This wouldn’t even be that hard to do, given that there is an existing built-in structure to support this kind of training during the separation and transition period, when active-duty service members are preparing to return to civilian life. The Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, should include specific support to equip veterans with the skills to recognize potential outreach and propaganda from extremist groups.
Extremist ideas and groups cannot be left to operate unchecked within the very organizations charged with protecting the population, including its most vulnerable citizens. But we also can’t simply monitor and arrest our way out of the problem. Veterans deserve the skills and training to recognize and resist manipulation by extremist movements that seek to undermine and dismantle the very institutions they have sworn an oath to protect and defend.