March 10, 2021

IntelBrief: The Threat From Within: Domestic Extremists in the United States Military

(Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • There is a long history in the U.S. of active duty and former military personnel with ties to anti-government violent groups and illegal militias. 
  • More recently, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol exacerbated concerns regarding the “insider threat” in the U.S. armed forces.
  • Counterintelligence and other investigative tools could mitigate the threat posed by U.S. military members violating their Constitutional oaths.
  • Greater interagency collaboration and a nuanced data analytic review of social media activity is also required.

The long shadow of former and active U.S. military personnel being involved in, or motivated by, anti-government, white supremacist, or conspiracist-driven violent groups dates back decades. Some have been driven to join lawful militias or other security-oriented organizations, while others have formed violent illegal groups based on extremist ideologies. Louis Beam – a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and an influential figurehead within the white supremacist movement who propagated the concept of “leaderless resistance” as a tactic of the far-right – was also a Vietnam war veteran who engaged in violence directed towards immigrant communities. Gordon Kahl, a World War II veteran, was a leading member of the conspiracy-driven far-right group known as Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. Kahl was subject of one of the largest manhunts in the 1980s for his involvement in the murder of multiple U.S. Marshalls. In the 1990s, the most lethal act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City which resulted in 168 deaths, was committed by Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist and former member of the U.S. Army.

The use of political violence by active or former members of the U.S. military is not an outlier when considered against this history. More recently, individuals with military backgrounds that populate the anti-government, white supremacist, and conspiracy theory-driven movements have engaged in violent acts. The example of the January 6 terrorist attack against the U.S. Capitol is the archetype of this development, one that became more pronounced between 2017-2020. Dozens of individuals currently charged with federal crimes for storming the Capitol served in the U.S. military at some point. Among them, perhaps most well known is the story of QAnon adherent Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was killed inside the Capitol building. Anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters – both of which are known to recruit active duty and former members of the military – played pivotal roles in the events at the Capitol. Prior to January 2021, the Boogaloo Bois were among the most active anti-government groups in carrying out acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S. In 2020, Steven Carrillo, an active-duty member of the Air Force and self-described member of the Boogaloo movement, killed multiple police officers. Around the same time, a planned attack by three former or active members of the U.S. military, who were also part of the Boogaloo Movement, was thwarted by the FBI. Finally, multiple members of the military have been associated with the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, to include its co-founder Brandon Russell.

Lawmakers, scholars, and policy analysts have repeatedly raised the alarm about violent anti-government extremists and white supremacists infiltrating the U.S. military. To counter this threat, the Department of Defense (DoD) should categorize it as an “insider threat” challenge. Doing so will ensure that DoD’s vast counterintelligence apparatus can be directed at service members who may be intent upon carrying out acts of political violence. A few initial actions will be critical. The Air Force Office of Special Investigation, Army Criminal Investigation Command, and Naval Criminal Investigation Services, responsible for investigating personnel for criminal activity in respective branches, should prioritize the identification of violent white supremacists and anti-government members within their ranks. At the same time, the DoD must re-examine the staffing and resourcing of these offices – many of which are perennially understaffed. DoD is not without options in countering former members of the military who engage in anti-government or white supremacist-related criminal behavior, such as removing retired service members from the inactive reserve list. Furthermore, the U.S. military can take measures against them for conduct that is deemed in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Such measures include retroactively demoting retirees, thus decreasing their pension. Taking such actions toward accountability could have a significant deterrent effect on individuals who might otherwise believe themselves to be immune from the consequences of their actions, and those seeking to follow in their paths.

Success in curbing the spread of anti-government and white supremacist activities in the U.S. military will require collaboration with several different actors within the country. For example, based on an October 2020 report by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, it appears that DoD investigators cannot dynamically search the FBI’s symbols library and tattoos database. Consequently, the FBI could consider providing direct access to this data to authorized DoD investigators who are responsible for vetting the suitability of personnel to hold government security clearances. Expanding access could assist in the identification of violent white supremacists and individuals with anti-government beliefs who are likely to commit or materially support acts of violence. The most significant challenge ahead, however, is how the U.S. government, including the U.S. military, can efficiently review the social media activities of personnel. Anti-government groups, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists use social media to recruit, finance, plan attacks, and incite others to violence. Much of their action online may be considered Constitutionally protected speech. Moreover, there are no domestic terrorist designations in the United States, making their recruitment and fundraising largely legal. There is clear evidence that U.S. government personnel have used these social media tools. Sifting through openly available social media posts remains a laborious endeavor. For this reason, the DoD should expand partnerships with a diverse set of data analytic firms to evaluate legally acquired social media materials associated with service members, and work proactively with the private sector and civil society to better identify the risks and suitable responses.