July 28, 2022

IntelBrief: Lack of Unity on the Threat Posed by Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee recently called upon the United States Department of Defense to discontinue programs aimed at preventing extremism in the ranks.
  • Numerous former or active servicemembers were charged with crimes related to racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism, while a percentage of those arrested for their role in the January 6 insurrection also had military ties.
  • While U.S. allies like Canada and New Zealand have designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization, in the United States, there are now more Proud Boys chapters than there were on January 6, 2021.
  • There is a clear divide both within the United States and between the U.S. and its allies over the severity of the threat posed by far-right violent extremism.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recently called upon the Pentagon to end programs aimed at preventing extremism in the ranks. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) states that the SASC believes “spending additional time and resources to combat exceptionally rare instances of extremism in the military is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately.” Although the committee report is not legally binding, it shows that like many other issues in the United States, preventing extremism in the military has become a partisan dispute. Rather than seriously investigating the challenge of extremism in the ranks, some lawmakers opt to throw around phrases like “woke military,” suggesting that rooting out violent extremists fueled by hate from the armed services is somehow performative. Far from performative, many commanders and leaders within the Department of Defense see efforts to prevent extremism as important to maintaining good order and discipline and ensuring the military is prepared to fight and win the nation’s wars. Trust between members of America’s diverse military is a critical asset for the force, while at the same time it serves as a powerful demonstration of American values for foreign audiences. Efforts to take a closer look at extremism within the ranks of the U.S. military and Department of Defense were aided, in part, by the Counter Extremism Working Group (CEWG) (full disclosure: team members from The Soufan Center were invited to take part in early discussions between the CEWG and academics/scholars studying violent extremism and domestic terrorism).

According to a report by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Defense titled “Evaluation of Department of Defense Efforts to Address Ideological Extremism Within the Armed Forces,” there have been at least nine incidents where active or former servicemembers have been charged with crimes linked to, or motivated by, racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE). Approximately 13% of the 843 people arrested for involvement with the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol  have some form of military experience, including active servicemembers, reservists, Guard members and veterans across multiple armed services. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the percentage of all domestic terrorist incidents linked to active-duty and reserve personnel rose in 2020 to 6.4 percent, up from 1.5 percent in 2019 and none in 2018. When individuals with military training and combat experience join extremist groups, they serve as force multipliers, bringing with them expertise in military tactics, marksmanship, operational planning, and bombmaking skills.

Not only were current and former servicemembers part of the mob on January 6, but current and former military personnel and law enforcement officers are known to have played active roles in groups that helped organize and instigate the insurrection. This includes the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys, the last of which has been designated as a terrorist organization by Canada and New Zealand. In the United States however, which lacks a legal statute for domestic terrorism, there are now more Proud Boys chapters than there were on January 6, 2021. Dozens of Proud Boys have been charged for their role in the Capitol Riot, and several have already pleaded guilty. The neo-fascist organization has broadened its targets too, to include abortion-rights activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

There is a clear divide both within the United States and between the U.S. and its allies over the severity of the threat posed by far-right violent extremism. Within the United States, the issue is partisan, and downplayed by many members of the Republican Party. Only two Republicans agreed to serve on the January 6th Committee, as many others chose to align themselves with and protect Donald Trump over investigating an attack on American democracy. The partisan nature of the fight means it will grow even more acrimonious, as the Department of Justice recently announced that it is investigating former President Donald Trump’s actions as part of its criminal probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

On a global level, the U.S. lags behind all of its Five Eyes (FVEY) partners in designating far-right violent extremists due to the lack of a domestic terrorism statute. Moreover, the U.S. is the only country that distinguishes between “international” and “domestic” terrorism, and developing responses while still protecting civil liberties, as other democracies have done. The U.S. has classified the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, although no far-right violent extremist groups are listed as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), despite the linkages between groups that operate in the U.S. and abroad, including the Atomwaffen Division and The Base, both proscribed as terrorist groups in the United Kingdom and Canada. The differentiation between “domestic” and “international” terrorism further obscures the fact that in a globalized, digital era, these boundaries do not reflect the nature of groups and individuals who no longer need to cross physical borders to move money, ideas, and resources around the world, and there are increasing concerns that the United States is becoming a net exporter of violent far-right groups.