Extremism in the U.S. Military: Problems and Solutions

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March 09, 2021

Extremist movements pose many problems to society, from spreading hate and intolerance to engaging in significant and deadly violence.  It is particularly problematic when adherents of extreme causes are able to persist in key institutions dedicated to protecting the people of the United States, institutions such as emergency response units, law enforcement and the military.

Of these institutions, the U.S. military is the largest, with more than two million active duty and reserve personnel currently serving in the various branches. ADL’s Center on Extremism (COE) has closely tracked the issue of extremists in military ranks and for more than 20 years has regularly identified serving extremists and reported them to the military for investigation and action.  The COE has also helped military recruiters identify extremist tattoos and provided assistance to the military investigative agencies (CID, NCIS, and OSI).

Based on its longstanding work in this area, COE estimates that the number of extremists in the military—whether they joined as extremists or became attracted to an extremist cause at some point during their service—is small compared to the total number of men and women serving.  However, even small numbers of unchecked extremists in the ranks can cause harm and problems far disproportionate to their number, including:

  • Physical harm to service members and/or civilians because of hate crimes or other violence by extremist military personnel. The shooting spree committed by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, which killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others, is a sobering example of the severity of this potential threat.
  • Illegal activities such as the theft of military equipment. Over the years, many extremist movements have viewed the military as a potential source of weaponry and equipment to be appropriated for arming and equipping themselves or for sale.  In 2006, to give just one example, ADL provided evidence to the Army that a white supremacist in the 82nd Airborne Division was stealing military equipment.  That person and another soldier were arrested in 2007, charged with selling stolen government property, including body armor and medical supplies, to an undercover FBI agent.  At the time of their arrest, they were planning to steal a 105mm artillery piece.
  • Security breaches. Extremists also pose security risks, as they may convey military information to individuals or groups fighting for their cause.  This was the case with Specialist Ryan Anderson of the Washington State National Guard, currently serving a life sentence for trying to provide information to Al Qaeda.  Anderson’s interests in extremism started with the right-wing militia movement but eventually moved to sympathy with Al Qaeda.
  • Harm to morale, unit cohesion and personnel retention.  The presence of known extremists in a unit can be disruptive to morale and effectiveness.  Moreover, service members who are members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities are less likely to stay in the military if they have negative experiences as a result of the behavior of extremists such as white supremacists.  There is evidence that service members today are encountering such extremists.  In 2017, the Military Times conducted a survey of over 1,100 service members that suggested that one in four had seen “examples of white nationalism” among their fellow service members.  In 2019, they repeated the survey and found the percentage had risen to more than one in three.
  • Harm to recruiting efforts. Members of those same minority communities are less likely to consider enlistment if they believe that the services are a haven for extremists.
  • Harm to mission success. In an era when the U.S. military is engaged in missions around the world, the negative actions of extremist service members may be directly counterproductive to mission success or may become fodder for propagandists of nations unfriendly to the United States.  For example, Russian English-language propaganda outlet (short for Russia Today), which has a history of promoting divisiveness within (and negative impressions of) the United States, has publicized racism and white supremacy in the U.S. military on a number of occasions.

Right-Wing Extremism and the U.S. Military

In the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing extremists in the ranks created many problems for the U.S. military. In more recent years, Islamist extremists have occasionally been at the root of crises.  However, since the 1980s, right-wing extremists have most consistently caused problems in and for the U.S. military.  White supremacists, who exist in multiple overlapping movements in the United States, have posed the greatest challenges for the U.S. military.  However, the anti-government extremist militia movement (including Three Percenters and Oath Keepers) has also caused significant difficulties. 

ADL has consistently expressed concern about the issue of right-wing extremists in the military for many years.  In July 2009, ADL wrote to then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates specifically to urge the Secretary “to take appropriate measures to deal with the problem of extremists within the ranks of our armed forces.”  Over the previous three years, ADL had reported 72 suspected white supremacists to the various branches, including thirty-eight in the Army, two in the Army National Guard, four in the Navy, nineteen in the Marine Corps, two in the Air Force, and one in the Coast Guard, as well as six with an indeterminate service branch.  ADL advocated “a renewed emphasis and increased attention to this issue.”  More recently, in February 2020, an ADL expert testified before a Congressional subcommittee on the dangers of extremists in the military.

Put simply: Extremists exist in the U.S. military because extremists are present in American society. The military is a broad enough institution to reflect American society in many respects.  Some people have postulated that most extremists who join or attempt to join the military do so as “infiltrators” attempting to obtain skills or training they can bring back to their movement.  However, ADL observation of extremists on social media suggests most actually joined the military for the same varied reasons non-extremists join. Regardless of their motive(s) for joining, once in the military, extremists regularly cause problems. And when right-wing extremism experiences surges in American society, those surges are also reflected in the military and evinced by increased problems. 

A surge of white supremacist activity in the 1980s, for example, resulted in some active-duty soldiers joining the Texas Emergency Reserve, a paramilitary formation created by Ku Klux Klan groups to harass and intimidate immigrant Vietnamese fishermen. In 1987, members of a white supremacist military equipment theft ring amassed a large cache of weapons and explosives, including what one ATF official described as “enough military explosives to destroy a city block.”  Decades later, one of the leaders of that theft ring would become one of the organizers of the 2017 white supremacist “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the mid-1990s, increases in both white supremacy and anti-government extremism once more led to serious problems within the military, including more equipment theft. But the most serious incident occurred in 1995, when two active-duty soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg—both white supremacists—shot and killed an African American couple in a hate crime murder.  This incident resulted in a major investigation of white supremacy at Fort Bragg and in the discharge of 20 members of the 82nd Airborne Division.  That there was a problem at Fort Bragg should have been no surprise; at the time, one special forces sergeant even anonymously (under the pseudonym “Special Forces Underground”) published a magazine, The Resister, popular with the militia movement and white supremacists—and read by Timothy McVeigh.

Extremist problems in the military increased yet again during the period 2008-2011, spurred by a third surge of right-wing extremism that enabled a major resurgence of the militia movement.  It was during this period that the Oath Keepers emerged, a large militia group specifically created in order to target active and former police, first responders and military personnel for recruitment.  The most concerning incident to come from this surge involved a large militia group called FEAR (an acronym for Forever Enduring, Always Ready), formed by soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia.  Members of FEAR plotted various terrorist acts and killed one of their own members, as well as his girlfriend, out of fear of informants. While investigating these murders, police also discovered that the group’s leader, Private Isaac Aquigui, had murdered his own pregnant wife, apparently in order to secure $400,000 in insurance money that he used in part to help fund FEAR.

Most recently, the white supremacist movement in the U.S. experienced a surge in the mid-2010s thanks largely to the rise of the alt right, a new segment of the movement that brought in many young, newly-radicalized white males to the movement.  In recent years, extremists serving in active-duty or reserve capacities have been arrested for distributing information related to explosives and mass destruction, for assaulting people during white supremacist rallies, for possessing explosives, for making threats against mosques, and for drug and weapons violations related to an alleged plot to kill elected officials, among other incidents.  Many more have been exposed for activities connected to white supremacist groups such as Asatru Folk Assembly, Identity Evropa, Atomwaffen, American Identity Movement, Traditionalist Worker Party, Operation Homeland and League of the South, among others.

Dealing with the Problem

Though the military has consistently experienced problems stemming from right-wing extremism for decades, and even though the armed services have no sympathies for such extremists, the military has not implemented systematic reforms designed to deal with this problem on a long-term, ongoing basis.

Instead, the military has tended to respond to major incidents with partial revisions or updates to the regulations or with investigations of specific units or groups.  After the scandals of the 1980s, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger issued a directive that, for the first time, prohibited military members from “actively” participating in white supremacist groups.  The 1990s scandals resulted in an investigation of Fort Bragg and the units stationed there.  Regulations were tightened again in 2009.  Different services have also modified their own regulations over time; in July 2020, for example, the Army added language to its Army Command Policy sections on extremism to more clearly delineate prohibited digital/online activities.

Though responding to issues raised by individual incidents is important, the armed services can more efficiently and effectively deal with issues related to extremism in the military on an ongoing, long-term basis. This would require institutional reforms that would be uniform from service to service, in areas ranging from regulations to training to reporting.

Regulations.  Currently, regulations related to extremism in the military are divided between Defense Department regulations, which apply to all the services, and individual service regulations (like the Army’s Regulation 600-20, Chapter 4-12), which can vary in language, policy and effectiveness from service to service. Each service also has additional regulations related to extremism (for example, Army Regulation 670-1 on extremist tattoos). The more that extremism-related regulations can be made uniform across all the services, the less likelihood there would be for gaps or loopholes in the regulations.

Military regulations should also reflect, insofar as it is possible, the nature of modern extremist movements.  Regulations that only refer to extremist groups or organizations, for example, may not be sufficient to deal with adherents of extremist movements who do not belong to any specific group. Language that also refers to movements or causes, or that refers to activities as well as groups, is more likely to be more effective.

Critically, policies must ensure that individuals have and are aware of the ability to report observed extremism outside the chain of command.

Training.  Training related to extremism is critical for key personnel who are in positions to spot potential indicators of extremism or may have it reported to them by others.  This training should educate relevant personnel not only on extremist indicators but also on specific responsibilities and roles in enforcing regulations, available options (if applicable) for removing extremist personnel via military justice or administrative processing measures and reporting and referral requirements.  Such key personnel should also have a clear understanding of what is expected of them should they encounter signs of extremism or have such signs reported to them. 

Such key personnel include, at the least, recruiters and other intake processors, basic and advanced trainers, company-grade officers and senior NCOs, EO officers, and investigative agency (CID, OSI, NCIS) personnel. There may be other types of key personnel that should also receive such training. 

Reporting.  The armed services should have uniform reporting requirements that would allow easy quantification of prospective recruits denied entry due to extremist connections, Uniform Code of Military Justice prosecutions (under whatever charges) related to extremism, and personnel administratively processed out (or otherwise disciplined) for reasons related to extremism.  Currently some services have some of these measures in place, but all services need to have the same reporting mechanisms in order for the military to obtain a better understanding of the nature and extent of extremist-related problems in the ranks.