Why America’s veterans are turning to extremism after the military

The House Veterans Committee (HVAC) in a Wednesday hearing called on the federal government to do more to protect veterans from manipulation by extremist groups.

Despite making up only about 6% of the population, Veterans have been responsible for 10% of all terrorist attacks and domestic plots since 2015.

Many witnesses – including myself – have testified to the growing and disproportionate danger of veterans’ involvement in violent extremism, and called on the federal government to do more to protect veterans from manipulation by extremist groups.

Although they only make up about 6% of the U.S. population, veterans are responsible for 10 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots since 2015. Veterans are clearly more vulnerable to recruitment and engagement with the extremist fringe, compared to the civilian population, and they are disproportionately involved in violence. Preliminary data from a new investigation underway by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) shows that 30 percent of respondents have personally witnessed extremism in the military.

Clearly we need more data to fully assess the scope and scale of the problem; but there are multiple indications of a growing threat. In 2020, the number of domestic plots and terrorist attacks in the United States reached its highest level since 1994; two-thirds of these were attributable to white supremacists and other far-right extremists.

The violent extremist acts attributed to ex-combatants have caused enormous damage for decades. Veteran and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history, for example, killing 168 people in 1995. Oklahoma City bombing raid. Last year, an Army reservist and two veterans were arrested in Las Vegas for plotting violence against a Black Lives Matter protest there, while a member on active duty air force sergeant with links to the “boogaloo” movement – a crusade of gun rights activists and white supremacists seeking to start a civil war – has engaged in eight days of shootings and attacks, in which he assassinated a federal security guard. Seventy-one of the 620 people facing federal charges for the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol have military experience, representing 12% of those arrested so far.

Active service members and ex-combatants are often targeted for recruitment into extremist groups because of their tactical skills, communications training, security clearances, and access to ammunition, weapons and facilities, so many skills that could be invaluable for extremist groups involved in violence or terrorism. plots.

But veterans themselves also have specific vulnerabilities that put them at risk of targeted recruitment. Post-traumatic stress of the soldier can increase vulnerability to extremism, just like dehumanisation and a binary “us versus them” view of the conflicts soldiers are trained to adopt as battlefield tactics.

Far-right groups seek to manipulate the values ​​that prompt many individuals to enlist in the armed forces in the first place. Extremist propaganda uses appeals for brotherhood, for heroism, for the defense of the nation or its people, for a chance to be part of a meaningful cause, and for the 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 groups seek to manipulate the values ​​that prompt many individuals to enlist in the armed forces in the first place.

Extremist groups and movements also mistakenly present violent, undemocratic and anti-government actions – including deadly threats against elected officials and law enforcement, kidnapping plots and even killings – as courageous revolutionary acts.

Of course, the vast majority of active duty military personnel and veterans never engage in extremist movements or violence. But as the German Home Secretary recently said of that country’s investigations into extremism in the military and security services, “Every case is a scandal“- which means that any extremism in the ranks of highly qualified individuals charged with protecting the public should be a source of great concern.

Given what we already know about the susceptibility of ex-combatants to far-right recruiting, we need to devote more resources to preventing this engagement. This includes better research and data collection, as well as transparency to the public about the extent of the problem. This requires support for the reintegration of veterans after service through counseling and treatment of psychological needs and other contributing causes of vulnerability. Veteran support organizations also need training to better recognize the warning signs of extremist radicalization and where to go for further help.

But more importantly, we need to invest in blankets, preventive education to teach veterans the persuasive techniques that extremists can try to use to exploit them. Every U.S. serviceman who leaves the military should be equipped with the tools necessary to recognize disinformation, resist propaganda, and defend democracy against extremist threats and manipulative efforts that an extremist fringe might try to use against them.

It wouldn’t even be that difficult to do, given that there is an integrated structure to support this type of training during the period of separation and transition, when active service members prepare to return to civilian life. The Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, should include specific support to equip ex-combatants with the skills to recognize the outreach and propaganda potential of extremist groups.

Extremist ideas and groups cannot be left behind within the very organizations tasked with protecting the population, including its most vulnerable citizens. But neither can we just monitor and stop 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 to protect and defend.

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