A recently uncovered extremist plot has put fresh scrutiny on the relationship between US service members and white supremacist groups.
An alleged plot by a young solider to coordinate with a neo-Nazi group to attack and kill members of his own army unit has put new scrutiny on the US military’s failure to address violent white supremacy within its own ranks.
Federal prosecutors have announced charges against current or former US military service members for plots linked to violent extremism nearly once a week this month.
A 2019 survey of readers of Military Times, an independent news outlet, found that more that 36% of active-duty troops surveyed said they had personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months – a 14% increase from a similar survey the year before.
But in a congressional hearing in February, military officials testified that “mere membership” in white supremacist groups is still “not prohibited” for American service members.
The US Department of Defense prohibited members of the military from “active participation” in white supremacist and other extremist groups since 1996, when decorated Gulf war veteran and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing. But “active” participation is still defined as attending rallies or fundraising for a racist group, not being a member, military officials testified in February.
During that hearing, the California congresswoman Jackie Speier called that approach “woefully inadequate” for addressing the country’s “very serious domestic terror problem”.
“The potential for placing our service members at risk is so great,” Speier said.
The ‘boogaloo’ ideology
Military veterans have held leadership roles in some of the most prominent white supremacist groups that took part in the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Investigative journalists and anti-fascist activists continue to uncover new members of violent racist groups who are also current members of the army, the marine corps, the air force and the national guard.
In January, a coast guard lieutenant was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison on gun and drug charges. He was accused by prosecutors of being a white nationalist who was plotting politically motivated attacks against journalists and Democratic politicians.
The same month, a US army veteran and a former combat engineer in the Canadian army reserve were among the alleged members of neo-Nazi group The Base who prosecutors said were discussing plans to create violence at a pro-gun rally in Virginia in order to spark a civil war.
In the month of June alone, prosecutors in California announced murder charges against an air force sergeant for the shooting death of a federal officer in Oakland, in addition to a previous murder charge for the shooting death of a local sheriff’s deputy, and described the sergeant as part of a nascent anti-government movement obsessed with the “boogaloo”, or coming war against government tyranny.
The justice department announced charges against three Nevada men with military experience, alleging that they had planned to hijack a Las Vegas protest over George Floyd’s death, and that they were also inspired by anti-government “boogaloo” ideology. Experts who monitor extremist groups disagree on the extent to which the still-developing “boogaloo” ideology overlaps with white supremacy.
And federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against 22-year-old Ethan Melzer for allegedly sending a British occultist neo-Nazi group sensitive details about his army unit in order to plan a deadly attack against his fellow soldiers.
Relationship between veterans and white supremacist groups
While many veterans describe their military service as a crucial, and positive, experience of diversity in a country where many neighborhoods remain segregated by race, white supremacist organizing within the military has long been a problem.
The US armed forces were formally desegregated in 1948 and the last segregated units were disbanded in 1954, but the same racist violence and discrimination that black Americans experienced at home continued within the military and overseas during the Vietnam war.
American veterans have played key roles in the white supremacist movements in the United States for more than a century, according to Kathleen Belew, the author of Bring the War Home, a history of the contemporary American white power movement.
The Ku Klux Klan had new waves of resurgence after both world wars and after the Vietnam war, Belew writes, just as the recent wave of “alt-right” white supremacist organizing has been deeply shaped by America’s “War on Terror” in the Middle East.
Each wave of white supremacist organizing has involved racist veterans of the war in key leadership positions, made use of veterans’ military skills for training recruits and planning acts of violence, and was influenced ideologically by the political experiences of the war, Belew writes.
Experts on extremism have repeatedly warned that white power groups have sometimes encouraged young members to join the US military in order to get advanced weapons and other training in order to more effectively carry out attacks.
In the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was actively organizing on a US military base at Camp Pendleton in southern California, and Klan members were harassing and attacking black marines for years before an outright fight prompted official intervention.
‘FBI starting to take this threat seriously’
Efforts to address the danger of white supremacist organizing among service members and veterans has been met with political opposition from Republicans.
In 2009, Republicans forced Obama’s department of homeland security chief to apologize after an intelligence briefing warned that US military veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be vulnerable to radicalization by violent white supremacist and antigovernment groups.
Conservative commentators at the time portrayed the briefing as an outrageous attack: how could the nation’s first black president portray “standard, ordinary, everyday conservatives as posing a bigger threat to this country than al Qaeda terrorists”?
The Republican pushback had a chilling effect on government monitoring of rightwing extremism, teaching government employees about the political risk of focusing on domestic terrorism, according to Daryl Johnson, the former career analyst who lead the team that produced the report.
Johnson has argued that Republican officials have “blood on their hands”, and that more aggressive government intervention could have prevented some of the white supremacist violence the United States has seen over the past four years.
But Johnson said this week that the drumbeat of federal charges against extremists in recent weeks could be a positive sign.
The charges against Melzer, the alleged neo-Nazi collaborator, “sounds like an FBI sting operation to me, and that’s important because that lets me know that the FBI is starting to take this threat seriously”, Johnson said.