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Radicalization in the Ranks

Elliott Simpson

Radicalization in the Ranks

The now infamous video of Capitol Hill rioters in military gear is frightening.  chilling . It is made more so by the fact that the rioters  are in a ‘stack’ formation – a tactic used by military and law enforcement to enter a building by force. Roughly 15 per cent of those who attacked the Capitol on January 6th were current or former members of the American military. While right-wing extremism is always problematic, it poses a special set of problems when it infiltrates the military:   as it reduces the military’s cohesiveness as an effective force, and erodes society’s trust in it’s defence establishment. It is also more dangerous. A radicalized individual with military training and access to weapons is more of a threat to society than a non-military civilian.  

Here, There, Everywhere

The radicalization of military personal  is an international issue. Germany’s military investigated 843 suspected cases of far-right extremism in 2020. In France, two letters sent to the government on the anniversary of an attempted coup 60 years ago, written and signed by active and retired military personnel, warned of an upcoming civil war and accused the sitting government of cowardice in the face of Islamic extremism. In Canada, the military establishment is finally taking note of the fact that extremist groups are actively recruiting from the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces, thanks in part to an investigation by the Winnipeg Free Press.

Similarly, if the Capitol Hill riot starkly exposed the US military’s connection to right-wing extremism, this was hardly a new problem. In 1986, the Southern Poverty Law Centre warned that active duty Marines were rallying with the KKK – and have repeated that warning approximately every five years.

Organizing the Solution

Following the January 6th insurrection, important steps have been taken to weed out far-right sensibilities and prevent military institutions from incubating or nurturing extremist viewpoints.. However, de-radicalization is not a straightforward process: what works for one person might not work for  another. As a result, solutions are not easy to come by and must account for the three distinct phases of a military members life: pre-military life, military career, and then transition and civilian life. The military establishment must play  a role at each of these stages to repair the damage that has been done to date, and to make sure this problem does not get worse.

Pre-Military Life

In terms of pre-military life, more thorough screening of military candidates during the application process is a necessary step forward.. Enhanced screening, perhaps characterized by more thorough psychological evaluation, would help limit the number of recruits who are already radicalized, or are at risk of it. Better data sharing between government agencies would also be helpful. In Germany, the military intelligence and civilian intelligence services have begun sharing data to perform enhanced background checks on recruits. But as there is a limit to the effectiveness of any screening tool, the major change at this stage will come from education and wider societal adjustments To be sure, military attitudes will roughly correspond to and reflect societal norms and the extent to which extremist viewpoints are culturally accepted.

In Uniform

Once in uniform, however,  responsibility falls overwhelmingly on the military establishment, especially in light of its goal of indoctrinating recruits into military culture. It should be possible to indoctrinate an anti-extremist culture into every recruit from the beginning of their careers – which if done well could play a huge role in countering this threat. Ensuring consistent anti-extremist messaging from chains of command and communicating a clear definition of what constitutes acceptable behaviour could establish clear boundaries and radically close space for extremist behaviour. Existing community supports for military members, such as chaplains and mental health counsellors, both of which help reduce mental strain and violence, could also play an expanded role in preventing military members from being drawn to extremist ideology and groups.

Invariably, however, some will unfortunately fall through the cracks. The easy approach would be to simply discharge military members who have been drawn to extremism. Yet, this is likely to make the issue worse, as it can create a sense of grievance against the government, perhaps accelerating the radicalization process. According to William Braniff, who directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, the radicalized military personnel should be treated with wraparound services that “de-risk the situation”.

 Veteran Fallout

Of the military-affiliated individuals who participated in the January 6th riots, an overwhelming number were veterans, meaning they had transitioned to civilian life and were no longer in the military. Extremist groups make a concerted effort to recruit military veterans for several reasons: strategically, veterans have weapons and leadership training; reputationally, veterans are generally respected members of society, and having them on your “team” is a recruitment tool in itself. This, combined with the generally difficult and vacuum-inducing transition from military to civilian life, and the lack of follow- up and outreach to military members once they have left the service, makes countering extremism at this stage seem especially difficult.

Programs that prepare soldiers for life after the military are being put into place by the Department of Defence Yet while the US Department of Veterans Affairs is interested in playing an enlarged role  combating extremism, it lacks the institutional capacities to do so. This means that other organizations, better suited to offer comprehensive and enduring community support, will be required to play an outsized role in the short-term.  .

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one. Extremism in the military is on the rise. With the growing use of technology and social media in the radicalization process, and the assent of far-right political movements, this problem will only get worse in the absence of concerted and systematic policy intervention. Law enforcement and the military have a monopoly on sanctioned violence. They therefore represent the state, both at home and abroad, in a unique way. If this danger is not openly acknowledged, and addressed it will lead to a further  breakdown of trust between civil society, the military and the state, affecting not just national security, but social cohesion at large.