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At least 458 US crimes tied to extremism involved veterans, active-duty troops

The University of Maryland's McKeldin Library. (Carmichael Library/Flickr)
December 19, 2021

The number of people with military backgrounds who committed criminal acts motivated by extremist views has jumped during the last ten years, according to new research at the University of Maryland. Without intervention, experts worry, those numbers will continue to rise.

What they want to do is get ahead of the problem, and increase outreach to this new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to get them engaged and supported to prevent any allure of extremist groups from taking hold.

“It’s very easy to say, well, Charlottesville, and 2020 and 2021, those were anomalies,” said William Braniff, an Army veteran who leads the university’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START. “I think they’re a reflection of the political climate in the United States, and veterans are a subset, a cross section of America. They reflect the same trend lines that we’re seeing in the broader American population. So I don’t think we’re seeing, I don’t think this is some sort of blip that will completely reverse itself in any sense.”

START’s latest report, released Wednesday, identifies 458 people with military backgrounds who were either arrested, charged, or indicted after committing criminal acts that were motivated by extremist political, economic, social, or religious goals since 1990.

That total includes 107 veterans and 11 others with military ties, including “one active-duty Marine, two Army Reservists, two Army National Guard members, two Marine Reservists, two Civil Air Patrol Cadets, and one member of the Army and one member of the Air Force who enlisted after January 6, 2021,” the study found.

But even if the Jan. 6 military participants are removed from the data set, the researchers found, the average number of people with military backgrounds who engage in those criminal acts has jumped from 6.9 to 17.7 per year.

“And why? We just concluded the two longest wars in U.S. history, unsatisfactorily, in two Muslim-majority countries in a hyperpolarized moment in American history. So those underlying factors are not going away,” Braniff said.

Before the year is out, the Pentagon is expected to release an internal review ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on extremism within the ranks and new guidelines for commanders on how to deal with troops who embrace extremist views.

Braniff and several other groups are looking closely at how extremism takes hold.

What they’ve found is that some newly separated service members are falling through the cracks. Due to privacy concerns, their contact information is no longer shared with government-affiliated veterans service organizations, which have a harder time finding and connecting with them.

That lack of connection can be compounding. Most of the veterans known to have joined extremist groups did so about 10 years after separating from the military, and many had a history of trying unsuccessfully to maintain jobs and relationships.

To conduct the research, the consortium pulled data from police reports, court records, and news reports in all 50 states. It’s likely the data set did not capture all arrests, because some state and county records were either difficult to obtain or did not identify military service, Braniff said.

Spikes in domestic terrorism also occured after previous military conflicts, Braniff said.

“The overwhelming majority of veterans came home from the wars of the last few decades and are contributing to American society in amazing ways,” he said. “But a small number are also over-represented among violent extremists. And so really, the question before us is recognizing the cyclical pattern of wars and domestic terrorism. Are we willing to compete for the next veteran, and tell them that we love them…or are we going to let the local militia win?”

Braniff and others have formed We the Veterans, which along with the University of Maryland has advised DOD as it conducted its extremism review, which is expected to be released before the end of the year.

But the review itself is a sensitive undertaking; any efforts by the Biden-administration Pentagon to address extremism in the ranks may face political criticism that the military is becoming “too woke.”

It also will arrive as the Defense Department is trying to get its force fully vaccinated from Covid —but now seven Republican governors are rejecting the Pentagon’s authority to require vaccines for their National Guard troops.

When asked Thursday whether the Pentagon was worried that service members who are forced out of the military because they refuse the vaccine might become radicalized, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said maintaining readiness outweighed that risk.

“While it may be a political issue in society, it’s not a political issue here in the United States military,” Kirby said. “It is a valid military medical requirement, and it is a lawful order.”

“The extreme opposite view of your question would be that we wouldn’t enforce this lawful order, this medical requirement, because we’d be worried that we might radicalize a member of the armed forces.”


© 2021 Government Executive Media Group LLC

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