Assessing the Pentagon’s Progress on Countering Extremism in the Military

The January 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol compelled the then-incoming Biden administration to prioritize the issue of domestic extremism. This came amid growing concern over extremist network efforts to tailor recruitment toward military personnel and an increase in criminal cases involving extremism in the ranks. Over the past year, the Department of Defense (DOD) has pursued multiple lines of effort to understand, define, and counter domestic extremism among service members. To mark the one-year anniversary of Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III’s April 9, 2021, memorandum outlining initial actions to counter extremism in the department, CSIS assessed the problem of extremism in the military and the actions DOD has taken so far, as well as opportunities for the coming year.

Q1: Are extremism and domestic terrorism large problems in the military?

A1: Those involved in violent extremism make up a miniscule fraction of a percent of all service members, but these military personnel can add larger-than-average value to extremist networks due to their specialized knowledge and abilities—including communications, logistics, and tactical skills. Extremist networks frequently tailor efforts to recruit military personnel and veterans for these skills, and extremists may also attempt to infiltrate the ranks of the military and law enforcement.

Extremist beliefs and activities in the ranks are difficult to track unless they rise to the level of violence. This difficulty remains even when extremism is part of the rationale for discharges. For example, administrative discharges have been used to remove known white supremacists from the military, but no records consistently track the number of such incidents. Still, recent voluntary surveys conducted by the Military Times indicate that the percentage of active-duty service members who have witnessed examples of white nationalism and racist ideologies has increased in recent years, with 36 percent of respondents affirming that they had witnessed such behavior in 2019, compared to 22 percent the previous year.

Data on domestic terrorist attacks and disrupted plots perpetrated by active-duty or reserve service members serves as a useful proxy to track trends in extremist sentiment in the military. Recent data compiled by CSIS indicate that the percentage of terrorist attacks and plots in the United States perpetrated by service members has increased in recent years. In 2020, 6.4 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots were committed by one or more active-duty or reserve military personnel. This marked an increase from 1.5 percent in 2019 and none in 2018. In 2021, the percentage of U.S. terrorist incidents committed by active-duty or reserve service members decreased slightly to 5.2 percent. One such incident was the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which involved at least four reservists, two members of the National Guard, and one active-duty Marine Corps officer, as well as at least 91 veterans.

Q2: Is extremism in the military a new problem?

A2: Although extremism among U.S. service members has gained attention since the January 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol, the problem of extremism in the military and among veterans is not new, and includes multiple instances of the intentional targeting of government and military institutions. As the modern white power movement gained strength in the 1970s, extremists leveraged the destabilizing effects of the Vietnam War and other social and political factors to recruit service members and veterans. In the following decades, individuals with military backgrounds perpetrated a variety of attacks, and several veterans became prominent ideological figures among white supremacist and paramilitary groups. For example, Louis Beam served in the army in Vietnam then joined a local Ku Klux Klan chapter upon his return, ultimately becoming a leading strategist in the movement and popularizing the concept of leaderless resistance. White supremacy was not the only extremist ideology that attracted service members, however, as some espoused extreme religious, far-left, or anti-government ideologies.

Examples of veterans involved in extremist networks and attacks across the ideological spectrum include Randy Weaver, the white separatist at the center of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff; Richard Butler, founder of the Aryan Nations; Eric Rudolph, who bombed two abortion clinics, a nightclub with a predominately lesbian clientele, and Centennial Olympic Park; Frazier Glenn Miller, the leader of the White Patriot Party and perpetrator of the 2014 Overland Park Jewish Community Center shooting; Zale Thompson, who committed a Salafi-jihadist-inspired hatchet attack in Queens in 2014; and Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black nationalist who shot and killed five police officers in Dallas in 2016.

Meanwhile, active-duty service members have also planned or carried out attacks. For example, in 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan committed the Fort Hood shooting, and in 2020, Ethan Melzer was arrested for plotting an attack against his army unit by sending sensitive information to the Order of the Nine Angles, an occult-based neo-Nazi extremist organization.

Q3: What has the DOD done to address domestic terrorism within the department under the Biden administration?

A3:  Secretary Austin was sworn in as the 28th secretary of defense on January 22, 2021, just over two weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Within weeks, he directed a day-long stand-down for all DOD personnel to discuss extremism and the harmful impact of such activities within the ranks. The stand-down covered the oath of office that service members and DOD civilians take and defined impermissible behavior and the requirement to report DOD members exhibiting such behavior. The Office of the Secretary of Defense provided suggested talking points for the training. These stated that “the vast majority” of those subject to the training “perform their duties and responsibilities with integrity and do not support . . .violent extremists . . .and domestic terrorists” but that vigilance is required for the minority who espouse such ideologies.

Based on what the DOD learned from the stand-down, Secretary Austin issued a memorandum on April 9, 2021, that identified immediate actions to counter extremism and established the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group (CEAWG). The immediate actions included an update to the definition of extremism within DOD instructions, revisions to service member transition checklists to include training on potential targeting of service members by extremist groups, a review of entry screening questionnaires, and a commission to study extremist behavior within the department. In addition to overseeing the implementation of these immediate actions, the CEAWG was directed to develop mid- and long-term recommendations to proactively address extremism. The working group was directed to pursue four initial lines of effort: military justice and policy, support and oversight of the insider threat program, investigative processes and screening capability, and education and training.

Concurrent with the CEAWG efforts, other parts of the federal government undertook similar efforts to improve their ability to prevent or respond to domestic extremism. Most notably, in June 2021, the White House released the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The strategy included discussion of ongoing DOD efforts, including improvements to the security screening process and the development of training for service members upon separation or retirement.

On December 20, 2021, the DOD released its Report on Countering Extremist Activity Within the Department of Defense. The report provided the status of each immediate action directed by Secretary Austin in his April 9, 2021, memorandum and provided six additional recommendations.

Q4: What were the findings and recommendations of the CEAWG?

A4: The report acknowledged that cases of prohibited extremist activities within the DOD were rare, but that “even a small number of cases can pose a significant problem.” It also provided background on significant events that required updates to policy guidance on the prohibition of extremist activities within the DOD dating back to 1969.

The CEAWG provided an update on each of the four immediate actions directed by Secretary Austin. First, DOD instruction 1325.06 (“Handling Protest, Extremist, and Criminal Gang Activities among Members of the Armed Forces”) was revised, including an update to the definition of prohibited activities and the inclusion of certain social media activities in the prohibition. Additionally, the CEAWG recommended updating policy guidance for DOD civilians and contractor personnel.

Second, the DOD updated the Transition Assistance Program pre-separation counseling script provided to every service member leaving the Armed Forces. The new script provides resources to veterans and reinforces the themes addressed in the DOD-wide stand-down. The CEAWG also recommended continued engagement within the interagency to guard against veteran recruitment by extremist groups

Third, the DOD updated accession screening to include “questions on membership in racially biased entities and other extremist groups, as well as participation in violent acts.” It also partnered with the FBI to improve procedures to screen tattoos and brandings that indicate affiliation with extremist groups.

Finally, the DOD commissioned a study to determine the scope of extremist activity within the department, with a final report expected in June of this year.

In addition to addressing the immediate actions, the CEAWG provided six recommendations:

  1. Identify funding required for key areas related to insider threat analysis and response;
  2. Develop a comprehensive training and education plan that provides regular training to DOD military and civilian personnel and to those advancing to leadership positions;
  3. Review and update relevant policies to provide notice to Total Force personnel concerning prohibited activities;
  4. Create an insider-threat study on information sharing and risk prioritization;
  5. Improve and modernize the insider threat program to create clear requirements, improved information review, and enhanced capabilities; and
  6. Develop and initiate execution of an outreach and education plan related to the insider-threat program.

Q5: Is this the first time the DOD has undertaken this kind of internal investigation on extremism?

A5: Just as the problem of extremism in the military is not new, this is not the first time that it has received scrutiny from both the executive and legislative branches. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a former army soldier, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He had met his accomplice, Terry Nichols, while both were serving in the army, and the two men had bonded over their shared distrust of the government and growing interest in survivalist and far-right literature. Eight months later, in December 1995, a group of three soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg murdered Michael James and Jackie Burden—a Black man and woman selected at random due to their race—on the streets of Fayetteville, North Carolina. The three soldiers—Specialist Randy Lee Meadows, Jr., Private James Norman Burmeister II, and Private Malcolm Wright—were known white supremacists within their platoon. Burmeister had hung a Nazi flag over his bed in the barracks, and all three dressed in skinhead-inspired fashion while off duty.

Amid national outrage, DOD and Congress began investigations into extremism in the military in response to the two cases. The secretary of the army convened a task force to assess extremism within the army, which included surveying over 17,000 soldiers at 28 Army installations across the United States, Germany, and South Korea. The task force found that while there was minimal extremist activity in the ranks, policies and training regarding extremism needed to be clarified, and it issued a list of 12 recommendations. The Air National Guard completed a similar survey in 1999. In June 1996, the House Committee on National Security held a hearing titled “Extremist Activity in the Military,” which included testimony from the service secretaries, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and external experts, including individuals from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Although some policies—such as those governing dissident activities and participation in extremist activities and organizations—received updates as a result of these investigations, no clear definition of “extremism” was established. Furthermore, the responsibility of addressing extremism was relegated to the unit level, which was insufficient to address systemic problems.

Q6: What else should DOD leadership consider in the coming year to reduce extremism in the ranks of the military?

A6: Many of DOD’s efforts over the past year have focused on better understanding the scope of the extremism problem and identifying mechanisms to clarify or improve policy and training, rather than taking immediate action. This slow and data-driven approach should include a proportionate response that preserves individuals’ rights and empowers military personnel to do their jobs safely and effectively, rather than imposing unnecessary or unclear constraints. However, this slower speed also means that it is difficult to see or measure change, at least in the short term. As DOD continues its efforts, there are some additional areas of focus that could strengthen its impact.

First, DOD should increase transparency related to counterextremism efforts with a focus on gaining buy-in from military personnel. Training on identifying and reporting extremism activity within the ranks needs to be well planned to be effective and avoid the perception that such efforts are simply a check-in-the-box approach. Service members—particularly those in positions most likely to encounter or receive reports of signs of extremism, such as recruiters, company-grade officers, and senior noncommissioned officers—should be a focus of effort for the training. The department should also take lessons learned from its inability to eradicate extremism following the Oklahoma City bombing and the Fort Bragg murders. It must balance the need to ensure military leaders are educated and empowered to address extremism within their units, where they are most likely to build the trust needed to facilitate change, while providing a coordinated and clear framework for them to work within. 

Second, the study commissioned to determine the scope of extremist activity within the department should include among its outputs a centralized mechanism for tracking data on extremism. This should include both survey results and other data compiled in the course of the study on the prevalence of extremism attitudes and behavior, as well as tracking terrorist attacks and plots that were carried out by personnel linked to DOD. Ideally, this would also include channels for information sharing and collaborative data collection with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other subsets of the government that serve the same population.

Perhaps most importantly, any new mechanisms to track and respond to extremism in the ranks must include long-term, ongoing commitment from the highest levels of DOD leadership—including pursuing bipartisan political support to ensure that efforts will not be disrupted by a change in administration. As exhibited by the army task force’s efforts in 1996, studies and interventions can be helpful for clarifying policies around extremism, but without sustained, high-level efforts, systemic problems are unlikely to change. The ongoing efforts to identify and reduce extremism in the military echo those from 26 years ago—although there has, worryingly, been less bipartisan acknowledgment in Congress that the problem exists. DOD should learn from the ephemerality of the 1996 investigations to ensure that today’s studies and recommendations lead to enduring reform.

Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Macander is a military fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Michelle Macander

Former Military Fellow