Why it’s so difficult for the military to weed out extremists

We have met the enemy and he is us.

When a Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested in Februrary 2019, prosecutors said the self-professed white supremacist had amassed an arsenal of 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition that he planned to use to kill people on “a scale rarely seen” in the United States.

Then in June 2020, an Army private who was a member of a Neo-Nazi and Satanic group was accused of trying to orchestrate an ambush on his own unit that would have created a “mass casualty” event.

Meanwhile, a former Marine lance corporal booted from the service after he reportedly using a Neo-Nazi forum to recruit for a ‘racial holy war,’ was arrested in October along with two men he had served with at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. All three were charged with “conspiracy to manufacture, possess, and distribute various weapons, ammunition, and suppressors.”

If you’re seeing a pattern, that’s because these cases are neither unique nor isolated. And according to a new Pentagon report obtained by Task & Purpose, white supremacists and other extremists who want to join the military are like water: They find every crack in the system and ooze their way through.

Indeed, the report cites more than 20 examples of service members and veterans who were either members of white supremacist groups or unaffiliated white supremacists, including Timothy McVeigh, the Gulf War veteran who was executed in 2001 after being convicted of carrying out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. More recently, an Army specialist was found guilty in February 2020 of distributing bomb-making materials.

Separately, Task & Purpose has compiled a list of nearly two dozen current and former Marines who have been involved in extremist activity since 2017, such as two Marine veterans arrested in October for allegedly planning to kidnap Michigan’s governor.

The Pentagon knows it has a problem on its hands, but as its report to Congress makes clear, extremists are hard to track online and have their own obscure subculture that allows them to form invisible bonds. And the current security clearance process has gaping holes that can allow extremists to slip through the cracks.

While the problem isn’t new, revelations that several rioters involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill had military ties has put a spotlight on the Pentagon, which has vowed to finally eliminate extremists from within the ranks. That won’t be easy.

Why it’s so difficult for the military to weed out extremists
A portrait of Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat outside the US Capitol following a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation’s capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via AP)

Recruiters need to get enough people to sign a contract each year so that the military branches can say they have met their enlistment targets. At the same time, they are supposed to look for any signs that potential recruits could have a criminal history or be affiliated with a gang or extremist group. But recruiters are not omniscient and there are plenty of ways potential recruits can hide ties to white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa, Atomwaffen Division, and the Boogaloo movement, according to the report.

These days, nearly everyone has a presence online, but that does not make the job of finding extremists any easier for recruiters, the report says. Even if a potential recruit posts racist content on social media, that doesn’t mean recruiters are going to see it.

“Human analysts cannot effectively and efficiently search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DoD background vetting,” according to the report.  

Potential recruits must give their consent to have their social media postings checked, and the Defense Department cannot collect information on people who are not affiliated with the military, so all social media posts that are looked at must first be scrubbed of third-party personally identifiable information, the report says.

It is also challenging to identify exactly who has posted content on social media that raises red flags, the report says.

“The prevalence of common names (e.g., Robert Smith), the savvy use of privacy settings, and even simple communication under an alias that cannot be lined directly to known personally identifiable information (e.g., full name, e-mail address, school) make identity resolution time-consuming and difficult,” says the report, which urges personal contact with both recruiters and investigators to help “[fill] in the gaps” to identify extremists who may not have much online activity.

Still, the Defense Department can only look at content that is publicly available, despite domestic extremists and terrorists often communicating over encrypted platforms such as Discord, Telegram, and 8chan. The military cannot legally collect private discussions within a group.

Even worse, extremists and supremacists have their own language that includes coded acronyms, symbols, and tattoos that may not be readily apparent to the military, the report says. For example, “H” is the eighth letter in the alphabet, so the number “88” is an extremist symbol for “HH,” or “Heil Hitler.”

The “Schwarze Sonne,” or black sun, is an SS symbol that has been adopted by white supremacists, and the white supremacist creed “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” can be expressed as the acronym “WMSTEOOPAAFFWC,” the report found.

But others are far more subtle, as one user of a now-defunct neo-Nazi forum explained: “A good way people in the military find other rightists is to simply wear a shirt with some obscure fascist logo,” the person wrote. “I met my good buddy at a brigade luncheon when he noticed the Totenkopf (death’s head) on my shirt. On most bases, you can see the occasional right-wing symbol. Sun wheel there, 88 here, Mussolini’s face over there, a Templar cross tattoo. The symbols of the SS units were especially common, even on things as public as cars, flags, and helmets.”

Currently, the onus is on potential recruits to explain what their tattoos mean, according to the report, which recommends the military work more closely with the FBI’s Cryptology and Racketeering Unit as well as the National Gang Intelligence Center to identify questionable tattoos.

“The information housed in NGIC may help Recruiting Headquarters identify concerning tattoos and bring a greater understanding to the background of these applicants who present potential indicators of gang membership,” the report says.

Whatever steps the Defense Department takes will doubtlessly cause a backlash from critics, who have often accused the military of becoming ‘woke.’

But Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made clear that extremism is a strategic threat to the military. “Equality and opportunity are matters of military readiness. Not just political correctness,” Milley told Congress in July. “There is no place in our armed forces for manifestations or symbols of racism, bias, or discrimination.”

Jeff Schogol

Jeff Schogolis the senior Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years. You can email him at schogol@taskandpurpose.com, direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter, or reach him on WhatsApp and Signal at 703-909-6488. Contact the author here.