Violent Extremists’ Recruiting of Veterans Spurs Lawmaker Review

  • Hearing part of broader look at recruitment patterns
  • Veterans involved in 10% of extremist attacks, witness says

Congress, federal agencies, and military groups should collect data and improve coordination to combat domestic extremists’ efforts to recruit veterans, academics and advocates told lawmakers.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee heard Wednesday from a slate of domestic extremism scholars and veterans’ advocates concerned about a rise in former and current service members’ involvement in violent extremism incidents.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has tracked an increase in the number of attacks carried out by active-duty and reserve personnel, as well as veterans, said Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the think tank’s Transnational Threats Project.

Extremism among service members has garnered increased attention since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, where at least 50 of those arrested were veterans. Wednesday’s hearing focused more broadly on concerns about recruitment patterns by anti-government groups such as Oath Keepers.

Groups recruit veterans for symbolic and practical reasons, using them to learn skills and project a patriotic image, said Vanderbilt University lecturer and militia researcher Amy Cooter.

“We’re not ignoring that sometimes it can and does exist sometimes on the left end of the spectrum but we have to look objectively at the data,” Chair Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said of violent domestic extremism, noting that researchers have observed a spike in activity from far-right groups.

The panel is planning follow-up hearings on specific recruitment tactics and vulnerability among veterans, he said.

Photographer: Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
At least 50 veterans were arrested for their role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Lawmakers held a hearing Oct. 13 on the recruitment of veterans by extremist groups.

Republicans on the committee accused Democrats of politicizing the issue and denigrating veterans. Ranking member Michael Bost (R-Ill.) argued that the committee’s approach risked infringing on free speech rights and spreading a stigma that a veteran is a “ticking time bomb.”

Takano originally scheduled the hearing for July but postponed it. Bost said that was at the request of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who didn’t want to distract from a hearing by the Jan. 6 select committee held the same week. He said that decision underscored that the hearing was a “political exercise.” Representatives for Pelosi and Takano didn’t immediately respond to questions about that claim.

Role in Attacks

The nonprofit Anti-Defamation League estimates that right-wing extremists are responsible for 75% of extremist-related murders in the U.S. over the past 10 years, said Oren Segal, vice president of the group’s Center on Extremism.

Veterans, in particular, have been connected to 10% of domestic terrorist attacks since 2015, despite making up less than 6% of the population, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler told lawmakers.

He called on the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to work closely with veterans service organizations to raise awareness of recruitment efforts, and for the Defense Department to include extremist recruitment awareness training in its Transition Assistance Program for service members returning to civilian life.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Jeremy Butler, a witness invited by the panel’s Republicans, said extremism among veterans wasn’t pervasive but was still a “serious threat.” He criticized a line of questioning from Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who complained that the federal counterterrorism strategy doesn’t focus on Black Lives Matter and the left-wing political movement antifa.

“The types of questions that you’re asking are part of the problem here,” Butler said, adding that people are “using lies, using obfuscation, misinformation to avoid addressing the real issues that the country is facing.”

Plenzler took to Twitter after the hearing to warn about the danger of ignoring the issue. “Let’s investigate,” he wrote. “If I’m wrong, we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. If those minimizing it are wrong, next time they’ll take the Capitol.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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