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December 06, 2022

Protecting the Protectors: Preventing and Mitigating Domestic Violent Extremism in the Military, Veteran, and Law Enforcement Communities

By Carrie Cordero, Katherine L. Kuzminski, Arona Baigal and Josh Campbell

Executive Summary

In recent years, the involvement of currently serving military members and law enforcement officers, as well as veterans of those two professions, in domestic violent extremist organizations and activities has received public attention. While they represent the minority of those engaged in domestic violent extremism (DVE), their participation merits additional scrutiny, given the nature of their professions—which includes taking a sworn oath to defend the Constitution and the nation, possessing the authority to use force to safeguard national security and public safety, and adhering to a professional ethic. It is especially important to scrutinize their participation in DVE because members of these communities have engaged in violence against the very system they are sworn to protect.

There are three phases in the service lifecycle to identify and prevent individual engagement in or sympathy for DVE organizations: screening during the recruitment process; training and managing currently serving personnel; and screening, educating, and resourcing individuals transitioning out of service.

Efforts to identify and address DVE are approached differently in the Department of Defense (DoD) and the law enforcement community. For military service members, a centralized, top-down structure with formal policies, practices, and programs provides guidance from the DoD, the military departments, and the military services across all three phases of the service lifecycle.

It is especially important to scrutinize the participation of currently serving military members and law enforcement officers, as well as veterans of those two professions, in DVE because members of these communities have engaged in violence against the very system they are sworn to protect.

By contrast, the law enforcement community operates across a patchwork of decentralized federal, state, county, and local hierarchies, resulting in wide variation between policies and practices across approximately 18,000 local police agencies.

Even though the DoD has a formal structure to address DVE, the department still faces challenges similar to those of the law enforcement community in managing participation in DVE organizations and activities by current and former service members. While recent efforts to update policies regarding the screening, management, and transition of service members are necessary, they are not sufficient to prevent the appeal of DVE. Similarly, the absence of a cohesive structure connecting law enforcement agencies prevents opportunities to develop and implement formal mechanisms to address the challenge.

Members of the military and law enforcement communities (both those currently serving and veterans) play a unique role in the American social contract. In exchange for authorities to use force in the name of the state for the protection of society, members of these professions are expected to uphold a stricter moral standard than their civilian counterparts. Moreover, members of the profession are expected to regulate entry into their ranks and enforce norms of acceptable behavior through individual and communal allegiance to a code of ethics. While externally imposed laws and policies can define the boundaries of acceptable behavior within the profession, internal enforcement of a shared professional ethos is more likely to intrinsically motivate behavior that aligns with the high standards of the profession.

The DoD, the military services, and law enforcement organizations would benefit from thoughtful and consistent updates to social media screening processes. Law enforcement organizations should follow best practices to include counter-DVE training within existing training modules on related topics. Beyond updates to policy, real opportunities exist for engaging in communicating, modeling, and enforcing the professional ethic internally across the lifecycle of service. Increased formal education and training of the professional ethic by respected leaders within these communities may be more impactful than externally required “box checking” activities. Membership organizations, including police-, military-, and veteran-serving organizations, can provide consistent, standardized professional development and a sense of community and purpose for those currently serving, and can also reach transitioning and veteran members of the military and law enforcement communities who may be disconnected from support.

Introduction

In the days and weeks immediately following the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, news reports focused on rates of participation by those with military or law enforcement backgrounds. While military- and law enforcement–affiliated individuals were in the minority of those charged with crimes, it remains striking how many were associated with these professions. As of September 2022, the most recent data revealed that among the 896 people charged with crimes connected to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, at least 47 were current or former law enforcement personnel and 128 were current or former military personnel.

The active solicitation of military or law enforcement skillsets by domestic violent extremist (DVE) groups merits attention. Members of the military and law enforcement are proficient in lethal skillsets, and DVE groups seek to gain such expertise in two ways: by recruiting those who are serving or who have served and by infiltrating the military and law enforcement “to gain tactical training and access to weapons and explosives.” Additionally, groups seek the credibility associated with the professionalism and discipline of military and law enforcement personnel.

Members of the military and law enforcement communities hold distinct authorities and responsibilities within American society, which uniquely entrusts them to use force and other techniques that infringe on privacy and civil liberties. In return, members of both professions swear an oath and are expected to abide by a self-regulating professional ethic.

The public focus on their participation is rooted in expectations based on the social contract between citizens and those sworn to protect them. Members of the military and law enforcement communities hold distinct authorities and responsibilities within American society, which uniquely entrusts them to use force and other techniques that infringe on privacy and civil liberties. In return, members of both professions swear an oath and are expected to abide by a self-regulating professional ethic. Further, American society expects veterans of the military and law enforcement communities to adhere to high principles in civic life and in their personal conduct as citizens. Participation in DVE-related activities runs counter to the special roles assigned to these communities within the context of the social contract.

Both the federal government and academic researchers have analyzed the presence of domestic violent extremism within the military, law enforcement, and veteran communities. However, most existing research focuses specifically on one of those three. This study offers a comprehensive analysis of trends across the three communities.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and law enforcement agencies already enforce strict screening processes to identify adverse behavior within their ranks, including drug use, gang affiliation, or association with international terrorist organizations. To varying degrees, the DoD and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have reviewed screening, management, and post-service transition processes to address the presence of DVE ideologies and behaviors within their ranks. However, these efforts have often been reactionary, sporadic, and inconsistent. Questions remain in the public discourse and among senior leadership and members of Congress: Is DVE in the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities even a problem? If so, how widespread is it? Is the attention being paid to identifying, preventing, and punishing offenders proportional to their representation within these communities?

The DoD and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have reviewed screening, management, and post-service transition processes to address the presence of DVE ideologies and behaviors within their ranks. However, these efforts have often been reactionary, sporadic, and inconsistent.

Even among those who assess that the rate of a military and law enforcement presence in DVE activities is a problem, there is little consensus about how best to address the issue. Initiatives within the executive branch (particularly the DoD) to address DVE within the military have been met with pushback from some members of Congress who cite the efforts as wasteful.

While efforts to prevent, identify, and rectify involvement in DVE activities are highly centralized in the military services, the structure of the law enforcement community is highly decentralized. Efforts to standardize any policies and practices, or even to identify best practices across law enforcement agencies, therefore present a challenge for less controversial topics, let alone the contentious topic of DVE within the ranks.

CNAS announced the launch of the Countering Domestic Violent Extremism project in February 2022, convening a task force of experts in the field of countering DVE in the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities (Appendix A). Three virtual working groups were conducted over a period of five months, focusing on recruitment and screening; in-service policies and practices; and post-service outreach and support. This project sought to develop a new approach to countering domestic violent extremism within the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities.

To that end, CNAS researched three processes in the professional lifecycle for the identification and management of DVE within the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities: recruitment and screening; current personnel management policies and practices; and transition and post-service outreach and support. With respect to recruitment, the CNAS team focused on the ways in which relevant departments and agencies screen for domestic extremist affiliation and radicalization, specifically the potential for engaging in violence. With respect to personnel management policies and practices, CNAS examined existing policies used to identify and mitigate DVE within the ranks and identified existing gaps and tensions. Lastly, CNAS studied existing programs, policies, and processes for those transitioning out of the military or law enforcement and identified opportunities to mitigate the appeal of DVE organizations to those who have already transitioned out of service.

Trends in U.S. Domestic Violent Extremism and Connections to the Military, Veteran, and Law Enforcement Communities

Broadly, domestic violent extremism has emerged as one of the nation’s most pressing homeland security threats in recent years. In August 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that, “The number of FBI investigations of suspected DVEs has more than doubled since the spring of 2020.” In April 2022, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified that, “The Intelligence Community assesses that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) who advocate for the superiority of the white race, including white supremacists, and militia violent extremists (MVEs) present the most lethal DVE movement in the homeland.” In September 2021, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid testified that, “Since 2018, DVEs—who are driven by a range of ideologies—have been the most lethal terrorists within the homeland and will most likely pose an elevated threat during the next few years.” While these senior officials have not focused their assessments or public remarks on the issue of DVE within the military, veteran, and law enforcement communities specifically, they have repeatedly sounded the warning that DVE in general is a pressing and dangerous domestic threat, and will continue to be in the coming years.

In the past decade, domestic violent extremism has been increasing. Between 1994 and 2021, the number of domestic terrorism attacks and plots increased, with 2020 and 2021 at the highest levels. In 2021 alone, there were 73 domestic terrorist attacks and plots. The number of fatalities from these attacks increased from 5 to 30 between 2020 and 2021. In 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report to Congress, identifying the increase of white supremacists and militias as a national security threat. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is the lead federal government entity responsible for preventing, investigating, disrupting, and prosecuting acts of domestic terrorism. As Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen has counseled, “DOJ investigates and prosecutes violent extremists for their criminal acts and not for their beliefs or based on their associations, and regardless of ideology.” The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, issued by the Biden administration in June 2021, is the first national strategy issued specifically on the topic of domestic terrorism. It identifies at least three main drivers: racially or ethnically motivated extremism, anti-government or anti-authority motivated extremism, or lone actors or small groups with mixed ideologies.

Government officials have repeatedly sounded the warning that DVE in general is a pressing and dangerous domestic threat, and will continue to be in the coming years.

Modern U.S. history includes a number of occurrences of domestic terrorism perpetrated by individuals with connections to the military. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, remains the most deadly and significant event of domestic terrorism in American history. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh implanted and detonated a bomb inside a vehicle outside the Murrah building, which housed federal employees as well as a children’s day care center. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured several hundred others. McVeigh was employed as a security guard at the time of the attack.

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995, by Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, was the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history. (Bob Daemmrich/AFP via Getty Images)

Additional significant examples of domestic terrorism perpetrated by individuals with professional connections to the military community include:

  • The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (1963): On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan’s no. 13 chapter set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This church was a prominent location for Birmingham’s Black community and was a continuous target for racial discrimination and assaults. The explosion killed four girls and injured several others. Two of the four perpetrators of this attack were veterans of the U.S. military.
  • Ruby Ridge standoff (1992): On August 21, 1992, an 11-day standoff occurred between anti-government ideologue Randy Weaver, who had connections to white supremacist violent groups, and the U.S. Marshals. This standoff led to a shootout, leaving members of Weaver’s family and a U.S. Marshal dead. Randy Weaver was a former Green Beret.
  • Centennial Olympic Park bombing (1996): On July 27, 1996, at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Eric Robert Rudolph set off a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one woman and injuring more than 100 people. Rudolph went on to place additional bombs in Georgia and Alabama during the next two years, evading an intense law enforcement manhunt for five years. A U.S. Army veteran, he had attended Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
  • Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting (2012): On August 5, 2012, Wade Page shot 10 people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing seven, and then himself after being shot by law enforcement personnel. Page was a white supremacist and U.S. Army veteran.

These illustrative examples highlight that perpetrators of domestic violent extremism have had connections to the military community long before January 6, 2021. Existing scholarship points to DVE being prominent among military personnel and veterans dating back at least to the Vietnam War, if not earlier. In 1970, the U.S. Marine Corps recorded more than 1,000 cases of racial violence within their ranks. Experts view events such as the Vietnam War as enabling environments for domestic violent extremist behaviors and views. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland published a research brief in December 2021, highlighting 458 instances of extremist-related crimes committed by Americans with military backgrounds between 1990 and 2021. Findings included that 386 of these criminals were no longer serving in the military at the time of their extremist acts, and most had been out of military service for more than a decade, demonstrating the potency of targeted recruitment of veterans.

The work of government analysts and officials to identify even potential links between violent extremist trends in the United States and the military community can be difficult and controversial. In 2009, DHS published a report titled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. The analysis included the following statement:

Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS I&A [Office of Intelligence and Analysis] is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.

Following the release of the 2009 report, there was substantial media attention and criticism from lawmakers, including calls for then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to resign. DHS initially defended the assessment, but quickly withdrew the report. The 2009 report was criticized from varying perspectives, ranging from lawmakers who challenged the report as maligning the veteran community, to the ACLU, which criticized the report’s emphasis on ideology instead of violent actions.

Meanwhile, the connections between law enforcement and domestic violent extremism—or the ideological underpinnings of it—have received, generally, less attention from either the government or the research community. In 2006, an FBI intelligence assessment cautioned law enforcement personnel “regarding white supremacist groups’ interest in ‘infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.’” More recently, criminal prosecutions of individuals charged in connection with the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol provide support for more analysis of law enforcement alongside military and veteran susceptibility to recruitment by domestic extremist groups. As of late October 2022, approximately 900 people have been charged for actions taken in connection with the attack on the Capitol. According to an assessment by NPR, as of September 2022, at least 14 percent of those charged appear to have connections to the military or law enforcement. Twelve are former law enforcement officers, and five were current police officers at the time. Of those who have been convicted so far, about 68 (or 9 percent) are former law enforcement or military personnel.

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  2. On January 6, 2021, a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, motivated by the intent to prevent congressional certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Five police officers and several at the Capitol that day died in connection with the attack. One died at the riot after being violently assaulted. Four officers died of suicide: two within days of the attack and two several months later.
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  35. NPR staff, “The Capitol Siege,” updated October 28, 2022.
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Authors

  • Carrie Cordero

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

    Carrie Cordero is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on homeland security and intelligence community overs...

  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research specializations include Dep...

  • Arona Baigal

    Research Assistant, Middle East Security & Securing U.S. Democracy Initiative Programs

    Arona Baigal is a Research Assistant for the Middle East Security Program and Securing U.S. Democracy Initiative. Her research interests include Middle East diaspora, nuclear ...

  • Josh Campbell

    Adjunct Senior Fellow

    Josh Campbell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His research interests include domestic and international security, terrorism, intelligenc...

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