14th October 2021
New ISD research draws on analysis of white supremacist chats on the encrypted messaging application Telegram to explore the complex relationship white supremacists have with the military.
The violent threat from the extreme right-wing came to mainstream public attention on 6 January 2021, when a loosely organised mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., emboldened by multi-month disinformation campaigns which undermined the legitimacy of the election. Veterans, or those who appeared to have ties to the U.S. military, comprised a highly visible portion of the protesters.
White supremacist groups have long sought to recruit serving members of the armed forces and veterans as part of a deliberate mainstreaming strategy, and in recent years a number of international cases have highlighted the involvement of military members in extreme right-wing groups. In the U.S., a number of former soldiers have even gone on to lead violent white supremacist groups, although it is important to note that there are several million current and active-duty service members, and these highly visible but apparently isolated cases do not appear to be part of a larger infiltration. Nonetheless, the association of the military with any extremist group is cause for concern, as it erodes the public’s trust in those charged to protect and defend them.
The risk posed by the potential for infiltration of the military and the radicalisation of service members is also difficult to quantify. No database accurately tracks military service members’ involvement in extremist organisations, and nor does military service necessarily indicate increased likelihood of violence.
In light of a landscape in which the extreme right is more violent, connected and emboldened globally, greater understanding is needed of the role military service plays within extreme right-wing groups and how those with insider training, knowledge and possibly access may be radicalised. A new briefing paper from ISD, ‘Inspiration and Influence: Discussions of the U.S. Military in Extreme Right-Wing Telegram Channels’, seeks to help fill this knowledge gap. The paper represents the findings of an investigation into 4 years of conversations relating to the military from 224 public channels associated with extreme right-wing activity on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
The briefing highlights the complex way in which the extreme right engages with the military and situates it within its worldview. It reveals that white supremacist groups actively draw inspiration from the military, both when planning potentially violent activity and in the ways they structure themselves. It demonstrates how white supremacists seek to emulate the military and see soldiers and veterans as potential recruits. However, it also shows that these organisations are overwhelmingly hostile to the military as an institution, framing the army in the broader context of anti-government and antisemitic ideology, providing insight into potential radicalisation strategies. The research also identifies the possible involvement of actively serving soldiers and veterans within white supremacist discussion online.
Despite the loosely organised nature of contemporary extreme right-wing groups, the consistent inspiration drawn from military influences in the Telegram channels we analysed is a cause for concern. These channels sit at a nexus of militaristic posturing, white supremacist views and at best, a tacit approval of violence; at worst, an active desire for it. In light of 6 January, the broad adoption of arguments legitimising the use of violence against the government is particularly worrying.
The anti-government rhetoric on display leading up to the Capitol attack echoes the same antisemitic, anti-government rhetoric seen in some of the Telegram channels analysed. The juxtaposition between holding service members, veterans and military information in high regard, and holding governments supposedly corrupted by special (commonly referring to Jewish) interests in contempt provides a pathway by which self-identified patriots may enact violence against their own governments – and yet cast themselves as heroes. The rhetoric of ‘fighting for America’ and ‘protecting and defending the Constitution’ on display at the 6 January Capitol attack echoes the oath all service members take when they join the military. Subsequently, the violence witnessed on the 6 January is often framed by the extreme right as heroes protecting the Constitution from a corrupt government, as opposed to insurgents seeking to overthrow the legitimate government.
With the global growth of the extreme right, monitoring the online activity of these actors is essential. While it cannot be claimed that the messages ISD analysed contributed directly to the events of 6 January, the connections between the content of those message; the visible presence of people who appeared to be affiliated with the military; the patriotic rhetoric; and the premeditated violence suggests that such messages can indeed have serious real-world consequences. That veterans played a highly visible role in the 6 January attack only underscores the power of messages justifying violence against the government.
Of broader concern is that the appearance of a connection to the military community serves as a potentially powerful tool for strengthening right-wing extremism, giving such views the appearance of mainstream acceptability, and subsequently helping to broaden their reach and appeal.
ISD’s new briefing paper ‘Inspiration and Influence: Discussions of the U.S. Military in Extreme Right-Wing Telegram Channels’ can be accessed in full here.