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Hearing on extremism in the military prompts partisan broadsides

Republicans say Democrats are ignoring extremist groups on the left

Rioters stand on a U.S. Capitol Police armored vehicle as others take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters stand on a U.S. Capitol Police armored vehicle as others take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The first in a series of three House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings on the recruitment of veterans by violent militia groups in the U.S. highlighted the partisan divisions that remain among lawmakers in deciding how much of, or even if, a threat exists from domestic extremist groups. 

During the first hearing Wednesday, a dozen researchers, academics, former military officers and veterans group leaders said veterans are increasingly joining militia groups and being radicalized online. 

The panel cites three militia groups, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as examples of groups that have demonstrated a willingness to use violence to achieve their ends and target veterans for recruitment.

GOP objections

But some Republicans on the committee took issue with the exclusion of what they called far-left extremist groups in the panel’s discussion and downplayed the potential threat from militia groups in the U.S.

“I hope every veteran in America is watching this hearing today and hearing from the majority party that our veterans are so stupid and susceptible to becoming domestic terrorists that Democrats have to save them,” said Jim Banks of Indiana. 

Banks asked the witnesses whether Black Lives Matter or antifa, organizations for which he blamed widespread rioting in 2020, should be included as violent domestic extremists. 

Protests, which sometimes turned violent, erupted across the country during the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. The protests were led by Black Lives Matter, a decentralized political and social movement that arose in response to perceived police brutality against Black people.

Montana Republican Matt Rosendale said he was “deeply disturbed” by last year’s rioting and asked why far-left groups were absent from the day’s hearing. 

“We are discussing those groups that have been deemed the greatest potential threat by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of American University’s Extremism Research & Innovation Lab. 

Committee Chairman Mark Takano sought to cool some of the tensions in his opening statement. 

“We’re not here to condemn or vilify veterans who engage with these groups,” the California Democrat said, “but rather to highlight the threats posed by them, including to their members.”

Veterans targeted

According to retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, militia groups often target for recruitment the most vulnerable veterans — those who are impoverished and isolated from others. 

Plenzler, who has tracked extremist groups since 1999, said there is increasing concern that law enforcement officers, active-duty troops and veterans are all joining potentially violent militias. 

And in some cases, veterans are seeking the groups out for themselves. 

“Most militias are law abiding,” said Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University. “But what is concerning, however, is veterans seeking out militias without being recruited. These men are searching for a way to serve their country after their service and want a community.”

Cooter explained that some veterans who seek out such groups feel betrayed by the government, and thus seek those militias that are prepared for violence. 

Militia groups, which usually decrease in size during Republican administrations, have increased in size and intensity over the past several years, Cooter said.

Foreign involvement 

Russia and other foreign adversaries may be fueling the problem. 

“We are seeing online activity by the Russians to push some veterans toward radicalization,” said Seth Jones, who directs the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. 

“My discussions with intelligence officials in the current and previous administrations do indicate concern that Russian intelligence is involved in disinformation campaigns on American social media platforms, including the spread of violent ideologies” that are picked up by militia groups, Jones said.  

Experts agreed that the best way to keep veterans from joining extremist organizations once they leave the military is to “inoculate” all servicemembers against digital recruitment efforts. 

“Most extremist recruitment and radicalization happens online now,” said Miller-Idriss, “and troops should receive blanket training on that before returning to civilian life.”

Others echoed that sentiment. 

“It’s the online space that has transformed the recruitment abilities of these groups and made the problem much worse,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. 

Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told lawmakers that the “plots of tomorrow are being hatched online today.”

The next hearing will focus on the recruitment tactics of militia groups, and the third will address strategies to steer veterans away from joining organizations that may become violent. 

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