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The Pentagon quietly released their investigation into extremist views among their ranks about a month ago, over the holidays–more than a year and a half late. 

Seeing headlines reporting the release of the IDA report like The Military’s Phantom ‘Extremists’, you would think that the report found no ties between extremist views and military members. But that does not tell the whole story.

The Problem

What headlines like that gloss over are the actual findings of the investigation:

“IDA’s review found no evidence that the number of violent extremists in the military is disproportionate to the number of violent extremists in the United States as a whole, although there is some indication that the rate of participation by former service members is slightly higher and may be growing. IDA also found no evidence of violent extremist behavior by DOD civilians” (p. iii).

Additionally, while there is not an oversaturation of military members associated with violent extremist groups, military members still participate in extremist groups. It is not no ties, it is not more ties. Any military participation in violent extremism is problematic because the report also concluded that: 

“participation in violent extremist activities of even a small number of individuals with military connections and military training, however, could present a risk to the military and to the country as a whole” (p. iv)

The Current State of Extremism in the Military

Military involvement in extremist groups is never acceptable. The military updated how it defines extremism and “tweaked classes for those transitioning out of the military to emphasize ‘the need to honor the oath of office and to support and defend the Constitution.’” However, none of the other recommendations from the Countering Extremism Working Group, which gathered in response to service member participation in the January 6th insurrection, have been implemented. These recommendations include “screenings of recruits, updating military justice measures and notably oversight on potential insider threats.”

In fact, in Fiscal Year 2023, the Pentagon “investigated 183 different allegations of military members engaging in or advocating for extremist action.” This includes 44 investigations into alleged “advocating, engaging in, or supporting terrorism within the United States or abroad” and 78 cases of “advocating for, engaging in, or supporting the overthrow of the U.S. Government.”

183 serious allegations and subsequent investigations of service member involvement in violent extremism do not constitute a “phantom” problem no matter which way you cut it. Find the full report here (the data table is on p. 26). 

Table 5 from the Pentagon's Report to Congress on Extremism investigations: Summary of DoD Prohibited Activity Information
Table 5 from the Pentagon’s Report to Congress on Extremism Investigations: Summary of DoD Prohibited Activity Information. Page 26.

The Data

The team behind the IDA report conducted 57 interviews, both individually and in groups, with “more than one hundred DOD officials and outside experts, and conducted site visits at geographically diverse Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Army installations” (p. iii). USA Today also pointed out that the report did not release any new data. “Instead, it collates existing data from sources including the military’s inspector general.”

However, that existing data has its shortcomings. The report admitted that “different branches of the military reported their own individual challenges in collecting data, compiling it into a single report and other issues, meaning there is still a lack of clarity and unified reporting systems when it comes to extremism.” Just like the FBI with their hate crime data, collecting data on extremism in the military is confusing and remains unstandardized. 

The Findings

Despite the data failings, the IDA report found that military veterans do participate in extremist groups in excess of the general population–and their participation is growing. A “loss of military identity appears to have a strong association with difficult adjustments to civilian life that can in turn contribute to negative behaviors.” (p. iv). Researchers concluded that social media can be a pathway to extremism, a fact that we here at Life After Hate know all too well. 

“In light of the growing number of violent extremists among the veteran population, the institute called on the Defense Department to bolster the resources made available for service members as they exit the military.” This includes focusing on deradicalization interventions–the importance of which drove our motivation to launch “No Vets Left Behind.”

No Vets Left Behind

We developed No Vets Left Behind, to help active-duty military and veterans either avoid VFRE or exit the violent extremist groups they are currently involved in. This targeted intervention program addresses violent extremism in the United States for individuals who are or have served our nation in the Armed Forces, providing disengagement services and support for women, men, and families.

Leaders in many domestic terrorist movements consider military personnel as valuable components of their extremism movements, prizing their experience in tactical skills, combat, and weapons. As a result, extremist movements infiltrate the military through two main opportunities: individuals who already hold extremist ideology and beliefs join the Armed Forces to acquire military skills to carry out acts of violence and terror, and individuals who become radicalized by the extremist movements while or after serving in the Armed Forces. Researchers have found that white supremacists are particularly skilled at preying on those identified as involuntary or premature separations from the military or those who have voiced dissatisfaction with their military experience.

Our Approach

As part of services provided under the Department of Veterans Affairs, we support our active military personnel and veterans to help them successfully disengage from violent extremism and reintegrate them into civil society by providing the services, information, and training they need.

We work diligently to properly train our staff and external partners to handle the intricacies of the military and veteran populations. Ongoing outreach and education are provided to mental health practitioners and social service providers who work with the specific needs of our clients in the state where they reside. 

The findings from the IDA report in no way characterize a “phantom” problem. To the contrary, the report’s findings are alarming and underscore how serious the problem is. We need comprehensive action to address this growing problem. Life After Hate has the experience and comprehensive services necessary to provide deradicalization and extremism intervention services that our service members deserve. Together, we can ensure that veterans are respected for their service. That means helping keep them from lives of hate. Donate today