Recent years have seen a number of alarming cases involving currently serving soldiers and veterans engage in extreme right wing activity.
In June 2020, following intelligence reports that there were hundreds of far-right extremists in the army, the Federal Minister of Defence announced the disbanding of the elite Special Forces Command over concerns of radicalisation. A few months later in December eight civilian employees of the German armed forces were investigated on suspicion of being members of the far-right ‘Reichsbuerger’ movement.
These soldiers are not alone. In recent years there have been a number of high-profile cases of German soldiers being radicalised to the extreme right wing.
This includes Franco A, a First Lieutenant in the French-German 291st Infantry, who went on trial in May accused of plotting a series of attacks against pro-refugee politicians. Since Franco A’s arrest it has been revealed that a loose network of highly radicalised individuals including veterans were organising across Germany, secretly preparing for the collapse of German society.
Extremism in the ranks isn’t just a German problem either and cases have been reported in the British, American, Canadian and French armed forces recently. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but these cases are appearing in a diverse range of countries with startling regularity, and appear to be part of a broader global trend of rapidly accelerating far-right extremism and violence.
As governments, police and security services start to wake up to the threat posed by the extreme right, it would appear that up until now top brass across the west have been caught sleeping.
So what causes radicalisation in the military?
Causes of right wing extremism in the military
This global surge in far-right extremism is driven by a range of factors, some of which are particularly relevant to the armed forces.
At the core of contemporary extreme right wing activity is a shared meta-narrative that ‘European’ cultures and peoples (including people of European extraction in North America and Oceania) are facing an existential threat posed by non-white communities. As well as drawing on concerns about the impact migration will have on the cultural and ethnic makeup of ‘European’ countries this narrative has been accelerated by Islamist terrorism over the past 20 years. This is further boosted into the mainstream by political actors, who through dog whistles and more overt means, parrot the ‘Europe under threat’ narrative, adding legitimacy to extremists.
This meta-narrative, which has been inspirational in a number of terrorist attacks, forms a connective tissue which unites extremists from New Zealand to Ukraine. It is also a potentially powerful pathway through which soldiers and veterans can become radicalized.
In April of this year 2,000 former members of the French army, including Generals, signed an open letter warning of civil war in the country if action isn’t taken against the (immigrant) “suburban hordes”. In May, a similar letter purporting to be written by younger serving soldiers repeated the message, warning that the Islamists they are fighting abroad are in the process of tearing France apart. There is a real risk that extreme right groups which focus on an Islamist threat facing the homeland will find a receptive audience amongst soldiers who are returning from wars supposedly against these same forces.
Social media also plays a role. A number of recent cases suggest that much of this radicalization of soldiers is playing out online. In particular, the messaging app Telegram has played a role in cases of extremism in the ranks in a number of contexts. This in part is likely linked to the fact that’s social media has lowered the barrier to entry for involvement in extremism, and means that it is easier to mask involvement in extremist causes.
However, can these incidents of radicalization in the military be separated from broader societal trends? The world is currently in the midst of an upsurge of far-right extremism. Is it merely the case that we are noticing more soldiers in the extreme right because more people in general are becoming involved?
The answer isn’t clear-cut. Data relating to rates of radicalisation in the Armed forces is not public (if it is gathered at all), and it is difficult to estimate the overall support for far right extremism in the public. Additionally, when the overall size of the armed forces in a number of countries is considered, the proportion of soldiers identified as being radicalised remains miniscule.
However, there are examples which suggest a higher incidence of support for far-right causes amongst current and former military members than in the general population. Veterans were overrepresented in those charged following the Jan 6th insurrection, whilst 2018 analysis delivered by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where I work, found that one in ten males expressing support for far-right causes on Facebook in the UK appeared to be current or former servicemen. Additionally, there are other vulnerabilities at play facing veterans such as social isolation which might make them more susceptible to radicalization.
There is also strong evidence that the extreme right actively want soldiers in their rank. I recently led some analysis examining attitudes towards the US Military in white supremacist chats on Telegram. This analysis found that the military as an institution is viewed with disdain by extremists – presented as a stooge of Israel. However, importantly, military expertise like weapons and survival skills are highly desired by white supremacists seeking to make their activity more professional and lethal. Soldiers are also seen as valuable recruits, with skills and knowledge that were seen as essential for defending the white race and committing attacks. This analysis also identified six individuals actively engaging in white supremacist chat channels who proclaimed to be current or former members of the armed forces.
Whilst not all people who have served in the armed forces will have firearms skills or combat experience there is the real risk that individuals with know-how that makes them more effective killers are being targeted for recruitment by one of the fastest growing terrorist causes globally.
Responding to this threat
At this moment in time there is the need for strong action in the face of this threat. We are in the midst of a global wave of far-right extremism and terrorism and the armed forces have been swept up in this wave.
There has been fiery rhetoric in response to the recent high profile cases of radicalisation in the armed forces from both politicians and military officials. However, whilst these officials are talking the talk, they are only just starting to walk the walk.
Earlier in 2021, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered every unit in the Military to engage in a discussion around radicalisation in the ranks and its incompatibility with service. Whilst some members of the armed forces praised their commanders for these efforts, many reported the conversations being cursory, or treated by their commanding officers as a chore. Similarly, the UK’s armed forces have been accused by civil society groups of dragging their feet when it comes to investigating these threats.
However, there is a window of opportunity to do something at this time. Following half a decade of increasing violence policy makers globally are starting to wake up to the threat posed by right wing extremists. In December 2021, the pentagon expanded its rules for addressing extremism in the ranks, producing new tools which could be helpful for addressing right wing extremism in the ranks, including measures targeting online engagement with extremist material.
It is essential that this momentum isn’t lost and this opportunity for action is capitalised on as effectively as possible. This should include more effective vetting of recruits, but should also seek to go beyond that, building a culture which is truly resilient to far-right extremism.
Far-right extremists should be seen as diametrically opposed to the values armed forces seek to protect – they are anti-democratic, often hostile to the state, and at the most extreme end seek to bring about the collapse of society as we know it. It is essential that militaries recognise this and whole-heartedly seek to push back against these subversive forces.
Jacob Davey is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and a Senior Research Manager at Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). See full profile here.
© Jacob Davey. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).