Veterans are increasingly targeted by recruiting extremists, experts told the House panel; Republicans call hearings “stigmatizing” veterans
In this September 26, 2020 file photo, a member of the Proud Boys, right, stands in front of a counter-protester as members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing protesters gather in Portland. (John Locher / AP)
U.S. military veterans need tools to help them identify and resist increased recruitment efforts by violent extremist groups, expert witnesses told the House Veterans Committee on Wednesday.
Violent extremist groups target military veterans because they value their training in small unit tactics, communications and weapons skills, said Seth Jones, who leads the Transnational Threats Project at the Think Tank. Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies. Extremists often target veterans online and prey on those “struggling to adjust” to civilian life and those facing economic or emotional hardships, added Joe Plenzler, a Lt. retired Marine Colonel.
“They provide them with a tribe, a simplistic view of the world and its problems, concrete solutions and a sense of purpose,” said Plenzler, a former infantry and public affairs officer who retired in 2015. ” Then they feed these vulnerable individuals a concoction of lies and a relentless tale of political and social grievances, and they succeeded. ”
But the U.S. government and researchers also need more data and analysis to fully understand what drives some of those who have served their countries to form groups that resort to violence against Americans, experts said.
Members of the House of Republicans, meanwhile, said they feared the committee’s public examination of the matter was a political ploy by the Democrats that threatens the free speech of veterans.
Wednesday’s hearing comes in the months following the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol by some of former President Donald Trump’s supporters, who sought to prevent Congress from certifying the election victory of the United States. President Joe Biden in November. The crowd included members of several right-wing and anti-government groups, including the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, the Justice Department said.
Of the more than 620 people who were arrested and charged with crimes related to the Jan.6 attack, at least 66 were affiliated with the military – veterans, active duty or current reservists, said Wednesday legislators. Plenzler called it “shocking” that veterans, who make up about 6% of the US population, make up at least 10% of those accused of the assault.
The Chairman of the House Veterans Committee, Representative Mark Takano, D-Calif., Said the hearing was needed to examine the issues that have drawn veterans into domestic violent extremist groups. Takano noted that FBI Director Chris Wray has identified domestic extremism as the greatest threat to US national security in the country.
Takano said he hoped the two-panel hearing would help the committee support ex-combatants who may be targets of violent groups.
Data shows that terrorist attacks and domestic plots last year were at their highest level since 1994, Jones said. The percentage of such incidents involving military veterans has also increased in recent years, he said. In addition to the Jan.6 incident, he said military veterans were also involved in a plot last year to kidnap Michigan Democratic Party Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other incidents.
Jones and Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, told lawmakers they needed more data to better understand the problem and determine when the military and veterans are most vulnerable to extremist propaganda. They suggested that Congress mandate the Pentagon to provide exiting service members with detailed training on these groups and their recruiting tactics. They also suggested that military personnel and veterans receive online training to avoid becoming an online target.
“What we are seeing with veterans is manipulation of their values, their interests, their loyalty to their country by persuasive extremist tactics that deliberately target them,” Miller-Idress said. “It is our duty… to help them equip them with the tools to help them recognize and resist this propaganda. We owe them that.
Republicans attacked both Democrats on the panel and some of the witnesses practicing during the hearing, repeatedly calling on them to characterize left-wing groups, such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter, as also responsible for violence against women. United States than the right-wing militias. .
Representative Jim Banks, R-Ind., Called the hearing “extremely offensive and dangerous” and claimed that Takano essentially called veterans “stupid” because they might be vulnerable to recruitment by various extremist groups.
“I think this hearing is offensive,” Banks told Takano. “And the fact that you are going to prevent our veterans from becoming political terrorists is offensive to all veterans in America.”
Other Republicans have called Takano’s efforts partisan and unnecessary for veterans, who they say face some stigma in the civilian world.
“Our Veterans are hardworking, highly skilled individuals and leaders in our communities who have made incredible sacrifices to protect each of our freedoms,” said Representative Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. “It is a sad fact that veterans have long struggled with the stigma associated with mental health issues resulting from their service, as well as the perceptions they have a propensity for violence. I am deeply concerned that today’s hearing in the Veterans Committee, rather than empowering our veterans by dispelling this stigma, will further perpetuate that stigma for all veterans.
Takano countered, arguing that the hearing was a step towards providing veterans with the means to counter the savvy recruitment efforts of violent groups, which would ultimately help veterans.
“We are not here to condemn or vilify the veterans engaged with these groups, but rather to draw attention to what these groups really represent and to highlight the latent threat posed by these groups,” he said. “It is only by understanding who these groups are, what they believe in, and what violent activity they encourage on the part of their members that we can begin to assess our ability to intervene and assist ex-combatants … to get their life back. “