Congress Wants the Military to Report Extremism in the Ranks. Here's Why That Will Be Tough

The 66th Military Intelligence Brigade held a NCO Induction ceremony on Clay Kaserne, Wiesbaden, Germany on January 10, 2019. Over 40 newly promoted soldiers from across the brigade were celebrated as they joined the ranks of the noncommissioned officer. (US Army/Ashley L. Keasler)
The 66th Military Intelligence Brigade held a NCO Induction ceremony on Clay Kaserne, Wiesbaden, Germany on January 10, 2019. Over 40 newly promoted soldiers from across the brigade were celebrated as they joined the ranks of the noncommissioned officer. (US Army/Ashley L. Keasler)

Lawmakers want the military to explain how it's tracking dangerous ideologies in the ranks, including white supremacy and neo-Nazisim. But even as the problem grows more widespread, it's going to be difficult for leaders to spot and police, experts who spoke with Military.com warned.

A new mandate proposed by Senate appropriators, tucked into the $695 billion fiscal 2020 defense spending bill, would require the Defense Department to provide a report explaining how it's tracking extremist beliefs among those in uniform.

Pentagon officials would have to explain in the report its policy "on extremist affiliations by service members and recruits, procedures to identify and mitigate such affiliations, and how many violations have been identified." The document would be due to Congress within six months of the bill passing.

A Coast Guard officer, who allegedly once wrote that he was "dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on Earth," this week pleaded not guilty to charges of possession of weapons and a controlled pain medication in U.S. District Court. Lt. Christopher Hasson had been nabbed by federal law enforcement agents in February for allegedly plotting to kill Democratic lawmakers and journalists.

After his arrest, though, his colleagues and neighbors said they hadn't spotted any warning signs. Hasson was professional around his co-workers and didn't talk politics at work.

His case is just one example of what experts warn is going to be a big challenge for the military: identifying threats of homegrown extremism in the ranks before they turn violent.

It's a problem that's on the rise. After a synagogue was attacked in Pittsburgh last fall and pipe bombs were mailed to newsrooms and politicians weeks later, the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that federal and local agencies needed to "quickly double down to counter this threat."

Related: Coast Guard Officer Accused of Terrorism Mounts Second Amendment Defense

And a 2018 Anti-Defamation League report on murder and extremism in the U.S. found that last year was particularly active for extremist murders by those espousing far-right ideology, a broad term used by some to describe fascism, nativism, extreme nationalism and supremacist views.

"Every one of the perpetrators had ties to at least one right-wing extremist movement," the report states, with white supremacists responsible for most of the killings.

After Hasson's arrest, all five military services said they're committed to ridding the ranks of anyone who associates with extremist groups or participates in associated behavior. Hasson had previously served in the Marine Corps and Army National Guard, raising questions about how he got into three services without raising any alarm bells.

That's the looming challenge for service leaders.

A National Problem

The number of terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators in the U.S. quadrupled between 2016 and 2017, according to Seth Jones, an expert on extremism with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Attacks were already on the upswing between 2012 and 2014, then began to spike after 2016.

"What we saw with Chris Hasson, we are seeing a trend in the U.S. toward an increased far-right extremism," Jones said.

Related: Marine Lance Corporal Will Be Kicked Out Over Racist Social Media Posts

This is not the first time that extremism has lurked in the ranks of the U.S. military.

Army Maj. Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in a November 2009 attack that left 32 others wounded. Many of the Army psychiatrist's victims were fellow soldiers preparing for combat deployments overseas.

What separates Hasan from the most recent incidents of extremism in the military is that the Fort Hood shootings took place during a trend of Muslim extremist violence in the U.S., Jones said.

"We were in a period where we had seen a reasonable number of Islamic extremist attacks and plots," he said. "[Hasan] commits his attack in November of 2009, the same year we have Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who tries to detonate the airplane as it's coming into Detroit."

There was also Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested two months before the Fort Hood shootings for helping plan three suicide bombings in New York City subways.

"It was a core al-Qaida plot," Jones said. "Now the U.S. is faced with a pretty serious far-right extremist threat, and part of what I would say is, it's not out of the question that this [arrest of a Coast Guard officer] at least partly mirrors ... a different kind of extremism."

Zero Tolerance

In the wake of Hasson's arrest, officials from every branch said their leaders remain committed to identifying anyone with extremist beliefs to flush them from the ranks.

"The Marine Corps is clear on this: There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps," said Maj. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman. "Our strength is derived from the individual excellence of every Marine regardless of background. Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values."

The other services shared similar sentiments.

"The Army doesn't tolerate racism extremism or hatred in our ranks," said William Sharp, a spokesman for the service. "Soldiers who choose to engage in acts of violence ... will be held accountable for their actions."

Several of the services have had to grapple with embarrassing incidents in recent months tied to racism or white nationalism. A Marine who admitted to sharing shared Nazi-sympathizing and other racist materials was recently drummed out of the service. In January, a Coast Guard officer was reprimanded for making a white-nationalist symbol on live TV.

And in March, the military also began investigating whether troops had connections to a white nationalist organization called Identity Evropa after reports emerged of five service members and two Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets having possible ties to the group.

Each branch has training at various points in troops' careers to promote good order and discipline.

In the Navy, for example, recruits learn on Day 1 of their training the commanding officer's top six priorities, the second of which is no racism or discrimination, said service spokeswoman Lt. Christina Sears.

In 2015, the Air Force established the Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE), which promotes the inclusion of core values into everyday activities throughout the force.

Related: Coast Guard Reprimands Officer over White Supremacy Sign

"PACE, which is accessible to all airmen, teaches seminars and courses, leads discussions, prepares papers, and produces educational videos that equip leaders to create professional environments characterized by diversity, commitment, loyalty, inclusion and trust," said Maj. Nicholas Mercurio, an Air Force spokesman.

Troops are also routinely briefed on the reporting tools available to call out inappropriate behavior.

"Commanders and Marines alike have the responsibility and opportunity to bring allegations of misconduct to the attention of their chain of command and/or law enforcement personnel for proper investigation and disposition," Block said.

Troops can report problems through their chain of command, investigative services, inspector general or civil-rights service officers, said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Barry Lane. The Coast Guard also requires regular local police and FBI criminal-records checks for any affiliation with known gangs or terrorist organizations, he added.

Before anyone even reaches active duty, though, recruiters play a big part in preventing those with extremist views from shipping off to boot camp or Officer Candidate School. Prospective recruits and officer candidates are screened for tattoos that align with racist or extremist groups. They're also subject to one-on-one interviews, background checks, and lessons about diversity and the services' core values.

"If a recruiter uncovers such information, that applicant is then deemed disqualified for ... duty," said Leslie Brown with the Air Force Recruiting Service.

Tough to Track

Despite the safeguards military leaders have put in place, experts say catching warning signs for future violent acts will prove difficult.

After Hasson's arrest, news agencies ran the same image of the weapons, body armor and ammunition seized in the case. But that type of collection often can't be viewed as an intent to commit violence since many troops and veterans -- especially combat-arms personnel in the Marines and Army -- own several legal semi-automatic weapons, Jones said.

"It's a huge leap to go from somebody who collects or has some number of weapons and someone who is an extremist," he said. "It requires both capabilities and intent, so just because somebody has guns tells us nothing about their intentions."

And even if a mass shooting occurs, it's not always linkable to violent extremism, Jones added.

"The issue has to be, 'What is the motivation?' There are plenty of instances where the motivations are unclear," he said, citing the 2017 mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas.

Related: Military Discipline in the Social Media Age: How the New Top Marine Plans to Lead

Tracking the social media usage of military personnel may help commanders spot potential extremists in their units.

"I may be able to piece together your psychology from what you've revealed of yourself online," said Peter Singer, senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He co-authored "Like War," a book detailing how the rise of social media has revolutionized politics, global intelligence and warfare.

"There have been studies that essentially show [that a] growing number of U.S. military [members] are expressing their political views online," Singer said.

It's unlikely, however, that the U.S. military will be able to direct the resources it would take to monitor such a large organization's social media use, Jones said.

"It's hard enough to keep an eye on all these social media sites for terrorism and extremist purposes," he said. "You are going to keep an eye on what everybody in the military is doing? There is no way you are going to be able to do that."

It's also easy, he added, for people to remain anonymous online.

"If you go home and do it and you are careful, and maybe you use [information technology] that hides your IP address and you don't use your real name -- it's going to be hard to identify people," Jones said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Read more: Military Members Who Turned Extremist

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