Ghost Skins: Military & Law Enforcement Members At The Insurrection
Dr. Sara Kamali is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. She is also the author of Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States (University of California Press, 2021) available at Bookshop in the US and Waterstones in the UK.
The January 6 attack on the Capitol was the latest battle in the long-standing war between militant Armed Forces and law enforcement members and the federal government.
On December 31, 2020, US Air Force Veteran Larry Rendall Brock, Jr. posted on Facebook that he was preparing for a “Second Civil War”. Later that day, he posted another message signing off with the oath he repeated countless times as a member of the military, “Against all enemies foreign and domestic.” For him and other self-styled patriots, who erroneously believed Donald Trump lost the 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud, the United States under the presidential administration of Joe Biden would remain “under occupation by a hostile governing force.” The enemy he and other military members had sworn to protection the nation from is now the President of the United States.
On January 6, 2021, Brock was one of 31 Ghosts Skins, or former and current members of the US Armed Forces and law enforcement – men and women – who stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, engaging in warfare in order to restore the republic to a white ethnostate. As I discovered during the course of writing my forthcoming book, Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States, what makes the specter of Ghost Skins so alarming is that their worldview reinforcing a sense of victimhood coupled with their ability to mingle imperceptibly with other members of the US Armed Forces and law enforcement agencies (hence the moniker) in order to gain tactical training equates an extreme danger. The rationale for violence and the nous to do so make domestic terrorist attacks not only more possible but also more lethal.
The hunt for lawmakers who were in the process of formally confirming Biden’s electoral college victory against Donald Trump, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was meticulously planned and organized. The collective war zone mindset as they breached the Capitol and several congressional offices was fully on display. Many Ghost Skins donned tactical vests and helmets normally worn in a war zone, and employed strategic communication technology such as two-way radio headsets; some even performed a maneuver known as the “Ranger File“, created by grabbing hold of the person’s shoulder in front, that is typically utilized to navigate hostile terrains with one’s unit intact. In the ensuing days, a stockpiled cache of weapons and ammunition and even nearby bombs would be found.
Though certainly not all current and former service and law enforcement members are Ghost Skins — Brian Sicknick, who died whilst protecting the Capitol, was a veteran of the Air Force and active duty police officer — based on the arrests thus far, Ghost Skins are disproportionately represented in the number of attackers targeting the US Capitol. Analyses separately conducted by both NPR and CNN demonstrate that Ghost Skins make up almost twenty percent of that group compared to the seven percent of the total number of Americans who are military veterans. Additionally, the team of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) researchers found “a troubling overlap between military service and militia/group membership.” Despite various affiliations, including the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys, each Ghost Skin envisioned himself or herself as fighting in a civil war against the government with the political aim of retaining American as a white ethnostate.
While these organizations may be new, the concept of Ghost Skins is not. Firstly, the imbrication of the Armed Forces, law enforcement, and White nationalist domestic terrorism can additionally be found in the Ku Klux Klan, founded in the nineteenth century by former U.S. Confederate officers as well as in the present-day Constitutional Sheriffs, who view themselves as outranking the martial authority of the federal government, most famously including former Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio. Secondly, Ghost Skins have long been well-known within the agencies themselves. For example, Timothy McVeigh, the American citizen who perpetrated the deadliest domestic terrorist attack against the United States on US soil was himself an Army Veteran. He co-planned the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in order to target the US federal government. 168 people were murdered as a result and over 600 more were injured.
Moreover, centuries on from the founding of the KKK, which is still an active organization today, racism in the US military and law enforcement is still commonplace, a fact acknowledged by the Department of Defense in a 2020 report. Specific examples include “swastikas being drawn on service members’ cars, tattoos affiliated with white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi-style salutes between individuals.” In a 2019 survey conducted by the popular media outlet Military Times and Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families, “36 percent of [the 1,360] troops who responded have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military.” A 2020 report by the Brennan Center for Justice similarly found, “hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials participating” in racist activity online.
Cognizant of this disgraceful history and painful reality, President Biden pledged in his inauguration to confront and defeat the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.” Reaffirming this agenda, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas expressed the “commitment to redouble our efforts, [to] fight hate and to fight one of the greatest threats that we face currently on our homeland, which is the threat of domestic terrorism.” In February 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a DOD-wide stand down for a period of sixty days so that the scope of White nationalism within its ranks could be comprehensively addressed.
While the political will to address Ghost Skins, generally, and White nationalists, broadly, is welcome, the challenge to maintain a balance between safeguarding First Amendment rights and successfully criminalizing racist rhetoric, in addition to the corresponding charge to dismantle the overt and covert systems allowing racism to flourish within all branches of the government, US Armed Forces, and law enforcement are twin peaks almost too lofty to view from the nation’s current vantage point. What is clear is that so long as the structures and systems permitting white nationalism in the American military and law enforcement agencies exist, and the recognition and embracing of one another’s humanity is denied, Ghosts Skins will remain a present and pressing national security threat.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.