Militaries Around The World Have A Neo-Nazi Problem
Cristina Ariza is a policy and practitioner fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and an analyst at the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. She is also the research lead for extreme right-wing terrorism at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies.
After news coming from Germany that an elite military unit has had to disband and a local police chief has resigned due to right-wing extremism concerns, there seems to be legitimate questions about the scale of this threat within the country’s security forces. But this is not an isolated case, as we have seen a pattern of members of the military or police being linked to the radical right in other countries too.
At the beginning of the year, Germany announced that 550 soldiers were under investigation for suspicion of extremism. In Canada, an internal military briefing suggests that between 2013 and 2018, 16 members have been active members of extremist groups while 37 have engaged in racist behavior. In the UK, 4 soldiers were arrested in 2017 for linkages to the neo-Nazi proscribed group National Action.
Two years ago, the British Army released a statement claiming that “far-right ideology is completely at odds with the values and ethos of the armed forces” after a video emerged of a group of soldiers cheering and taking pictures with far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Yet there has been a number of high-profile cases where individuals were found to be members of a proscribed or extremist organization while actively serving in the security forces, be that the military or the police.
In the UK, for example, an investigation by anti-fascist group “Hope Not Hate” found that two members of Generation Identity were serving in the Royal Navy, with one of them set to become an engineer in a nuclear submarine. One year later, the two men have not been expelled from the Navy. A British Metropolitan Police officer has just been charged this month for belonging to the proscribed terrorist group National Action between 2016 and 2018.
In the US, one man who tried to recruit 12 individuals to neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen was expelled from the Navy earlier this year. Another member of Atomwaffen was found in 2018 to have served in the Canadian Armed Forces, despite celebrating the murder of Jews on online posts in neo-Nazi defunct forum Iron March.
In Germany, a soldier was arrested in June for compiling a list of politicians that included personal details like their addresses and disseminating the list on extremist chats, only after another member of the German Special Forces was arrested in May for stacking weapons and Nazi memorabilia.
Just this year, by the author’s own compilation for the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies, we have had 10 cases where individuals arrested for plotting or committing acts of violence were former military. The makeup is as follows: six from the United States, one from Germany, one from Canada, one from Spain and one from France. This speaks to a wider global problem rather than a localized phenomenon.
But we certainly have cases in which the military has become a target of extremists too; oddly, by hand of an active soldier himself earlier this year who harbored extremist sympathies and passed information of the location of his unit to neo-Nazi groups in hopes of contributing to an act of violence. While far-right plots against the military are rarer than in the case of Islamist extremists, police officers have been on the other end of violent plots, especially in recent months coming from anti-government extremists like the ‘Boogaloers’, a loose network of extremists that includes white supremacists and that is encouraging armed confrontation with law enforcement.
It is hard to ascertain exactly what attracts radical right extremists to the military. Even aesthetically, the radical right has emulated and tried to replicate some military symbols. Dressing in armor and sporting a buzz cut is considered bread and butter for various movements, although perhaps more due to them paying inspiration to Hitler imagery. Yet recently, some activists have chosen to distance themselves from a militarized fashion in favor of a revamp, what has infamously been described as ‘hipster fascism’.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
A plausible reason why the radical right has tried to infiltrate the military could be that, to them, the values of patriotism are seen as conducive or facilitating to the ethno-nationalist state that extremists seek to create. A leaflet distributed across army ranks in the UK warned that displays of patriotism, along other signs such as speaking about an impending racial conflict or making inaccurate generalizations about the left, could be indicative of right-wing extremist views.
Yet, on the other hand, deep anti-Establishment sentiment has led some extremists to wish infiltration of the armed forces only to contribute to the collapse of the institution as we know it. A Bellingcat investigation shows that members of now-defunct neo-Nazi forum Iron March, who later would go on to constitute Atomwaffen, were fantasizing about infiltrating the armed forces to then launch a paramilitary revolution to abolish liberal democracy.
Recordings of the leadership of US-based neo-Nazi group The Base show that a priority recruitment tactic was to target military personnel to obtain access to tactical knowledge. This speaks more to the radical right seeing a strategic value in infiltrating military ranks rather than finding any commonalities with the military on ideological grounds. However, if we seek to go beyond discussing the strategies of a specific extremist organization but rather understand the dynamics of the wider, loose network that encompasses the many different ideological strands, it becomes harder to make an informed assessment of how, if so, the radical right seeks to utilize the military to further its objectives.
Furthermore, the lack of empirical evidence available about radicalization paths in the far-right makes the task of understanding the issue of extremism within the armed forces an educated guess at best, and at worst, a foolish simplification. For instance, if members are already radicalized once they join the army, are they being directed to do so by the groups they belong or are they doing it by their own accord? Are there offline pockets of radicalized individuals in the army that are contributing to radicalization within its ranks? Or are individuals radicalized while in the army by other means such as online links with other networks?
Experts like Daniel Koehler have warned that even if a tiny minority of members of the armed forces are attracted to extremist ideologies—be that the radical right or Islamist extremism— their military training can make them deadlier if they were to carry out a terrorist attack. Security forces across the world have taken well note of this and have unveiled different strategies to counter it, from closing entire military units like in Germany to implementing hateful conduct policy to help detect those who harbor extremist sympathies in Canada.
Security forces need to put measures in place to properly vet, investigate and suspend members of its ranks who show extreme-right wing sympathies, while determining whether the problem is being exacerbated from the inside by pockets of extremists or from outside by extremist organizations actively targeting members. Given the scale of the problem, there is no room for complacency.
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.