Pentagon must act to prevent extremist recruitment of unvaxxed service members

Anger over COVID-19-related measures such as vaccines, masks and restrictions on travel, education and public gatherings looks certain to carry over into 2022 because of new variants, uneven vaccination rates and the continued politicization of public health. Meanwhile, tensions mount over Russia in Ukraine, China’s intentions towards Taiwan and Iran’s ramping up uranium enrichment while trying to drive the United States out of the Middle East. 

COVID-19 threatens the U.S. military’s readiness, leading to the decision that military personnel should be vaccinated, show a religious exemption or face separation. The military has announced measures to enforce this rule to ensure readiness of the force, but it is not yet sure of all the second- and third-order effects of the decision. Therefore, the Biden administration should take several additional steps to ensure that separated military personnel do not become susceptible to extremist messaging and recruitment. 

Over the past several days, the Defense Department has taken its first steps to separate scores of personnel across different services for refusing to comply with the department’s COVID vaccine mandate — either by being vaccinated or by demonstrating a genuine religious exemption. Given this policy, potentially thousands of other active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops may also face separation. 

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While this will be a challenge for maintaining cohesion and a team-focused culture while ensuring readiness for possible homeland and worldwide deployments, there is also a risk that domestic extremist groups in the United States will seek to ramp up recruitment, propaganda and disinformation to draw in former service members with continued resentment over the vaccine mandate and other COVID-related measures. Thousands will now have the even greater grievance of being separated from the service.  

Former members of the military are most certainly not the dominant component of those who subscribe to anti-government, white supremacist or other extremist beliefs in the United States. But research has shown that extremist groups target military personnel for recruitment, and at least 81 of those suspected in the Jan. 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol had military backgrounds. Extremist groups are likely already thinking about the prospect of recruiting thousands of personnel separated from the military because of their opposition to the vaccine mandate.  

Under the Biden administration, the Defense Department indicated that it would take a more holistic approach to combating extremism within the military and established a first-ever framework for tackling this issue. That includes standing up a Countering Violent Extremist Working Group last spring, which has four lines of effort, including critical pieces on training and educating existing military and civilian personnel, and enhanced screening of potential new recruits or applicants. Even “liking” extremist content on social media is now being scrutinized. Activities underway through the Working Group effort clearly need to be maintained, but additional focus should be on ensuring that those who leave the military because of vaccine refusal should still have access to mental health and other resources to ward off any extremist influences. 

A particular focus for the Working Group going forward should be on developing a reintegration program for separated personnel who later decide to get the vaccine and want to rejoin the military — especially since service personnel are receiving an honorable discharge over the vaccine issue. Keeping an accurate track of those who are separated, an outreach program to see if they would be amenable to vaccination at some future date, with a cut-off after a year, would be a prudent approach to ensure the readiness of the force while also giving people the time and space to think about their decision and rejoin the service.

Critics of this approach may argue that it gives separated personnel the best of both worlds. But it may go a long way to ensuring a high percentage of the U.S. military is vaccinated so they can perform the essential national security functions and missions that keep our country safe.

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In February 1777, at the height of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered incoming U.S. military personnel to be inoculated against smallpox using the best medical technology of his day. Fast forward almost 250 years, today’s order to military personnel to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is equally lawful and necessary to protect military readiness. Individuals who joined the military did so out of patriotism and loyalty to the country, and many who hesitated to get vaccinated nevertheless did so when the order went out.

Treating service members who have not yet gotten vaccinated with a measure of honor and dignity now – despite the individual choice they made – is the right thing to do, from the standpoint of public health and national security. It will also make it harder for extremist recruiters to turn service members against the country and the Constitution they swore an oath to defend. 

Javed Ali held senior counterterrorism positions at DHS, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council. He is an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. Thomas Warrick was DHS deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy from August 2008 to June 2019 and is now director of the Future of DHS Project at the Atlantic Council.