House hearing on extremist recruitment of veterans highlights partisan divide

House hearing on extremist recruitment of veterans highlights partisan divide
© Greg Nash

Veterans are increasingly joining extremist groups but a lack of data on the topic makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how deep the problem runs, a panel of experts told House lawmakers on Wednesday.

“Violent extremism is a growing problem in America and by extension the military and veteran communities,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, a researcher of extremism, told the House Veteran Affairs Committee.

“The question is not whether domestic violent extremist groups are recruiting and organizing veterans to commit violence, we already know this to be true. The questions are how extensive is this problem and what are we going to do about it,” Plenzler said. 

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, even if extremist groups reach and radicalize only a small number of veterans and service members, they can still pose a threat to the United States.

“While veterans who participate in domestic terrorism may be few, they can be extremely dangerous,” Plenzler said. 

He pointed to data that found veterans, who account for less than 6 percent of the U.S. population, have been connected to 10 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks since 2015.

Plenzler joined a panel of academics, former military officers and veterans group leaders speaking in the first of three committee hearings on the recruitment of U.S. veterans by violent extremist groups.

The issue gained national attention after it was discovered that a large portion of those who participated in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol had military backgrounds.

Of the more than 620 people arrested in connection to the insurrection, 71, or 12 percent, were part of the military and veteran communities. Five were active-duty members of the National Guard or Reserve force while 66 were veterans.

Committee Chairman Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoVA secretary pledges to house hundreds of homeless veterans in LA by end of year The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Altria - Biden holds meetings to resurrect his spending plan Overnight Defense & National Security — Partisan extremism poses 'growing problem' among veterans MORE (D-Calif.) said the purpose of the hearing was not to condemn veterans who engage with extremist groups but “to draw attention to what these groups actually represent and to highlight the lurking threat posed.”

“Only by understanding who these groups are, what they believe, and what violent or illegal activities they encourage from their members, can we begin to assess our ability to intervene and to help these veterans and their families reclaim their lives,” Takano said.

Wednesday’s hearing was often stalled by Republican lawmakers who questioned the need for such testimony and framed extremist views and behaviors as a matter of free speech. 

Ranking member Mike BostMichael (Mike) J. BostMORE (R-Ill.) said it was “every veterans’ right to have an opinion, even one I find radical,” though he allowed that if such an opinion is acted on with violence it “cannot be tolerated.”

He also worried that holding the hearing risked spreading the false stigma that veterans are “broken” once they leave the military, thus easily targeted by extremists.

“I hope every veteran in America is watching this hearing today and hearing from the majority party that our veterans are so stupid and susceptible to becoming domestic terrorists that Democrats have to save them,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.).

Committee Republicans, including Banks and Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), questioned why panelists didn’t include far-left extremist groups in their discussion. They highlighted Black Lives Matter and antifa, which they blamed for last year’s violent protests across the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, replied that the panel was “discussing those groups that have been deemed the greatest potential threat by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies,” such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters militia groups 

A main focus of the hearing was how to stop veterans from becoming vulnerable to recruitment from extremist groups, with emphasis on educating service members on the issue before they leave the ranks.

Miller-Idriss also said the U.S. government must do more to support research on extremism, noting that there’s not enough data on why veterans could be susceptible to such organizations. 

The panel also recommended that the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs form a joint task force to share information on the issue and that the departments be more transparent in how they address the problem.

Pentagon officials earlier this year began investigating the issue among service members, but the VA has not announced a similar effort.