In the days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the U.S. military woke up to the fact that it had an extremism problem.

As the FBI and Justice Department began to hunt for those responsible for the events of that day, it became increasingly evident that many of the rioters were members of the military or veterans.

The Pentagon was so concerned about the spread of extremism within its ranks that it ordered a “stand down,” directing commanders to sit down with their troops and talk about extremism.

Soon thereafter, President Joe Biden declared domestic extremism a national security threat and issued a strategy for combatting it.

The overwhelming majority of conventional and special-operations troops oppose radicals within their ranks, but those radicals do exist.


Radicalized servicemembers

Samuel Lazar, Capitol riot
Accused Capitol rioters have been charged with federal crimes, including assaulting officers. (Department of Justice)

Several current and former military service members, including active-duty officers and special-operations veterans, participated in the sad events of January 6.

A special-operations Psychological Operations officer — who had resigned her commission before the events — led 100 people from North Carolina to DC but, according to reports, didn’t participate in any violence.

A former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment has also been accused by a federal judge of using his special-operations training and experience in the attack against the Capitol building.

The former Ranger, who had three combat deployments to Afghanistan, allegedly organized other rioters and was looking to create a hometown militia.

An active-duty Marine Corps major was arrested and accused of attacking Capitol police officers and helping fellow rioters enter the building. The major, a field artillery officer, completed several combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He now faces several federal charges, including assault.

A woman rioter who was shot and killed inside the building by Capitol police was an Air Force veteran.

In total, about 50 of the more than 400 people the Justice Department has charged in relation to the incidents of January 6 are active-duty, national guard, reserve troops, or veterans.

To be sure, there were radicals in the military before the assault on the Capitol, but the events of that were a perfect storm that brought many of them together.

christopher hasson
Firearms and ammunition cited in the case against Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant. (US District Court via Associated Press)

For example, in January 2020, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described “White Nationalist” pleaded guilty to federal charges after being arrested while stockpiling weapons, drugs, and extremist literature.

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In June 2020, an Air Force security forces sergeant was arrested and accused of ambushing and killing a deputy and wounding two other officers with an improvised explosive device in California.

“It’s hard to rationalize serving and protecting your country but also hating and opposing the very democratic process that makes it what it is. Our presidents are elected by a democratic process that, however imperfect it is, is sacred. It’s not up to us to question a president’s legitimacy after the American people have voted him to office,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

Military service members are allowed to participate in political organizations and attend political events when off duty, but active-duty troops are prohibited from sponsoring partisan groups or initiatives.

“Every unit has a few guys who are a bit off. Doesn’t mean they are bad dudes or they have done anything illegal, but they are a bit off in some regards — more secluded, more fringe with their beliefs or ideologies,” a Navy SEAL operator told Insider.

It isn’t just the US military that has issues with radicals in its ranks.

The German military has long struggled with extremism. Last year, it dissolved and reorganized the Kommando Spetzialkrafte — its tier-one special-operations unit, equivalent to Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 — because right-wing radicals had infiltrated it. More than 70 commandos in the 300-strong unit were suspended or kicked out of the German army.

A number of British troops have been investigated over concerns about far-right activity, and the Canadian military has cracked down on “hateful conduct” out of concern about infiltration by neo-Nazi and other groups. These events show that radicalization is an international issue.


Extremism and special-operations

Navy SEAL trident graduation
A member of SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 receives a Special Warfare pin, known as a “Trident,” during their graduation ceremony, April 15, 2020. (Photo by MCS 1st Class Anthony W. Walker/U.S. Navy)

The radicalization of current and former US service members didn’t start in the lead-up to January 6. It has always been there, albeit at a very small scale relative to the size of the US military.

The road to radicalization is paved with conspiracy theories. It’s the allure of knowing something others don’t, of being the keeper of a secret, that drives many people to such theories.

“If you think about it, it’s contradictory to promote, support, or actively participate in insurrection while you serve in the military. First thing you do when you enlist is you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States. Not to the president or any other political figure, but to the Constitution,” a Navy SEAL operator told Insider.

Soldiers at class on extremism in US military
US soldiers at a class on extremism in the ranks at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, March 18, 2021. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Scovell/U.S. Army)

Many people entertain some conspiracies, such as the existence of aliens or the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Most don’t take them seriously enough to act on them, but that can change when special-operations troops — who are highly trained and taught to be aggressive and take the initiative — embrace fringe conspiracy theories, such as QAnon.

“And when the president, who is our commander-in-chief, mind you, acts against or tries to subvert the Constitution, then you have the right, and duty, I would add, to decline to follow such an illegal order,” the Navy SEAL operator said.

The long-term negative effects of radicalization on combat effectiveness are hard to assess, the former SEAL officer said, but one consequence could be weaker unit cohesion.

“If tribes were to be created, then, yes, we might have a problem,” the former officer added. “But this is the military, not your high-school football team. Discipline and good order are paramount even in special-operations forces.”


This article was written by Stavros Atlamazoglou and originally published on the Insider.