America’s veterans are the prime target for domestic terrorists — as recruits

Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes, who was charged with seditious conspiracy in the January 6 investigation, is a US Army veteran.

Photo by Philip Pacheco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A new documentary, “Against All Enemies,” explores the link between military veterans and extremism.
Producer Ken Harbaugh told Insider veterans looking for purpose are at risk of radicalization.
Groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters attempt to recruit veterans.

Of the more than 1,000 people who were charged with a crime for their participation in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, nearly 1 in 5 was a US military veteran.

While leaders of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were ultimately convicted for seditious conspiracy for their deliberate attempts to breach the Capitol, critics argue their influence on military veterans — and the subsequent impact on society — has not yet been fully realized due to the adoption of their radical ideology by mainstream Republican politicians.

“Against All Enemies,” a documentary that explores the risk of veterans being radicalized by extremist groups, was featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, earning glowing reviews from critics. Variety called the documentary “a grim diagnosis of a fast-spreading cancer,” that “may provide much less reassurance than cause for alarm, but its wakeup call is certainly worth heeding.”

Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot, cofounder of Team Rubicon, and producer of the new documentary, spoke with Insider about why being aware of the problem is only the first step toward a solution. “Against All Enemies” will have its theatrical release in early 2024.

Tell me about how “Against All Enemies” came about as a project and the road it took you down.

I’m a military vet and spent a lot of my time after the service trying to figure out how to productively engage veterans making that transition from military to civilian life through my work co-founding Team Rubicon, an NGO that mobilizes veterans to aid in disaster response. And on January 6, I just recall stopping the car in the driveway and listening in horror to the coverage as it played out, and in the days afterward, realizing how many of my brothers-in-arms were involved. The numbers do suggest that veterans were disproportionately represented, but the real data point that I think is lost in all of that noise is why veterans are so specifically targeted for recruitment by groups like the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys.

Why are veterans targeted as recruits for this kind of radical ideology? 

It’s because, in military speak, they act as force multipliers. The same reason that Fortune 500 companies and elite nonprofits and Ivy League programs try to recruit veterans is why the Oath Keepers try to recruit them: because when they set their sights on a mission, they go after it. They know how to organize; they know how to plan and lead. And that is great to have if GE or Amazon can recruit them. But it is incredibly dangerous if where they wind up is with the Proud Boys.

Can you tell me why the path toward the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, or the Three Percenters might be an attractive one for a veteran?

That’s not mysterious. People join the military for a variety of reasons, but a universal experience of being in the military is the feeling of camaraderie, a sense of purpose and mission. The desire for it doesn’t disappear along with the uniform, and people look to recapture that in other ways. I remember my own experience with that, literally at the stroke of a pen when I signed the form that got me out of the military after nine years; in an instant, my identity was gone. I had been a Navy pilot. That’s who I was. That’s how I thought about myself. And I was lucky. I had a family to support me, I had a pretty clear pathway into civilian life, and even then, I had this crisis of identity. And then you think about all the 20-somethings who are experiencing this and who’ve gone through years of combat, and it is a real crisis.

What patterns do you see in the direction that things are going for veterans in the wake of pulling out of Afghanistan?

There’s a variety of overlapping patterns, there are good patterns and bad ones. On the good side, there are several organizations that have stepped up and tried to fill this void, like Team Rubicon. On the other side, you have groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters who have also stepped into this void, and they are picking off veterans who are vulnerable to the kind of misinformation that is just so ubiquitous now. These misinformation echo chambers can drag people down these rabbit holes and into these communities that are incredibly toxic and destructive and lead nowhere good. In the aftermath of every American military misadventure, membership in extremist organizations spikes. We saw it after World War I with the resurgence of the KKK, we saw it after Korea and Vietnam. What we don’t know as a society is what happens to that phenomenon after the longest wars in American history: Iraq and Afghanistan. We do know the answer is nothing good. But I think we’re beginning to see some of the fruits of that.

Are there commonalities in the ideology among extremist groups recruiting online in the ways they attract veterans for membership?

Well, I think the starting point is often a grievance narrative. A feeling of disenchantment or loss of community or anger at the government. And some of that anger is entirely appropriate, but that’s often the start of it, and that anger and disenchantment can be amped up in some of these chat rooms that tell you that your problems are the fault of George Soros — or whatever their chosen code word is. And those are gateways into the deeper pits that are just filled with racism and antisemitism. Often it doesn’t start that way. It starts with, “Hey, why don’t you join this group that wants to take care of you, wants to restore that sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.” And the deeper you get into it, the worse it gets.

From your perspective, what does the anti-democracy side stand to gain from continuing to push this this narrative to veterans?

I think there are a lot of individual motivations, and you have to look at each of them to get a real understanding. Mike Flynn’s motivations are probably different than someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s. I think the former realizes that his best chance of avoiding real jail time is continuing to advance the Big Lie in hopes of animating his base and getting Trump reelected. But the real tragedy for me is that many of the foot soldiers of this movement, the people you saw charging the barricades on January 6, actually believe in the cause. They actually think they’re on the right side of the Constitution. And it’s because people like Josh Hawley, who was at Yale Law School at the same time I was, and JD Vance, who was there slightly before me, keep on feeding them these lies that they know are lies. And those are the real villains in my book. 

What is the significance of January 6 in this conversation? 

I mean, you cannot do a film about extremism in this country and the way veterans are attracted to it without talking about January 6, but the critical point we make is that January 6 wasn’t some crescendo of violence. It was a dry run. And a lot of the times when I see some of these prosecutions — which has to happen, we have to hold people accountable — it makes me wonder about all the people who aren’t being rounded up. And there’s a footnote to that, which I think is the scariest aspect of all of this, which is that the real provocateurs, the instigators, may never be held accountable because they hold senior positions in a major American political party. You have to go back to one of the later iterations of the KKK in the ’20s in the Deep South to find an era in American politics where a violent insurrectionist movement captured a major political party. And that led to just generations of terror locally, but there’s the potential for that nationally if a violent movement can co-opt enough of a major American political party.

Is something that you’re concerned about from your vantage point?

Everyone should be. I mean, how much clearer of a signal can you get? A major party is being co-opted by terrorists and the leader of that party is telling the members of that terrorist movement to stand back and stand by in case he is not reelected. Proud Boys were told on a presidential debate stage to stand back and stand by. This is an organization that’s been declared a terrorist outfit by Canada, our closest ally, and the President of the United States told them to stand by. Add to that all of the other signals we’re getting from senior influencers and people with actual elected positions within the Republican Party, calling the January 6 rioters political prisoners. You have people like Sarah Palin warning about civil war. Mike Huckabee just said if Trump is denied another win, the next election is not going to be decided at the ballot box, it will be decided by bullets. You have Mike Flynn saying, we need a coup in this country like they had in Myanmar. This is not me paraphrasing or exaggerating. These are clarion calls for violence coming from senior figures on the right, influential figures, mainstream figures. These aren’t fringe characters; they are representative of the mainstream, and that’s scary.

How do you combat that toxic rhetoric and the mentality of political persecution that further entrenches people into that ideology?

Well, it depends on who I’m talking to. When trying to counter the deep state paranoia, or talking to conspiracy theorists, there’s nothing you can do or say because any evidence you provide is just evidence of an even deeper conspiracy. Some people are unreachable. There isn’t a middle ground when you’re talking about autocracy and democracy; there isn’t a halfway point. It’s like arguing with flat earthers. The truth isn’t somewhere between a round earth and a flat earth. When you look at January 6, I think the only answer to people like Georgia Congressman Andrew Clyde, who said it was just a “normal tourist visit” is: You are lying. You are a vet. You know better. You helped barricade the house galley and you were screaming and pointing in a photo with Capitol policemen who had their guns drawn, pointing at that single point of entry. And yet, a few days later, you’re on TV, calling it a peaceful tourist visit? I think the only way to counter something like that is to call it what it is: disinformation.

Are you hopeful about people responding well to the lies being called out?

I’m always hopeful. I am always bullish on America. I think we have been through a few things worse. The scary thing about saying that is, you know, people point to the 1860s and say, “Hey, we’ve survived worse before” and yes, we did. But we fought a civil war over it. I think this will only get better if people stand up en masse and say the election wasn’t stolen. Your grievances are made up. You’re not the ones defending the Constitution; you’re actually undermining it. We need not just those lone voices in the wilderness like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who are brave enough to tell the truth and lose their jobs for it, but we need a chorus of those kinds of influencers saying that there really is only one side of this pro-democracy argument. And that’s the pro-democracy side.

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