White Supremacist Organizations use Military Veterans to Train Recruits, Experts Say

WASHINGTON – In the all-white world of the neofascist Patriot Front, a fast-growing far-right organization, military veterans are sought after as a force multiplier for their ability to young recruits to the organization, turning it into a lethal force.

Patriot Front emerged in the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which one counterprotester was killed after a neo-Nazi sympathizer intentionally drove a car into a crowd. White supremacist Thomas Rousseau used the subsequent splintering of the American far-right over the movement’s public image as an opportunity to oust rivals and seize control of Vanguard America, one of the organizations present in Charlottesville, rename it Patriot Front, rebrand it in red, white and blue and tone down the language used in publicity materials in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. Four years later, Patriot Front is among the largest and fastest-growing far-right organizations in America, while retaining its white supremacist, fascist ideas, researchers say.

The Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2020 Global Terrorism Index attributed  82% of terror-related deaths and 46% of terror attacks throughout the West in 2019 to far-right terrorists. In the U.S., they committed the majority – 57% – of such attacks between 1994 and 2020.

The Biden administration has declared combating white supremacy a policy priority, shifting some of the country’s focus on terrorism from external to domestic.

While exact numbers are impossible to come by due to Patriot Front’s secretive nature, Carla Hill from the Anti-Defamation League said, the group likely has several hundred active members, with chapters around the country, especially in Texas, where it is based. Experts say that the organization’s activities are mostly focused on publicity campaigns, although behind the scenes, it is training its members to be ready for combat.

“They’re preparing for violence,” says Kristofer Goldsmith, a military veteran and researcher on the American far-right, who spent months undercover in Patriot Front until late 2020 to gain a better understanding of its inner workings. “They are looking for direct physical conflict with people they view as political opponents – people affiliated with Black Lives Matter or the anti-fascist movement.” A lot of PF’s training, therefore, is physical and combat training, he said.

This is where Patriot Front’s special relationship with the military comes in. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testifying at an Oct. 13,   congressional hearing, said that veterans are particularly valuable to domestic terrorist groups because they are trained in tactics, communications, logistics and reconnaissance, capabilities that can be difficult – and expensive – to obtain outside the military.

According to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who studies far-right extremism at American University, research shows that people who involuntarily left the military, in particular, are more likely to be involved with extremism. Far-right extremist organizations, she said during the Oct. 13 congressional hearing, seek to convert a sense of betrayal or anger directed against the military and the government into violence that is framed as a heroic action of patriotism for the “true nation.”

“We … know that they actively recruit veterans because of their military skills, leadership, and ability to organize,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler in a prepared statement for the Oct. 13 congressional hearing. “Veterans in the process of military to civilian transition are particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment as they navigate re-entry to the civilian world.”

Patriot Front’s website is an example of how the organization sanitizes its message: It’s dominated by the American colors and patriotic-sounding quotes. The stickers that members plaster on lampposts and street signs, often in politically “purple” suburbs, play on American and fascist symbolism, said Brian Hughes of American University’s polarization lab PERIL. They, too, use red, white and blue and feature the slogan “united we stand” – a play on the U.S. official motto, “Out of many, one” or “e pluribus unum.”  Often, the stickers also feature fascist elements like the fasces – a bundle of wooden sticks, in one case abstracted as a bundle of arrows held by a clenched, red, white and blue fist. “They keep things simple and parasite off of the icons of patriotism,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes, Patriot Front’s advertising is meant to appeal especially to the values of people who might otherwise consider joining the military. “It’s a bait and switch. It’s a con.”

It’s these people – young, white men who like the thought of carrying a weapon and having authority, and who feel victimized by feminism and diversity in America, that Patriot Front relies on, Carla Hill from the ADL and other experts point out. Patriot Front even put in place an age cap at 35, those experts say.

“They are looking for fighting-age males,” said Goldsmith, who runs the open-source intelligence firm Sparverius that focuses on tracking the far-right. “They want fresh blood – people they can help mold and shape at a critical point in their adult life.” People like these, with no prior military experience, are the ones who receive training from the former military members recruited by far-right militias. “They’re looking for folks who have fantasized about violence and an exclusive men’s club, but are not brave enough to join the military.”

Patriot Front tries to mold these young, white men into a veteran-trained fighting force that will give it an edge after their anticipated collapse of the American state.

This symbiosis of veteran know-how and young men trained in military-style tactics without having served in the military has been on display in some of the recent right-wing attacks across the country, experts say. One example is the repeated violent clashes between left- and right-wing groups on the streets of Portland.

As for Patriot Front specifically, Goldsmith highlighted the march it held in Philadelphia on July 4. About 150 white supremacists marched in formation, at one point luring a black man into their midst and beating him, according to news reports at the time. The violent action was obscured by deploying smoke grenades. “Those are military-style tactics,” said Goldsmith. “That is a direct result of training with military veterans.”

The same march turned out to be a PR disaster for Patriot Front after members were chased back to their trucks by a small number of local residents, many of whom were Black, as TV crews filmed their departure. Despite the rout, Patriot Front created a glitzy internet video presenting the event as powerful white men marching through the streets with flags, shields and banners, leaving out their hasty retreat.

But that incident does not negate the potential of combining wannabe-soldiers with the force-multiplying influence of those with military experience, experts say. These violent organizations are working hard to build up fighting forces that can inflict real harm and instill fear in political enemies, they say.

The White House in June revealed a national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, saying that “among that wide range of animating ideologies, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) and militia violent extremists are assessed as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats.” The Department of Homeland Security and FBI are taking leading roles both in preempting and combatting domestic extremism.

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