Sedition Indictments of Veterans Unlikely to Solve the Military's Extremism Problem

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A U.S. Capitol Police officer is surrounded by rioters
A U.S. Capitol Police officer is surrounded by rioters at a door on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

For the first time, a handful of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, have been indicted for sedition, by far the most serious charges against those who attempted to halt the confirmation of President Joe Biden's victory.

Yet, despite the significance of the indictments, the move isn't likely to deal a blow to the anti-government militia movement or the participation of military members in its ranks, according to experts.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors announced that 11 members of the Oath Keepers, including Stewart Rhodes, a veteran and leader of the group, will face charges tied to allegations that he and other militia members hatched a plan to not only breach the U.S. Capitol but to reinforce their attack with heavily armed "quick reaction forces," or QRFs, that were staged outside Washington, D.C.

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Of the 11 indicted Thursday, at least five, including Rhodes, are military veterans, according to records kept by the George Washington University Program on Extremism.

The over-representation of veterans in that group is by design, according to Jon Lewis, a researcher at the Program on Extremism and an expert on the Oath Keepers. Lewis explained in an interview with Military.com that the intentional recruitment of those with military and law enforcement experience "is highly indicative of the kind of guiding ethos that Stewart Rhodes has attempted to make the Oath Keepers brand."

"You can appeal to these individuals who were in the military who washed out like he did – through injury, through behavior issues -- with this idea of wrapping themselves in this bastardized version of the American flag; this kind of twisted warped sense of patriotism."

According to court documents, Rhodes texted Oath Keepers leaders on Jan. 6, equating the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol to the Stamp Act Riots of 1765.

"Next comes our 'Lexington,'" Rhodes wrote, apparently referring to the first military battle of the Revolutionary War.

"It's a very targeted idea by Rhodes and by the leadership that these individuals have the training, have the skills, have the background and, in many cases, the willingness to engage in extreme actions, if they perceive it as patriotism," Lewis explained.

The Department of Justice has said that the group explicitly focuses on recruiting current and former military members, law enforcement and first-responders.

But while the prosecution of Rhodes and many of his fellow Oath Keepers could be a blow to the organization, Lewis says it's not likely to blunt the recruitment of veterans into other militias and extremist organizations.

William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), told reporters at an event on extremism in the military last month that his data shows that veterans "were affiliated with no fewer than 120 different organizations around the country [like] local militia groups or local white supremacist groups without a national footprint."

Since the events of Jan. 6, the Pentagon has tried to grapple with the issue of extremism in its ranks -- an issue laid bare by the number of people with military experience who were arrested in the weeks and months after the siege.

According to data from the Program on Extremism, of the more than 700 people facing federal charges over the Capitol siege, at least 85, or 12%, have some military experience. The vast majority of those, 77, are veterans.

Modern-day groups like the Oath Keepers are hardly the first to draw on veterans for their knowledge and experience. Lewis explained historians often "point to the historical failings of this country to properly care for Vietnam veterans that led to susceptibility to seek out brotherhood, kinship, meaning ... in anti-government and white supremacist groups in the '70s, '80s, 90s."

After months of study, the Pentagon announced the first round of policy changes aimed at eliminating extremism in the ranks in late December. The 21-page report created new guidelines for activities that are banned for service members by adding more detail and clarity on what constitutes extremist activity, as well as "active participation."

Much of the activity and rhetoric that groups like the Oath Keepers espouse could now fall under the new policy, which bans a range of things from advocating terrorism or supporting the overthrow of the government to fundraising for an extremist group.

The Department of Defense's watchdog agency also announced it would review how the military has been doing at screening for extremists during the enlistment process.

"I think that this is something that will continue to be a significant problem until we see more robust action on this front by the military," Lewis noted.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Oath Keeper Militia Members Including 5 Veterans Indicted on Sedition Charges for Jan. 6 Riot

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