For years, experts have warned about the threat posed by right-wing extremism within military and police forces around the world. The Capitol riot in January last year showed just how right they were.
An outsized role was allegedly played that day by a group called the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia, whose membership is drawn heavily from the ranks of serving and former military and police. During the riot, the group, which had already carved out an intimidating reputation for showing up, heavily armed, at protests across the US, could be seen moving swiftly through the crowds in a formation drilled in military training.
Prosecutors say the group was there that day with a clear purpose: to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power and keep Donald Trump in office.
They’ve charged Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper who was arrested in January alongside other members of his group, with seditious conspiracy.
"Rhodes spearheaded a conspiracy to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power in the United States," prosecutors wrote. "Rhodes stood at the cent[re] of the seditious conspiracy – orchestrating plans to use force, recruiting and financing co-conspirators, purchasing weaponry and tactical gear, inciting support and action, and endeavoring to conceal his and other co-conspirators’ crimes."
They say Rhodes had helped organise so-called “quick reaction forces” to be in the area on the 6th of January, and had written in a group chat with his co-conspirators that the day of the riots could be the “final nail” in the US’s coffin.
Trump "must know that if he fails to act, we will. He has to understand that we will have no choice," wrote Rhodes, according to an NBC News report citing the US government.
Experts say the alleged heavy involvement of the Oath Keepers in the Capitol riot highlights the urgency of tackling the problem of extremism in the security and defence forces.
At least 80 military members are revealed to have signed up for the Oath Keepers while still serving in the US military – with more than a dozen even signing up using their official military email addresses, according to reports. That’s on top of the dozens of current and former police officers confirmed to have joined the group.
The risks of this are obvious. As serving military or police officers, individuals swear an oath to defend the country and follow orders, and are given specialist tactical training, and access to high-tech weaponry in response.
Their membership of anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers, which are steeped in conspiracy theories about elites coordinating to oppress the people, run in direct conflict with that, raising the risk that those assets will be brought to bear against the government these soldiers have sworn to serve.
“It undermines the legitimacy of both the military and law enforcement,” said Peter Simi, an associate professor at Chapman University who studies extremist groups and violence.
“It's hard to say you have a democratic institution when you have … active members of the far-right who are interested in undermining the government, or essentially advocating for various kinds of vigilante violence.”
The Oath Keepers, in particular, are known for pushing far-right conspiracies about an impending totalitarian New World Order, with Rhodes repeatedly claiming that the US was descending into civil war and advising his followers to arm themselves.
“They will talk about things … like the United Nations being a vehicle for tyranny that is orchestrated by some murky cabal of international elites,” said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany.
“Oath Keepers doesn't depict politics as a way for us to come together to solve common problems. Instead, it's a place driven by this fight between good and evil.”
And it’s not just an American phenomenon. In recent years, a string of high-profile cases have emerged of extremists within Western military forces. In 2018, a British soldier was jailed for being a member of a neo-Nazi terrorist group. Last year, a Belgian soldier went on the run, armed with stolen rocket launchers and guns, vowing to attack leading virologists in response to COVID restrictions. And Germany’s military has been plagued by a string of far-right scandals.
Experts say problem has been driven by a number of factors: far-right groups deliberately targeting the forces for recruitment; a macho, hierarchical and authoritarian mindset in the services that is perhaps more susceptible to far-right ideology; and a lack of adequate response from the authorities so far to the threat of far-right infiltration.
These latest incidents only underline that it’s long overdue to take the problem more seriously, say experts.
“In the case of law enforcement … they are the ultimate authority to take another person's life. If they deem it's necessary, they carry a badge that gives them that [power],” said Simi.
“The question is: do you want a person in that position of authority, with that level of power… who subscribes to neo-Nazi or other far right extremist beliefs?”