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Editor’s note: This story was published before the horrific bombing in Kabul that killed 13 US service members—including 11 Marines—and dozens of Afghan civilians. We regret the timing and offer condolences to the victims and their families. Read our full coverage of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.
Last Friday, the Department of Justice released one of the latest in an endless string of indictments involving white men subscribing to the tenets of the far right and planning acts of terror in the U.S. The document also had an all-too-familiar detail: Former American service members using, prosecutors claim, their tradecraft to plan an attack.
And although it has unfortunately become commonplace to see veterans connected to domestic extremism, two of these men were part of a military branch that has repeatedly popped up when it comes to neo-Nazis: The United States Marine Corps (USMC).
In the latest filing, four men were charged with planning a coordinated, armed assault on a power station somewhere in the U.S. Two of the conspirators, Liam Collins, 21, and Jordan Duncan, 26, are ex-Marines who were formerly stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. According to the new charges, both men “discussed using homemade Thermite” to “burn through and destroy power transformers” and also “stole military gear, including magazines for assault-style rifles.”
Another former Marine, Justin Hermanson, 21, was implicated in the same conspiracy and was previously charged; this is the third indictment involving all of the accused, as investigators continue to tack on charges from the original filing in November 2020.
Over the past three years, at least seven former Marines have openly avowed or been identified with neo-Nazism or the extreme right, with some alleged to have been involved in planned terrorist acts. The Corps reported to NPR in April that it had, in the past three years alone, found 16 cases of extremism within its ranks. Though these numbers account for only a tiny fraction of those Marines who enlist and serve, the problem is worth noting, especially given the USMC’s past.
Friday’s charges also noted that the four men had made a video shooting weapons and wearing the trademark skull masks popularized by the neo-Nazi terror group Atomwaffen Division (AWD), which has been under a yearslong FBI crackdown and is connected to several terrorism-related crimes in the U.S. One of the earliest members of AWD, Vasilios Pistolis, 23, was a former Marine whom ProPublica and Frontline outed for his involvement in the terror group in 2018. He was subsequently charged and booted from the Corps for his ties to the group.
Over the past four years, at least seven former Marines have openly avowed or been identified with neo-Nazism or the extreme right, with some allegedly involved in planned terrorist acts.
The Base, a sister organization to AWD that has seen over ten of its members arrested in the U.S. and Europe, also had a connection to the Corps. Earlier this year, VICE News broke the story that former Marine poolee Ryan Burchfield, 21, a Virginia native and onetime member of The Base, was deported from Ukraine for his alleged affiliation to a neo-Nazi extremist group and for trying to fight in the ongoing war in Donbass as a foreign fighter. Under an alias in 2019 and in an encrypted chat room, he told other members of The Base, “we’re going to make Atomwaffen look like boy scouts.” Prior to that post, AWD was well known for being implicated in five murders in the U.S.
Some of the alleged terror plots tied to Marines, like the latest involving Collins, Jordan, and Hermanson, are elaborate. In June, the Daily Beast reported that Travis Owens, an active-duty Marine, had plotted killing members of the Democratic National Committee and people of color with two other individuals, one tied to AWD. Though the plans never materialized, the FBI investigation that followed led to Owens being booted from the Corps for his involvement. Similarly, another former Marine, Nicholas Tindall, was implicated in a domestic terrorist plot against critical infrastructure in the U.S. with unnamed co-conspirators.
Court records show Tindall is heading to trial in the fall and has maintained his innocence, but the Marines did tell VICE News that Tindall was booted in 2019 because the “character of his service was incongruent with the Marine Corps' values.” (Tindall’s lawyer declined to comment on whether the domestic terror plot that the Georgia native was accused of being involved in was connected to the far-right.)
More recently, Christopher Pohlhaus, 34, another former Marine and open neo-Nazi wielding a sizable Telegram network of thousands of supporters, advocated for white men and women to colonize Maine and transform it into an all-white ethno-state. Last summer, he also told followers in detail how they could theoretically disrupt the American supply chain by sniping truckers driving down highways. According to Pohlhaus, he only quit the Marines because President Barack Obama was elected and he refused to serve under a Black commander in chief.
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In a broader story about extremism in the U.S. military in May, journalist Talia Lavin outed another Marine, whose online footprints clearly espoused Nazism, as an extremist who was harassing her about her book Culture Warlords, which broadly examines the internet world of the far right. That man was subsequently investigated by military authorities and then demoted, but remained active-duty.
“It seems to me that the anecdotal evidence is piling up that there is something weird about the Marines,” said Heidi Beirich, a longtime expert on right-wing extremism and the chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “I think it has to do with a couple of things. The Marines have the most hardcore culture in in the military, aside from some of the Special Forces teams; they're also centralized on a couple of bases. So they're not as distributed throughout the United States as other forces are.”
As early as 2012—well before the far-right problem among American servicemen became widely known—a unit of Marine Scout Snipers was photographed proudly and openly brandishing a flag of the Nazi S.S. death squads during a tour in Afghanistan.
The Corps, Beirich added, is known as a “really, really macho, violent institution” that might attract more extremists and is generally seen as “a lot more belligerent than some of the other services.”
“The anecdotal evidence is piling up that there is something weird about the Marines.”
There is a history of far-right extremists inside the Corps, Beirich said. For example, in the 1970s at Camp Pendleton, active-duty Marines openly paraded their membership in the Ku Klux Klan, intentionally threatening Black Marines with knives. In 1986, white supremacist Marines stole weapons from Camp Lejeune, the same base where Collins and Duncan were stationed, then funneled them to their underground paramilitary organization in preparation for their antigovernment activities.
By its own admission, the Marine Corps is aware it is susceptible to extremist influences. But in a statement to VICE News, the Corps couldn’t account for why so many of its former members were recently avowed Nazis or far-right extremists.
“The Marine Corps is clear on this: There is no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps,” it said in an emailed statement, pointing out that it takes the problem of extremism so seriously that it screens the tattoos of all new recruits for gang and hate symbols. “Our strength is derived from the individual excellence of every Marine regardless of background. Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to our core values.”
“We are proud of the fact that Marines come from every race, creed, cultural background, and walk of life. We expect every Marine to treat their fellow Marines with dignity and respect.”
Still, according to Beirich, the Marines have taken a trailblazing approach to the extremism within its ranks. It was also one of the most proactive branches in the military to recognize it had a problem.
“I can tell you that when I was with the [Southern Poverty Law Center], we worked with the Marine commandants on the east and west coasts on extremism issues when the rest of the military didn't listen to this at all, didn't even care,” she said.
The Marines were the first military branch to ban the Confederate flag from its bases, something Beirich thinks could have also contributed to a backlash within the Corps from some recruits who took exception to the prohibition of the hate symbol.
“It may be that there's a certain backlash to that,” she said. “The [white supremacist culture] doesn't appreciate that these things are happening, which makes it easier to recruit people into extremism.”
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