American ISIS: The Domestic Terrorist Fallout of the Iraq War
The US military recruited neo-Nazis, gang members, and criminals to fight the war on terror—and now they're coming home.
Specialist James Douglas Ross, who served in Iraq as a military intelligence officer (82nd Airborne Division) in his barracks room. Photo via Hunter Glass
The following is an excerpt from the new afterword of Matt Kennerd's Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror, which has just been released in paperback. Kennard's new book, The Racket: A Rogue Reporter vs. the Masters of the Universe, will be released in April.
Just weeks before the hardcover edition of Irregular Army came out in September 2012, a neo-Nazi US Army veteran walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and shot dead six worshippers. A topic that had never managed to hold the interest of the American media during the War on Terror—the extremists being trained by the country's military—suddenly moved front and center.
Many Americans wondered how this white supremacist could have survived in the military for so long; surely something must have gone wrong. But the Wisconsin shooter, Wade Michael Page, was merely one of many far-right radicals who have used the US military over the past two decades to gain access to the highest-grade weaponry in the world, alongside attendant training. The Springfield semiautomatic 9mm handgun used by Page in Oak Creek was, for instance, very similar to the Beretta M9, the civilian version of the pistol issued by the US military. And neo-Nazi veterans, like Page, were explicit about wanting to use their new military skills in the coming race war they hoped would ignite in the US. Page's heavy-metal white-power band, called End Apathy, was itself a call to arms. According to a 2010 interview he gave to a white supremacist website, he wanted to "figure out how to end people's apathetic ways"; the band was meant to "be the start towards moving forward."
As details emerged, they seemed to confirm what I had written in this book. The most shocking part of Page's story was that he was completely open about his neo-Nazi views while serving in the army during the 1990s, a decade before the War on Terror. Page was no army private either—he was assigned to the esteemed psychological operations ("psyops") branch. But despite this senior status, the independent American military newspaper Stars and Stripes wrote in the aftermath of the shooting that Page was "steeped in white supremacy during his army days and spouted his racist views on the job as a soldier." Page served from 1992 to 1998. The latter part of this period putatively witnessed the US military taking a strong stand against white supremacism within the ranks after neo-Nazi active-duty paratrooper James Burmeister murdered an African American couple near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1995.
Page's story actually bore an uncanny resemblance to that of one of the main characters in Irregular Army: Forrest Fogarty, the War on Terror veteran I spent time with in Tampa, Florida. Like Page, Fogarty was a neo-Nazi; like Page, he was a member of the Hammerskins, the most violent skinhead group in the US; like Page, he served in the US military (in Fogarty's case in Iraq from 2004 to 2005); and like Page, Fogarty was the lead singer in a neo-Nazi rock band. Fogarty had in fact signed up to the US army, complete with racist tattoos, in 1997, around the same time Page was denied reenlistment for alcoholism (not neo-Nazism). In fact, as I looked into the history of Page I even came across images of him playing his racist rock with Fogarty himself: they performed in the same band at neo-Nazi concerts. The US military, it would seem, has a penchant for Nazi rockers.
The media ate up the Pentagon's reflexive lies during the fallout from the massacre. When Al Jazeera interviewed me, they asked the Pentagon for clarification of their policy on extremists. A spokesman told them that "participation in extremist activities has never been tolerated." The media interest endured for a couple of weeks, then the silence returned. But over the subsequent two years, the threats I warned about in the book played out with frightening regularity. Many of the predictions of "blowback" from a decade (and more) of unchecked extremist and criminal infiltration were coming true. Not long after the Sikh Temple massacre, an anti-government militia of active-duty soldiers at Fort Stewart—where Fogarty had been based—was discovered. This heavily armed group had already murdered an active-duty soldier and his wife and was planning to assassinate President Barack Obama. According to prosecutors, the soldiers had spent nearly $90,000 on guns and bomb components.
Not long after this cell was discovered, a Missouri National Guardsman admitted to helping train a white supremacist group, American Front, whose members were preparing for a domestic race war. These extremists, court documents detailed, were alleged to have committed hate crimes alongside paramilitary training in "furtherance of a civil disorder."
The steady beat of tragedies kept coming. In April 2014, an Army veteran and "grand dragon" of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Frazier Glenn Miller, killed three people at two Jewish centers in a suburb of Kansas City. Miller had retired from the Army in the 1990s as a master sergeant after 20 years of active duty, including two tours in Vietnam and 13 years as a member of the elite Green Berets. These cases were particularly scary because they showed the long lineage of this problem. In the book I had focused on the War on Terror years because in that period even the light regulations that were in place were lit up in flames, but Page and Miller demonstrated the long incubation period allowed for these errant extremist veterans to turn into cold-blooded murderers. Over the next two decades, US society will doubtless endure other versions of these massacres—involving veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan this time round. The scars from these wars are long, deep and may be impossible to salve. The US military has refused to take seriously the dangers posed by the radicals in its service—and its own soldiers, alongside the population they are meant to defend, are paying a heavy price. Many more ticking time bombs—unlike Miller and Page, not yet detonated—are now settling back home after a decade of hard combat training.
But it was not just white supremacist soldiers and veterans who were proving dangerous. Many of the other problems outlined in the book—from the US military's failure to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the economic hardship of the veteran community—were coming back to bite the US populace. In Wade Page's case, for example, it was a confluence of factors that turned him into a murderer. Like many veterans, his house had been foreclosed on in the aftermath of the financial crisis. This toxic mix involving PTSD, extremism, the financial crisis and its tragic aftermath was a recurrent theme. In May 2014, Marine Corps Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who had served in Afghanistan and was being treated for PTSD in a VA hospital, was arrested in Mexico with a huge cache of heavy weaponry. If Mexican police hadn't picked him up, who knows what carnage he could have caused south of the border with his training, weapons skills and troubled psyche—all courtesy of the US military.
Disaster at the hands of a mentally troubled US service member struck again in September 2013, when an aviation electrician in the navy, Aaron Alexis, walked into a secure navy yard in Washington, DC, and shot dead 12 people. Alexis was in a lot of ways emblematic of many of the problems afflicting the US military as it dealt with the fallout from over a decade of war and occupation. He had been decorated with two of the most respected medals bestowed by the US military, and he served it honorably for four years. But he had been arrested twice on firearm offenses: first, in 2004, before he signed up to the navy, and then in 2010, which precipitated his discharge from service. He was also receiving treatment from the Veterans Association for mental health problems. Alexis's father told detectives his son had "anger management problems" associated with PTSD.
As explored in this book, the scourge of PTSD is estimated to afflict upwards of 30 percent of veterans, and while resources have been added, treatment for psychological ailments is sorely lacking. The will to sort this mess out is not there in Washington. One Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzalez, was so angry he invaded the White House and got through five rings of security in September 2014 before being caught by security. He had, like so many others, been diagnosed with PTSD after three arduous tours of Iraq during which he lost part of his foot. When he came back to the US it did not get any easier: his marriage broke down and he started living on the street. While traumatized veterans are mainly a threat to themselves—it is estimated that 22 veterans in the US commit suicide every day—it's increasingly common for them to take their anger out on others. Still, the military paid no heed.
In the aftermath of the Navy Yard massacre, a Pentagon inspector general found that 52 convicted felons had "routine" unauthorized access to military facilities, "placing military personnel, dependents, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk." No media reports mentioned the huge numbers of felons, and other criminals, who had been knowingly recruited by the US military when its troop needs were most serious, as detailed in the book.
The Navy Yard massacre was the second largest murder spree on a US base in history. The record in that regard was the Islamic radical Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009. The unchecked threat to domestic military installations from US soldiers was reinforced in April 2013, when Ivan Lopez, another US soldier taking military-prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, went on a shooting rampage, again at Fort Hood in Texas, which killed three people as well as him. Investigators concluded that, like Alexis in his DC rampage, Lopez's "fragile" state of mind had been the cause of the shooting spree, remarking, "We believe that is the fundamental, underlying causal factor." It was found that he hadn't been given any serious psychological treatment. Instead he was prescribed pills, the military's preferred method of care for its service members. Lopez, who served in Iraq, hadn't even been considered for early discharge based on his problems. It was a familiar story for a desperate military, and showed that their claim to have "cleaned up their act" in the wake of withdrawal from Iraq was a lie. Lopez had actually bought the .45-caliber pistol at the same store in Killeen, Texas, where Hasan had bought his own five years before.
Most of the murders described above became infamous because Americans were killed en masse. But the slow-burn violence involving gangs and US military personnel continued as well, with terrible human consequences. The New York Daily News reported in 2013 that "Mexican drug cartels are recruiting American soldiers to act as clandestine hit men in the United States, paying them thousands of dollars to assassinate federal informants and organized crime rivals." The story was picked up across the US. "We have seen examples over the past few years where American servicemen are becoming involved in this type of activity," Fred Burton, vice president for Stratfor Global Intelligence, told Fox News. "It is quite worrisome to have individuals with specialized military training and combat experi- ence being associated with the cartels." It had taken nearly a decade for this story to make it to the mainstream, and only because it was now Americans that were under threat from their military's recklessness. The unsayable truth is that criminal gangs are increasingly attractive to veterans, who often find the job market impossible to break into.
Los Zetas is a Mexican cartel that actually grew up out of disaffected former elite Mexican Special Forces, some of whom had received training at Fort Bragg. American soldiers on the same base are now joining them. The drug cartels often seek to hire sicarios—hit men—from the ranks of former US, Mexican, and Guatemalan military forces. The horrific "drug war" in Mexico is slowly moving over the border into the southern US states. In May 2013, four Mexican nationals were caught and charged for their part in a large methamphetamine trafficking organization. It was a vision of the future. This unfolding story with gangs in the US military remains largely unreported because they are killing only each other. That could, of course, change at any time.
In this book, I outlined cases like that of former Pfc. Michael Jackson Apodaca, who carried out a contract killing for the Juárez Cartel in 2009 while an active-duty soldier at Fort Bliss. Apodaca, who served in Afghanistan, was sentenced in an El Paso District Court to life in prison, with a chance of parole after thirty years. With the pressure of two occupations now lifted, the US military now admitted openly that it had allowed all sorts of criminals and gangs to join when they were short on numbers. "A person like Apodaca would not even be allowed to enlist today," said Army Maj. Joe Buccino, spokesman for Fort Bliss. "We're more selective than during the height of Iraq." Unfortunately even that wasn't true, but it was the updated excuse from the war years.
But the silence was proving harder to uphold. In May 2014, Juan Jesús Guerrero-Chapa, a former lawyer for the Gulf Cartel, was mowed down in a well-to-do suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. "Obviously, the nature of this homicide, the way it was carried out indicates—and I said indicates—an organization that is trained to do this type of activity," Southlake Police Chief Stephen Mylett said following the attack. "When you're dealing with individuals that operate on such a professional level, certainly caution forces me to have to lean toward that [sic] this is an organized criminal activity act." Mylett conceded that the murder was a "targeted affair conducted by professional killers," but refused to be drawn on if the killers had military training. "The case is still being investigated," he added. It was even reported that two members of Los Angeles street gangs had gone to fight alongside militias linked to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the country's civil war, maybe for the same reason they had infiltrated the US military: training and weapons.
The reason these events hit the news is that they happened in the US. But you do not need too much of an imagination to picture similar crimes that were inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of occupation. How many Sikh temple massacres, Navy Yard shootings, Fort Hood rampages were there in Iraq and Afghanistan? We will never know. All the known massacres committed by US troops were initially denied, until the truth finally came out. The US military's ethos is: deny, deny, deny—until that becomes untenable because of the weight of contradictory information. The vast majority of times, we found out about US soldiers' criminal activities only when they erred back home, where the rule of law could not be so easily discarded. That fallout will keep coming.
Maybe as a result of the new military sophistication of the criminal underworld, the militarization of domestic US policing has also ramped up. This has dangerous implications not just for the hyper-violent drug gangs, but also for any American who wants to exercise his or her First Amendment rights. They are now up against militarized and heavily armed law enforcement bringing the behavior and conduct suitable to the warzone back to Main Street. The Judge Dredd–lookalike police force that was trying to "pacify" the black community in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014—after the shooting of an unarmed black teen by the police—was a portent of the future.
The media continued to ignore the deep-rooted problems within the US military because this story so glaringly contradicted the fairytale narrative of the War on Terror. This narrative was one the US mainstream media itself had done so much to support and construct. Individual massacres and atrocities were covered to the point of saturation, but the context was missing. It was also inconceivable that the people who had been at the top of government and turned a blind eye, people like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, might share some blame. Perhaps this is why there is such surprise every time there is a violent attack: Americans are inevitably told it is an outlier, not the product of a US military that allows extremism and ignores its marginalized veterans. The longer that debate is pushed off the table the worse the problem will become, and the worse the resulting violence.
In the spring of 2014, after the anti-Semitic attack near Kansas City, the New York Times broke the mold and bravely printed a stinging op-ed that highlighted the problem of radicalized soldiers and veterans. Its author, Kathleen Belew, a doctoral student working on a book on Vietnam and the far right, asked: "Would [Miller] have received greater scrutiny had he been a Muslim, a foreigner, not white, not a veteran? The answer is clear, and alarming." She was subjected to a torrent of abuse for impugning the whole veteran community—something she went to great pains to avoid. It was the standard tactic used to shut down debate on the topic and entirely predictable. American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger called it a "poorly researched and agenda-driven piece," adding that "the New York Times should be above the slanderous stereotyping of the men and women that have defended us against the racist ideology that Ms. Belew and the NY Times no doubt oppose."
But further vindicating Belew's piece just a month later was news that recruitment fliers imploring soldiers to fight for a "white nation" in the coming race war had been discovered on Fort Carson in Colorado. "Ever wonder if you are fighting for the right side?" the flier asks, urging the soldiers to help "secure the existence of our people and a future for White children." One further report said that a surge of KKK members with military experience had allowed the Loyal White Knights to conduct combat training for the first time in its history. In this case, Allen West, a former Republican congressman and retired military officer, gave the usual line intended to shut down debate: "Why do I question this? Because I know the tactics of the liberal progressive Left, and besmirching the military to prove their long-held thesis is very important," he wrote. I don't think it is too strong to say that when this "blowback" hits the next innocent Americans, the people who tried to impugn the Cassandras will bear part of the responsibility.
There is, in fact, barely anyone who spoke critically of the situation in the US military from the inside who has come out with his or her career or reputation intact. After publication of Irregular Army, I got to know a number of whistleblowers who had bravely exposed this issue during the War on Terror. When a Department of Homeland Security report warned in 2009 of the threat posed by far-right extremism, Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized to veterans for the report's imputation that those with military experience were especially susceptible to solicitations from far-right groups. Daryl Johnson, the senior analyst who wrote the report, was put out to pasture after a ferocious backlash from department officials, the military and some politicians on Capitol Hill. Despite the fact that Johnson's clarion call now looks increasingly prescient, he had to leave the DHS and is now a consultant. It was the same story with other whistleblowers, from Army Reserve Sgt. Jeffrey Stoleson, who alerted his superiors to the gangs in this unit, and had his life destroyed, to former DoD gang investigator Scott Barfield, who was attacked mercilessly for raising the alarm on white supremacist infiltration of the US military.
When I was interviewed by the US mainstream media, the focus was nearly always on what the findings of the book meant for Americans. No one thought it was of interest what the effect was on the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten seconds before I was to appear on MSNBC opposite a retired colonel, the producer spoke through my earpiece. "Try to keep it light on rape and massacres, please, Matt," he said. I half-laughed, but he was deadly serious. When I got over the temptation to start my first sentence with "We all know there were a lot of rapes and massacres in Iraq," I pulled no punches, despite the host saying I had written the book to make money.
These wars themselves are far from over, as the bombing of Islamic State (IS) positions in Iraq and Syria make clear. Similarly, after touting for years a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, President Obama announced, as the deadline hovered on the horizon, that 9,800 troops would be kept in the country until 2016, the year he will leave office. Many predict that as soon as withdrawal happens, the Taliban will follow IS's course and reestablish control of the country. As in Vietnam, years of war, millions of lives destroyed, gargantuan sums of money spent will have achieved nothing but a more dangerous world. The US withdrew from South Vietnam in 1973, and the embassy in Saigon was overrun in 1975. The US withdrew from Iraq in 2012, and IS militants took northern Iraq in 2014. It would not be foolish to believe that when the US finally leaves Afghanistan in 2016, a still-strong Taliban will take over in 2018. Such are the problems of an occupying power trying to impose its will on the natives. The past 13 years of war have been a long black nightmare for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, alongside the US soldiers occupying their countries. The future does not look much brighter—for them or for Americans now facing a new threat from their own soldiers and veterans.