House panel probes rise in violent domestic extremists recruiting veterans

Violent domestic extremist groups are targeting more of our veterans and active-duty military members for recruitment, according to testimony before a House panel on Wednesday.

“This issue should concern us all who have sworn an oath to support and defend the constitution irrespective of political party or ideology,” said Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, a Marine Corps. veteran.

Witnesses pointed out that overall, a very small percentage of veterans and service members are believed to be taking part in violent extremist actions, but they warned that percentage is growing.

“I do not believe that extremist views are pervasive within the veteran space. It’s quite the opposite,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “However, because extremist views are not pervasive does not mean that they should not be taken as a serious threat.”

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), at least 66 veterans and reservists took part in the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.

Data from CSIS also said: “In 2020, 6.4 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots (7 of 110 total) were committed by one or more active-duty or reserve members—an increase from 1.5 percent in 2019 (1 of 65 total) and none in 2018.”

“Active-duty service members and veterans are targeted because of their tactical skills, communications training, security clearances and access to ammunition, weapons facilities,” said Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Director of the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab at American University.

Witnesses told lawmakers the violent groups often target the most vulnerable veterans.

“They specifically target the isolated, the impoverished veterans who are frustrated and confused,” said Plenzler. “Those who are struggling to adapt to the civilian world.”

Security experts pointed to a need for more thorough data.

“I do think there’s an important need to focus on cyber risk awareness among veterans,” said Dr. Seth Jones, Senior Vice President and Director of the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. “I also think there’s a more significant need to better understand the scope of the data.”

Veterans urged the Department of Defense to continue educating service members about the threat.

“This is about maintaining trust and confidence in our military and by extension, our veteran community,” said Butler.