Marine Corps veterans Daniel Harris, left, and Joseph Morrison recently served and were key leaders in the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of white nationalist organizations reached an all-time high in 2019, at 155 different groups with a national presence, compared with only 67 in 2000. All extremist murders tracked by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2018 were primarily motivated by or had links to white nationalist ideology. In a 2019 poll of active-duty military members, 36 percent reported that they have seen signs of white nationalism within the military, up from 22 percent in 2018. Yet, U.S. military leaders continue to be hesitant to confront the issue.
There are Department of Defense campaigns to combat sexual assault, alcohol abuse, suicide, and domestic violence. Servicemembers receive regular training on how to spot foreign intelligence services trying to recruit them and signs of an insider threat. But aside from public relations statements when servicemembers are exposed as white nationalists, there is no acknowledgment of a growing movement actively looking to recruit servicemembers and veterans. Racially motivated disinformation has spread across sites used by more than 90 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Junior servicemembers are the prime targets for such propaganda, and thanks to ever-sophisticated algorithms and the addictive nature of social media itself, white nationalist recruiters can overwhelm a captive audience with crowd-tested racist propaganda. Without clear messaging or training on the topic, servicemembers can be susceptible to these recruitment campaigns.
White nationalist recruitment campaigns have had increasing success within the military. In May 2017, two Marines were arrested in North Carolina for trespassing after attempting to affix a large banner with a white supremacist slogan to a public building. After the August 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, two Marine veterans involved with organizing the white nationalist groups (including one who had been a Marine Corps recruiter less than nine months prior) were arrested and charged with felony assault. A third Marine, an active-duty lance corporal, was arrested after he appeared at yet another white nationalist rally in Tennessee in October 2017. After an investigation, it was revealed that the same lance corporal had participated in violence at Charlottesville and bragged about his actions online. In February 2019, as federal authorities arrested avowed white nationalist and Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson on drugs and weapons charges, another Marine Corps lance corporal was investigated after media reports linked him to a racist Twitter account, which had shared content from white nationalist organizations. In April 2019, a Huffington Post investigation into leaked Discord chat room transcripts linked 11 servicemembers—including one active-duty lance corporal and two Marine reservists—to Identity Evropa.
Even as racial justice protests swept the nation in the spring and summer of 2020, an Air Force staff sergeant was arrested for the murder of a Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputy and later was revealed to be motivated by the “Boogaloo” movement, a decentralized white nationalist ideology that hopes to inspire a civil war in which the white race will emerge victorious. Shortly after the staff sergeant’s arrest, the Department of Justice unsealed its indictment of an Army private who had conspired to send classified information about the 173d Airborne Brigade to a Neo-Nazi group, with the explicit intent to aid them in planning a violent terrorist attack against his own unit. Less than two months ago, federal and Michigan state authorities arrested 13 men who had planned, in association with a local right-wing militia and other Boogaloo groups, to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and launch an armed attack on the Michigan State Capitol building. Two of the men were later confirmed to be Marine veterans, one of whom had been discharged from service in the Marine Corps Reserve less than a week prior to his arrest.
None of this activity occurred in a vacuum, and military leaders cannot say they were not warned. In August 2019, retired Marine Corps General John Allen declared in a Washington Post article what many independent civil rights watchdog groups had been saying for years: White nationalist terrorism is an equal threat to the U.S. mainland as ISIS. In early 2020, the FBI followed suit, ranking white nationalist terrorism as a “national threat priority” on equal footing with ISIS in its danger to American citizens. This year, white nationalist activity has been confirmed in civil rights protests in Minnesota, Virginia, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., and in many cases law enforcement has observed a pattern of white nationalists attempting to incite violence at otherwise peaceful protests.
But military leaders have been reluctant to explicitly acknowledge this problem. Banning the display of Confederate flags on military bases in summer 2020 was a tacit acknowledgment that the Pentagon is aware of the problem, but there is no unified message addressing the most dangerous terrorist threat on American soil. This reluctance is sadly similar to the persistent refusal to acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks until forced to do so after the landmark 2012 documentary The Invisible War. Less than five years later, military leaders were again supposedly shocked by the Marines United scandal, despite the fact that the group had more than 30,000 members in an organization of fewer than 200,000. As our military enters the third decade of the 21st century, ignoring a growing white nationalist problem is only escalating the danger to our personnel and to the country we are sworn to defend from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.
Less than 50 years ago, Camp Pendleton, California, hosted Ku Klux Klan meetings, and less than 40 years ago, Marines were photographed in Klan uniforms at a white supremacist rally. History has not been kind to those who chose to ignore those shameful episodes, and it will not be kind to current military leaders if they choose to remain silent about today’s greatest domestic terrorist threat. We must seize the opportunity to fight this enemy. Many options exist to begin the battle, and the only wrong choice is a failure to confront this issue with every resource at the military’s disposal. White nationalism cannot be allowed to further infiltrate the ranks if military leaders seek to uphold the same values as the men and women who sacrificed their lives to fight against it in World War II.