To extremism researchers like us, there is no more interesting type of intelligence than first-person accounts from insiders or former insiders: a renounced suicide bomber, an al Qaida recruiter, or an ISIS fighter. They provide insights into the workings of terror organizations and offer new paths to their dismantling.
Today, the military is fighting extremism—including white supremacists and violent anti-government radicals—in its own ranks. In this moment it is de-radicalized former extremists—colloquially referred to as “formers”—who can provide crucial first-hand intelligence on recruitment.
For a forthcoming report, we interviewed 24 such people, whom we found with the help of Jeff Schoep. For 25 years, Schoep led the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement; he quit in 2019 after a change of heart. He now runs Beyond Barriers, an organization that helps people walk away from white supremacism, and has since worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the U.S. government, and other institutions on deradicalization efforts. In the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack, we reached out to Schoep to discuss military and police involvement in white supremacist organizations.…
Schoep said he was “surprised” that only around one in five people charged in the January 6 Capitol attack had served in the military. NSM, his former group, sought out people with military experience as members and targeted areas around military bases for recruitment. It also organized itself to appeal to veterans.
NSM “had a military structure, ranks, and positions and uniform and chain of command,” he said. “There was that regiment and camaraderie. Some of them miss that camaraderie when they get out of the military and some of these movement groups latch on to that, and the patriotism.”
Leaving the military—and its structured environment—is a big life adjustment that some don't manage easily. Groups like NSM position themselves to fill that social gap.Share on Twitter
Leaving the military—and its structured environment—is a big life adjustment that some don't manage easily. Groups like NSM position themselves to fill that social gap, Schoep said.
His former organization sought out military personnel and veterans specifically for their military training and leadership capabilities.
“We believed there would be a civil or race war and those skills were obviously valuable,” he said. “I wanted people with military experience because they were better leaders, they had more discipline, they fit better with the organization, and [they were better skilled at] molding our troops.”
Extremist groups' recruiting tactics are also more sophisticated than some might presume; they include leaflets, websites, “white power” music, radio shows, podcasts, and even video games.
In 2008, NSM began flying the Stars and Stripes in place of its German swastika flag. “USA! USA! USA!” became a popular chant at rallies. They also changed to black battle dress uniforms and they showcased their military-style border protection activities.
“That was when our recruitment picked up,” Schoep said.
He estimated that the number of military personnel and veterans grew from 15 percent to almost half of the organization.
Schoep said that if the military looks carefully, it will be able to find at least some of the right-wing extremist members in their midst. When he led NSM, he had to warn the new recruits with military ties to keep quiet about it—telling them, for instance, not to use their military email accounts or leave materials out in the open.
The excitement of new members can be a giveaway. “You feel like you have this truth; you are in the know,” he said. “They tend to give those signs off, to see if soldiers next to them will agree with it. A lot of them are easy to spot.”
Schoep said that military leaders should think twice about a zero-tolerance, swift-dismissal policy for extremists in uniform. An automatic discharge could lead to a further spiral of radicalization.
Military leaders should think twice about a zero-tolerance, swift-dismissal policy for extremists in uniform. An automatic discharge could lead to a further spiral of radicalization.Share on Twitter
“Nobody will admit it, but [life as an extremist] is very fear-based,” he said. “They feel like they are the ones on defense. They are being persecuted. If the person feels persecuted, [as happens when] guys would get fired from their jobs, [extremist groups] would use that as fuel.”
Instead, Schoep thinks there is a need for an off-ramp process to deradicalize them. “There need to be repercussions,” he said, but also some kind of counseling “where they can talk and learn and get educated. I've got a couple guys now I'm trying to introduce into the Jewish community. The guy has never met a Jewish person in his life.”
Finally, to help prevent military personnel and future veterans from joining extremist ranks, this former neo-Nazi recommends racial sensitivity training to develop cross-cultural understanding—especially for those who have never met people of other races or religions.
“Instead of taking a 'don't do this' or 'don't do that' approach,” he says, let troops “hear those human stories from people who can say, 'Racism did this to me.' That way people can feel empathy…Once you get past the dehumanization experience it is really difficult to harm that other person.”
Of course, Schoep's views represent just one “former” perspective, albeit one with deep experience in the trenches of extremist groups. As the United States moves forward with research and action, voices like his can provide an inside perspective on how right-wing extremist organizations recruit within and prey on the military and veteran communities.
Todd C. Helmus is a senior behavioral scientist, Ryan Andrew Brown is a senior behavioral/social scientist, and Rajeev Ramchand is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Defense One on March 17, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.