National Opinions

We’re training our own insurrectionists

Clint Watts is a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and president of Miburo.

Sprinkled through the 48-page indictment of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 others for their alleged role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol last year is terminology I learned as a U.S. Army infantryman. According to the indictment: Oath Keepers used a “stack,” a formation designed to breach a building or room, as they entered the Capitol. The group prepared a “QRF”— quick reaction force — in Virginia and conducted a “recce,” or reconnaissance, to Washington for their operation that fateful day. They organized “military style basic” training to get recruits “fighting fit for inauguration,” and Florida members participated in “unconventional warfare” training.

While I learned these terms and tactics with the express goal of defending my country, Rhodes and his Oath Keepers, according to the indictment that charges the 11 with seditious conspiracy, used them in pursuit of overthrowing it. The Oath Keepers logo looks a lot like the black-and-gold half-moon shape of the Army Ranger Tab - what soldiers receive for completing Ranger school - and the lingo they allegedly used in encrypted communications channels as they coordinated preparations has military origins. Alongside military terminology and doctrine, those reviewing Thursday’s indictment will find a group seeking armament and transport - purchasing night vision goggles, rifles and assault weapons, and planning transportation and escape routes.

None of this is coincidence; many of the Oath Keepers present at the Capitol were military veterans. The U.S. government is unintentionally training its own insurrectionists - providing the specialized and strategic-thinking skills needed to carry out an insurrection with any hope of success.

Rhodes himself, who apparently remained outside the Capitol during the attack, is a former Army paratrooper. Jessica Watkins, who led the Oath Keepers’ Ohio contingent on Jan. 6, joined the group’s main stack formation that breached the Capitol and was named in the Thursday indictment, is also an Army veteran. Edward Durfee Jr., a former Marine and leader of the Oath Keepers northern New Jersey region, was, like Rhodes, outside the Capitol during the insurrection but was not named in the indictment. Another Oath Keeper in Washington that day but not charged in connection with the attack, Alaska State Rep. David Eastman, is a U.S. Military Academy graduate who served in the military police battalion in Anchorage. He was called on to resign by some fellow U.S. Military Academy graduates after his Oath Keepers membership was revealed.

The Oath Keepers’ military veterans were not the only former and active military present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Air Force veteran Larry Brock Jr. was photographed inside the Senate chamber wearing a tactical vest and helmet and gripping plastic handcuffs. Days before, Brock posted on Facebook about a second civil war, referring to his military oath to defend against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” Jacob Fracker, an infantry rifleman in the Marines who deployed to Afghanistan twice, is accused of storming the Capitol. A psychological operations officer and an Army Reserve sergeant in the 174th Infantry Brigade and Navy contractor who obtained a secret security clearance were also present.

[Alaska Rep. Eastman, a ‘life member’ of Oath Keepers, blasts ‘politically driven indictments’ of group’s leaders]

International military coups have occurred many times over the past century, and at the moment, I still do not worry about one coming from within our current force. But what about America’s former military and law enforcement members? Long before the insurrection were violent extremist attacks from former Army members Timothy McVeigh in the heinous 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Eric Rudolph in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and Kevin Harpham in his failed IED plot at a 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash. Fears of extremists using military training and skills in violence and terrorism arose in a Department of Homeland Security warning in 2009 before vanishing amid political pushback.

Some have claimed the events of Jan. 6 were not a coup attempt but a largely peaceful protest or even a false flag. The Thursday indictment, however, alleges in some detail how the Oath Keepers prepared to carry out terrorism — violence in pursuit of political change — unlike anything the United States has witnessed in recent history. Never in two decades working on international counterterrorism did I encounter in research or in person an armed al-Qaeda or Islamic State cell that came close to breaching the halls of the Capitol or killing the vice president or members of Congress — a possible outcome that has to be taken seriously since numerous members of the Capitol mob and those who planned for the day said that part out loud. In a post on Nov. 10, 2020, titled “Call to Action! March on DC, Stop the Steal, Defend the President, & Defeat the Deep State,” Rhodes wrote that on Nov. 14, the Oath Keepers militia would be “sending some of our most experienced LEO [law enforcement officers] and military combat veterans into D.C. … and in the days to come.” Rhodes called on “all our LEO, military, Fire, EMS, and search and rescue brothers and sisters nationwide” — those who would be “eminently capable if things turn physical.”

[For Oath Keepers and founder, Jan. 6 was weeks in the making]

The problem of domestic extremists relying on military training, tactics and knowledge is bigger than the Oath Keepers. Take the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). The Wolverine Watchmen militia charged in the plot conducted firearms training and combat drills in preparation. Constitutional Sheriffs, whose members are drawn from the ranks of current law enforcement officers, some of whom reportedly have ties to extremist groups, may or may not enforce the laws. The military and law enforcement, two essential stalwart institutions of a strong democracy, have been gravely challenged in the era of Donald Trump. The Justice Department’s new charges against the Oath Keepers simply add some of the most alarming details yet to the deeply troubling picture of the political instability that has manifested in this country.

The Defense Department apparently worried about being dragged into the appearance of a coup on Jan. 6, in the aftermath of the National Guard’s deployment during the previous summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Had troops shown up more quickly to the Capitol, the National Guard most likely would have come face-to-face with fellow soldiers who also served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, in recent weeks, we’ve seen Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seeking to rid the military’s ranks of extremists, but the military’s response is lacking clarity about which groups should be deemed extremist and what behavior might be considered incitement to violence or dangerous.

Unlike in the case of international terrorism, where the U.S. State Department designates foreign terrorist organizations so that the Justice Department can then preemptively pursue investigations based on affiliations, no such designation process exists for domestic terror groups; there’s nothing similar to provide the basis for policing extremism in our own country or in the military’s ranks.

At the moment, extremist groups like the Oath Keepers are not trying to overthrow the government violently — they’re trying to take it over at the ballot box. Oath Keepers have been running for local offices in states like New Jersey and New York. Members of the far-right group the Proud Boys, white supremacists and neo-Nazis are running in elections, too. What is extreme when extremists are in power?

And what needs to happen now? In a less-talked-about move this week, the Justice Department stood up a unit focused on countering domestic extremism. But if members of Congress continue claiming those who participated in last year’s insurrection were peaceful when they were clearly not, or if those elected to office are members of the same extremist groups participating in insurrections, the silent majority will be overtaken by a violent minority.

The federal government must decide beyond cases at the individual level which ideologies and corresponding groups conducting or advocating violence to overthrow the government - in plain sight - are domestic terror groups. And only in the face of consequences will we see domestic terrorists and those inciting them curb their activity. If the evidence of extremist violence is available openly on social media, we must allow our federal investigators to preemptively open inquiries into organizations clearly intending to overturn democratic processes and overturn institutions. Both of these changes require Congress to pass legislation and the Justice Department to update regulations. If such changes are not made, we should not be surprised if the next insurrection succeeds in effectively ending our democracy.

Originally published by The Washington Post.

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