After the January 6th insurrection, there were clamors for the Department of Defense (DoD) to prevent individuals with extremist views from joining the military and to identify and rid military ranks of individuals who held extremist ideologies. While an exclusionary framework may be an adequate strategy for eradicating extremism when it's identified, a superior strategy would message the benefits of diversity and inclusion to organizational cohesion and expose the incompatibility of extremism to military service. As such, military leaders could be charged to positively shape the thinking of Service members by reinforcing inclusion principles inherent in establishing effective teams. By so doing, leaders would interrupt and disrupt ideological and exclusionary frameworks misaligned with military service before extremist ideas could compel Service members to carry out extremist acts.
As Americans contemplate the events of January 6th, we recognize that there is a significant possibility that an insurrection would not have occurred, or would have been less likely to have occurred, except for the year of COVID-19. Identifying COVID-19 as a contributor to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, is not intended to obscure the role of people who peddled the false narrative of a stolen election that created the conditions for the insurrection. Without the information silos that the COVID-19 environment fostered, however, a stolen election narrative would have been unlikely to take hold and cultivate the groundswell of individuals who marched on the Capitol.
This article first explains the process of online radicalization and offers an example of how it has happened within the U.S. Army. Next, the article acknowledges and discusses the necessity of addressing threats inside our ranks, and suggests that current law and policy requires updating to best and truly serve the needs of the force. Finally, the article proposes that inclusivity is the most effective way to combat that threat.
In a pandemic-free environment, most Americans would have been more likely to encounter perspectives that differed from their own, or that contrasted with those with whom they regularly communicated. The pandemic caused limitations on social interactions, family gatherings, workplace attendance, and reduced travel, all of which placed Americans in echo chambers that reinforced and intensified their beliefs. Much of the information that Americans consumed during the pandemic came from social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok), which saw a 32 percent increase in U.S. usage in March 2020 during the start of the lockdowns.1 To better engage users, social media sites use algorithms to provide “interesting” user-content similar to or aligned with previous content with which a user has positively interacted. As such, previous user-content interactions through, for example, “likes,” “loves,” or “shares” influence what is prioritized in users' feeds. Consequently, previous “likes” or “shares” of a particular political candidate's message, or contributions to a candidate's campaign based on a Facebook advertisement, for example, are used to curate the social media experience.
Accordingly, supporters of political candidates or parties would have seen their information apertures narrowed based on their political inclinations, which could have led supporters of President Donald Trump, for example, to believe the election was stolen from him. By having less diverse media sources, or by relying on the curated feeds of social media platforms, fewer opportunities existed for Americans to disrupt and interrupt incorrect information, which, by January 6th, likely played a role in their radicalization (i.e., "the process by which people come to support terrorism and violent extremism and in some cases, then join terrorist groups").2 The radicalized behavior that we observed on January 6th indeed resembles some of the behaviors that our intelligence communities witnessed after September 11th, and during the subsequent Global War on Terror, where as many as 28,000 foreign fighters, some of whom were radicalized online, fought on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).3 A 2013 RAND study that examined the radicalization of fifteen terrorists in the United Kingdom found, similar to the men and women who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, that "the internet had been a key source of [their] information, communication, and propaganda . . . ." 4 In sum, the internet acted like an echo chamber that confirmed the existing beliefs of radicalized men and women involved in the Capitol Riot, some of whom were military personnel, and facilitated their adopting, internalizing, and acting on a political ideology to challenge the status quo.
The pandemic caused limitations on social interactions, family gatherings, workplace attendance, and reduced travel, all of which placed Americans in echo chambers that reinforced and intensified their beliefs.
Preconditions, Proximal Events, and Precipitants
Although the January 6th insurrection might not meet the definition of terrorism given that violence on that day may have been spontaneous and it was a mass participation event,5 media outlets and federal investigators have found evidence suggesting that insurrectionists were following plans and had made preparations to storm the Capitol.6 Scholar Martha Crenshaw's conceptual framework for analyzing possible circumstances that set the stage for terrorism could be used to understand how certain conditions may have led to the day's outcomes. According to Crenshaw, "factors that set the stage for terrorism over the long run," are characterized as preconditions, and proximal events, which immediately precede the terrorist act, are precipitants.7
Since the September 11th attacks, the radicalization of individuals willing to commit acts of terror at home has received significant focus. The lone-wolf attack of Major Nidal Hasan, for example, has figured prominently in conversations about what compels certain persons to act against the very people and institutions that they swore to defend. Nidal Hasan was an Army psychiatrist who, on November 5th, 2009, killed thirteen people (twelve Soldiers and one civilian) and wounded thirty-two others at a Fort Hood deployment mobilization site.8 Subsequent discussions about Hasan's radicalization focused on his increased religiosity following his mother's death, his connectedness or lack thereof to people and society, and the influence of radical Islamic scholars and the religious cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose sermons Hasan obsessively consumed and with whom Hasan interacted online.9
I compare Nidal Hasan's terrorist actions on Fort Hood with those of the insurrectionists because, similar to 20 percent of the insurrectionists charged who had served or were serving in the military,10 Hasan violated his oath to the Constitution and the insurrectionists abandoned principles they once swore to uphold. Analyzing Hasan's actions in accordance with Crenshaw's framework suggests that Hasan's increased religiosity following his mother's death and his eventual online radicalization were the preconditions that laid the foundations for his violent actions, while his unanticipated deployment orders to Afghanistan were the proximal event or precipitant. In the case of the insurrectionists, preconditions could have been partly set by an extremely divisive political climate, frustrations surrounding COVID-19 lockdowns, job losses, social isolation, and the communication bubbles or information echo chambers in which many Americans found themselves in 2020. The failure to acknowledge an election defeat, which produced a cascade or cavalcade of events designed to undo the election's results leading up to a "Stop the Steal" rally at the Capitol could be proposed as the precipitating proximal event.
extremism must be countered from the middle of the field, or the moral mid-field.
Extremism in the Ranks
Having been assigned to III Corps and Fort Hood and engaged in deployment preparation at the mobilization site days prior to Hasan's attack, I was profoundly impacted, as many Soldiers were, by the Fort Hood Massacre. Many of us assigned to Fort Hood then were somewhat concerned about potential "enemies" in our ranks rather than solely focused on our enemies abroad. A similar sentiment was felt by Service members after the January 6th insurrection because of concerns that extremists had infiltrated military ranks.11 In February 2021, to address extremism in the military, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed Service members to conduct "stand-down" training.12 The stand-down training's goals were to reinforce military values associated with Service members' oath to the constitution and to understand "our" experiences with extremism.13 I participated in extremism stand-down training as a member of the Office of The Judge Advocate General. The bulk of our "Combating Extremism Training: Impermissible Behaviors and Reporting Requirements" focused on defining the boundaries detailed in Army Regulation 600-20, paragraph 4-12b, which Soldiers should not cross lest they face "the full range of statutory and regulatory sanctions, both criminal (UCMJ), and administrative."14 During the training, I thought its purpose was to install behavioral fence posts rather than working towards actively disrupting, interrupting, or eradicating extremist beliefs from our ranks. I felt an opportunity to communicate the superiority of the Army's inclusive organizational values over extremist rhetoric peddled on social media was being missed.
I was, however, reassured by the thoughts of Lieutenant General Charles Pede, the 40th Judge Advocate General, who, during the training, noted that extremism must be countered from the middle of the field, or the moral mid-field. In his view, one with which I agreed, countering extremism was not about learning how close one could get to the boundary. Rather, combatting extremism required active engagement to dissuade extremist behavior well before any line was crossed, interrupting extremist messaging that could lead to radicalization, and replacing extremist messaging with ideas that promoted the military's ideals of respect, diversity, and inclusivity inherent in effective military teams.
As leaders, it is our duty to provide our subordinates with a better vision than the ones they receive via memes on social media. Instead of employing an exclusionary approach, success could be achieved by highlighting the merits of inclusion, which are already apparent in units large and small. The goal of leader engagement is to shift the thinking of individuals who hold extremist perspectives through immersive inclusion designed to build strong bonds that forms cohesive teams.
Returning the discussion to the information silos that influenced the events of January 6th, one recognizes that reduced access to divergent or contrary information had a contributory impact on the day. Military personnel involved in the Capitol riot likely did not receive or heed divergent messaging from military leaders, who themselves might have been concerned about violating DoD Directive 1344.10, directing members on active duty not to engage in partisan political activity, and if not on active duty, to "avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval or endorsement . . . of . . . a partisan political party, candidate, or cause."15 Consequently, leaders who were best-equipped to interrupt messaging that could lead to extremist conduct likely felt restricted from doing so.
Further, given the definition of partisan political activity as outlined in DoD Directive 1344.10 (i.e., "[a]ctivity supporting or relating to candidates [or] issues not specifically identified with, national or State political parties")16 and the fact that many social issues which are not inherently political in nature have been staked out by political parties, leaders have become more wary of addressing issues that could be interpreted through a partisan lens. One can see this reflected in the issues of, for example, support for the Second Amendment, or the Black Lives Matter movement, which are political lightning rods. The intersection between socio-political and partisan issues have restrained leaders' desires to address issues for fear that their comments could be deemed partisan. As a consequence, reduced leader engagement in subordinates' lives has created leadership vacuums in the idea arena, which are easily filled by social media.
we have to promote the military message of inclusion and teamwork so that we can disrupt, interrupt, and eradicate extremist ideologies before they take hold.
To ensure leaders do not feel unduly inhibited from providing experienced perspectives—to the extent that a partisan activity could devolve into extremism—it should be made clearer in law or policy that military leaders have the ability to refocus Service members on their responsibilities to the Constitution. The current language of DoD Directive 1344.10 is not written in basic terms that any commander or Service member can readily understand; while there should be room for maneuver, the current language is too ambiguous to provide good guidance to our leaders on their left and right limits. This ambiguity has led to the perhaps unintended consequence of stifling good and productive discussions. To ensure that our leaders better understand the parameters of discussions of socio-political issues and that a fair exchange of ideas are not perceived as partisan, the language in DoD Directive 1344.10, paragraph 22.214.171.124., should be changed from
"A member of the Armed Forces on active duty may: Register, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Armed Forces."17
"A member of the Armed Forces on active duty may register, vote, and express a personal opinion on socio-political issues, but may not specifically endorse a partisan political activity or candidate as a representative of the Armed Forces."
Additionally, the intentionally ambiguous paragraph 4.1.5. of the Directive should be deleted.18 If there are concerns about the partisan nature of certain activities, then those activities should be expressly prohibited rather than relying on the spirit or intent of the policy to limit conduct. Although DoD Directive 1344.10 is written to easily convey permissible and prohibited activities, the construction of the directive does not allow nuance, and has produced a situation where leader engagement on socio-political rather than partisan issues may be viewed as intolerable.
To combat extremism, leaders cannot cede the information space or relinquish leadership on consequential socio-political issues to social media companies. Moreover, we cannot foster an inclusive organizational environment by installing behavioral fence posts that serve to identify how far individuals can go before they go too far. Instead we have to promote the military message of inclusion and teamwork so that we can disrupt, interrupt, and eradicate extremist ideologies before they take hold. Furthermore, we must highlight the merits of inclusion and replace extremist views with the military values of respect, selfless service, and integrity. And finally, we must communicate the superiority of inclusion, echo the sentiments of cohesion, and deride ideological and exclusionary frameworks that are misaligned with military service to rid and keep extremism from our ranks. TAL
1. Consuming Media at Home Due to the Coronavirus Worldwide 2020, by Country, Statista (June 18, 2020), https://www.statista.com/statistics/1106498/home-media-consumption-coronavirus-worldwide-by-country/; Increased Time Spent on Social Media by U.S. Users During COVID-19 Pandemic 2020, Statista (Jan. 28, 2021), https://www.statista.com/statistics/1116148/more-time-spent-social-media-platforms-users-usa-coronavirus/.
2. Randy Borum, Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories, 4 J. Strategic Sec. 7, 12 (2011).
3. ISIS and the Threat from Foreign Fighters: Joint Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the Subcomm. on the Middle East and N. Africa of the H. Comm. on Foreign Affs., 113th Cong. (2014).
4. Ines von Behr et al., RAND Europe, Radicalization in the Digital Era, at xii (2013).
5. See generally Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism, 13 Compar. Pol. 379 (1981).
6. Kyle Cheney & Josh Gerstein, Feds: Evidence Shows Well-Laid Plan by Some Capitol Insurrectionists, Politico, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/20/fbi-evidence-capitol-insurrection-plan-460836 (Jan. 20, 2021, 6:22 PM). Ken Dilanian & Ben Collins, There Are Hundreds of Posts About Plans to Attack the Capitol. Why Hasn't This Evidence Been Used in Court?, NBCNews, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/we-found-hundreds-posts-about-plans-attack-capitol-why-aren-n1264291 (Apr. 20, 2021, 11:28 AM).
7. See Crenshaw, supra note 5.
8. Soldier on Soldier Attacks Fast Facts, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/04/us/soldier-on-soldier-attacks-fast-facts/index.html (June 28, 2021, 9:19 AM).
9. Katharine Poppe, Nidal Hasan: A Case Study in Lone Actor Terrorism (2018), https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/Nidal%20Hasan.pdf.
10. Tom Dreisbach & Meg Anderson, Nearly 1 in 5 Defendants in Capitol Riot Cases Served in the Military, NPR (Jan. 21, 2021, 3:01 PM), https://www.npr.org/2021/01/21/958915267/nearly-one-in-five-defendants-in-capitol-riot-cases-served-in-the-military.
12. Memorandum from Sec'y of Def. to Senior Pentagon Leadership & Def. Agency and DoD Field Activity Dirs., subject: Stand-Down to Address Extremism in the Ranks (5 Feb. 2021).
13. C. Todd Lopez, Extremism Stand Downs Focus on Oath, Not Data Collection, U.S. Dep't of Def. (Mar. 30, 2021), https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2555883/extremism-stand-downs-focus-on-oath-not-data-collection/.
14. U.S. Dep't of Army, Reg. 600-20, Army Command Policy para. 4-12b (24 July 2020).
Soldiers are prohibited from the following actions in support of extremist organizations or activities. . . . (1) Participating in public demonstrations or rallies. (2) Attending a meeting or activity with the knowledge that the meeting or activity involves an extremist cause when—
(a) Whether on or off duty.
(b) Whether in or out of uniform.
(c) In a foreign country (whether on or off-duty or in or out of uniform).
(d) It constitutes a breach of law and order.
(e) It is likely to result in violence.
(f) In violation of off limits sanctions.
(g) In violation of commander's order.
(3) Fundraising activities. (4) Recruiting or training members (including encouraging other Soldiers to join). (5) Creating, organizing, or taking a visible leadership role in such an organization or activity. (6) Distributing literature … the primary purpose and content of which concerns advocacy or support of extremist causes, organizations, or activities . . . . (7) Receiving financial assistance from a person or organization who advocates terrorism, the unlawful use of force or violence to undermine or disrupt U.S. military operations, subversion, or sedition. . . . (g) Browsing or visiting internet Web sites . . . when on duty, without official sanction, that promote or advocate violence directed against the U.S. or DOD . . . .
Id. para. 4-12 b, h(2)(g).
15. U.S. Dep't of Def., Dir. 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces paras. 4, 126.96.36.199 (19 Feb. 2008).
16. Id. para. E2.4.
17. Id. paras. 4.1.1., 188.8.131.52.
18. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, paragraph 4.1.5. provides:
Activities not expressly prohibited may be contrary to the spirit and intent of this Directive. Any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security (in the case of the Coast Guard) or any component of these Departments with a partisan political activity or is otherwise contrary to the spirit and intention of this Directive shall be avoided.
Id. para. 4.1.5.