Behind the Oath Keepers Charged with Sedition Are Many More Who Have Been Trained by the U.S. Military

According to an analysis of court and Pentagon records by CNN, as many as 14% of those charged with crimes related to storming the Capitol served in the military. This is double the proportion of veterans in the general American adult population.

Military members are desirable to extremist groups because they bring special skills such as experience with weapons, targeting and combat experience. According to the indictmentthe Oath Keepers used a “stack,” or staggered military formation, to breach the Capitol.

As our previous research demonstrated, the processes of radicalization in an extremist group movement is in many ways similar to military training. Those with military backgrounds possess not only the skills that radical groups seek, but also the psychological readiness for violent conflict that is rare among civilians.

The rise in radicalization within the ranks of the military can be observed in the increasing proportion of domestic terrorism acts in the U.S. involving active-duty and reserve personel, from 0% in 2018 to 1.5% in 2019 and 6.4% in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The number of Americans with military ties classified as extremists quadrupled in recent years, according to Michael Jensen and other researchers at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism center.

Recruiting Ground
An increase in radical ideology among members of the U.S. military makes it a fertile ground for recruiting by groups such as the Oath Keepers.

A 2019 poll of active-duty troops found that around 1 in 3 (36%) reported personally witnessing “White nationalism and ideologically-driven racism” among their peers. This included the use of racist language, but also swastikas drawn on service members’ cars and stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan.

This high proportion reflects a significant increase from the previous year: In a 2018 poll, 1 in 5 (22%) active military troops had reported witnessing such behavior.

Why It Matters
As well as posing a risk due to their weapons training, active and former military personnel pose a greater threat as members of right-wing militia groups. Unlike civilians, military people must take an oath, pledging allegiance to their country and the institutions of democracy enshrined in the Constitution.

When they align with groups like the Oath Keepers and plan an attack on the U.S. government, these military personnel betray their oath. This kind of hypocrisy is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable psychological state that arises when one’s actions contradict one’s self-image, causing a motivation to “double-down” to justify one’s actions. It is the reason that painful, embarrassing or humiliating initiation rites are often effective in radicalizing new members. The additional psychological cost of cognitive dissonance may mean military members of the Oath Keepers are more committed to their new allegiance after they turn away from their old one.

While the Oath Keepers wish to present themselves as the ultimate masculine alphas, some of the real power lies with the women supporting their efforts.

The number of men arrested over the Jan. 6 riot outnumber that of women. Of the 11 charged with seditious conspiracy, only one – Jessica Watkins, a former army ranger who at the time of the attack identified as an Oath Keeper – is a woman.

However, women play key support roles from behind the scenes, raising money, disseminating propaganda and even recruiting new members.

After Rhodes was arrested, Kellye SoRelle, a former attorney, was named as “acting president” of the Oath Keepers.

The hidden face of extremism is often female, as our previous research on the subject has shown. In Jihadi groups, women were crucial for fundraising, disseminating propaganda and recruiting men for the cause. Women in Jihadi organizations, like al-Qaeda recruiter Malika el Aroud, were able to shame men into participating in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On her website, minbar.sos, Aroud exhorted men to step up to prove that they were real men.

We see comparable dynamics in American right-wing extremist groups and the ways in which women weaponize toxic masculinity.

Some analysts have predicted that membership in the Oath Keepers will decline  as a result of the indictments.

But those indicted number a only a few; the real concern is that the men and women who make up the Oath Keepers’ rank and file could continue to recruit while the leaders remain behind bars.

Mia Bloom is Professor of Communication and Middle East Studies, Georgia State University. Sophia Moskalenko is Research Fellow in Social Psychology, Georgia State University. This article, originally published 27 January 2022, is published courtesy of The Conversation.