STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. Federal prosecutors in New York City revealed earlier this week that a United States Army private, 22-year old Ethan Phelan Melzer, conspired to release classified information to a neo-Nazi group called Order of Nine Angles (O9A). The charges against Melzer, released in an indictment, allege that the self-described ‘traitor against the United States’ provided O9A, a group motivated by Satanic and white supremacist views, with specific data about his unit that would enable his fellow soldiers to be ambushed.
The information included the unit’s movements, where it would be based, and its military capabilities. O9A is believed to be based in the United Kingdom and has links to both neo-Nazi groups such as the Atomwaffen Division and The Base. Its members primarily communicate using encrypted apps like Telegram. In another example of the merging of violent ideologies, members of O9A have expressed admiration for jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and their longtime leader, Osama bin Laden.
The case of Melzer underscores the violent and transnational nature of the white supremacy movement, as a U.S. military member passed information to a UK-based violent extremist group. Details of the indictment reveal that Melzer sought to help arrange a deadly attack on his own unit that, he hoped, would spark a broader conflagration and ignite a ‘new war’ that involved mass casualties.
Melzer’s since-released messages show a proclivity for accelerationist ideas of bringing about society’s collapse. Accelerationism is popular among neo-Nazi groups, violent white supremacists, and anti-government movements including the so-called “Boogaloo Bois”. Many of these groups and movements have exploited the panic and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to promote their own ideologies and conspiracy theories through propaganda and disinformation.
More recently, there have been attempts by these same actors to take advantage of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, with a goal of capitalizing on the demonstrations and civil unrest to bring about chaos and anarchy.
Over the years, the U.S. military has remained vulnerable to infiltration by a range of extremists, including violent white supremacists. Last fall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Jarret William Smith, an American soldier based at Fort Riley in Kansas, for his role in a plot that sought to attack the media organization CNN. Before he was arrested Smith was planning to travel to Ukraine to train with the Azov Battalion.
Brandon Clint Russell, one of the founding members of the Atomwaffen Division, was also a member of the Florida National Guard. Christopher Hasson, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-identified white nationalist, planned to attack journalists, Democratic politicians, and other high-profile individuals he classified as ‘leftists.’
The United States is not the only country facing this challenge, as the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Canada, and other countries are also on high alert for extremists within their ranks. Patrik Mathews, formerly a combat engineer in the Canadian Army Reserves, was one of several members of The Base, arrested for planning an attack on a January 2020 rally in Richmond, VA. A recent recording of The Base’s leadership conducting interviews of potential recruits, some of them based in Europe, indicate that a deliberate recruitment strategy of the group was to target western military personnel for their ability to transfer tactical knowledge.
By joining the military, aspiring terrorists and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists can gain training and experience which can later be used to conduct political violence. The U.S. military has devoted more resources to screening for potential extremists, with other soldiers tasked with examining tattoos or other outward signs of affinity for racial, ethnic, or religious extremism.
But for individuals who specifically join with the intent of acquiring firearms and other specialized weapons training to be used for nefarious purposes at a later date, it is nearly impossible to discern intent, especially of those determined to avoid suspicion and remain under the radar. In other cases, U.S. military veterans join these groups after they are already in the military, or in some cases after they have been discharged.
This was the case for some Atomwaffen members who were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a long and complicated history between the U.S. military and far-right extremism, with numerous high-profile white supremacists and anti-government militia members claiming veteran status. Following the Vietnam War, white supremacist groups received an infusion of former soldiers, some with significant combat experience, including former members of Special Forces (TSC).