Emboldened by President Donald Trump’s campaign platform of law and order, militia groups have bolstered their strength before Election Day by attracting military veterans who bring weapons and tactical skills viewed as important to the organizations.
The role of veterans in the newly proliferating militia groups — which sometimes are steeped in racism and other times steeped simply in anti-government zealotry — has increased over the last decade, said a dozen experts on law enforcement, domestic terrorism and extremist groups.
Although only a small fraction of the nation’s 20 million veterans joins militia groups, experts in domestic terrorism and law enforcement analysts estimate that veterans and active-duty members of the military may now make up at least 25% of militia rosters. These experts estimate that there are some 15,000 to 20,000 active militia members in around 300 groups.
But gauging the size of these groups is difficult and imprecise, because much of their membership is limited to online participation. The estimates are based on samplings of militia member data gleaned from social media profiles, blogs, online forums, militia publications, interviews, assessments from watchdog groups and news reports.
At least four recently formed violent organizations were founded by military veterans, and many high-profile episodes stemming from militia groups — the killing of a federal security officer in May in Oakland, California; a thwarted plan to incite violence at a recent demonstration in Las Vegas; and the violence during a 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia — involved veterans.
Underscoring how the threat of violent domestic groups is rising with limited official oversight, the top leaders of the Department of Homeland Security directed agency analysts to play down threats from white supremacist groups, according to a whistleblower complaint released Wednesday.
While militias and other paramilitary groups have been historically hostile toward the federal government regardless of the party in power, many have turned their animus in recent months toward Black Lives Matter activists as well as local leaders who enforced restrictions to combat the coronavirus. A notable example was in Michigan, where protesters, some armed, stormed the Statehouse this spring in opposition to pandemic rules. Some have begun adopting the language Trump uses to preemptively cast doubt on the outcome of an election.