Radicalization in the Ranks


Project Details


This project expands the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database with information on the nexus of criminal extremism and U.S. military service. The expanded database includes 461 individuals with U.S. military backgrounds who committed criminal acts in the United States from 1990 through 2021 that were motivated by their political, economic, social, or religious goals. Findings from these data are detailed in three results sections of a report that can be accessed here.

The first section explores the scope and nature of criminal extremism in the ranks, detailing the rates of military service among criminal extremists and analyzing their military branch, ideological, and extremist group affiliations. This section also provides a closer look at the individuals with military backgrounds who have been charged with criminal offenses related to the Capitol breach of January 6, 2021.

Section two provides a closer look at risk factors for radicalization, comparing subjects with military backgrounds to those without records of military service. This section explores the rates of substance use disorders, anti-social relationships, and social mobility challenges among past U.S. service members who committed extremist crimes and situates these radicalization risk factors within the larger extremist context in the United States.

The final section of results examines the risk factors and vulnerabilities for radicalization that are unique to subgroups of criminal extremists with U.S. military backgrounds. Using hierarchical clustering methods, the results in this section show how the radicalization pathways of extremists with military backgrounds are likely to differ depending on whether individuals are active in the military at the time of their involvement in extremism or if they have military-specific risk factors for radicalization, such as previous deployments to combat zones or diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This report concludes with recommendations for policy and future research, paying particular attention to the potential benefits of applying a public health model to countering the spread of extremism in the U.S. military.

Primary Findings:

From 1990 through 2021, 461 individuals with U.S. military backgrounds committed criminal acts that were motivated by their political, economic, social, or religious goals. Subjects with U.S. military backgrounds represent a small portion (11.5%) of the broader set of extremists who have committed criminal offenses in the United States since 1990. Moreover, the majority (83.7%) of these subjects were no longer serving in the U.S. military when they committed extremist crimes. However, there has been an upward trend in recent cases of criminal extremists with military backgrounds, suggesting that extremism in the ranks may be a growing concern. For example, from 1990-2010, an average of 6.9 subjects per year with U.S. military backgrounds committed extremist crimes. Over the last decade, that number has more than quadrupled to 28.7 subjects per year.

In addition to these aggregate trends, this study finds that:

  • Approximately 15% (120 subjects) of the individuals who have been charged for participating in the Capitol breach on January 6, 2021, have U.S. military backgrounds.
  • Just over 16% (75 subjects) of the extremists with military backgrounds who committed crimes in the United States since 1990 were actively serving at the time of their offenses or arrests.
  • Approximately 78% of criminal extremists with military backgrounds served in the U.S. Army or Marine Corps, including Reserve and National Guard units.
  • Nearly half of criminal extremists with military backgrounds espoused anti-government views or were members of organized militias. An additional 33% of the subjects promoted views of white supremacy and/or xenophobia, while 10% were connected to, or inspired by, Salafi Jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
  • Radicalization processes among active service members are likely to involve risk factors related to military service, including membership in extremist cliques with fellow service members. Veterans, on the other hand, often face age-related risk factors for radicalization, such as failed relationships, unemployment, and previous encounters with the criminal justice system, as well as psychological vulnerabilities tied to their military service, including high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This project uses bivariate statistics, case illustrations, and hierarchical clustering on principal components (HCPC) to generate findings.


Project Period:

Selected Publications