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The far right’s rise within armed forces is a global threat to democracy

The suspected involvement of soldiers and police in the US Capitol riots echoes infiltration moves by extremists in Europe.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 January 2021, 10.00am
The Capitol ambush was a low point for US democracy
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Michael Nigro/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Earlier this month, the world was shocked by the Capitol rioters’ assault on US democracy. But more chilling still is that those who swore to protect the institutions of state may have been among the attackers.

One US army captain is under investigation for taking part in the 6 January rally that eventually led to the breach of the Capitol in Washington DC, while a former marine was reported to be among the mob that descended on the building. Two off-duty police officers have been charged in connection with the riots.

In the days since the protest, the eight joint chiefs of staff, who head the four branches of the military – the army, navy, marines and air force – have taken the unusual step of reminding all serving members of the armed forces that their duty is to the constitution and the president-elect, Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, following global criticism of the FBI and police’s slow reaction to the riots, investigations into the event have accelerated, with scores of civilian suspects being tracked in relation to murder, attempted murder, assault and sedition.

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Fears of bombs at the inauguration

As protesters stormed the Capitol, improvised explosive devices, commonly known as pipe bombs, were discovered at the Republican National Committee building and the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Nobody has yet been arrested in connection with the devices, neither of which exploded, and there are fears that similar bombs may be used in efforts to disrupt Biden's inauguration on 20 January. This, combined with reports of militias plotting to descend on Washington DC, has led to a tightening of security.

This week, as Congress acted to impeach Donald Trump and the president urged his supporters to shun violence, the National Guard began to deploy 20,000 troops to the US capital. At Trump’s inauguration in 2016, there were about 8,000 troops. The Guard has been on 24-hour watch in the Capitol since last week’s violence, with off-duty members seen napping in hallways and below the statue of George Washington.

Since it is feared that potential rioters could be equipped with firearms, the army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, hasauthorised the arming of National Guard personnel. The move was originally opposed by the mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, but recent intelligence on the aims of some of the extreme militias rendered it necessary.

Infiltration in the UK and Germany

The rise of far-right views in national armed forces is not just an American problem. In 2019, it emerged that British paratroopers had used pictures of the UK's then opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for target practice. The Ministry of Defence condemned the behaviour, and the soldiers were disciplined, but not sacked

One reason why the UK extreme right-wing group, National Action, was proscribed in 2016, was an attempt by several of its key members to join the army. The UK security forces have been open about the need to counter the rise of the extreme right, which is estimated to account for a fifth of the workload of the country's 10,000-plus counter-terror personnel.

In Germany, the problem has been much worse, with the far and extreme right achieving serious penetration of the security forces. A commercial risk consultancy group, Global Risk Insights, summarised developments in a report released in October 2020:

“Suspicions about German law enforcement’s connections to right-wing extremist networks have been growing. In 2020, members of an elite German military unit were suspended as officers displayed the Hitler salute. This year also saw police officers being found to be providing right-wing extremists with the addresses of German refugees.

In June, a detective was discovered to have misused his official position and aided the right-wing extremist group NordKreuz (Northern Cross), in compiling a lengthy death list of enemies of the far right, such as journalists, politicians and activists. After searching his apartment, law enforcement discovered 50,000 rounds of ammunition including grenades, body bags and quicklime. In August 2020 alone, German police uncovered 40 cases of right-wing extremism within its ranks.”

The suspected rise of the far right among military and police forces may be exacerbated by the language and attitudes of the many authoritative national leaders. In recent years, controversial figures such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary have risen to power.

But leaders don’t have to be belligerently open in their views. If those further down the chain of command – including the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies – know that certain views are accepted, their behaviour can be influenced by that sense of security.

And after four years of such toxicity festering in the US, the situation is reaching boiling point in Washington DC; yet one more problem for Biden to deal with in the coming months.

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