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Rising threat of US veterans involved in terror activities

New Delhi, Jan 6 (IANS) A growing number of army veterans in the United States are committing criminal acts motivated by extremist views, new research reveals and suggests getting ahead of the problem by sensitively handling an entire generation of veterans who worked in an atmosphere of Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The research was conducted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. Its latest report "identifies 458 people with military backgrounds who were either arrested, charged, or indicted after committing criminal acts that were motivated by extremist political, economic, social, or religious goals since 1990".

Of them, the study gives the break-up of 107 veterans and 11 others with military ties: " active-duty Marine, two Army Reservists, two Army National Guard members, two Marine Reservists, two Civil Air Patrol Cadets, and one member of the Army and one member of the Air Force who enlisted after January 6, 2021."

An alarming statistic is that the average number of people with military backgrounds engaging in extremist criminal acts has gone up from 6.9 to 17.7 per year. The report anwers why: "And why? We just concluded the two longest wars in US history, unsatisfactorily, in two Muslim-majority countries in a hyperpolarized moment in American history. So those underlying factors are not going away."

The gravity of the problem of extremism among veterans struck home when it was realised that, to quote a terrorism expert, "they account for 15 per cent of the people (99 veterans) charged so far in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol - and that those charges figure heavily in the 350 per cent increase in extremist-related crimes committed by veterans in the past decade".

The Pentagon has begun serious vetting of all American troops for insider threats. Simultaneously, there is an equally serious effort at "pre-prevention".

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who runs American University's Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, said: "We focus on the rhetorical strategies and narratives of persuasive tactics that extremist groups and propaganda use to try to recruit people. And then we design, in the lab, interventions that we test to see if we can interrupt those processes at the really early stage. I's not even deradicalization or disengagement, but how do you prevent people from being persuaded by some of those extremist rhetorical strategies."

The idea is catching on because it has to do with telling the troops at the training level itself about the possible dangers that await them while on counter-terrorism duty.

Shawn Turner, a senior advisor at the Department of Veterans Affairs, was quoted as suggesting: "It needs to be baked into the training. From the time that someone enters military service, we need to approach this issue with an understanding that whether it is while they're on active duty at one of our major bases around the country or whether it's during that time in their transition, or after they are out of the military-at every point of their career, they are in some way vulnerable to the rhetoric of these groups."

It simply means that those entering the service need to be screened for extremist views so that the services do not provide military training to those intent on harming their countrymen. Secondly, Commanders need to be made aware of extremist behaviour so that they might recognize it and learn to confront it. With regard to veterans, the questions to be asked include whether veterans are specifically targeted for recruitment by terrorist groups because of their military experience, whether any trauma they endured in service was left untreated making them susceptible to extraneous ideological pressures, and whether some veterans are predisposed to extremist or terrorist beliefs because they are more tolerant of violence than the general population.

The START researchers are looking at ways of turning the anti-radicalisation training a long-term program. This is because they found that the time gap between when someone leaves the army and when they take to the path of extremist crime is 10 years.

So, the training has to go on beyond the period of military service. Importantly, the researchers suggest an action plan to help veterans back out of any extremist interactions or behaviour they have acquired since leaving the service. "We need to create an environment where people who want to leave conspiratorial or extremist movements can do so. They can find another veteran to help pull them back into prosocial behavior. Now, this requires resources, but it's an essential part of this overall risk mitigation strategy."

At the operational level, Pentagon has suggested a "continuous vetting" of all defense personnel to "spot extremists and other insider threats, with surveillance of their public social-media postings". Hitherto, the retiring personnel went through a routine security-clearance process that featured a basic investigation into their current backgrounds, political and ideological. However, no follow-up probes were planned for five or more years. As a result, when surveillance threw up information about an extremist activity by a veteran, it came as a surprise.

The Pentagon has also come out with a strategy document that "directs the government to increase information sharing among agencies and the private sector, work more closely with community partners to stop recruitment, including via social media, and stop domestic terrorism attacks from happening", according to military issues specialist, DefenseOne.

As a result, a key priority of the Pentagon under the new strategy is continuously "updating its definition of what it means for uniformed troops to engage in 'prohibited extremist activities', as well as what consequences civilians or contractors could face for participating in such activities".