Virginia National Guard soldiers march across the U.S. Capitol on their way to their guard posts on January 16, 2021, in Washington, DC.

Virginia National Guard soldiers march across the U.S. Capitol on their way to their guard posts on January 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Pentagon Works to Sharpen Definition of ‘Extremism’

Review could reshape cooperation with domestic agencies, consequences for troops’ social media posts, and more.

How do you define extremism? That’s one question the Defense Department is asking itself as it works to implement the first National Strategic for Countering Domestic Terrorism, released by the White House this week.

The 32-page strategy document 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. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the strategy “a milestone” in America’s effort to combat “a serious and growing security threat.”

“While domestic law enforcement agencies take the lead, the Department of Defense will do our part to support this important strategy,” Austin said in a statement on Tuesday. “That includes maintaining the Department’s robust relationship with federal law enforcement as well as refining our policies to better address this issue within the Department.” 

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol capped a year that saw violence by homegrown terrorists, especially white supremacist, anti-Muslim and far-right anti-government extremists, hit a quarter-century high, according to recent analysis by the Washington Post

One of the Pentagon’s top priorities under the new strategy is 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.  

It’s unclear what those consequences might be. When asked whether the Defense Department might start discharging troops for belonging to extremist groups, a senior administration official said the Pentagon is considering “quite literally how they define ‘extremism’ for these purposes,” but said there would be more details when the Defense Department finishes studying the issue. 

“They are working that quite hard, both as a policy matter with the security experts and with lawyers at the Defense Department and elsewhere to ensure they’re doing this in a way they feel ratchets up the protections but also respects expression and association protections,” the official said. 

For example, the review could set policy for an instance such as if a recruit shows up to a boot camp with a tattoo that’s affiliated with a right-wing extremist group, said Colin Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group.

“Does that disqualify you? What if I got it five years ago and I regret it?” Clarke said about the kind of questions the review will study. “What if I post something to social media? What if I just ‘like’ something [on social media]?”

“There’s a lot of grey area in this space. This is an effort to make things more black and white,” he continued.

The review could also lead recruits to undergo more rigorous questioning to ensure extremists don’t make it into the military, said Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

“Maybe we should stop asking about communism and start asking about facism and racism,” she said.

It’s unclear how many extremists are in the military, but at least 50 service members are facing charges over their involvement in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 and Pentagon officials have acknowledged the problem in the ranks.

The Pentagon is also ensuring that troops who are leaving the military receive training on what it looks like to be targeted and recruited by violent extremists, according to the strategy. In addition, the government is establishing a system for veterans to report it if extremist groups try to recruit them. 

The challenge is making sure countering domestic terrorism and following through on this studies remains a focus when other priorities or crisis emerge, Clarke said. 

“If this is a top priority for [Biden], it has to stay that no matter what’s happening in the world,” he said.