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Veterans fight back against extremist groups trying to recruit ex-military members

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Top law enforcement officials say that violent domestic extremist groups are on the rise in the U.S., and they often attempt to recruit military veterans who are prized for their training while in the service. But there are also veterans fighting back, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Kristofer Goldsmith served in Iraq, and he knows firsthand how some veterans can be vulnerable when they leave the military.

KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH: I became an investigator while I was working at Vietnam Veterans of America, first looking into foreign entities targeting troops, veterans, and our families with everything from disinformation campaigns to romance scams and identity theft.

LAWRENCE: That experience led him to the dark web, where American extremist groups were recruiting military veterans. An NPR investigation found that nearly 20% of those arrested for the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol served in the military. But Goldsmith says it's harder for small-town police departments to prosecute lower-profile attacks.

GOLDSMITH: There's a very good chance that no one in their department is going to ever have the time to understand these organizations, through investigation or otherwise, enough to put the pieces together the way that we can.

LAWRENCE: We is Task Force Butler, a small group of veterans that's been investigating hate groups nationwide. The name comes from the famous World War I General Smedley Butler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMEDLEY BUTLER: The plan as outlined to me was to form an organization of veterans.

LAWRENCE: In 1934, Butler testified in Congress that he was approached by American fascists looking to overthrow the U.S. government. Today, Task Force Butler puts together dossiers on extremist groups and then sends them to state attorneys general.

GOLDSMITH: If law enforcement really wants to take on neo-Nazi organizations, we are creating courtroom-ready documents.

LAWRENCE: The most recent report released this week is on the neo-Nazi group NSC-131. It operates around New England. The group produces videos of their members in masks and hoods, demonstrating against marginalized communities...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go home.

LAWRENCE: ...And sometimes attacking people, breaking car windows and making Nazi salutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You will not replace us.

LAWRENCE: Goldsmith says he thinks a group like NSC-131 can be prosecuted under laws used to go after violent gangs, including RICO, racketeering laws. Task Force Butler's 300-page report was delivered to law enforcement in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. Goldsmith says the goal is to slow the group down before it gets even more violent.

GOLDSMITH: If none of this ends up in felony charges, that's fine. If we can get these folks to start to have criminal records, to get dragged into the light of day in a court, those costs will prevent them from being able to use their resources to go out and continue to commit hate crimes.

LAWRENCE: NPR reached out to the attorneys general of all four states. Massachusetts said it's reviewing the report. New Hampshire said the same and also noted it's already pursuing civil complaints against NSC-131.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.