Liam Collins joined the Marine Corps in 2017 with the intention of recruiting other soldiers to form a paramilitary defense force, a “modern day SS,” as he wrote in the now-defunct neo-Nazi forum Iron March in 2016. “Everyone [in the group] is going to have been required to serve in a nation’s military, whether U.S., U.K. or Poland,” Collins wrote, according to a federal indictment filed in November. “It’s a goal for the long term.”

In the military, Collins was promoted to Marine lance corporal at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he served as a rifleman and earned medals including the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and a Humanitarian Service Medal, according to his personnel records. The whole time, federal prosecutors allege, Collins was a committed white supremacist intent on inciting a race war and creating a white separatist state.

In the Marines, Collins met like-minded soldiers in Jordan Duncan, a cryptology analyst, and Justin Wade Hermanson, a corporal serving in the same unit as Collins. By the summer of 2020, prosecutors say the three, along with another man, Paul James Kryscuk, were manufacturing their own silencers and fully automatic rifles and amassing an arsenal. They moved to Boise, Idaho, where they surveilled and talked about shooting Black Lives Matter protesters. “The final frontier is real life violence,” Kryscuk wrote to the group on Instagram, according to the indictment. He praised Collins for having “sacrificed the most and contributed the most for the cause. Added 3 leathernecks and got us tons of gear and training while suffering in the Corps for years.”

After the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, in which dozens of those charged had a military background, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pledged to “rid our ranks of racists and extremists.” But the nation’s first Black defense secretary will first have to contend with a deeply entrenched military culture that has long ignored the problem.

The soldiers, including 21-year-old Collins, who were indicted for illegal weapons manufacturing and distribution, illustrate how military leaders have long resisted more careful vetting during recruitment. Despite posting white supremacist views online during recruitment and after enlistment, Collins didn’t raise any red flags. He was only investigated after anti-fascist activists and journalists publicized his Iron March posts in 2019.

Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, said she and others have for decades lobbied the Department of Defense to implement basic procedures that would detect white supremacists during recruitment, such as tattoo databases and the screening of social media accounts. “They just won’t put robust screening measures in place,” Brooks said. “Looking at social media accounts, for instance, could reveal so much, as we learned recently.”

Brooks was referring to the FBI vetting the social media accounts of thousands of National Guard members providing security at the Capitol during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. At least 12 members were sent home due to security concerns because they’d posted extremist views online, the Associated Press reported, two of them about Biden’s inauguration. Some had ties to right-wing militias.

“Most people with these views, they’re hiding in plain sight,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. The indictment of Collins and his co-defendants, she said, appears to be “another classic example of the fact that the military wasn’t paying very close attention.”

The Scale of the Problem

After years of neglect, Beirich said she’s encouraged that military leaders have admitted they have a problem. “The next step is determining just how big it is,” she said. The Defense Department doesn’t track data on soldiers, like Collins, who are investigated and forced out of the military because of extremist activities. Collins was given a “premature discharge” in September, according to his personnel file, due to the “character of his service being incongruent with the Marine Corps’ expectations and standards.” Investigations and punishment are often left to commanders at the unit level, who don’t necessarily report the outcomes to military leaders higher up the chain of command.

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, in early February, Austin called for a militarywide stand-down in which commanders will be required to carve out a day to talk with their units about extremism. “One of the challenges here, and one of the reasons why he wants to do this, is we don’t know the full breadth and depth of it,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesperson, told reporters after the announcement. “It’s just not clear.”

Anecdotally, the problem appears to be getting worse. For the last four years, the Military Times, an independent publication that caters to military readers, has polled active-duty service members about whether they’ve personally witnessed white supremacy and racist ideology in the military. In 2020, 57 percent of minority troops surveyed said they had, up from 42 percent in 2017, when the survey was first conducted. The Times noted that the troops surveyed “classified white nationalism as a national security threat on par with al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and more worrisome than the danger posed by North Korea, Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Brooks said it’s not surprising to see increasing evidence of extremism, because the military reflects society as a whole. “The radicalization has grown,” she said. “You’ve got political conspiracy theorists and QAnon mixed with the more traditional hate and far-right groups who are white nationalists. It’s a dangerous mix.”

Beirich said the current climate is the worst she’s seen in two decades of tracking extremism. “White supremacy and militia groups were growing under Obama, facilitated by social media and in relation to America having its first Black president. But once Trump got in there, the ranks grew much quicker, and there were more organizations,” she said. “Now we have white supremacist militias, QAnon, ‘Stop the Steal’ supporters, MAGA supporters all together storming the Capitol.”

Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss in Washington DC, on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington, D.C., to protest Trump’s election loss on Jan. 6, 2021, culminating in an attack on the Capitol.

Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Internal Confusion

For decades, the radicalization of active-duty soldiers and veterans has been a persistent and lethal problem for the military. In 2017, Brandon Russell, a Florida National Guard member and co-founder of the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, was arrested for possessing bomb-making materials after one of his roommates fatally shot two others in their Tampa apartment. On Russell’s nightstand, police found a framed photograph of Timothy McVeigh, the Army veteran whose 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma federal building killed 168 people in America’s worst domestic terror attack.

“We know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for [the] purpose of acquiring skills and experience,” a Defense Department spokesperson told reporters after the Capitol siege, according to the Military Times. “It also brings legitimacy, in their minds, to their cause, the fact that they can say they have former military personnel that align with their extremist and violent extremist views.”

When it comes to rooting out extremists, the various branches of the military are not only in disagreement but also confused about their own regulations.

But when it comes to rooting out those extremists, the various branches of the military are not only in disagreement but also confused about their own regulations. Military investigators gave conflicting testimony during a February 2020 congressional hearing after Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., inquired about Cory Reeves, a master sergeant in the Air Force who was outed in 2019 by anti-fascist activists as a member of Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group now called the American Identity Movement. After being investigated by the Air Force, Haaland said, Reeves received a demotion and letter of reprimand but was allowed to remain in the military until outside pressure finally forced him out.

“Mere membership” in a white supremacist group is not prohibited under Air Force policy, explained Robert Grabosky, law enforcement deputy director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The OSI only investigates “active participants” in white supremacist groups, he said. The OSI did investigate Reeves because he was fundraising and organizing for Identity Evropa, but disciplinary action was left up to Reeves’s command.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, who was presiding over the hearing, was surprised to hear Grabosky suggest that the Air Force didn’t have a zero-tolerance policy when it came to white supremacy. “You’re saying active participation equals something like a tattoo, but active participation does not equal being a member of one of these extremist organizations,” she said. “I find that astonishing.”

Another investigator for the Navy argued that any expression of racial hatred was grounds for dismissal. The disagreement among the investigators illustrated one of the military’s biggest challenges, said Beirich, who also testified. “They made it very clear at the hearing that the various investigative departments don’t seem to know what their own rules are.”

Christian Picciolini, founder of Free Radicals Project and author of Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, speaks during a House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 18, 2019.

Christian Picciolini, founder of the Free Radicals Project and author of “Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism,” speaks during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2019.

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

A Global Movement

Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi skinhead who now runs a nonprofit that works to de-radicalize extremists, said the military should enforce a culture of zero tolerance from the top down. “But some in our society are still debating whether white supremacy is a problem,” he said. “If the establishment doesn’t recognize it, then the agency just isn’t there to change it.”

Donald Trump’s presidency pushed white supremacist views from the fringes into the mainstream, Picciolini said. “When I was a skinhead in the ’80s and ’90s, we didn’t have somebody powerful in office or an influencer in the media or a whole news network dedicated to what we were trying to recruit people with.”

Social media allows white supremacist groups to connect across borders, Picciolini added. The Christchurch shooter, who killed more than 50 people in New Zealand, cited Dylann Roof and Norwegian white supremacist Anders Breivik in his rambling manifesto, while the gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso invoked Christchurch as inspiration for his massacre in Texas. “These are cross-functional organizations that work with each other. They share propaganda. They share members,” Picciolini said.

All of these groups are looking to recruit members with military training, not only in the United States but also around the globe. In January, Canada’s outgoing military leader described xenophobia and violent extremism as a “serious threat,” citing a growing number of hate crimes investigations into soldiers linked to far-right groups like the Proud Boys. In February, Canada listed the Proud Boys, along with Atomwaffen Division and The Base, another violent neo-Nazi group, as terrorist organizations. And last year, Germany’s defense minister was forced to disband an elite anti-terrorism unit after it was discovered that it had been infiltrated by neo-Nazis.

“Canada is having serious problems, and Germany, of course, had to shut down an entire elite commando unit,” said Beirich. “It’s a very deep problem.”

Active-duty soldiers and veterans are especially susceptible to being radicalized, according to Picciolini. “Many of them suffer from PTSD, they’re jaded by their jobs, and maybe they’ve suffered some other loss like divorce, bankruptcy, or a death in the family,” he said. “I call these ‘potholes,’ which can lead people to these toxic movements where they are searching for a sense of identity, community, and purpose.”

A member of the US National Guard looks at his phone as he takes a break at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 17, 2021, during a nationwide protest called by anti-government and far-right groups supporting US President Donald Trump and his claim of electoral fraud in the presidential election.

A National Guard member takes a break at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2021.

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Social Media Double Standards

In early February, Speier sent a letter to Biden asking that he issue an executive order directing the military to screen the social media posts of new recruits and those seeking security clearances. Such screenings aren’t currently conducted, she wrote, not even “as part of the background investigation process for security clearances, despite the collection and reporting of other intrusive, private data, such as financial and behavioral health information.”

Military investigators need to take action, said Beirich, instead of largely relying on the media and watchdog groups to unmask white supremacists, as in the case of Collins, who was only investigated after thousands of Iron March messages, posts, usernames, emails, and IP addresses were leaked anonymously online. Vice News counted at least three users on the neo-Nazi forum as being active members of the military, and in November 2019, Newsweek identified Collins as one of them.

“What the military needs to do is create a unit of people who are experts on tracking these sites,” said Beirich. “People are being directed to join the military who come from extremist groups. So they’re going to have to be a little more proactive in stopping this.”

Capt. Casey Littesy, a spokesperson for the Marines, confirmed in a written statement that “Collins was investigated following allegations of white supremacist activities.” Littesy wrote that the Marines began a pilot program last May using the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit database to screen the tattoos of potential recruits for affiliation with white supremacy groups. The military’s use of the FBI database was recommended in a Defense Department report issued last year that examined ways to bolster vetting during recruitment. The report also considered social media screening but concluded that it needed further study because it would be difficult for “human analysts to … effectively search the Internet on the hundreds of thousands of people each year that undergo DOD background vetting.”

“We’re requiring U.S. visa applicants to turn over 10 years of their social media, but we’re not screening people who we’re going to put in programs where they learn to build bombs.”

Similarly, Littesy wrote that the Marines don’t rely on social media vetting during recruiting because it’s too complicated. “The proliferation of social media platforms, the fact that most of them do not prohibit aliases, and the ease with which a user can conceal or misrepresent their true persona online makes attempts to screen someone based on social media activity unreliable.”

Katrina Mulligan, managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, said that creating a social media vetting program could bring up a host of legal and practical concerns. Under current military policy, soldiers who are caught using racist and extremist language on social media can be penalized and kicked out of the military. But Mulligan, who has advised on intelligence policies for both the National Security Council and the Justice Department, said she worries that a vetting program could be used to target the wrong people.

“You have to be very careful about how you do this,” Mulligan said. “Because history is replete with examples of times when we have tried to go after white supremacists and ended up creating legal frameworks and structures that were then used to harm the groups that we’re actually trying to protect.”

Beirich, on the other hand, said that vetting the social media activity of potential recruits is the least the military can do. “We’re requiring U.S. visa applicants to turn over 10 years of their social media, but we’re not screening people who we’re going to put in programs where they learn to build bombs and kill effectively,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

An Overdue Reckoning

Cameron McCoy, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and military history professor at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the military’s reckoning with extremism is long overdue. But white supremacy can be as subtle as it is extreme, he said. It’s reflected in who gets promoted within the military and who has the power to make decisions and policies that make a difference for diversity. “I think the argument for many people of color who serve in the military is, ‘Why are we not represented at the top?’”

Neco Armstrong, who served 16 years in the Army Reserve, much of it working in human resources, said reports of discrimination by Black soldiers were so common in one brigade she served in that she began to track each incident in a running document, then reported the problem to the Reserve’s Equal Opportunity Office. “I told them that my unit had white supremacists in it,” she said. “But they ignored me. And there was never any investigation.”

“I told them that my unit had white supremacists in it. But they ignored me. And there was never any investigation.”

Black soldiers often received more write-ups and harsher punishments, she noticed. “It was just general harassment,” she said. “And when it came time for promotion, they didn’t advance. A lot of the soldiers ended up taking early retirement or transferred out as soon as they could.”

Army Reserve spokesperson Lt. Col. Simon Flake declined to comment on Armstrong’s specific allegations. “There is no place in the Army Reserve for disrespect or intolerance of anyone based on their race, color, creed, gender, national origin, sexual preference, or orientation,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept. “The Army Reserve is a diverse organization that takes all allegations of soldier or Army civilian discrimination seriously.”

But systemic discrimination touches everybody, said McCoy, who has spent nearly two decades in the Marines. He said he’s encouraged by the historical significance of Austin’s appointment but skeptical that a fundamental change in the military’s culture will happen anytime soon. “Obama served for eight years as president, and look where the nation still is,” McCoy said. “What I want to see from them is action,” he said of military leaders.

Seeing the Capitol overrun on January 6 by an angry mob gave him the same feeling as when he saw George Floyd killed in the streets of Minneapolis, McCoy said. “It was sickening and saddening from an emotional standpoint,” he said. “And just this fatigue from constantly the same argument, the same conversation. And we haven’t seen any tangible efforts. Joe Biden seems to be trending in the right direction, but it’s taken him 40 years to come around. Will we have to wait another 40 years?”