Today
Sun 5 December 2021

An undercover investigation by Byline Times reveals military personnel and veterans on far-right Telegram channels, and how the far-right in the US and UK use military tropes to recruit and spread their message

“We haven’t won two world wars through talking and protesting … violence solves things!” 

So writes a man claiming to be a member of the British Army, posting on “Tommy Robinson News” – a Telegram channel devoted to far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. Undercover research by Byline Times shows how ‘Andy G’ joins other men claiming to be serving or veterans in the US and UK military personnel posting on the channel.

Our investigation comes the week Defence Secretary Ben Wallace addressed military leaders regarding a series of scandals dogging the Armed Forces. It also comes as a former green beret – a member of the US Special Forces – was arrested after accidentally revealing his illegal cache of explosives while trying to sell his home on Zillow. Jeremy Brown was a self-described “Oath Keeper”, a right-wing US militia and is serving a jail term for his involvement in the 6 January Capitol Riots.

Much of the recent conversation on the analysed Telegram channel has focused on vaccinations, with one poster who identifies as “SS” and claims to be in the British Army writing how the “military is finished” due to the high take-up of the vaccine. Another claiming to be an RAF veteran said if he had been made to take the vaccine when in service he would have left. 

A man claiming to be an army veteran posting on Tommy Robinson’s Telegram channel

‘Jack’, who claims to have been in the RAF during the late 1990s, writes how back when he was serving “white people weren’t p*****s”. A man named Richard Hogarth says he is ex-Army, but modern-day SAS “can suck my c**k” because they are “p*****s”. Andy Thomas, allegedly “a former British vet in my 30s”, responded to a photo of a beauty pageant contestant saying he and his colleagues would “smash the life outta that.”

The nature of Telegram means it is difficult to know if these men truly are military personnel, or Walter Mitty-style fantasists. What we do know is members of the armed forces have been referred to counter-extremism for far-right views. In June 2021, it was reported that 16 military personnel had been investigated since 2019 by Prevent.

An example of a man claiming to be military personnel posting on Tommy Robinson’s Telegram channel

In 2018, Yaxley-Lennon posted a video where he was flanked by trainee soldiers singing his name. That same year, Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen was jailed for his involvement in the banned far-right group National Action. In 2019, serving army soldiers showed an anti-left sentiment when they used a picture of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for target practice.

Meanwhile, the far-right terrorist advocate The British Hand encouraged his followers to “hide their political views in order to enlist in the military”. The 15-year-old leader and one other member of the group appeared to be in the Army Cadets, with another member mentioning the Cadets as a place where he found friends who had similar political views to his own.

In France, police foiled a far-right plot to overthrow the Government that had succeeded in enlisting army officers, while in Germany an entire commando unit was disbanded due to its endemic far-right culture. 

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Join the Militia!

The attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 threw the spotlight on the Oath Keepers, a well-established militia group infamous for vigilantism. Group members pledge to resist if the Federal Government imposes martial law, invades a state or takes people’s guns – all notions linked to extremist right-wing conspiracy theories. 

A leak of its 35,000 strong membership revealed that at least 133 members of the Oath Keepers had US military email addresses – meaning they are serving military personnel. A previous leak of the 25,000 registered members between 2009-2015 put the numbers of those with military links much higher – with two-thirds having a background in the military or law enforcement. About 10% were found to be on active duty.

Another military presence at the Capitol in January was the Veterans in Defence of Liberty – an organisation run by shadowy radical-right network Council for National Policy (CNP) member Dr Scott Magill. CNP’s membership includes radical-right actors, donors and Trump allies.

Magill emailed his “fellow warriors and friends” to answer Trump’s “clarion call” and to “not concede.” He argued that “we are in an undeclared civil war.”

This civil war is sometimes code-named “boogaloo” on far-right channels. Byline Times looked at groups with Boogaloo-related names on Gab – a social network notorious for hosting far-right content – to find they share far-right and Nazi memes, anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, fantasise about violence and praise formerly fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal. 

One post appeared across two groups and purported to be a quote from a Turning Point USA meeting. It featured a person asking “when do we get to use guns” against the Government, which it accuses of stealing elections. 

Military structures have long been attractive to far-right or fascist movements. Groups like the Oath Keepers using militaristic structures, costumes and language. In the UK, the pseudo-military outfit the British Street Commandos (BSC) calls its members Commanders and Captains. It was set up by former English Defence League leader Tim Ablitt.

The British Hand also used militaristic language to recruit followers. One post shared on social media featured a soldier aiming a rifle, with the caption “this is how real men take the knee”. According to HOPE Not Hate, “enlisting in the Army is a frequent topic of discussion, with two members saying they have concrete plans to do so”. As per the veterans on Telegram, some British Hand members argue that the Army does not represent them anymore. However, “they agree on the view that the Army can teach them useful skills.”

These men enact a fantasy of militaristic violence. Crucially, these are movements that work within a military set up precisely because the modern thought-architecture of fascism focuses on preparation for a global ethnic war. 


The ‘Gloo’ of Big Data

The leak of 2009-2015 Oath Keepers membership data helped to reveal how men entered the militia. The number one gateway, according to analysis by Mother Jones, was Facebook, with variants of the platform’s name mentioned in almost 1,000 entries. Mother Jones points out that, while there are questions to be asked about Facebook’s role in radicalisation, the prominence in the list “could simply be a reflection of their prominent role in the flow of information.”

There is growing concern that radical-right organisations are using big data to target military families with their messaging. While these organisations are not far-right or blatantly fascist, they use data to target anti-Democrat, pro-right wing views to military personnel. 

Central to this strategy is Gloo, a data platform that has been accused of targeting the vulnerable and mentally ill in order to recruit them to US mega-churches which they can then monetise with donations. Gloo is linked to both the radical-right Koch Foundations and to disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica. Its Board’s Chair is Intel’s Pat Gelsinger.

A Koch Foundations-funded charity commissioned Cambridge Analytica and Gloo to build a software platform that could be used by churches in order to target vulnerable people. The man who commissioned Cambridge Analytica and put money into Gloo is a member of the CNP.

Gloo partners with an organisation called Cru, which runs a military mission. The latter describes its vision as seeking “God’s help in facilitating movements throughout the global military community so that everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus.”

The partnership involves an app “designed to help military members grow in their faith and stay connected to God’s people”. The app enables Gloo to harvest data on military personnel – which its clients can then target with their religious-right messaging. 

Gloo’s focus, academic Brent Allpress told Byline Times, “is on vulnerable active service individuals suffering from deployment and relationship stress, depression, anxiety and PTSD.”

“They have an active veterans programme,” Allpress expanded. “This is a cause for concern given the rise of extremism amongst highly trained veterans. The events on 6th January involved radicalised veteran groups. Any potential links between those organisations and Gloo operations should be investigated.”

While the short-term goal is to monetise the data to increase far-right wing church wealth and membership, the longer term goal according ​​to special adviser to the UK Parliament on disinformation and co-director of the documentaries Dis/Informed and People You May Know, Dr Charles Kriel, is to identify them so they can be “recruited into the politics of the far-right.”

According to Allpress, who has worked with Kriel on People You May Know, “the explicit ideology of Gloo partner Cru Military is Dominionist. God’s soldiers, Crusaders. Cru is a truncation of Crusade. The mission describes Roman Generals who conquer territory and then take on a Governing role.”

“This absolutely aligns with the politics of white Christian nationalism,” Kriel told Byline Times. “And the optics couldn’t be worse. Recruiting and geotracking the military in the field through an organisation and app named for the Crusades? It’s a very bad look.”

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