The Oath Keepers Wanted a Coup
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
As published in Homeland Security Today
“The Oath Keepers were absolutely attempting a coup,” affirmed the group’s former national spokesperson (in his words: propagandist), Jason Van Tatenhove, at a virtual event held by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) on June 24, only a few weeks before he is scheduled to appear before the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Not only that, former President Trump – through Roger Stone, Trump’s operative – was actively courting militia groups like the Oath Keepers in order to keep Trump in power, he said.
Indeed, Jason would know, having the unique experience of associating with, sometimes sympathizing with, but never fully agreeing with the now-notorious violent extremist group. In 2014, the then-independent journalist became interested in covering the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, where sovereign citizens were anticipating a repeat of Waco or Ruby Ridge. Jason, who saw himself as a libertarian anarchist, embedded himself with Stewart Rhodes, the Yale-educated lawyer and former U.S. Army paratrooper who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, purporting the group to be “defenders of the Constitution.” When Rhodes offered Jason a job as the group’s national spokesperson, Jason was drawn to the prospect of both reliable employment and adventure. He also relished the sense of significance he gained when he saw just how many hundreds of thousands of people were reading the articles he wrote on behalf of the group. Although he said he never became an official member, Jason saw his association with the Oath Keepers as a bit of a rebellion against his “leftist” upbringing amongst artists in New Jersey and Colorado, even though associating with the group also meant hiding his identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Over the years, however, Jason became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with what he saw as the group’s sharp turn away from libertarianism and toward extremism, saying that when the Oath Keepers “started courting the alt-right, [Richard] Spencer, the actual Nazis, Proud Boys, I just couldn’t do it.”
Jason left the Oath Keepers in 2018 but kept a close eye on the group, including inadvertently when he allowed Rhodes to live in his basement for eight months. While inside and out of the group, Jason noticed much of what we at ICSVE have similarly found in our research. First, he recognizes the immense role that conspiracy theories and disinformation played, particularly those spread online and by Alex Jones, in recruiting vulnerable individuals and turning them into true believers. Many of those recruited were active and former members of the military and law enforcement, a statistic upon which the Oath Keepers pride themselves. For example, in 2021, a list of Oath Keepers members revealed more than 200 people who identified themselves as active or retired law enforcement officers. At the time the list was discovered, 21 were active members of law enforcement, and 23 were active when they joined the Oath Keepers but had retired in the years since. These people swore to protect the United States and its Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but joined an armed anti-government militia, nonetheless. And on January 6, 2021, many of them violently attacked the Capitol in order to obstruct the lawful counting of electoral votes and keep then-President Trump in power – they attempted a coup. In January 2022, Rhodes and 10 other members of the Oath Keepers were arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy on that day. In June, Rhodes and eight of his co-defendants were the subject of an amended indictment alleging that they “coordinated to use force to combat the federal government’s authority.” This revelation comes soon after documentary footage revealed during the first Select Committee hearing depicted the Oath Keepers moving in military-style formations during the riot as well as Rhodes meeting with the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, prior to the riot.
Jason was unsurprised by the Oath Keepers’ actions on January 6, confirming that the group did indeed intend to keep President Trump in power by any means necessary. “We saw them in a stack formation going up the Capitol steps on January 6 during an actual insurrection coup attempt,” Jason told the ICSVE audience. In fact, he stated during ICSVE’s virtual panel that if the group were led by a “true believer” rather than the rather disorganized Rhodes, who appears to be primarily focused on making money, they might have succeeded. Why would active military and veterans agree to be a part of a group so antithetical to the Constitution they swore to defend? In ICSVE’s research with 50 current and former members of white supremacist violent extremist groups (not including Jason), we identified four reasons why violent extremist groups recruit military members:
- Military members can provide weapons and tactical training, as well as access to weapons and potentially to military intelligence.
- Military members bring a sense of discipline and structure to the ranks of a violent extremist group, whose other members may be more interested in drinking and picking fights rather than achieving lofty goals.
- Having military members in one’s group lends it an air of legitimacy and rationality in contrast to disorganized skinheads or notoriously violent prison gangs.
- Military members allow violent extremist groups to paint themselves as patriotic. Rather than openly disavowing the Constitution, groups like the Oath Keepers can portray themselves as protecting America’s “pan-European” heritage against immigrant invaders or Jewish cabals.
Of course, simply wanting to recruit military members is only one side of the coin. Our research also revealed four primary reasons why military veterans, and law enforcement for that matter, might be attracted to violent extremist groups:
- Veterans often feel a void of camaraderie after leaving the military and may seek out a sense of community and brotherhood, which violent extremist groups can provide them.
- Some veterans may feel aggrieved toward the government for not offering them the necessary support that they need to succeed in civilian life and may therefore be willing to fight against the government. Additionally, Jason and an event attendee both noted that the lack of mental health support for veterans in the United States can leave some with unfulfilled existential needs, such as those for significance, meaning, purpose, and dignity, all of which are offered by violent extremist groups.
- Others who are not angry at the government may see far-right violent extremist groups that portray themselves as patriotic as an opportunity to continue fighting for the noble cause of defending America’s heritage and culture.
- Some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress may also feel that joining such a group would allow them to continue to have a sense of discipline and structure in their lives, as well as to be a part of a group in which drinking and violence are the norm, allowing them to dull their post-traumatic stress symptoms and to associate with others who also feel stuck in a combat role.
Jason confirmed the same from his own close encounters with military special forces, active duty and vets who joined and trained group members for insurgency against the federal government. For all of the above-named reasons, far-right violent extremist groups, particularly the Oath Keepers, have been committed to and successful at recruiting current and former law enforcement and military members into their ranks to train and perhaps turn against the government they pledged an oath to protect. As a result, explains Jason, they were horrifyingly close to successfully enacting a coup on January 6. Surely, Jason’s testimony will reveal a great deal more about the mindset of members of the Oath Keepers, but we can be certain that this is not simply a problem of the past: The Oath Keepers, and whatever groups follow, have learned from their mistakes and are liable to try again.
Watch Jason warn of the dangers of conspiracy theories and groups like the Oath Keepers here:
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, and Ellenberg, Molly (June 27, 2022). PERSPECTIVE: The Oath Keepers Wanted a Coup. Homeland Security Today
About the Authors:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, violent extremists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 270 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab). She, with ICSVE, has also developed the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing over 50 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, UN Women, UNCTED, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, Journal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few. Her academic publications are found here: https://georgetown.
Molly Ellenberg is the Facebook Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. Her research focuses on radicalization to and deradicalization from militant jihadist and white supremacist violent extremism, the quest for significance, and intolerance of uncertainty. Molly has presented original research at NATO Advanced Research Workshops and Advanced Training Courses, the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, the GCTC International Counter Terrorism Conference, UC San Diego Research Conferences, and for security professionals in the European Union. She is also an inaugural member of the UNAOC’s first youth consultation for preventing violent extremism through sport. Her research has been cited over 100 times and has been published in Psychological Inquiry, Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, AJOB Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, Women & Criminal Justice, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.