Sikh temple shootings: Extremist groups recruit from US military ranks

Investigation into the background of alleged shooter Wade Michael Page highlights practice of extremist groups to target prospects with a military background.

John Gress/Reuters
A memorial honors the six victims of a shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 7. The gunman was identified as a 40-year-old US Army veteran, and authorities are investigating possible links to white supremacist groups and his membership in skinhead rock bands. The assailant, shot dead by police at the scene on Sunday, was identified as Wade Michael Page.

Are white supremacists recruiting from within the ranks of the US military?

That question – revived by killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this week – has been the fear of civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who have warned that hate groups encourage their members to join up for training and experience that they can later use to perpetrate crimes in the United States.

A former white supremacist who now trains the US military on how to recognize racism within its ranks, T.J. Leyden says he has been brought to military installations to educate service members who are concerned about troops becoming involved with gangs and neo-Nazi activities. “They want to know how to combat it,” he says, “and what they should be looking for.”

Mr. Leyden says he was encouraged to join the US Marines after becoming a skinhead. “The older guys in the white supremacy world were talking about it all the time,” he said. “They say, ‘This is a great option – you get some training.’ ”

They also recruit from among the US military. “A lot of the major white supremacy groups, they have chapters right outside military installations,” Leyden says. “They want people with military backgrounds.”

There is little known about Page's views on race while he was in the military. An Army spokesperson said that the service is not commenting on the reasons for his dismissal from the service. “At one time he was a sergeant and did leave the service as a specialist,” says Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia. “You can generally presume there was some kind of Article 15 action that reduced him in rank.” An Article 15 is an administrative punishment less severe than a court martial.US military officials have expressed concern in the past about extremism within its ranks.The Army's Criminal Investigation Division conducts a threat assessment of extremist and gang activity among Army personnel. "Every year, they come back with 'minimal activity,' which is inaccurate," Scott Barfield, a former gang investigator for the Department of Defense, told the Southern Poverty Law Center in its 2006 report "A Few Bad Men." "It's not epidemic, but there's plenty of evidence we're talking numbers well into the thousands, just in the Army."

They are prized recruits because they have a number of traits that make them valuable in the eyes of white supremacists, Leyden says. “They follow orders, they know how to take instructions.”

They also have valuable leadership experience. “They are leaders, they think outside the box – they’re doers,” he adds. “You’re getting some of these guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’re combat vets. They know what combat’s like. You get them in and bring them in and that gives your group structure – that’s powerful.”

When he was in the Marines from 1988 to 1990, Leyden says, he recruited roughly half-a-dozen hate-group members. He told his new recruits to keep a low profile. “I’d tell them don’t get tattoos – get your training, then get out.”

He’d also tell them, “If you really don’t like it, then you can get yourself tatted up and discharged. After they got the training, ‘I’d say, then who cares if you get a bad conduct discharge? We’re going to overthrow the US government anyway.’ ”

Leyden didn’t follow his own advice. He got an “SS” tattoo on his neck and later hung a Nazi flag in his room. “The only thing my commander would say was, ‘Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you take that flag down when the CG [commanding general] comes through [for inspection]?”

He said it was not because commanders supported his racist views, but rather because they did not want to be disciplined by their own higher-ups for command failures like having a neo-Nazi in their ranks.

Leyden, who now works with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says some of his fellow Marines back in his days in the service told him to his face that they thought his extremism was "pretty horrible.”  

Today, he says, he advises commanders to remove skinheads from their ranks immediately. “I tell them, get them out, don’t give them further training,” he says. “Do not give them opportunities to become better at what they do.”

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