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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to