Converting betrayal into mobilization for violent action: How the Oath Keepers radicalized military veterans
Courtesy US Justice Department

Editor's Note: A version of this story ran in October of 2021. It is presented here again as part of our extensive coverage of the Jan. 6 House Select Committee Hearings.

Two days before Christmas, Jeremy Brown, a retired Army Special Forces soldier, messaged his fellow Oath Keepers members in Florida on Signal that he had an RV and a van ready to travel to Washington DC for the gathering that would take place on Jan. 6, 2021.

"Plenty of gun ports left to fill," he wrote. "We can pick you up."

In a subsequent message to fellow Oath Keepers on Jan. 1, Brown referenced the RV as "Ground Force One," and described the logistics of the trip using military jargon.

"I would LIKE to depart by 0645 on Sunday morning, Jan 3rd," he wrote. "Push through to the NC linkup on the 3rd, RON (Rest Over Night) there, then push to DC on the 4th. This will give us the 4th/5th to set up, conduct route recons. CTR (Close Target Reconnaissance) and any link ups needed with DC elements."

Wearing tactical gear and carrying zip ties attached to his belt, along with a radio and surgical trauma shears, Brown took up a post outside the East Doors of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, according to a federal charging document. Metropolitan police officers advanced on the line of rioters and yelled "back" in unison. The charging document alleges that "Brown only retreated when pushed with police baton sticks" and repeatedly accused the officers of "violating the laws of the Constitution of the United States."

Brown was arrested at his home in Tampa on Sept. 30 on federal misdemeanor charges of entering a restricted area and disorderly conduct. Based on a sign posted on his door warning federal agents that they "better bring a bigger tactical package" and the fact that multiple firearms, grenades, ammunition and tactical gear recovered by law enforcement at his home, a federal magistrate ordered Brown detained as he awaited his first appearance in DC District Court.

Brown joined the Oath Keepers on Nov. 9, 2020, two days after the Associated Press and other media organizations declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. With dozens of members either facing charges or having pled guilty to offenses related to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, the Oath Keepers is the most prominent far-right group that prioritizes veterans for recruitment, including 10 charged with seditious conspiracy.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who directs the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab at American University, testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee last October that anti-government groups and white supremacists pose the greatest threat to security among domestic violent extremists in the United States. Her view is widely shared among extremism experts.

"Active-duty service members and veterans are targeted because of their tactical skills, communications training, security clearances and access to munitions, weapons and facilities, which could be useful to groups in violent actions or terrorist plots," Miller-Idriss testified. "They're recruited, in part, through extremist groups' manipulation of the values that attract many individuals to enlist in the first place related to defense of the nation or people, brotherhood, courageous heroism, and protection of an oath to the Constitution. In this way, extremist groups and movements seek to convert a sense of betrayal or anger at the government or mainstream society into mobilization to violent action that is framed as heroic defense of the 'real' or 'true' nation."

Brown has spoken at length to sympathetic far-right media — including InfoWars correspondent Brandon Gray — about his process of radicalization, including spurning an overture from the FBI to become a confidential informant, making him a hero to the Oath Keepers and their supporters. The interviews also provide insight into the role that disinformation and conspiracy theories play in preying on the unique vulnerabilities of veterans, particularly those who have served in combat roles.

The 2020 election was a signal event for Brown, who ran a brief campaign for Congress, but it wasn't the first development of that tumultuous year that propelled him towards the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Brown appears to have caught the attention of the FBI with a tweet in late April 2020. "Special Operators WANTED," it began, inviting prospects to text him at his cell phone number, and then listing various elite military units. Brown concluded, "America will NOT fall on my watch!"

Brown would later tell Gray that the tweet was his attempt "to link up with other people that had served in Special Operations or are currently in Special Operations with an intent to have lines of communications, knowing that things were getting bad.

"Remember, this was in April," he added. "This is when we started having the lockdowns."

In another tweet the following month that was cited by the Washington Post, Brown wrote: "We CANNOT rely on Politicians and to Tyrants. That is like asking a child to stop the Ice Cream Truck from selling Ice Cream. There's but one weapon against Tyranny & that is the PATRIOT!!! Start mobilizing your neighborhoods. America is under attack!"

Speaking to Gray in March 2021, Brown outlined his thinking.

"We're all in the matrix right now," he said. "We're all being told lies.

"COVID is a psychological, biological weapon against the United States to implement these control mechanisms," Brown added. "And they're using disinformation…. The news media is the psychological weapon being used against the American people."

Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq war veteran who founded the nonprofit Higher Ground Veterans Advocacy, told Raw Story that a stew of personal challenges often sets the stage for veterans to start down the path of far-right radicalization.

"I get these people because I was just like them," he said.

Goldsmith was kicked out of the military with a general discharge in 2007. He survived a suicide attempt, and struggled with homelessness for several years.

What made him a prime target for far-right recruiting was his disillusionment with the war, Goldsmith said.

Prior to his deployment, he had seen images on television of Iraqis tearing down Saddam Hussein's statue and waving American flags. His takeaway was that the Iraqis welcomed the Americans.

His first day of deployment in Baghdad's Sadr City destroyed that illusion.

"Kids were pelting us with rocks, and throwing bottles of oil on our vehicles," he recalled. "They were throwing circular saw blades at us with intent to harm. The men would be standing back and watching. They knew we couldn't respond because it was kids. That set the tone for my deployment. I became extremely disillusioned with the American government and the way politicians send kids to war. The lack of attention the war had on the American psyche: All my friends went to college and had fun. They're enjoying themselves.

"My friends and myself, we're risking our live and enduring and taking part in the worst things that human beings can do to one another," Goldsmith continued. "I came out of the military not getting the care I needed. I had just survived a suicide attempt. I was extremely vulnerable. I needed a mission and a purpose."

For many veterans, the Oath Keepers and other far-right militias offer a sense of purpose and camaraderie that they miss from their military service.

By the time he joined the Oath Keepers in November 2020, Jeremy Brown told Brandon Gray that he was already familiar with the the group's mission because he had been following them for years.

The Oath Keepers' name "comes from the very broad idea that current and former members of law enforcement and the military should keep their oath to, among other things, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Sam Jackson, an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Jackson is the author of Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group, which was published last September.

"Oath Keepers has an abnormal understanding of this oath — what it means to protect and defend the Constitution, and who counts as an enemy," Jackson added. "Through its actions and rhetoric, the group encourages its supporters to see conventional and political behavior like certifying an electoral college vote as action taken by enemies that threatens the Constitution."

The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009, following the election of Barack Obama, by Stewart Rhodes, a former US Army paratrooper who went on to earn a law degree from Yale Law School.

"When we took the oath, we'd never taken a Constitutional law class," Goldsmith said. "When we come out, we've already done the things. When your friends die, you oversimplify; it becomes like a religion." He added that for veterans the Constitution becomes "part of our identity, part of our trauma. Someone like Stewart Rhodes who went to Yale Law comes along, and it's easy to believe he knows what he's talking about. You're saying things I already believe in. Why would I doubt it?"

Goldsmith credits the antiwar movement with diverting him from the far-right extremist recruitment pipeline.

"I was conservative, and the antiwar movement exposed me at the right time to really diverse opinions," Goldsmith recalled. "I was not stuck in a right-wing bubble like I had been. At the time the Oath Keepers was formed, with rhetoric about Obama taking your guns, being exposed to the left helped me understand that people on the far right, where I self-identified, were going about things in a less-than-productive manner."

For Jeremy Brown, who was already steeped in the rhetoric of the Oath Keepers, the 2020 election was the catalyst to join.

"After the election on November 3rd I had reached a point personally where I felt, Okay, we've crossed the Rubicon on the insurgency-counterinsurgency continuum," Brown recalled in his interview with Brandon Gray. "After November 3rd, I said, 'We're in trouble with the nation.'"

Weeks after Brown joined the Oath Keepers, the contents of the group's private chats on the Rocket.chat platform were leaked by the independent outlet Unicorn Riot. Brown would later tell Gray that after the breach, he convened a meeting of the state leadership of the Oath Keepers in Florida. Brown was convinced that a more powerful actor than antifascist researchers — perhaps a "national-state" — was responsible for the breach, and he urged his fellow Oath Keepers to think of themselves as "patriots" who were "now operating as the counterinsurgency."

"So, I basically gave them a block of instructions on US Special Operations unconventional warfare doctrine, which is unclassified," Brown recalled.

During his video interview with Gray, Brown opened the document to a page showing a pyramid of escalating hostilities moving from clandestine "political violence, terror and sabotage" to armed "minor and paramilitary actions."

"Read though that pyramid, and it's going to blow your mind because it's not just an accidental happening," Brown said. "This is a long, multi-decade, projected assault."

On Dec. 4, 2020, members of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force from the Tampa Field Office showed up at Brown's house, according to a surveillance video Brown shared with Gray. One of the agents handed Brown a business card. Eventually, he emailed the agent after receiving a call on his cell phone. In an email exchange, the agent told Brown they wanted to talk to him "about some things I had posted online," according to Brown's account to Gray.

Early in December, Brown said, he met the agents at a restaurant in Ybor City.

"We just want to make sure you're not targeting anybody and nobody's gonna get hurt over the outcome of January," one of the agents told Brown, according to a recording he provided to Gray. "We just want to make sure you don't want to hurt yourself or hurt anybody else."

"Well, trust me," Brown replied, "if I wanted to hurt somebody, they'd already be hurt."

Another statement by the agent appears to confirm Brown's suspicions that the FBI was attempting to recruit him as a confidential informant.

"You, being a former guy or whatever, if you hear any stuff, like, "We're training tonight,' or, 'Some shit's gonna go down,' you calling us and letting us know, and we can prevent the next big thing," the agent can be heard saying on the recording. "I can't make any promises, but if you provide information that prevents something big, the government pays people."

FBI Tampa declined through a spokesperson to comment on Brown's assertion that the agency attempted to recruit him as a confidential informant.

Despite the fact that he had attempted to recruit other elite military veterans while warning that America was in peril at the outset of the pandemic and that he had advised Oath Keepers on counterinsurgency doctrine after the election, Brown found it sinister that agents reached out to him prior to the Jan. 20 inauguration.

"I believe this is a coordinated insurgency against the United States for reasons that you know," he told Gray. "There is an effort to bring everybody under this Great Reset, one-world government, no more national sovereignty and so on and so forth."

Since Jan. 6, even as Brown braced himself for arrest, his rhetoric only escalated.

"We're in a war, folks," he said during an interview for the MAGA Institute Podcast on June 25. "The republic has fallen."
Asked why he still hadn't been arrested by the FBI, Brown told the hosts: "I'm hard to catch. I'm hard to kill."

Goldsmith said there are two things that can be done to inoculate active service members and veterans against radicalization to far-right extremism.

The first is to ensure that veterans receive health benefits regardless of their discharge status.

"The health benefits can be taken away by a commander who decides you've done something wrong, and it sets you on a path to homelessness and suicide," Goldsmith said. "That's a bad idea that needs to go away. If someone went to war and they smoked pot and they got kicked out, and then you don't get healthcare, does that make sense? There's a tremendous cost to denying healthcare to someone who served their country."

Secondly, Goldsmith said, the military needs to start teaching critical thinking to enlisted troops.

"In the 21st Century, where we face information warfare, you can't have people who aren't trained in critical thinking, critical analysis," Goldsmith said. "That makes them vulnerable to misinformation. That makes them vulnerable to manipulation by hostile foreign governments and politicians inside the United States that care more about fomenting anger to get campaign donations than they care about the truth."

The next time Jeremy Brown received a call from the FBI was Jan. 6. He was kitted out in tactical gear and with a VIP badge as he waited for President Trump to speak at the Ellipse.

"Hey, I'm up here working security," Brown told the agent. "I gotta go."

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.