Four members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys, three of whom have military backgrounds, were convicted Thursday of a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol – a significant milestone in the Jan. 6, 2021, cases that again highlighted the participation of veterans and service members, and created a new wave of disinformation.
Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, along with members Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl, were convicted by a jury in Washington, D.C., of seditious conspiracy – a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
The case is a reminder that a large segment of the Jan. 6 protestors were veterans and even active duty service members – a small but vocal slice of the military community that proved willing to resort to violence against elected officials and fellow officers of the law, primed by a steady stream of disinformation that cast the 2020 election as rigged or stolen, though even Republican election officials across the country denied that.
Like-minded election-deniers took to social media following Thursday’s convictions, condemning the verdict as a gross injustice, and several popular conservative Twitter accounts described the defendants as political prisoners.
“It’s fitting right into this disinformation machine that has been built up over the last couple of years,” said Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Following the initial verdict, the jury deliberated for several more hours on a conspiracy charge for the fifth defendant and former Marine, Dominic Pezzola. They found him not guilty of seditious conspiracy, but he and the four others were found guilty of several other felonies.
Norm Pattis, an attorney representing Biggs, declined to comment to Military Times early Thursday until a final verdict was reached. Nordean’s attorney didn’t provide comment to reporters outside of the courthouse Thursday, CNN reported, while Tarrio’s lawyer said he was drafting an appeal and Rehl’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, said simply, “It is not a happy day.”
Radicalizing veterans and service members
For the past decade, Jensen has managed a database of domestic extremists charged with crimes. The attack on the Capitol – and the demographics of those individuals involved – prompted his team to take a closer look at the role of veterans and service members in extremist groups. Veterans’ participation in the Capitol siege was also tracked by George Washington University and Harvard University and has been the subject of multiple congressional hearings.
An analysis by George Washington University found that 43 of the 357 individuals arrested for their alleged involvement in the attack had a military history. People with links to the military made up 12% of those charged, despite accounting for an estimated 7% of the U.S. population.
Jensen’s research found that 26 of the 98 members, or of the Proud Boys who have been charged in connection with the attack have military backgrounds. Those members include Nordean, Biggs and Rehl.
Nordean, a chapter leader of the Proud Boys in Auburn, Washington, joined the Navy but didn’t make it past basic training, Jensen said. Rehl served in the Marine Corps, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and Biggs spent eight years total in the Army Reserve and the active-duty Army, deploying twice and earning a Purple Heart, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Rehl led a Proud Boys chapter in Philadelphia, and Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was a self-described organizer of the group.
The participation of veterans and service members in the Capitol attack was the subject of a congressional hearing in 2021, at which experts testified that the population has been a long-time recruitment target of extremist organizations. The groups seek out veterans because of their military expertise, said Seth Jones, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Veterans have valuable skills that extremist networks want, such as small unit tactics, communications, logistics, reconnaissance, and surveillance,” Jones testified.
In its analysis of veterans and service members involved in extremist activities, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism discovered that a “tiny fraction” of people enter the military with extremist views. About 20% start developing those views in the military, while a vast majority are radicalized after leaving the service.
Overall, the number of veterans participating in extremism more than tripled over the past 10 years, the consortium found. In addition to their tactical knowledge, veterans are prime recruitment targets because of their leadership abilities.
“Military service prepares you to lead a group,” he said. “These guys tend to either be the ones to establish the organization or they rise through the ranks very, very quickly.”
Proud Boys remain active
Jensen searched through known channels of disinformation across social media platforms following Thursday’s verdict and found what he said were typical responses, including claims that the defendants had no reason to think they were doing anything wrong.
The false narratives about Jan. 6, 2021 are “the more dangerous kind of disinformation,” Jensen said, because they tend to reach a larger audience than radical beliefs posted to niche platforms and through encrypted channels.
“It’s potentially doing a lot more harm in terms of radicalizing large numbers of individuals,” Jensen said.
The arrest of the Proud Boys’ leader hasn’t stopped its activity, and Jensen believes the guilty verdict won’t have any negative effect on the organization overall.
In the case of the Oath Keepers, another right-wing fringe organization that participated in the attack, the arrest of leader Stewart Rhodes effectively shuttered the group, Jensen said. It’s been inactive since Jan. 6, 2021, and Rhodes and associate Kelly Meggs were convicted in December of seditious conspiracy.
The Oath Keepers operated through a hierarchy, which made it difficult for members to continue after the arrest of their leaders. Unlike that group, the Proud Boys lack a centralized structure and instead operate as autonomous chapters.
Since Jan. 6, 2021, chapters of the Proud Boys have turned their attention toward local politics, rather than trying to influence things at the national level, Jensen said. They protested mask mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic and have argued against critical race theory at their local school board meetings, among other activities.
“This [verdict] is unlikely to end the Proud Boys,” Jensen said. “They’re not going to go away because these four guys are going to spend up to 20 years in jail.”
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.