The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and jihadist extremists: What they have in common and what they don’t

A military vest with Proud Boys insigniaPhoto/Getty Images

Since 2006, professor Jytte Klausen has led the Western Jihadism Project, which studies and closely tracks the movements and behavior of individuals associated with terrorist groups.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol building, Klausen broadened her scope beyond legally-defined terror groups to include domestic extremist organizations that were connected to the events of that day, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

As congressional hearings on the events of Jan. 6 were set to begin, leaders of the Proud Boys were indicted on charges of conspiracy and sedition for their alleged role in planning and carrying out the actions at the Capitol. Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, took some time to talk about the groups and the new charges with BrandeisNow.

How do domestic groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers compare, in terms of their organization and behavior, to the jihadist extremist groups you have studied and tracked?

One of the most apparent differences is that Proud Boys and Oath Keepers operate in full openness. They meet publicly and until very recently they were communicating very publicly - posting on Twitter and Facebook and holding meetings in public places. 

They are not at all suppressed. It appears there are few secrets. They have chapters and elaborate hierarchies, they wear uniforms and insignia. Their members are running for office and trying to take over the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups are clandestine by necessity. The way they are organized is far more informal. Unlike the aforementioned organizations, they are not interested in participating in the political process.

So in some regards, it is just remarkably different. What is similar is that these are male-dominated groups. The Oath Keepers have some women members, but the Proud Boys organizational charter says it is for men only. Jihadist extremists are also almost exclusively men even as we have just seen a Kansas woman, Allison Fluke-Ekren, plead guilty to overseeing the development of an all-female fighter battalion for the Islamic State in Syria. 

Another way they are similar is militaristic behavior. They go on “training missions” together going to shooting ranges or camping trips. Some try to join the National Guard to get weapons training. Oath Keepers often speak in military-like jargon and many of their leaders were formerly in the military. Proud Boys are obsessed with acquiring hyper-masculine bodies. 

The jihadists also go to the gym to beef up and are known to have joined the national guard to get military training. Some of the American jihadists have converted to extremist Islamism while serving in the military and used their skills for terrorist purposes, either as spies or become what’s known as insider attacks.

They also craft their lives in oddly similar ways. They marry fellow believers or join social pods and make the pursuit of the ideology their life mission. They typically hold jobs where they have no direct supervision  and require little collaboration with others or they make the selling of extremist lifestyle merchandise or propaganda their business. Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars and a hero to the Proud Boys, made a lucrative business selling conspiracy theories and dietary supplements to build muscle.

How do the recent charges compare to how recognized terrorist groups are treated by the legal system?

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, supporters of violent jihadist groups from abroad - even if they are just sending a few hundred dollars to a contact who is attempting to travel abroad to fight for a terrorist group–can be charged with a terrorism-related offense. This is because the Patriot Act established a penal code for "material support for terrorism." 

In many ways, this code can be applied very broadly for preventative arrests, but it can only be applied to FTOs - Foreign Terrorist Organizations. These are groups such as the Islamic State or the Somali Al-Shabaa, and Al Qaeda, of course, that have been formally listed by the Secretary of State as terrorist groups. It isn’t just jihadist groups that are listed. Hezbollah and Hamas and several neo-Marxist terrorist groups are also listed FTOs.

There is not a federal statute for domestic terrorism. There is therefore no comparable way to make preventive arrests and suppress groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, or the neo-Nazi groups Atomwaffen Division and Nationalist Socialist Movement. 

This does not mean the charges we are seeing now are not serious. Interestingly, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing - well before the existence of the Patriot Act - was prosecuted as a case of sedition, one of the charges the leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers face today.

What are your observations about the charges they face?

When we look at the legal picture, I think the Justice Department may have a hard time making the case for seditious conspiracy. The evidentiary threshold for conspiracy is high. They do have the benefit of a couple of plea agreements where people who were part of the inner circles of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are talking about what happened, their plans and how they dispersed into the broader demonstration to stoke a mob. It was a move reminiscent of the fascists of the 1930s. 

But if you read the indictments, it is unclear what their aim was. They believed they could interfere with Congress' business of certifying the election that day. They are attacking the political process with violence, but they don't want to take down the United States. If they were conspiring, what was the goal of that conspiracy?

Seditious conspiracy is defined by the U.S. Code as violent acts by two or more people to overthrow or hinder lawful acts of government. Incitement may be part of the charges but mere talk is insufficient to prove sedition. The acts need not be successful to prove sedition but the government will need to establish that the men were conspiring with each other to use force to hinder Congress from doing its business. One issue that may trip up the government is that although we now know that some of the men on trial told others to bring weapons to Washington D.C. they apparently left their arsenal in their hotel rooms that day. Interestingly, there is another clause in the U.S. Code that was not applied: treason, the offense of attempting to overthrow the government of one's own country. 

What might happen if there were legal changes that banned these organizations?

Other countries have banned these types of groups, including recently Canada. If something similar to the “material support for terrorism” statute (18 U.S.C. § 2339B) was made applicable to domestic groups, it would become a crime to be associated with these organizations. Some people now would like to see that happening in part because, it is argued, we treat Muslim terrorists more harshly than the domestic ones who arguably are the greater threat to domestic security today. 

Efforts to ban such groups will run into legal objections and lengthy court challenges may be anticipated. It may also not be as helpful as envisioned. The problem is that the groups may go underground and begin operating in a more secretive way, like the jihadist terrorist groups I have tracked. Will this happen anytime soon? In the United States, the wheels of law enforcement grind very slowly and the process of actually outlawing a group is difficult. 

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