These are among the terms used by members of the secret Facebook forums for current and former Rangers, Green Berets, and other elite soldiers, when describing Austin: “Racist punk,” “pus-gut maggot,” and “bubba.” Others suggest he was elevated to his current position only because he’s Black, and questioned whether he deserved his Silver Star.
“This fuck is an embarrassment to the military and everything it stands for! And how many senior officers are gathering around to kiss his ass for another star?” wrote one. “I simply can’t say enough about my distaste for this racist fraud! He has risen to the peak of his profession, riding along on the color of his skin!”
NBC’s Carol E. Lee obtained access to the posts from four private Facebook groups that were restricted to members of special operations forces, and vetted participants accordingly. Two of the groups—SF Brotherhood-PAC and US Special Forces Team Room—have more than 5,000 participants, with some overlapping.
“The story of radicalization in special operations is a story that needs to be told,” ex-Green Beret Jack Murphy told Lee. “It has shocked and horrified me to see what’s happened to these guys in the last five or six years.”
The rhetoric in these groups in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection has been particularly charged. In addition to the attacks on Austin, some members openly ridicule President Joe Biden, comparing him unfavorably to Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling him “senile.”
A number of posts are devoted to election-related conspiracy theories, including claims that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were not Trump supporters but in reality secret antifa and Black Lives Matter infiltrators.
“Trump was sabotaged once again!” one of the US Special Forces Team Room members posted the day after the insurrection. The presence of such infiltrators, he added, meant that “trying to get to the bottom of the obvious election fraud now looks like it doesn’t have a chance.”
“Well said!” responded one member. “They will do anything to destroy Trump and Pence in order to prevent them from exposing their vile plans,” another added.
Conspiracy theories are not just common in the groups, they are often the primary driver of political conversations. The US Special Forces Team Room is especially rife with references to the cultish QAnon theories.
“If you have been following Q for a while you know that Q taught many of us lurkers how he was going to communicate with us to by pass the mainstream media,” one member wrote. “SB2 has one of the original followers as I was a year ago. He’s a mathematician by trade and had a brilliant aptitude to pick up Gematria code early in which the Cabal used to communicate with each other on SM [social media] … SB2 has done many decodes which have proven highly accurate [and] even getting a shout-out from Q.”
“SB2,” as extremism researcher Mike Rothschild notes, is known on QAnon boards as “SerialBrain2,” where he was a major influencer among the cult’s gurus.
A former special forces commander named Robert Wilson told Lee that members of the special forces community “are radicalizing themselves online, just like many of these lone-wolf ISIS terrorists did.”
“It’s a problem, and it’s an internal threat to the United States,” said Wilson, a former military counterterrorism director.
“I am concerned about active duty,” Wilson added. “I don’t think special operations forces just develop these ideas in their head when they get out and are in their late 40s. So I think it starts in the military and probably gets worse when they’re out.”
As Lee notes, the Facebook forums “shouldn’t be seen as reflective of the overall views of the whole special operations forces community.” After all, while there appear to be several thousand participants in these groups, U.S. Special Operations Command includes some 70,000 personnel, and there are tens of thousands more retired members of special operations forces.
Heidi Beirich, a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, praised Lee for getting access to the Facebook groups, calling it “an incredible find.”
“But also it’s giving you on the ground real information about the most dangerous people in the military, right?” she said. “These are the exact troops who we do not want involved with things like QAnon.”
Murphy explained that one of the pernicious effects of allowing extremist conspiracism to spread within the ranks of the military is that it has the potential to create parallel chains of command within the forces that compete with existing authority. He noted that QAnon followers swear fealty to the movement, and that in their worldview, the military’s role involves rounding up the nefarious pedophiles and human traffickers—identified mainly as liberal politicians and media figures—at the center of their conspiracy theory.
“If you really believe that sort of thing and you’re a special forces guy, explain to me why you wouldn’t pick up a gun and do something about it,” he said. Murphy noted that the sergeant on his own special forces team became a QAnon cultist and was present at the insurrection.
“It’s not just the occasional private in the 3rd Infantry,” he said. “There are senior officers and noncommissioned officers in the military who believe this.”