COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thomas Develin idled in the parking lot of Columbus Torah Academy most mornings of 2022, cradling a loaded Glock handgun and scanning the front door.
Four years earlier, a gunman had opened fire on the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, prompting Jewish community leaders here to beef up security. They were picky about the hiring process, careful to avoid “rent-a-cops,” whose training was scant and trustworthiness suspect.
Develin — a 24-year-old Eagle Scout and active National Guardsman — seemed perfect for the $30-an-hour gig. He had just been promoted to sergeant, held Top Secret security clearance, and had logged seven years of military service, including an overseas deployment.
“We took comfort in all that,” recalled Justin Shaw, executive director of Jewish Columbus. “If you can’t trust that resume, what can you trust?”
Develin lingered outside the school in his typical parking spot one cloudy March morning last spring. The loaded Glock handgun lay in his lap, its barrel pointed toward the entrance. His eyes fixated on the parents and students shuffling in before the bell. His fingers fired off message after message on his cell phone into an online chat with fellow National Guardsmen.
“I’m at a Jewish school and I’m about to make it everyone’s problem,” he wrote. “The playground is about to turn into a self-defense situation. Simultaneously I will shoot the next parent dropping their kid off at the school.”
The violent threats hardly registered in the chat of a dozen or so service members. The group was aware — perhaps even proud — of the deviant nature of their messaging. After all, the private forum was named “Degeneracy,” and discussions included rape fantasies, drunk driving, proclamations that the Holocaust wasn’t deadly enough, and reverence for mass shooters and terrorists. And Develin had expressed a desire to kill Jews before.
The only thing different on that day was that his violent musings caught the eye of the mother of a Guardsman in the chat. The stream of notifications piling up on her son’s phone deeply disturbed her, and she called the authorities.
When police searched Develin’s apartment two weeks later, they found 24 firearms, several semi automatic rifles, a rocket launcher, and supplies and instructions to create remote-detonated explosives. Another 10,000 rounds of ammunition were seized from his car. His Internet history included 87 searches for the 2019 mass shooting at a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque. It was, the lead police detective told the Globe, “an almost unmanageable amount of evidence.”
Even so, Develin’s arrest made headlines only briefly. His criminal case cruised quietly through the justice system and the National Guard discharged him, honorably. Only one other Guardsman in the “Degeneracy” chat was charged. The case was just a blip on the national security radar, reduced to a tale of a lone Guardsman gone rogue.
But in reality, Develin’s story echoes that of many more young men in uniform, trained and entrusted to defend the country, but at war with the very values they swore to uphold.
“If the military ever decides to crack down on extremists they’re going to have to kick at least half of us out,” Develin once wrote using his screen name of Patrick Bateman, an homage to the serial killer in the film “American Psycho.”
There is no reliable data on the prevalence of extremist views among service members, and the likelihood, with roughly 1.4 million Americans in uniform, is that the percentage is very small.
But there is this: In the last five years, at least 82 current and former military service members have been arrested and exposed as harboring far-right, antigovernment, or neo-Nazi ideologies, according to a Globe analysis of court documents, media reports, and studies compiled by independent researchers. (That number excludes the 178 active and former military members arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection.)
Some plotted to kill law enforcement members, torch minority churches, sabotage their own military units, kidnap politicians, and destroy national infrastructure. Others amassed arsenals in preparation for perceived race and civil wars. A handful have fired — at a shopping mall, police officers, and a carful of teenage girls.
It’s not that service members are more likely to be radicalized; it’s that the scattering of extremists in the ranks has extra potential for mayhem: they’ve been trained to kill and they’re more likely to act on it, according to experts reached by the Globe.
“This is the single biggest threat to the security of the country,” said Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst, focused on domestic terrorism. “I see this only getting worse. I don’t see it ever getting better in my lifetime.”
Of the 82, Jack Teixeira — the now infamous 21-year-old National Guardsman from Dighton — might be the most well-known, having prompted an international scandal by posting classified documents alongside antisemitic and antigovernment rhetoric in online forums. A federal investigation led to his arrest in April.
But most cases are much less conspicuous, generally surfacing in seldom-examined court documents related to charges not obviously linked to extremism. Mentions of military service and extremist ties are often only found deep within affidavits and sentencing memorandums.
The details can be chilling. Take 23-year-old Kyle Morris, a decorated Army veteran from New Hampshire arrested last summer. He kept a framed photo of Adolf Hitler by his bed and wanted to “mag dump a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, especially the darker ones.” Court documents show his family worried he would either “become very patriotic or become a mass shooter” when he joined the military four years earlier. The Army gave him an honorable discharge.
Or 25-year-old Matthew Belanger, of Long Island, N.Y., while in the Marines in 2020, wrote the manifesto for a grass-roots group called “Rapekrieg,” which combines the Nazi goal of murdering Jews with a philosophy that women can be controlled through rape. He had plotted to kill people of color and rape “white women” to produce “white children.”
Or 23-year-old Noah Anthony, a Fort Bragg soldier with plans “to physically remove as many [Black and brown people] . . . by whatever means need be.” In addition to guns and Nazi paraphernalia, police in 2022 also found among Anthony’s belongings an American flag with a swastika in place of the stars.
Each was ultimately charged with gun crimes, as is often the case with the murky, ill-defined world of domestic terrorism. The cases exemplify how the military ethos of serve and protect can be inverted in rare cases into something ugly, virulent, and violent.
In the last decade, Defense Department officials have said many times that leadership believes the number of extremists in the military is small, and, by and large, the majority of the military serves honorably and does not hold — much less act upon — extremist beliefs. But this offers limited reassurance, as even a small percentage of extremist service members can have an outsized impact.
“It’s one thing to have the desire to commit an attack,” said Christopher Betts, who works in the Columbus Police Department’s Counter Terrorism unit. “It’s another to be trained how to do it in the most effective way.”
The town of Waverly, Ohio, sits about an hour south of Columbus along the west bank of the Scioto River. Its motto — “Working for a vibrant future” — reflects its working-class ethos. It also hints at its dark past.
Throughout the 19th century, Waverly was a sundown town, where Black people were prohibited from being present after nightfall. That reputation made the town a draw for members of the Ku Klux Klan who stood on the steps of the town’s courthouse in 1994 and spewed messages of white supremacy to a crowd of 100 or so residents.
Thomas Develin was born three years later. He had known from the age of 7 that he wanted to join the military. As a gangly high schooler, he blushed as his mother pinned an Eagle Scout medal to his lapel at a Boy Scouts ceremony. He was an average student, with an affinity for video games and guns, who determinedly clung to his childhood dream.
His first stop after graduation? The Ohio National Guard, he told a local reporter at the Scout ceremony.
He operated radars for the Second Battalion of the 174th Air Defense Regiment, a brigade based out of McConnelsville, a village in the southern hills of Ohio where Amish farms abound and cell phone service evaporates. Eventually, he and roughly 280 other battalion members found themselves en route to Iraq in 2017 for a nine-month deployment.
Develin would tell prosecutors, five years later, that he struggled to adjust to the humdrum rhythms of Ohio upon his return stateside. His reverence for the military decayed into outright hatred of authority. The 22-year-old found solace in a community of disaffected service members on Discord, a social media site created to discuss video games. But the conversation in Develin’s chosen forum centered on far more somber topics.
“Along with several like-minded soldier friends, I discovered a military counterculture on social media that consisted of extremely dark humor,” Develin explained in a letter to the federal judge hearing his case. “It included things like committing war crimes, drinking on duty, gross negligence involving military weapons and equipment, drug use, doomsday preparation, government collapse, authoritarian rule, and civil war.”
A cadre of current and former National Guardsmen filled the “Degeneracy” group chat. One of those men, James Ricky Meade II, was arrested alongside Develin. In a message to the group, Meade had threatened to crash a stolen plane into a beer plant — because it resembled the Twin Towers — and suggested that Develin kill a police officer who confiscated his guns, as well as the officer’s family.
“Do the whole family in,” Meade wrote to Develin in a Discord message. “And hang the corpses up for all to see.”
Meade pleaded guilty to one count of inciting violence and was put on a three-year probation. Develin, meanwhile, received a six-year sentence in federal prison.
The state prosecutor told the Globe that the Guardsman would not have served nearly as long a sentence — or any time at all — if he had not also manufactured guns with his 3-D printer and been charged in federal court on those firearms offenses.
Four months after being criminally charged, the Guard dropped Meade and Develin through a “general under honorable conditions” discharge, a status given to members with satisfactory performance but minor disciplinary issues.
It is unclear if any of the other Guardsmen in the chat were disciplined or discharged, despite a year and a half passing since the Guard was made aware of the Discord server.
The Ohio National Guard told the Globe there were “ongoing disciplinary actions occurring because of our internal investigations,” but that “it would be inappropriate to comment on these actions until they are completed.”
The Defense Department has, by its own omission, struggled to keep an official count of those discharged due to their extremist affiliations or domestic terrorist threats.
“Until the DoD uses a centralized database for allegation reporting and tracking, the DoD will have inconsistent tracking of prohibited activities participation; problems identifying and collecting data from multiple, decentralized systems; and difficulty validating the accuracy of reported data,” wrote the authors of a December 2022 internal report on extremism.
Most of the limited data that does exist has been gathered by nongovernmental organizations drawing on open-source material.
One such center is the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, which was founded in the wake of 9/11 when the government initiated an all-out blitz against international terrorism. But today, most of START’s research focuses on domestic terrorists, which it sees as a far greater threat to the country. The group shared with the Globe a database it maintains of all confirmed extremists with military affiliations.
“The [Defense Department] does not help us in any regard in finding this information,” said Mike Jensen, a senior researcher at the nonprofit center. “They could give us military records but they don’t. We only know about the guys who commit a crime, but the truth is that most cases don’t leave a paper trail.”
The year 1995 was a tipping point for extremism.
In April, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, an antigovernment extremist with a history of attending KKK rallies, parked a truck with a homemade bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
Eight months later, three white Army paratroopers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina murdered a Black couple. One of the killers slept with a Nazi flag over his bed. Another 19 Fort Bragg soldiers were discharged for taking part in neo-Nazi activities. But even then, military leaders said they found minimal evidence of extremist activity in the Army.
Then came the War on Terror. Military recruiters and base commanders needed to fill the ranks fast.
“Effectively, the military has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to extremism,” explained one internal DoD report from 2005. “If individuals can perform satisfactorily, without making their extremist opinions overt through words or actions that violate policy, reflect poorly on the Armed Forces, or disrupt the effectiveness and order of their units, they are likely to be able to complete their contracts.”
The Obama administration attempted to document what it saw as a rising tide of right-wing extremism in a report by Department of Homeland Security analysts in 2009. Johnson — a registered Republican and Army veteran — was the lead author. He discovered far-right extremists were reveling in a renaissance online.
“You always had these village idiots, who were ostracized in their communities for these extremist beliefs or conspiracy theories,” said Johnson. “But the Internet has allowed those village idiots to find community all within the anonymity, privacy, and comfort of their home.”
Johnson’s team issued a warning that military returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be particularly susceptible to radicalization, as their combat experience had given them weapons training and prestige. The report ricocheted through the right-wing pundit universe. One commentator dubbed it “The Obama DHS Hit Job on Conservatives.”
The Obama administration formally apologized to veterans and eventually withdrew the report.
Twelve years later, thousands stormed the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Investigators later revealed that four out of the five Proud Boys members indicted on sedition charges had previously served in the military.
In response, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a Pentagon-wide stand down to discuss extremism within the ranks. He formed a countering-extremism working group led by a young Army veteran named Bishop Garrison.
In a 21-page report released that December, the group offered up six recommendations to detect, deter, and mitigate insider threats from extremists. It outlined guidance on defining extremism and supporting service members transitioning into the civilian world.
The backlash was swift and immediate. Tucker Carlson, then a Fox television host, and Alex Jones, an alt-right radio show host, zeroed in on Garrison. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida responded with his own report, titled “Woke Warfighters,” which included a section dedicated to Garrison, calling him “a rabid partisan who routinely denigrates conservatives.” There is no mention of Garrison’s military service or two tours in Iraq.
Six months later, Garrison left the Biden administration for the private sector. And as of this spring, just one of the six recommendations from his group had been heeded, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters on May 18, in the wake of Teixeira’s arrest.
“The Department of Defense takes extremist activity seriously and continues to make progress toward implementing the actions and recommendations,” wrote the department in a statement to the Globe.
And so, there remain no Pentagon-wide protocols to identify extremists within the ranks. The discovery of a service member with radical views is often made entirely by happenstance.
A traffic stop reveals an illegal weapon that prompts a search warrant that discovers a Nazi flag pinned to a Marine’s bedroom wall.
A Facebook friend notices a series of antisemitic posts, each growing more detailed with time.
Or, in Develin’s case, the mother of a fellow Guardsman sees the threats pile up on the screen of her son’s phone.