‘Toxic cocktail’: New civil war threat
America is in the grip of one of the most tumultuous periods in history, after being battered by the lethal coronavirus pandemic, major political instability and an economic crisis.
But amid the turmoil, a new threat has emerged - and it has authorities worried.
There has been a dramatic rise in far-right extremism in the US in recent years, culminating in the deadly Capitol insurrection on January 6.
And while there are hundreds of right-wing militia in the country, the Oath Keepers are fast becoming one of most terrifying.
WHO ARE THE OATH KEEPERS?
The group was founded in 2009 by Yale Law School graduate and former army veteran Stewart Rhodes in response to the election of Barack Obama.
It is one of the largest radical anti-government groups in the US, with most of its alleged 30,000 members having backgrounds in the military or police force, making the threat of a potential civil war all the more alarming.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, "while it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organisation is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans".
The name is a reference to the vow members take upon joining to uphold the oaths they took in their careers to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" - even if that means overthrowing the government via civil war.
Their commitment to the horrifying cause was made clear in the aftermath of January 6, when a number of Oath Keepers were charged with conspiring to storm the Capitol and prevent a Biden presidency.
In recent years, members have also been a constant presence at various demonstrations, bearing semiautomatic weapons and clad in camouflage and body armour.
'A FRIGHTENING THING'
Deakin University counter-terrorism expert Greg Barton told news.com.au that while there was a "plethora" of similar extremist groups in America, the Oath Keepers were "the most worrying because they are more disciplined and organised".
"Bear in mind that America is a country where if you've served in the police or military, you can go out and purchase much the same weapons you used in the service, which is a quite frightening thing," he said.
"While there was a fair rabble on January 6, a minority of people were affiliated with groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, and they took a leadership role - and they certainly knew what they were doing."
Another threat posed by the Oath Keepers and similar groups was their ability to harness the power of social media, and the fact they could "play a role as a catalyst" and encourage action among outsiders not formally tied to the group.
"They can influence thousands of others around the world. There's no significant Oath Keepers presence in Australia, but people are involved on chat forums and social media spaces," he said.
"In the age of social media its much easier to livestream events and get a sense of immediate connection. Almost no Australians were able to be directly involved in the Capitol insurrection, but a lot were able to watch the events of the day and feel very much engaged."
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
According to Prof Barton, the evolution of the Oath Keepers is part of a global increase in far-right extremism, with Neo-Nazism growing in Europe and America still struggling with the legacies of the Ku Klux Klan.
He said many current groups shared similar beliefs to the Klan, including racism and the concept of "Christian warriors", as well as the "great replacement theory" - a conspiracy theory warning that outsiders were trying to take over.
While the theory is present in many nations around the world, it is most commonly linked to White supremacists.
"It's about taking a side and joining a tribe against the left or people of colour," Prof Barton said.
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"There's a sense of, 'they're trying to replace us, so we have to fight back'," he said.
"They portray their community as the victim, even though they are the longstanding majority.
"The hatred is put in 'us and them' terms which adds to the toxic problem."
'IGNORANCE' AND FEAR
So what exactly is driving the phenomenon?
According to Prof Barton, there was a "question of education and ignorance" as well as a "primordial response" of particular individuals and groups who feel they are in danger and that their way of life is under threat.
He said involvement was often concentrated among the lower-middle class, and that analysis of the January 6 riots showed a disproportionate amount of participants were recently-divorced men and those who were facing business failures and bankruptcy - in other words, those experiencing anxiety and a sense that their "life is in crisis".
"Part of the appeal of the extremist narrative is the idea that you're suffering because of a conspiracy, or because it's 'them' doing it to 'us'," Prof Barton said.
"If you've been feeling anxious and angry - and there has been an increase over the last 12 months due to COVID-19 lockdowns - it's an 'explanation' for what's really going on … and when you hear 'there's a conspiracy, come join us and we'll solve it', it's very psychologically attractive as a way of dealing with that sense of anxiety … and it manifests in ways that are destructive and dangerous for everyone."
He said one of the biggest threats linked to far-right extremists like the Oath Keepers was that they could inspire violence to break out anywhere, with dangerous beliefs reinforced online in a "toxic cocktail" that could easily reach the vulnerable.
THREAT FACING AUSTRALIA
While Australia has a very different history to the US, Prof Barton said it was a mistake to think we didn't share some of the same problems, including racism and misogyny, which are embraced by these groups.
"After the long, slow process of (removing) the White Australia policy, some of the rhetoric is still present and some of the anxiety seen in the northern hemisphere is reflected here, such as anti-Semitism and fear of Muslims," he said.
"We've seen it on the Senate floor and we've seen it coming through opinion pieces in the media and on social media.
"We have most elements here … and part of the problem is blindness and not seeing that as a problem."
The recent invasion of neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Network in the Grampians region and the town of Halls Gap over the Australia Day long weekend is proof Australia can't afford to ignore the problem.
But Prof Barton said the nation was facing a "conundrum" when it came to addressing the problem versus giving these groups the attention they so desperately crave.
"We don't want to talk about far-right extremists too much as it amplifies their message, which is what they want … but on the other hand, we need to have a conversation about the problem," he said.
"We need to recognise the larger environment that produces the problem and then tackle that larger ecosystem of hatred and bigotry."
Originally published as 'Toxic cocktail': New civil war threat