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U.S. Soldier Charged In Plot To Attack Own Unit

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, the Justice Department labeled U.S. Army Private Ethan Melzer a traitor, calling him, quote, "the enemy within." Melzer is a 22-year-old soldier from Louisville, Ky., who is facing federal terrorism-related charges. Prosecutors say he plotted an ambush of his own unit as part of a satanic white supremacist network. NPR's Hannah Allam has been reporting on the threat of extremism in the U.S. military and joins us. Hi, Hannah.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: Take me through the charges here. What exactly is Private Melzer accused of doing?

ALLAM: Well, he faces many charges, including conspiracy and attempt to murder U.S. military personnel. And all this is tied to what the Justice Department is calling a plot by Melzer to ambush his own unit once they were deployed to Turkey. The indictment says Melzer joined the Army in 2018 and within a year had joined a U.K.-based neo-Nazi group called the Order of the Nine Angles. Prosecutors say Melzer found out he was being deployed to Turkey and allegedly passed details of that deployment to members of the group, including the location and the defenses of his unit. The court papers also have transcripts of Melzer saying he's willing to die in this operation, that he sees it as part of a greater cause. So authorities consider him an accelerationist, someone who believes in violence to collapse society and create a new order. And for white supremacists, that end goal is typically an ethnostate. So this accelerationist trend is something we've seen in a series of recent attacks, and now here it is popping up in a high-profile military investigation.

GREENE: I mean, just the idea of far-right extremists serving in the military is terrifying. But this is not a first. I mean, we've seen a few cases like this. Can you talk about how widespread this problem could be?

ALLAM: Well, the short answer is we don't have a good handle on the scope. Defense officials have said, you know, they've seen a slight increase in the number of domestic terrorism investigations involving service members. But that's just one category, and it doesn't address, you know, fully the picture of extremism in the ranks. So there is a need for better data. It's been a frustration for civil rights groups and extremist researchers who for years have been asking for improvements to tracking and screening.

GREENE: Well, how is the military responding to all of this right now?

ALLAM: Military officials have said they're expanding screening. They are working more closely with other counterterrorism partners, other agencies, to address extremism. But lawmakers and extremism monitoring groups and other critics all say the Pentagon can do a lot more. And one policy that's often singled out is the distinction the military draws between simply belonging to an extremist organization and actively participating in one. And terrorism analysts say there should be the same zero-tolerance policy for violent white supremacists as there is for Islamist extremists. Here's Colin Clarke with The Soufan Group in Washington.

COLIN CLARKE: If this was an affinity for jihadism, they wouldn't say, well, you're not an active participant. You just, you know, have a real affinity for ISIS. The first hint that anybody expressed sympathy for a jihadi group, they would be done.

GREENE: Wow. So, I mean, just listening to all of this, Hannah, you know, we're at this moment when big U.S. institutions are struggling with how to confront systemic racism. I mean, is extremism within the military a part of that conversation right now?

ALLAM: It is. And we have seen signs that the Pentagon is making it more of a priority. Of course, a case like Melzer's at this moment makes it even more urgent. You know, right now, there's, you know, this attention to the campaign to change the Confederate names of military bases. Researchers I've talked to hope that it's also a moment for the military to think about what more they can do to keep white supremacists and other extremists out of the ranks altogether.

GREENE: We really appreciate all this reporting That's NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Hannah, thank you.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.