Introduction & Overview
The Oath Keepers is a loosely organized collection of American anti-government extremists and part of the wider anti-government ‘Patriot’ movement in the United States, which includes militia, Three Percenter groups, sovereign citizens, tax protesters and others. The Oath Keepers are unique in that they specifically aim to recruit current and former members of the military, police and fire service. While the group accepts anyone into its ranks, they focus recruitment on these sectors. The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Elmer ‘Stewart’ Rhodes, a Montana Attorney and army veteran who now acts as the group’s main spokesperson. The Oath Keepers claim to have tens of thousands of members, but it seems clear that they don’t have anywhere near this many – they do however seem to have at least a couple of thousand members, making them one of the largest anti-government extremist groups in the US. (1)
The ideology of the Oath Keepers resembles that of the militia movement; they claim the US is collaborating with a one-world tyrannical conspiracy called the 'New World Order' to strip Americans of their rights. The first right supposedly being targeted is the right to bear arms. The theory states that once stripped of this right and others, the American people will be enslaved by the New World Order. There is overlap between the Oath Keepers and the more loosely organized Three Percenter movement, which is another anti-government movement whose followers view themselves as standing up to the federal government in the same way as American revolutionaries once opposed the British government. There is also overlap between the Oath Keepers and various militia groups across the US. As the group’s focus on the right to bear arms would suggest, many Oath Keeper members are armed, and some, such as member Adam Kokesh, are also gun rights activists (1).The Oath Keepers were present at the January 6 Capitol building attack in the US, and some prominent members were convicted in late 2022 for actions related to the riot. (2)
History & Foundations
The Oath Keepers were officially launched with a rally held on April 19, 2009 in Lexington, Massachusetts. This rally was held by Rhodes in the wake of Barack Obama being elected as the first black president of the US. Today, the group is registered as a non-profit in the state of Nevada, and has developed into a loosely organized, militaristic organization that aims to recruit mostly, though not exclusively, current and former members of the army, law enforcement, and emergency first responder professions. The Oath Keepers seek to capitalize on the skills these people have acquired through their training and experience; the group’s recruitment of these people is international, and not confined to the US.
The Oath Keepers’ name stems from the center of their ideology, which is that their members vow to uphold the oath they took as law enforcement or military personnel, to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. Therefore, the Oath Keepers urge their members to obey the Constitution as they see it, even if their interpretation of the document goes against that of current US lawmakers and judges. As well as the group’s inaugural rally, they traveled to Quartzsite, Arizona, in August 2011 to join a protest in support of local residents who refused to leave a town council meeting when ejected for speaking beyond the allotted time. In a further development in 2013, the Oath Keepers announced the formation of “Citizen Preservation Teams” (CPTs). CPTs are armed community teams, or militias, that are supposed to prepare for scenarios such as natural disasters or other conflicts, and defend Americans against the New World Order. However, it is thought that their real purpose is to revitalize the American militia movement under the guise of a self-sufficient neighborhood watch, as well as to stoke existing fears in local communities. (3)
Ideology & Objectives
The Oathkeepers believe that the American government is tyrannical and will use law enforcement and military personnel against the American people, and that their 'Constitutional Republic' is being taken over and destroyed by evil forces. A former spokesman of the group, Jason Van Tatenhove, says that although they claim to be defending the Constitution, the Oath Keepers are in fact “selling the revolution” (3). Court documents from the trial of some Oath Keeper members for January 6 describe how they “believe that the federal government has been coopted by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” (4) These elites are thought to be the New World Order, a commonly believed source of leftist evil amongst far-right militia movements across America.
The Oath Keepers believe that an impending natural disaster, pandemic or terrorist attack will give the US government an excuse to impose martial law on the country, and part of this will be door-to-door confiscation of firearms. Some believe that the US government may stage a terrorist attack in order to cause an emergency requiring martial law. They also believe that interstate travel will be banned, and the government will enact concentration camp-like detainment of its citizens. Rhodes often illustrates this theory by using as examples the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and previous confiscation of guns by the police and military during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A federal court later ordered the New Orleans authorities to return all these guns to their owners. (1)
The Oath Keepers are also anti-UN, believing it to be a tool of the New World Order designed to undermine American sovereignty. For instance, many Oath Keepers think that a voluntary UN sustainable development programme known as Agenda 21 is in fact a scheme to take away private property and civil liberties in the name of sustainability. The group is also opposed to any new gun legislation in the US, viewing all firearms control as an attack on the Second Amendment; they therefore also call for the nullification of any existing gun legislation as well as opposing any further laws in this area.
Furthermore, the Oath Keepers believe that the US government views survivalists, otherwise known as ‘Preppers’, as future military opponents. In contrast, the Oath Keepers see Preppers as people who are awake and aware, who take responsibility for themselves and their families. They maintain that the government fears them because they might resist the state. According to Oath Keeper theories, these people will be locked away in concentration camps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Oath Keepers’ pledge details 10 'orders', or things they 'refuse', which include disarming the American people, conducting warrantless searches of the American people, imposing martial law, and confiscating property. This pledge is designed to echo the one taken by the armed forces or other personnel to defend the US Constitution, as referenced by the Oath Keepers’ name. (1)
Approach to Resistance
The Oath Keepers use a variety of tactics to both recruit people, and to put their ideology into practice. These tactics include setting up CPTs, originally called “civilization preservation cells”. Rhodes has claimed these teams are necessary due to the impending – and possibly government-created – collapse of the US. CPTs are organized in a similar way to the US Special Forces, further illustrating the Oath Keepers’ place within the wider American militia movement. They hold militia-like training sessions on topics including use of weapons, patrolling techniques, first aid, and emergency communications. (1)
Many Oath Keepers participated in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building, and five have been convicted for their involvement. This attack was a riot that occurred on this date in 2021 after a protest against the 2020 election of Joe Biden as the next American president. Those protesting viewed Biden as an illegitimate president, and sought to overturn the November 2020 election result to reinstate Donald Trump as president and allow him to complete a second term. The protest was held on January 6 at the Capitol building in Washington, DC as the vote-counting ceremony was taking place inside – a ceremony that is traditional, but does not have any legal standing on whether an American president can begin their term. After the encouragement of Trump – who stated about the election, “we’re just not going to let that happen” – many rioters breached the Capitol building, leading to the death of one rioter on the day, and the arrest of more than 725 during the year after the riot. (5)
In total, five Oath Keepers were convicted on the 29th of November, 2022 for their actions on January 6. Rhodes (the founder) and Meggs (leader of the Florida chapter) were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges, while three other members (Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell) were convicted of related felonies. The Department of Justice (DoJ) stated that following the 2020 US election, “Rhodes, Meggs, and others began plotting to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power”. The DoJ also stated that the Oath Keepers, “employed a variety of manners and means, including: organizing into teams that were prepared and willing to use force and to transport firearms and ammunition”, as well as “recruiting members and affiliates; organizing trainings to reach and learn paramilitary combat tactics; bringing and contributing paramilitary gear, weapons, and supplies – including knives, batons, camouflage combat uniforms, tactical vests with plates, helmets, eye protection, and radio equipment – to the Capitol grounds” (6).
In order for the conviction to go ahead, the prosecution had to prove that the Oath Keeper members on trial had been planning their actions at the Capitol, including the use of force. (2). The verdict came after a high profile trial that garnered extensive media coverage as a part of the US Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into the involvement of right-wing extremist groups in the January 6 riots. Prior to the Oathkeeper trials, the US had not tried anyone on charges of seditious conspiracy since 2010, and federal prosecutors had not won a conviction on these charges since 1995. (7)
Other notable Oath Keeper activities include: armed patrols, armed guarding of US military recruitment centers, acting as armed security during land disputes, advocacy for the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association (a far-right group that believes local Sheriffs don’t need to adhere to federal law), and participation in Alex Jones’ talk show, on which Rhodes was a regular guest prior to his conviction. Oath Keepers have also attempted to infiltrate the Tea Party movement, and their recruitment tactics include promotional billboards and providing care packages to military personnel. Members of the Oath Keeper movement have also been involved in criminal incidents since the group’s founding in 2009, including various firearms possession charges (1).
Relations & Alliances
The Oath Keepers fall within the larger umbrella anti-government movement within the US. Other groups under this umbrella include the American Patriots, Three Percenters, 111% United Patriots, American Patriots Three Percent, 111%ers, and the State of Jefferson Formation. The Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 488 extreme anti-government groups that were active in the US during 2021, down from 566 in 2020. 92 of these groups were militias, 75 sovereign citizens, three Constitutional sheriffs, 52 conspiracy militias, and 52 conspiracy propagandist groups. Anti-government groups were linked up with other far-right groups in 2021, and all these often targeted the same marginalized communities and engaged in actual or threats of political violence. The January 6 attack was the most public moment in the history of US anti-government movements since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Of over 725 people charged for actions related to January 6, at least 25 have been identified as members of anti-government organizations. After January 6 many anti-government groups were faced with increased scrutiny or deplatforming, leading to some to reorganizing, dispersal amongst communities, and a focus on localized activities, which has long been a staple of anti-government groups in America (8).
The Oath Keepers were also documented providing armed security for a 2017 ‘Patriot’s Free Speech Rally’ organized by Rich Black, founder of Liberty Alliance and March4Trump (both far-right groups). Nathan Damigo, leader of white supremacist group Identity Evropa, was also present at the event and was placed under investigation after footage appeared to show him punching a woman in the face at the rally – although he was not charged (9).The Oath Keepers provided security along with far-right organization the Proud Boys, protecting the protesters from anti-fascist counter-protesters (10). The ideology of the Oath Keepers also has much in common with a 1990s group named Police Against the New World Order, started by retired police officer Jack McLamb. (1)
(1) - ADL. 2015. ‘The Oath Keepers: Anti-Government Extremists Recruiting Military and Police’. Accessed January 21, 2023. https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/The-Oath-Keepers-ADL-Report.pdf
(2) - Whitehurst, Lindsay. 2022. ‘Who are the Oath Keepers, and why are members on trial?’. PBS. Accessed January 21, 2023. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/who-are-the-oath-keepers-and-why-are-members-on-trial
(3) - Southern Poverty Law Centre. ‘Oath Keepers’. Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/oath-keepers
(4) - United States District Court for the District of Columbia. 2021. Press Release. Accessed January 21, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/press-release/file/1382471/download
(5) - Duignan, Brian. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated 2023. ‘January 6 US Capitol attack’. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/event/January-6-U-S-Capitol-attack
(6) - Department of Justice. 2022. ‘Leader of Oath Keepers and Oath Keepers Member Found Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy and Other Charges Related to US Capitol Breach’. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/leader-oath-keepers-and-oath-keepers-member-found-guilty-seditious-conspiracy-and-other
(7) - Ward, Ian. 2022. ‘The Oath Keepers Got Convicted. Now What?’. Politico. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/12/02/oath-keepers-convicted-00071669
(8) - Southern Poverty Law Center. ‘Anti-government Movement’. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/antigovernment
(9) - Southern Poverty Law Centre. ‘Nathan Benjamin Damigo’. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/nathan-benjamin-damigo
(10) - Murdoch, Simon. ‘Alt-right Violence In America’. Hope Not Hate. 2017. Accessed January 22, 2023. https://hopenothate.org.uk/2017/04/19/alt-right-violence-america/