What Happens When Ex-Navy SEALS Go Full QAnon?
Former special forces soldiers are flirting with a wide array of conspiracy theories, including QAnon. They also seem to be uniquely suited to pivoting to IRL violence.
A man filmed leaving the area of an attempted pipe bomb attack on protesters in Portland, Oregon, was a former Navy SEAL who writes conspiracy theory-heavy social media posts decrying the left, Portland activists and news media recently reported.
But the man is just one of an eclectic mix of former SEALs apparently taken in by conspiracy theories online or citing those theories in violent writings. If acted on by highly trained ex-military elite, those paranoias have deadly potential.
Witnesses in Portland say two men threw three homemade explosives at protesters early on the morning of Aug. 8. Although no one was harmed and the men do not appear to have been filmed, citizen journalist Scott Keeler pursued a man spotted in the area and filmed his face. Activists and Oregon Public Broadcasting identified the man as Louis Garrick Fernbaugh, a former SEAL and CIA contractor. Fernbaugh, 52, has been named by police as a person of interest, but not charged with a crime.
Online, Fernbaugh has an extensive history of writing about conspiracy theories, particularly where they implicated the left. In this respect, he is part of a broader pattern of ex-SEALs, many of them with large digital followings, espousing conspiratorial ideas. They’re armed, suspicious, and in some cases, write in detail about potential plans to kill people they view as evildoers.
In particular, some ex-SEALs are promoting belief in QAnon or related theories that falsely accuse many of President Donald Trump’s opponents of being involved in Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism.
Marc-André Argentino, an associate fellow at the Global Network on Extremism & Technology, who monitors the QAnon conspiracy theory, said that theory—which has become one of the foremost in U.S. politics—has inspired an uptick in criminal acts by believers. (The Navy did not return a request for comment.)
“The violence we’ve seen has been by people without acumen and physical training,” Argentino told The Daily Beast. “Where it could get scary is with people who do have training.”
SEALs like Fernbaugh, who could not be reached for comment for this story, have extensive military training, and might be better equipped than the average person to build an explosive device or take up weapons. A grizzled ex-special operative with a graying beard, Fernbaugh has spent years dabbling in false conspiracy theories, some of them anti-Semitic and many targeting anti-fascists, who have been highly visible at Portland protests. (The Daily Beast did not review any posts in which he expressed affinity for QAnon.)
“George Soros is known to have paid ANTIFA to instigate rioting and create chaos that has caused millions in damage across numerous cities, but especially Portland, OR,” he wrote on Facebook in 2018, citing a conspiracy theory that falsely accuses a Jewish philanthropist of paying off protesters.
In the caption of a video on the same topic, Fernbaugh mused that “I’m surprised no one has slaughtered these sheep that have grown horns (ANTIFA),” and recent posts boasted of “infiltrating” groups of Portland anti-fascists during ongoing racial justice protests.
Fernbaugh appears to wear the same jacket in one of the videos as the man identified as him did in the footage from the aftermath of the Portland attack. He currently works selling shooting targets, including one made to look like a person dressed as a Portland anti-fascist.
Multiple people who know Fernbaugh, including a former colleague, told OPB that he was the man featured in Keeler’s video from near the scene of the explosive devices. A former law enforcement official told the publication that, based on the voice of the man in the video, they were comfortable enough in his identity that they were calling the FBI.
Meanwhile, the larger online conspiracy community is sprawling—the top QAnon groups on Facebook, alone, count more than 3 million combined members, according to an internal Facebook investigation, NBC News reported last week. These theories sometimes overlap in membership, and encompass millions of other people, spanning a range of false claims like that vaccines cause autism to the idea that the world is flat. In a group that large, some will almost inevitably be military or veterans.
But QAnon and related conspiracy theories like Pizzagate (both of which baselessly accuse Democrats of child abuse) seem to have an unusually high incidence among ex-SEALs. And some retired SEALs have been vocal in more explicit support for QAnon in particular, even if they have not been tied to the scene of alleged protest-related violence.
Stephen Ralston is a veteran who served on SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One from 1990 to 1994, and SEAL Team Three from 1994 to 1998. Currently, he works as a private military contractor, according to his online bio, and has a podcast about special operations forces. On the Instagram for that podcast, and on his own Instagram feed, Ralston frequently uses QAnon hashtags, promotes Q videos, and posts about his interest in killing pedophiles. (Although opposition to pedophilia is an overwhelmingly popular sentiment across political parties, QAnon turns the concern into a bogus call to arms against Trump’s foes.)
Some of the Instagram memes specifically frame elite military as a force for “Q,” the anonymous forum poster behind the conspiracy theory. One typical example, a picture that calls special operatives “the teeth of the light,” promises that thousands of specially trained veterans are willing to use their skills if QAnon’s claims are validated. “If any of the claims prove accurate, justice will be served one way or the other,” the caption reads, in part. “We don’t forgive. We don’t forget.”
Ralston’s special forces podcast has also devoted at least one recent episode to QAnon.
“If these people aren’t brought to justice, there’s gonna be some fuckin’ street justice doled out,” he says while petting a dachshund in a teaser trailer for the episode, uploaded to Instagram.
Ralston, who has not been accused of any conspiracy-related violence, told The Daily Beast he was unsure of QAnon’s popularity with former SEALs or any other group, and declined to otherwise comment for this story.
Attacks by conspiratorial veterans have long been lethal. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, was carried out by veteran Tim McVeigh, who was steeped in anti-government theories and reportedly told people the Army had implanted him with a microchip. McVeigh’s own failure to join the Army’s special ops forces was reportedly a major factor in his anger, and he viewed himself as a kind of one-man operator. (“In his mind, much of his life has been one of thinking that he is in a kind of Special Forces of his own,” a law enforcement source told The Washington Post after the attack.)
Several recent violent plots associated with the anti-government Boogaloo movement have also allegedly been carried out by veterans or active service members. In May, two veterans and a current Army Reserve soldier were arrested in an alleged plot to throw explosives at a Black Lives Matter rally. That same month, a current Air Force staff sergeant was arrested for allegedly killing a federal security officer and attempting to kill another, in an apparent plot to kick off a new civil war that Boogaloo adherents believe is imminent.
QAnon has inspired its own wave of crimes, with the FBI labeling the movement as a terror threat. Some prominent QAnon personalities are not veterans, but pose as elite Defense Department operatives, including one man linked to several recent Q-inspired kidnappings, who poses as the head of the fictional Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, The Daily Beast reported.
QAnon support extends to at least one SEAL-founded company. Project Warpath is a clothing line owned by Tej Gill, a former member of SEAL Team Five who made headlines for selling “Hillary Clinton Killed My Friends” T-shirts after the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. Project Warpath also posts QAnon content to Instagram, including a recent post falsely linking the debunked Wayfair conspiracy (a QAnon-adjacent theory that falsely claimed children were being sold inside furniture on the home decor site) to Soros and the Clintons. Gill, who has not been accused of any conspiracy-related violence, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Argentino said QAnon’s popularity with special ops veterans might initially seem perplexing. Believers claim Q is a high-level military official. But as veterans of military intelligence circles should know, Q’s muddled posts do not operate anything like military work. (One former QAnon believer whose father had worked for the CIA previously told The Daily Beast she’d abandoned the theory when she realized Q was artlessly aping military language, in a way no service member would.)
Yet elements of QAnon might be alluring to veterans, Argentino noted.
“QAnon is rooted in this war narrative, in the sense that they’re in an information war against the ‘Deep State,’” he said. “Information wars are typically combined with a more physical element ... [Veterans] may want to be called upon to free the children from the pedophiles.”
Some conspiratorial ex-SEAL content is compatible with QAnon, but it’s unclear whether those former SEALs are aware of its full connotations.
One former member of the elite SEAL Team Six recently shared a post falsely linking Black Lives Matter to the Palestinian militant movement Hamas. The ex-SEAL appears to have copy-pasted the post’s caption, which was full of Q hashtags, although he did not write them himself. “Thoughts on this? I am only sharing, so don’t start throwing a tantrum,” he asked his followers.
Mitch Aguiar, another former member of SEAL Team Five, has since left the military and gone on to build a name for himself as an MMA fighter and a salesman of military-themed apparel. Like some of his fellow brothers-in-arms, he’s also shared conspiratorial content on his 133,000-follower Instagram, including a post about the death of a QAnon supporter, but used a “PizzaGate” hashtag. (The Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed prominent Democrats were engaging in sex trafficking in a D.C. pizzeria, was a predecessor to QAnon, but fell out of favor after a Pizzagater shot up the restaurant. Another man set fire to the restaurant two years later, in January 2019.)
Aguiar also commented “he’s a pedo” on a fellow ex-SEAL’s meme that falsely claimed actor Tom Hanks was wearing an ankle monitor, presumably because a secret court had found him guilty of child sex-trafficking. (This did not happen.)
The fellow ex-SEAL, podcaster Clark Impastato, regularly shares QAnon-flavored conspiracy memes on his Instagram, where he has more than 87,000 followers. A gray-bearded SEAL Team Five veteran, Impastato served until recently as a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, where he shot a 15-year-old accused of making a drug deal. Although the teen was unarmed, Impastato’s use of force was found to be justified, because the teen rushed Impastato, “pulling his previously concealed hand from his waistband and forming it into a fist with a single, hooked finger extended,” as if to imply holding a gun, according to court records. The 15-year-old survived the shooting.
Impastato voluntarily relinquished his police certification in January 2016, after racking up multiple misconduct complaints, state records show. Among them are two civil rights misconduct complaints, which state records describe as excessive force, one of them for allegedly punching a suspect. It was not immediately apparent from police records whether the complaints had been substantiated by police, and Phoenix Police did not return multiple requests for comment. In an interview with a military-themed energy drink company, Impastato said he left the force to become an entrepreneur on his own beard-care line.
As protests broke out over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in late May, Impastato posted a picture of himself carrying a gun with the caption, “The current chaos makes me wish I was still in to help out. ❤️🇺🇸❤️ I’m with you in spirit BROTHERS and SISTERS..” He also posted several memes about killing anti-fascists, including one about the movement coming to the suburbs “so I can get a stateside kill.”
Neither Aguiar nor Impastato have been accused of conspiracy-related violence, and neither returned requests for comment for this story.
The extent of these ex-SEALs’ commitment to the QAnon cause, even when they flirt with it, isn’t always clear.
Increasingly, QAnon belief exists on a spectrum. Where once the theory appealed mostly to a core group of diehards who waited for the next “Q drop” (posts on a forum by an anonymous person claiming to be military intelligence), a diluted version of the conspiracy has reached a broader audience with less absurd claims about pedophilia.
As The New York Times noted last week, QAnon content has recently surged in popularity with a broader crowd, including those who are unaware of its core claims, because it attached itself to a campaign to “save the children.”
Well-intentioned fears can have counterproductive results. Sensationalized fears about Wayfair can obscure the reality that many (nearly half, per one study) of trafficked children are exploited by relatives. And the sudden popularity of sex-trafficking conspiracy theories has overwhelmed legitimate anti-trafficking organizations with bogus complaints. In late July, the National Human Trafficking Hotline released a statement saying “the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help.”
Some ex-SEALs operate in the murky area of Q-ish talk about sex-trafficking, conflating real cases with bogus statistics and linking their theories to high-profile celebrities and politicians, usually on the left.
Craig Sawyer, a Texas-based former SEAL Team Six member, runs an anti-trafficking group, and produced a documentary about child sex-trafficking. The group is distinct from theories like QAnon. Some QAnon believers, including the person pretending to be a member of the fictional Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, have targeted Sawyer, falsely accusing him of trafficking. Sawyer has even been openly critical of Q on Twitter, although not of all its claims.
“I’m not big on q, mainly due to how scary some of the followers are in their cult follower tendencies of an entity they can’t vet,” he tweeted in June. “But as long as the q narrative is ‘Do your own research’ & the info is accurate, that’s a good thing.”
Nevertheless, Sawyer frequently interacts with pro-Q personalities, and shares a wealth of Q-adjacent material, including a conspiracy meme about figures like Bill Gates and George Soros pursuing a number of fantastical aims like population control and “one world government.” (He shared the meme, asking followers’ opinion on it, without explicitly endorsing it.) Sawyer, who has not been accused of conspiracy-related violence and declined to comment, shared a picture last Tuesday night of Sen. Kamala Harris posing with Soros’s son.
The post, about Harris being named Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, referred to a sexist conspiracy theory about her. “We now know who’s on team New World Order / Global Marxism,” Sawyer wrote. “Literally GOOD vs EVIL.”
Argentino, who recently authored a scholarly article about QAnon’s potential as a national security threat, said while most violent incidents carried out in the theory’s name were done so by people in a state of crisis, calls by military types are acting as a steady drumbeat.
“People who are ex-military say, ‘I’m going to go liberate the kids,’” he said. “Is it bravado or is it a legitimate call to action?”
For his part, Garrick Fernbaugh’s primary preoccupation has appeared to be theories about anti-fascists. But after years of posting about his interest in hurting them, someone appears to have attempted just that in Portland—while Fernbaugh was very nearby.
Approximately three weeks before the pipe bomb incident, Fernbaugh contacted Sawyer about his interest in anti-fascists. On LinkedIn, Sawyer had authored a post defending the federal agents who notoriously pulled Portland protesters into unmarked vans earlier this summer.
“I think this is actually a very calm & gracious response in the face of such destructive terrorism funded by our nation’s subversive enemies,” Sawyer wrote. “Law & order must prevail‼️”
Fernbaugh replied in the comments. “I infiltrated ANTIFA in downtown PDX 3 nights ago,” he wrote. “(Dudes in camo) Hit me up, I’ll throw on my Cryes [a brand of combat apparel] and give you a hand restoring law and order, then we’ll go grab a well deserved beer!”
With reporting by Adam Rawnsley
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized a police-involved shooting as fatal when in fact it was not. The Daily Beast regrets the error.