The rise of right-wing terrorism
A string of attacks this year have sent communities into mourning and drawn the world’s attention to the troubling rise in right-wing extremism. Mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Gilroy (and a suspected attack in Dayton) in the US and another in Oslo, Norway have sparked fears of a cascade of far-right terrorism. Not enough is being done by states or companies, particularly social media firms to tackle this growing global threat, security experts argue, as they remain preoccupied by Islamist extremism.
Far-right attacks are rising at a faster rate in the West than any other form of terrorist threat. An average of 25 extreme right-wing attacks have occurred in Europe each year between 2015 and 2017, compared to four a year between 2012 and 2014, according to data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank. The number of people arrested in Europe for right-wing extremist offences nearly doubled in 2017 from the previous two years, according to a report by Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.
What is right-wing terrorism?
It is the use or threat of violence by groups that espouse a broad range of grievances or goals: racial, ethnic, or religious supremacy; opposition to government authority and large-scale immigration; and stopping practices like abortion.
Just minutes before authorities were notified of the mass shooting in El Paso, a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto was published online, suspected to have been written by the assailant, in which he forewarned a ‘Hispanic invasion’ of Texas.
In a manifesto released just before he launched the Christchurch attack, the gunman raged about the low birth rates of whites, the mass immigration of foreigners, and the higher fertility rates of immigrants. The rambling 74-page manifesto concluded that: “this crisis of mass immigration and sub-replacement fertility is an assault on the European people that, if not combated, will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.”
Right-wing terrorism is a growing problem in the US too. Far-right extremists have now killed more people in the country than jihadist terrorists since 9/11, according to the New America think tank. Most mass shootings carried out between 1982 and 2019 were committed by young white men, according to a database compiled by Mother Jones, an online news site.
The FBI Director Chris Wray said in testimony to Congress in July that 100 domestic terror arrests had been made between October 2018 and June 2019 – more than the same period in the previous year – the majority of which, Wray said: “are motivated by some form of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
Security services have faced questions about their response to the threat. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency was sacked in September 2018 after it faced heavy criticism that it wasn’t taking the threat of far-right extremism seriously enough. His removal followed the conclusion of the biggest terrorism trial in Germany since the 1970s that detailed a neo-Nazi cell’s bloody campaign during the early 2000s in which 10 people were killed. The trial uncovered a catalogue of errors by the German security services, which overlooked evidence of far-right involvement in the killings. Eight of those killed were of Turkish origin, but police instead attributed the killings to gang violence.
A wave of populism and political polarisation have fanned the flames of right-wing extremism.
Britain’s MI5 initially resisted taking responsibility for investigating far-right threats even after the murder of MP Jo Cox, because it felt it had its hands full with dealing with Islamist extremist plots. That changed in 2017, when far-right violence, including a van being driven into worshippers outside Finsbury Park mosque, caused a rethink within the security services, the BBC reported.
Although there have been regular attacks in Europe and the US since Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in attacks in and around Oslo in 2011, a recent wave of populism and resulting political polarisation, particularly around immigration, have fanned the flames of right-wing extremism in the West.
Like Islamic extremism, the spread of far-right terrorism has been fuelled by online radicalisation. In alt-right circles it is known as “red pilling” – shorthand for having your eyes opened to how things really are, in reference to a scene from the film The Matrix, in which taking the ‘red pill’ would allow you to see “the truth.”
Although attackers typically act alone, they are part of a very active online community, where extreme content is widely circulated. A BBC report described a “far-right ecosystem” online. “This ecosystem is inhabited by a bewildering array of groups, from national neo-Nazis, often defined by anti-Semitism, to newer groups focusing on Western and European identity, which tend to identify Muslims as a threat.”
We are now no longer talking about one-off events, but a loosely coordinated chain of far-right attacks across the world.
Far-right extremists around the globe are not only using social media platforms to spread their message, raise funds, organise training and arrange protests and other events, but also to recruit followers and communicate with others on the fringe.
“We are now no longer talking about one-off events, but a loosely coordinated chain of far-right attacks across the world, where members of these networks inspire – and challenge – each other to beat each other’s body counts,” Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London told The Observer. “The aim is to carry out attacks, claim responsibility, explain your action, and inspire others to follow.”
Mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have in recent years sought to counter far-right extremists on their platforms by deactivating accounts and taking down content. But Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch attacker, was able to livestream his attack on Facebook. Although only about 200 people watched the attack live, the film quickly went viral. In the first 24 hours after the shootings, there were 1.5 million attempts by Facebook users to share the footage and whilst many were successfully blocked, more continued to circulate.
Even when mainstream sites have taken action, right-wing extremists have congregated on other sites, such as Gab, 4chan and 8chan, which have a more lenient attitude towards moderating content. The Christchurch attacker and Robert Bowers, the gunman in the Pittsburgh synagogue attacks in 2018, were active users of these niche social-media platforms, but 8chan has been closed after the suspected El Paso gunman was discovered to have posted a white nationalist screed on it. Users have already flocked to other sites.
Furthermore, according to Control Risks, “discerning what content merits regulation will remain a challenge for internet companies. As well as genuine extremist views, far-right activists often publish large amounts of content that is aimed specifically at distracting or confusing readers and moderators”.
People are becoming the main target of attacks fuelled by right-wing ideology and, unfortunately, we only see this threat increasing.
The threat from right-wing extremists is unlikely to diminish in the near future. “Attacks such as the ones in El Paso and Christchurch will continue to embolden some individuals espousing extreme right-wing ideology,” said Control Risks. “We have witnessed a worrying but growing trend in the past couple of years whereby people are becoming the main target of attacks fuelled by right-wing ideology and, unfortunately, we only see this threat increasing”, says Tom Holmes, Terrorism Underwriter for Hiscox London Market.
The challenge now is for security services in different countries to work together to tackle the growing threat. “Communities and organisations - especially those in areas where people congregate such as shopping malls, churches and festivals - are often ill prepared for attacks of this kind, and so the consequences can be profound.” adds Holmes. Although security services have woken up to the danger in their own countries, security experts argue that too often, Western security agencies fail to see the bigger picture: an international network that is behind the rising tide of hard-right violence.
The CSIS said: “Western countries have made significant strides since 9/11 in countering the threat from Islamic extremists, including those affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The threat posed by right-wing terrorists will require an equally sober and thoughtful assessment by leaders across the globe in order to prevent it from metastasizing further.”
Timeline of hate
June 2015: A gun attack carried out by a white supremacist at a mainly African American church in Charleston, South Carolina resulted in the deaths of nine people.
June 16, 2016: Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in West Yorkshire by a man who’d expressed extreme right-wing views.
June 19 2017: A van driven into worshippers near Finsbury Park mosque in London by a man radicalised by watching extreme right-wing content online, resulted in the death of one man and 12 people injured.
August 2017: Far-right sympathisers from across the US gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a man deliberately drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28.
October 26, 2018: 16 homemade bombs were sent to prominent American leaders by a bomber motivated by racist and anti-Semitic views.
October 27, 2018: 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by a gunman who espoused anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish views on social media.
March 15, 2019: 51 shot dead in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by a far-right extremist.
June 2019: Walter Lübcke a prominent German regional politician and staunch defender of the country’s policy of mass migration, was shot dead in his home in June. Police arrested a man with links to a well-known German neo-Nazi group.
July 2019: A 19-year old gunman fired indiscriminately into a crowd at the annual garlic festival in Gilroy, California, killing three and injuring 12 before killing himself.
August 3 2019: 22 people killed and 27 wounded in a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas by a 21-year-old man who confessed to targeting Mexicans.
August 4 2019: Nine people were killed and 27 injured by a white man aged 24 in Dayton, Ohio before he was shot dead by police. His motive hasn’t been revealed but police said he was influenced by a “violent ideology”.
August 10 2019: A gunman opened fire on the Al-Noor Islamic Centre in Oslo, injuring one person.