Less than five months after the shooting of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in the United States, the March 15 mass shootings at two mosques which killed 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, have raised a debate about the changing nature of terrorism in western countries. In particular, the rise of far-right terrorism.
There are two important questions to ask: firstly, is far-right terrorism a growing threat in the West? And secondly, does it present different challenges to overcome compared to other forms of terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism?
The best starting point is statistics of recorded terror incidents. Admittedly, there is no universal definition of what terrorism is, so statistics differ depending on which metrics are used. Terrorism at its core is the use or threat of violence by sub-state groups or individuals against a targeted population to achieve a political goal through fear.
Far-right terrorism itself has different subsets of groups and aims. It describes sub-state groups or individuals that use or threaten violence based on beliefs that a personal or national way of life is under threat. Right-wing extremist goals vary - from racial, ethnic, or religious supremacy, to opposition of government authority, globalism and social issues like LGBT+ rights and abortion.
Statistics of far-right terrorism in the West come mainly from North America and Europe. The Global Terrorism Database reported that in the US, the percentage of terror attacks attributed to the far-right increased from six per cent in 2010 to 35 per cent in 2016. In the same timeframe, far-right terrorism accounted for more incidents than Islamic terrorism. In the 16 years after 9/11, Islamic extremism was responsible for 104 deaths in the US, compared to 86 for right-wing extremism.
In Western Europe, there were three times as many far-right attacks between 2015-2017 compared to the period between 2002-2014. More broadly in the European Union, after 63 completed, foiled and failed Islamic terrorist attacks occurred between 2015 and 2017 with 347 deaths, 2018 saw a sharp decline with only around 20 deaths - attributed to the decline of ISIS and a stronger counter-terrorism response from EU authorities. The number of incidents in 2018 is yet to be released.
With the increased frequency in far-right terrorist activity, the question is begged whether far-right extremism presents particular challenges which make it harder to combat compared to other types of extremism.
The use of online platforms such as social media and online forums has been well documented among extreme right groups. Using these platforms, some of which are on the dark web or encrypted, they are able to spread propaganda to inspire “lone wolf” attacks, recruit members to their causes, as well as pass on knowledge about how to carry out attacks. Potential attackers are hard to spot and stop and if they act alone or in small cells outside of large organised groups.
These online tactics are not entirely new. The way the perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks spread his manifesto and live-streamed the attacks reflect past tactics used by ISIS spread their propaganda to inspire others to do the same. According to Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the perpetrator’s references to well-known right-wing extremists like Anders Breivik and use of right-wing symbolism and memes in his manifesto suggest he was deeply involved in far-right online culture and perhaps part of a wider network.
What is particularly striking is the capacity of right-wing extremists to expand their networks worldwide through online platforms, but also travel internationally, sometimes to organise and meet others with shared views. The perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks was allegedly radicalised from events he witnessed while in travelling Europe. Another example is members of the Rise Above Movement, a militant US right-wing extremist group, travelling to Germany, Ukraine and Italy to meet European white supremacists. This stands in contrast to US President Donald Trump’s travel bans from five Islamic countries to the US, despite every Islamic terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 being committed by a US citizen or permanent resident.
Here there is a broader issue of the current social and political environments in Western countries. The rise of far-right views in the political landscapes of the US after 9/11 and in Europe coinciding with the mass migration of asylum seekers from the Middle East since 2015 has been linked to increased incidences of right-wing extremist violence.
Comments from President Trump after the Christchurch attack downplaying the threat of far-right extremism indicate that a review is needed of Western countries’ domestic counter-terrorism and radicalisation strategies. In New Zealand, there is set to be a Royal Commission into its intelligence agencies after the Christchurch attack, particularly the focus of these agencies in looking for terror risks. Funding cuts in both Australia and the US for programs to prevent right-wing extremism and radicalisation have come under scrutiny, particularly with the greater focus from governments on Islamic radicalisation.
A starting point for Western countries to truly tackle far-right extremism is to look at it not solely as a domestic security concern, but rather as an international security issue. Given the growing mobilisation of far-right extremists through the internet and their capacity to travel internationally, the political and security situations in one country have wide-reaching implications for others.
Philip Taleski is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs