Is Right-Wing Terrorism Rising?


Is Right-Wing Terrorism Rising?

In both the United States and Europe, violence on the Right intersects with traditional politics and exacerbates political divides, giving it far more influence than it had in the past.

Although many of the political groups that espouse these sentiments are nonviolent, terrorism highlights the issues and associates them with violence: some more mainstream figures denounce terrorism outright, but others do so with qualifications, praising the cause as a whole, blaming the victim community with what-aboutisms or otherwise tacitly condoning some of the violence. After the New Zealand attack, Australian senator Fraser Anning claimed that the problem was allowing “Muslim fanatics” to migrate in the first place. After the Charlottesville violence, President Donald Trump claimed there was “blame on both sides.”

RIGHT-WING terrorism is typically classified as “domestic” terrorism, distinguishing it from “international” terrorism that involves a group attacking either foreign targets on its home territory or crossing borders to attack in another country: picture the Islamic State’s 2015 attack in Paris or Saudi jihadists striking an American target in Saudi Arabia. This distinction has important legal, bureaucratic and resource consequences. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and state law enforcement focus on domestic groups, while the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and other national security actors take the lead on international groups. International terrorists might be on the receiving end of a drone strike, while domestic terrorists are more likely to face years in jail. For most of U.S. and European modern history, right-wing groups, with their xenophobia, seemed clearly within the domestic box as opposed to Marxist, Islamist or other causes that spanned, and even rejected, national borders.

Although many militia and other anti-government groups are still in this box, at least some white supremacists now fit many characteristics of international terrorism. Tarrant himself was Australian and traveled over 1,000 miles to attack in New Zealand. He embraced the need for violence after an Uzbek asylum seeker drove a truck into a crowd of people in Sweden in 2017, killing five, and donated to right-wing anti-immigrant movements in France and Austria. His manifesto referenced Trump among other global figures. He wrote the name of a Canadian man who attacked a mosque in Canada in 2017 on one of the guns used in the attack, and in his Facebook Live video, he listened to a mix that includes Serbian nationalist songs as he prepared for his shooting spree. 

The ideas, and the fears, of extremists like Tarrant are more global than ever. Some of the concerns are longstanding, such as the never-ending fear of Jewish world domination. Over a hundred years ago, the Russian Tsar’s secret service forged the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to reveal such a Jewish grand design—a forgery that never seems to die. Now fears of migration, especially Muslim migration, have vaulted near or at the top of the list. Jews are not off the hook: they are supposedly at the core of a “cultural Marxism” that seeks to undermine the traditional Christian West by spreading racial mixing, homosexuality and feminism while importing dangerous foreigners to wreak havoc.

The script written by Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people, mostly youths at a camp for a left-leaning political party, in two dramatic attacks in Norway in 2011, is emerging as a rough blueprint for white supremacists worldwide. Breivik, like Tarrant, posted a “manifesto” that decried the alleged misdeeds of Muslims, liberals and others before the attack. Extremism expert J.M. Berger reports Christopher P. Hasson, a Coast Guard officer, carefully followed Breivik’s script when he stockpiled guns as part of a plot to target journalists and politicians.

In addition to looking globally for inspiration, some groups are seeking to forge more organizational connections across borders. Atomwaffen Division, an extremist American group that calls for a race war and has attracted members in the U.S. military, has established a chapter in Germany and has ties to the Sonnenkrieg Division, which has members in the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. Members of the British group National Action have ties to similar organizations in Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics.

TERRORIST GROUPS of all sorts use the Internet to communicate with followers, spread propaganda, harass their enemies and coordinate operations. In recent years, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other companies have made impressive gains against the virtual presence of the Islamic State and other designated groups, removing much of their propaganda and otherwise hindering their online efforts and driving them to less popular (and thus less useful) platforms like Telegram.

Internet companies, however, have a different standard for white supremacist and other right-wing content. It is politically, and legally, easier for firms to act against terrorist groups designated by governments like the United States than it is to go after right-wing organizations that are hateful and prone to violence but still legal. From a technical point of view, the companies’ artificial intelligence algorithms are less focused on white supremacist content, with less data and less “training” to take it down automatically. YouTube, for example, still hosts a large amount of white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other hateful content on its platform. Much of this is because of the linkages between legitimate right-wing politics and more extreme voices: Silicon Valley firms are already regularly criticized for “bias” against conservatives, and acting against white nationalists would also lead to the takedown of some content from right-wing politicians. Republican Congressman Steve King, for example, has repeatedly tweeted out content from white nationalist accounts. Taking similar steps against jihadist-linked content is far less controversial.

The ability of right-wing groups to exploit social media has helped them expand their global presence and led to a melding of agendas from different countries. They can easily interact with like-minded bigots from other countries and view online propaganda about the crimes of Muslim migrants, the need to defend white communities and so on. In addition, countries like Russia can use social media troll farms to exacerbate divisions and otherwise play up the fears of right-wing audiences.

EVEN BY the standards of violent and radical movements, right-wing groups have many weaknesses. The groups themselves are inchoate. One of the driving factors behind the recent proliferation of hate groups is that the movement itself is divided, so no single group is capitalizing on the movement’s recent energy. Many of the groups lack formal members, a clear command structure or other means of ensuring a common set of objectives that would prioritize their actions, and other necessary conditions for group effectiveness. It would be more troubling, in fact, if there were fewer groups because the organizations consolidated and their membership surged.

Russian support, too, has its limits. Moscow seeks chaos and weakness in the West. It does not control these groups, but rather views them as pawns for weakening its foes. Such support still helps white supremacists and others, but it suggests Moscow’s commitment to these groups and causes is not strong.

Many members of the movement are low-level criminals or are otherwise in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. In an examination of radicalization in the United States, the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that over half of right-wing terrorists in the United States had a pre-radicalization criminal history, in contrast to only a third of jihadists. This puts them on the radar screen of police and makes them vulnerable to government efforts to “turn” them by threatening to imprison them for more traditional crimes. It also discredits them in many local communities, whose members are aware of their violent and criminal sides and see it as tarnishing the cause as a whole.

Perhaps most importantly, the right-wing organizations have benefited from a permissive social media and law enforcement environment, with attention focusing on jihadist groups in particular. As a result, much of their recruiting and fundraising is done semi-openly, and many of the individuals have little sense of operational security in comparison with their jihadist counterparts. Should law enforcement seek to crush them, it would be devastating.

THE RIGHT-wing terrorism challenge is considerable, but the good news is that a few basic measures can move the needle considerably.

A first step is simply data gathering to better understand what the trends are in right-wing terrorism. In the United States, the federal government should require reporting from state and local officials, and other countries should do the same. Criteria should be harmonized to ensure consistent reporting and to allow comparisons. Data must be transparent, allowing community organizations and civil society to weigh in, and help improve collection through their criticism.

Groups like Atomwaffen that have an international component can be designated as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). As Mary McCord and Jason Blazakis argued in Lawfare, “the designation of an organization as an FTO means that providing material support or resources (defined to include tangible or intangible property or services) to an FTO is itself a federal crime.” The Justice Department has used a “material support” charge more than four hundred times since 9/11. Whether a violent group’s “foreign” linkage is to Nazism or to jihadism should not matter. When prosecutors can target “material support,” however, even small financial or other forms of assistance to a group become reasons for action, making it far more likely such white supremacists would be brought before a judge and the movement as a whole disrupted.