Extreme Right-Wing Violence in the West: In Remission?

Posted: March 5, 2022 in RSIS
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Finally, my last catch-up post from last year’s annual threat assessment for Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA), the RSIS in-house journal, this time looking at the extreme right wing threat over the past year. As with last year’s this one was with wonderful Kyler.

Extreme Right-Wing Violence in the West: In Remission?

Against the backdrop of persistent political and societal polarisation, particularly in the West, violence linked to the extreme right has declined, or at least remained static, during the past year. Since the events in Washington DC on 6 January, there were no major large-scale acts of violence linked exclusively to the extreme right compared to the previous year. However, smaller scale violence has manifested in other forms, e.g. clashes between law enforcement and COVID-19 protestors, anti-immigrant groups across Europe in particular, and occasional disrupted plots. There continues to be an ideological fluidity within some of these events, driven by an overriding anti-establishment sentiment, with the extreme right often one of a number of the ideas along the spectrum articulated through a particular incident. This was most apparent during former US President Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid, which played against the backdrop of COVID-19 measures globally, and generated a confusing new set of conspiracy theories. Finally, the continuing discovery of extreme right-linked radicalisation within security forces globally, while not a new phenomenon, continues to pose a substantial risk.

Threat Landscape Prior to 2021

There has been a degree of constancy and, in some instances, change regarding the extreme right terror threat in the last two years. This is both in terms of the scale and frequency of violence and the ideological inspirations behind the violence. In terms of the global picture, 2019 marked an apex of extreme right-wing violence, with the deadly Christchurch mosques attack in New Zealand marking a particularly heinous high point. In 2020, violence continued globally to less dramatic effect (one study showed only two incidents in western Europe,819 though EUROPOL’s data during the same period showed only one incident), in part, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions which impacted terrorist capability across the board.820

However, 2020 was also the apex of several ideological trends which played out against the backdrop of the world trying to grapple with the new reality of COVID-19 (that echoed across ideological spectrums), the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (which provided an angry counter-point for the extreme right to react to), and the highly-charged US presidential election that polarised the US society (but also further afield) along nationalistic lines, fostering a “militia-sphere” with international links. This attention seemed to push the American “militia-sphere” in particular into a series of incidents of violence and plots in the US.821 This was echoed in Europe, particularly Germany, which recorded the highest levels of extreme right crime in 20 years.822 It also appeared to resonate, though to a lesser degree, in other parts of the world due to the sheer volume of noise generated by the increasingly polarised American political discourse.

2021 Threat Landscape

Decline in Terrorist Incidents

Apart from the 6 January Capitol Hill riot in Washington, DC, that saw some 800 people, among whom an unclear number were identifiably right-wing extremists, storm the US Capitol in support of former president Donald Trump following his failure to get re-elected, large-scale acts of violence emanating exclusively from the extreme right were limited in 2021.823 Arrests of individuals suspected of terrorism offences linked to right-wing extremism continued primarily in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific (mostly Australia with sporadic and random cases elsewhere). Much of the violence in the last year was in the form of clashes between law enforcement officials and COVID-19 protesters against government lockdown measures and, more recently, against the implementation of vaccination mandates and “vaccine passports.”824

In Europe, ongoing police disruptions and protests continue to point to a diffused problem. There have been reports of violent groups in Germany targeting migrants825 and synagogues.826 Continuing disruptions in the UK’s Midlands region are also linked to extreme right-wing plotting.827 A particularly disturbing disruption in France involved a 26-year-old who was arrested for making pipe bombs with uranium dust.828 A rare plot in Poland saw two individuals charged for planning to attack a mosque.829 A plot disrupted in Italy saw a network of 12 arrested for reportedly planning to attack a NATO base.830 As disturbing as these disruptions and incidents were, there was no major extreme right-wing terror attack, and it is unclear how linked (if at all) any of these incidents were. It was also not clear from available data that there had been a surge in detentions worldwide, with the various plots disrupted seeming to be part of a broader trend than a spike.

The reasons behind this are unclear at this stage. It is likely to some degree that the heavy COVID-19 restrictions imposed across Europe have made the operating environment harder. At the same time, the push online that has taken place during this period has theoretically provided a ripe environment for ideologies to spread. It has certainly helped develop the problem of very young people being drawn towards extremist plotting, with MI5 Chief Ken McCallum reporting his service had investigated a 13-year-old who later pled guilty.831 The anonymity of the online world has lowered the threshold for youth involvement. But while reporting on the very young being involved in plotting has continued, it has not translated into actual violent actions, suggesting other factors may be at play.832 Finally, it may be that increased security force attention that has followed the surge in focus on the extreme right in the past few years may be yielding results. This increasing attention was highlighted in Australia, where the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) reported that almost half of its “onshore priority counterterrorism caseload” involved “ideologically motivated violent extremists, such as racist and nationalist violent extremists.”833 This was an increase from the previous year, where the agency reported that the extreme right accounted for around 40 per cent of its workload.834 In the US, security officials made public pronouncements about the escalating nature of the domestic, extreme right-leaning terrorist threat and its focus by security forces.835

A further explanation might be found in the end of the Trump presidency. The administration’s rhetoric had previously allowed right-wing extremism to thrive. In this respect, Trump’s refusal to condemn the far right when called to, and seeming support for extremist groups with right-wing leanings such as the Proud Boys or conspiracy movements such as QAnon, arguably gave them a boost. This in turn resonated globally.836 However, the Proud Boys and QAnon have since suffered internal fractures following the election of Joe Biden. The former group feels betrayed by Trump’s denouncement of the 6 January riot (which they claimed was incited by him). The latter is increasingly disillusioned by the “storm” that never came. This conspiracy has served as the ultimate linchpin to QAnon’s core belief that Trump will eventually bring down the shadowy cabal,837 leading to a few disillusioned QAnon supporters no longer “trust(ing) the plan.”838 Trump’s removal and increasing de-platforming from both mainstream media outlets and social media have reduced his reach outside his core audience, somewhat turning down the heat on the anger and polarisation he stirred.

That is not to say that the highly-charged nationalism powered by anti-immigrant sentiments and white supremacism is no longer a threat. On the contrary, according to the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research’s (ICPVTR) monitoring of social media accounts of right-wing extremist channels and groups, violent rhetoric against immigrants in the Western hemisphere remains rife. A case in point is the May 2021 border crisis between Spain and Morocco, which saw some 8,000 African migrants crossing into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which share a border with Morocco.

This episode garnered widespread attention on Spanish social media, as Spaniards blame the government for the “invasion,” call for the deaths of immigrants, and cast accusations on African immigrants, particularly Moroccans, for any criminal acts by foreigners with darker skin tone reported in mainstream media. While chatter as such may be regarded as harmless white noise – habitual of the extreme right’s empty threats that often dominate its online platforms and discourse – it points to an underlying seething anger of government betrayal based around xenophobic and racist sentiments towards immigrants that provide a ripe environment for extreme right groups to thrive. While there has been less evidence of actual attacks, the extreme right’s agitational rhetoric persists.

Ideological Confluence

An additional element that has exacerbated the extreme right has been its ability as an ideology to appropriate and repurpose the language of others. This includes initially antagonistic ideologies which are co-opted to fit the extreme right worldview, justify their extremist actions, and exploit anger, distrust, and alienation to converge on a mutual enemy. All of this is done to galvanise extremist behaviour and sometimes violence.

In some instances, this confluence can play out in organised actions, like during the 6 January Capitol Hill riot or in various protests against COVID-19 measures worldwide. In both cases, strands of the extreme right as well as other ideologies can be found. The anti-vaccine movement has provided fertile ground for extreme right conspiracy theories to thrive. Some segments have reacted negatively to COVID-19 restrictions, including some on the left, leading to odd fusions with left-wing countercultures.839 In Australia, but also elsewhere, recent mob action in September against the trade union’s decision to mandate vaccination for workers in the construction industry led to protests involving a wide gamut of far-right nationalists, anti-vaxxers, libertarians, and trade unionists to the most obscure conspiracy theorists.840 Across Europe, COVID-19 demonstrations were often an amalgamation of different movements motivated by different ideologies. Whereas some movements merely seek increased individual autonomy on medical freedom, others are fueled by more extreme left and right-wing elements. But it is often the right leaning element that appears dominant in the violence. A shared sense of anti establishmentarianism often drives such groups, with the left-right element sometimes getting lost in between.

Web 2.0 has also made it easier for the flow of Western extreme right rhetoric to other parts of the world where such a narrative typically does not have traction. While still very uncommon, Western extreme right ideologies and conspiracy theories have been seeded in parts of Asia, where selective beliefs are being repurposed to fit local contexts. In Singapore, for instance, the arrest of a 16-year-old led to the disruption of an attempted copycat attack of the Christchurch terrorist attack by Brenton Tarrant. The boy reportedly planned to attack Muslims at two local mosques on the second anniversary of the March 2019 Christchurch mosques shooting.841

Lastly, the 2020 CTTA Annual Threat Assessment had highlighted the uptick in violence by men with incel-leaning ideology since 2018 and the connection of this misogynistic subculture within the tapestry of the extreme right.842 This confluence was particularly visible in the case of Tobias Rathjen, who carried out a mass shooting in January 2020 in Hanau, Germany, against the minority community. While his motivation can be pegged as a blend of white supremacism and antiimmigrant nativism, there was clear evidence of his espousal of antigovernment QAnon and incel thinking in videos and messages he published around the attack.843

The occasional violence that has emerged out of this largely benign and non-violent movement mimics the traditional terrorist modus operandi, making a case for its inclusion within terrorist studies.844 In August 2021, Jake Davison went on a shooting rampage killing five people in Plymouth, UK.845 While not much is known of his exact motive, there are clear hints of his incel thinking and right-wing libertarian tendencies, including his pro-Trumpism and gun-right advocacy.846 However, it is also notable how this case was exceptional with few other overt incel cases reported during 2021, feeding into the overall analysis that the violent expression of the threat picture is reduced (or at least static) in 2021.

Conspiracies Chasing Meanings

The extreme right has once again proven their adeptness at adjusting their narrative and conspiracy theories to fit new realities and sustain their worldview. For example, following the failure of Trump’s re-election campaign, the QAnon movement’s credibility among its adherents was dealt a blow, as the prediction that Trump would prevail and continue to bring the “cabal” down was quashed. Instead, new theories emerged to explain Trump’s defeat, claiming that “[s]ometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light.”847 In a bid to sustain support and boost morale, QAnon members online have been observed to continue to reshare prior mysterious and interpretative “drops” published by Q.848 QAnon members treat the “drops” like prophetic gospels to explain obscure new happenings that tie them to the QAnon’s overarching belief that the plan is still in place and that the “Storm” and “Day of Reckoning” when the cabal will be defeated will eventually arrive.

Likewise, COVID-19 conspiracy theories promulgated by the extreme right have also changed, as a shift in strategy was warranted when governments moved from lockdown restrictions to implementing vaccination requirements affecting the dayto-day lives of the people. At the start of the pandemic, conspiracies were focused on peddling the virus as either fake, a biological weapon, or a form of population control through measures including nationwide lockdowns. By the second half of 2021, there was a proliferation of anti vaccination conspiracies taking centre stage. Regardless of the shift, what was retained is a deep strain of anti-Semitism that advances the extreme right agenda that a Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) is colluding with Western governments for world domination.849

Disturbingly, however, cases have demonstrated deep roots behind them, with the case of anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist and soldier Jurgen Conings revealed to be the tip of a larger extreme right conspiracy in Belgium. His case also illustrated the danger from the extreme right in infiltrating western security forces. There was a considerable security force (current or former) present during the 6 January Capitol riot, with senior figures of the Proud Boys also members of security forces.850 The recent sentencing of two members of the neo-Nazi white nationalist group, the Base, also revealed the involvement of former military servicemen.851 The insider threat picture since 2020 from former (or serving) military personnel amongst the extreme right has not changed.852

In Europe, the issue remains a major problem, especially in Germany, which saw the disbandment of an elite wing of the armed forces in 2020 due to its extreme right connections. Last year, a battalion of the military’s honour guard was suspended for a similar association.853 Whilst not exactly the same, a similar degree of tension between civilians and soldiers was apparent in France, where open letters from allegedly semi-retired and active French soldiers warned of a civil war due to the government’s “concession” to Islamism. 854 Recently, a former local politician and far-right conspiracy theorist in France was also charged, amongst other terrorist acts, for plotting a coup against the government and recruiting soldiers to facilitate the act.855 Such open rebellion highlights a significant homegrown problem that Western nations have faced over the last decade following the migrant crisis in Europe.

Outlook

As nations emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns and establish a new normal, ongoing COVID-19 mandates are likely to provide more ammunition to the extreme right and its anti-establishment narratives. The underlying and omnipresent issues of racism and nativism that have provided the extreme right with great sustenance have calmed down but not gone away. As Western nations continue to grapple with the political polarisation of sensitive issues such as immigration, the “us versus them” partisanship will continue to wedge an ever-wider gap between the extremes and unravel already fragile social fabrics. Those that fall in between will feel the exponential push and pull force from either side, aided by Web 2.0 as a content sharing vehicle. Complicating the extreme right threat picture further will be how effective the governments are in stemming the influence of extreme right ideology in youth and the security forces, in particular. Governments in the West are increasingly putting their security forces under the microscope, making arrests and disbanding segments tainted by right-wing extremism. A proactive approach of weeding out extremists during the recruitment process,856 however, should also be thrown into the mix.

About the Authors

Kyler Ong was formerly an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She can be reached at iskylerong@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

819 Madeleine Thorstensen and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “Stable Trends in Unstable Times: Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe in 2020,” Center for Research on Extremism, September 31, 2021, https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-andevents/right-now/2021/stable-trends-in-unstabletimes-right-wing-violenc.html.

820 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the West,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 13, no. 1 (January 2021): 118, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January2021.pdf.

821 Ibid., 119.

822 Laurenz Gehrke, “Germany Records Highest Level of Right-Wing Extremist Crime in 20 Years,” Politico, May 4, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-records-highest-level-of-right-wing-extremist-crimes-in-20-years/.

823 Apart from the case of Nathaniel Veltman, who rammed into a Muslim family in London, Ontario, Canada. Veltman has been discovered to be a follower of Brenton Tarrant, the right-wing extremist gunman responsible for the 2019 Christchurch mosques shootings. See Andrew Russell, Stewart Bell and Mercedes Stephenson, “EXCLUSIVE: London Attack Suspect Was Inspired by New Zealand Mosque Shooter, Sources Say,” Global News, November 10, 2021, https://globalnewsca.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/globalnews.ca/news/8361038/london-attack-suspect-inspired-newzealand-mosque-shooter/amp/.

824 Even so, it is imperative to highlight that both the January 6 Capitol riot and the COVID-19 protests run the gamut of all sides when it comes to the ideological adherence of those involved. See Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists,” The Atlantic, February 2, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-otherextremists/617895/; “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Far-Right Came Together Over COVID,” The Conversation, September 21, 2021, https://theconversation.com/its-almost-likegrooming-how-anti-vaxxers-conspiracy-theoristsand-the-far-right-came-together-over-covid168383.

825 “Germany to Increase Controls as Far-Right Activists Target Polish Border,” France 24, October 24, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/livenews/20211024-germany-to-increase-controlsas-far-right-activists-target-polish-border.

826 Oliver Towfigh Nia, “Germany Arrests 4 for Alleged Terror Attack Plot on Synagogue,” Anadolu Agency, September 16, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/germanyarrests-4-for-alleged-terror-attack-plot-onsynagogue/2366479.

827 “Three People From Keighley Charged With Right Wing Terrorism Offences,” ITV News, May 14, 2021, https://www.itv.com/news/calendar/2021-05-14/three-people-from-keighley-charged-with-rightwing-terrorism-offences; “South Yorkshire Man Charged With Terrorism and Drugs Offences,” Counter Terrorism Policing, April 24, 2021, https://www.counterterrorism.police.uk/southyorkshire-man-charged-with-terrorism-and-drugsoffences/.

828 Mitchell Prothero, “Neo-Nazi and KKK Fanboy Built Pipe Bombs With Uranium From eBay,” Vice, September 13, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgxjxd/neo-naziand-kkk-fanboy-built-pipe-bombs-with-uraniumfrom-ebay.

829 “Polish Far-Right Extremists Charged Over Terror Plot on Mosque,” Kafkadesk, January 8, 2021, https://kafkadesk.org/2021/01/08/polish-farright-extremists-charged-over-terror-plot-onmosque/.

830 Hannah Roberts, “Italian Neo-Nazis Were Plotting to Bomb NATO Base, Police Say,” Politico, June 7, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-neo-naziswere-plotting-to-bomb-nato-base-police-say/.

831 Dan Sabbagh, “MI5 Investigated Far-Right Terror Suspect Who Was 13 Years Old,” The Guardian, July 14, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jul/14/mi5-investigated-rightwing-terror-suspect-whowas-13-years-old.

832 For example, rather than actual extremist ideology-inspired terrorism, the very young could simply be playacting online lives. But further research is still required to conclusively assess the factors underpinning the involvement of the very young.

833 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, 2021, 4, https://www.asio.gov.au/sites/default/files/Annual%20Report%202020-21%20WEB.pdf.

834 Paul Karp, “Asio Reveals Up to 40% of Its Counter-Terrorism Cases Involve Far-Right Violent Extremism,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-itscounter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violentextremism.

835 Mark Hosenball, “White Supremacist Groups Pose Rising U.S. Threat, Garland Says,” Reuters, May 12, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/whitesupremacist-groups-pose-rising-us-threatgarland-says-2021-05-12/.

836 “Germany Shooting: What We Know About the Hanau Attack,” BBC News, February 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe51571649.

837 Camila Domonoske, “The QAnon ‘Storm’ Never Struck. Some Supporters Are Wavering, Others Steadfast,” National Public Radio, January 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-daylive-updates/2021/01/20/958907699/the-qanonstorm-never-struck-some-supporters-arewavering-others-steadfast.

838 QAnon adherents generally believe that there is a plan to bring down the shadowy cabal ruled by a Jewish-dominated world government and elites, and that Donald Trump himself is executing this plan. Based on ICPVTR’s monitoring of QAnon social media channels and groups, hints of disillusionment have emerged in the QAnon camp and some members are increasingly frustrated that nothing has come to fruition to rescue the people from Covid-19 restrictions.

839 George Monbiot, “It’s Shocking to See So Many Leftwingers Lured to the Far Right by Conspiracy Theories,” The Guardian, September 22, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/22/leftwingers-far-right-conspiracy-theoriesanti-vaxxers-power.

840 Josh Roose, “‘It’s Almost Like Grooming’: How Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theorists and the Far Right Came Together Over COVID,” ABC News, September 22, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-22/howantivaxxers-conspiracy-theorists-far-rightmelbourne-protest/100481874.

841 Koh, “Teen Detained for Planning.”

842 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 121.

843 Ibid.

844 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation as Security Threat,” RSIS Commentary, October 6, 2020, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2020/10/CO20176.pdf.

845 Matthew Weaver and Steven Morris, “Plymouth Gunman: A Hate-Filled Misogynist and ‘Incel’,” The Guardian, August 13, 2021, https://amp.theguardian.com/uknews/2021/aug/13/plymouth-shooting-suspectwhat-we-know-jake-davison.

846 “Plymouth Shooting Suspect Jake Davison Who Killed Five Was A ‘Loner’ and Had Gun Permit,” Agence France-Presse, August 13, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3144873/plymouth-shooting-6-dead-includinggunman-who-opened-fire.

847 Laurence Arnold and Daniel Zuidijk, “What’s Become of QAnon Since Trump’s Defeat?” Bloomberg, June 14, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-14/what-s-become-of-qanon-since-trump-sdefeat-quicktake.

848 “Intelligence Drops,” https://qalerts.app/.

849 “ZOG,” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hatesymbols/zog.

850 Sarah Sidner and Marshall Cohen, “Disproportionate Number of Current and Former Military Personnel Arrested in Capitol Attack, CNN Analysis Shows,” CNN, February 4, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/31/us/capitol-riotarrests-active-military-veterans-soh/index.html.

851 “Two US Neo-Nazis From ‘The Base’ Jailed For Terrorist Plot,” BBC News, October 29, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada59085935.

852 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism,” 124-125.

853 “Germany Suspends Soldiers in Military Guard Over Far-Right Allegations,” Deutsche Welle, October 8, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-suspendssoldiers-in-military-guard-over-far-rightallegations/a-59451421.

854 “French Soldiers Warn of Civil War in New Letter,” BBC News, May 10, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe57055154.

855 “Rémy Daillet: Conspiracist Charged Over Alleged French Coup Plot,” BBC News, October 28, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope-59075902.

856 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” 38.

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