Posts Tagged ‘extreme right wing’

Some time ago, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report which provided an evaluation drawing on intelligence community thoughts and assessments about the nature and scale of the extreme right-wing threat in the UK. Its main recommendation seemed to be the security services needed more capability to manage this threat, which seemed dissonant to me with the wider discourse about the threat at the moment. Inspired I wrote the following for my UK institutional home, RUSI.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK: How Concerned Should We Be?

Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy

A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.

The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.

Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.

According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.

Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.

But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.

But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.

Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.

The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).

This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.

There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.

The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.

This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.

This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricinPatriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.

The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.

This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?

Another brief break from book promotion, this time a new article for my Singaporean institutional journal Counter Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA). This was an attempt to look back at COVID-19 and reflect a bit on some of my earlier pieces which looked at who benefitted most or not from the pandemic. Not sure everything I wrote earlier on quite played out, but some bits did. Am still convinced this anti-establishmentarian narrative will gain more traction and the extreme right in Continental Europe is going to be a bigger problem going forwards.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism and COVID-19 – A Two-Year Stocktake

As the pandemic moves into its third year, normality appears to be returning. While caution has not dissipated, there is no doubt that governments’ treatment of COVID-19 has changed. As countries embrace a wider “open up” strategy, this is already being flagged as a possible opportunity for terrorists.1 These warnings are linked to concerns that, as countries open up, the barriers erected to prevent COVID-19 from spreading will lift and make terrorist plotting easier once again. But a larger question lingers about what the actual impact of COVID-19 has been on terrorist threats at an ideological level. Given the threat has resonated in a stronger fashion on the Extreme Right, this article seeks to sketch out that impact and assess its wider implications.

Introduction

Following the onset of the pandemic, there was a rush of commentary and subsequent research trying to understand its potential impact on terrorist and extremist threats.2 The conclusions drawn were fairly diverse, but few observers concluded that terrorism would be reduced as a result of the pandemic. Rather, concerns were articulated that the threats would become worse, owing to a variety of reasons – the increasing amount of time people were spending online;3 the growing isolation fostered by lockdowns;4 the uncertainty created by the pandemic;5 and the likely shrinking of counter-terrorism and P/CVE budgets.6 There was also divergence within the research community, with sharply dissenting voices pouring cold water on more dramatic prognostications, including that there would be a surge in online radicalisation.7

As it turned out, in the broadest possible terms, the two major threat ideologies diverged in their response to the pandemic. Violent Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) broadly framed the pandemic as God’s providence and something followers should not worry too much about, except to celebrate how it made their enemies suffer and to maintain resilience.8 In some cases, they spoke of how strategic opportunities might present themselves, which followers should take advantage of,9 and at some lower levels, chatter was picked up that suggested people should try to weaponise the virus.10 But this was never something that the core organisations called on their followers to do.

In contrast, among the Extreme Right (violent, extremist or just Far Right), groups embraced the pandemic in their narratives to recruit and mainstream even further than they had already. Protests around pandemic restrictions were frequently adopted and promoted by extreme right-wing groups, and anti-establishment narratives absorbed pandemic resistance smoothly into their views.11 Systemic conspiracy theories also ran rife, absorbing prominent figures like Bill Gates into narratives of population control through vaccination,12 as well as broader conspiracies involving undermining indigenous communities.13

On the Far Left, an anti-systemic narrative also did catch on, but with far less vigour. While fears of government control could be found, their greater concern was with the resurgent far right or other acts of societal injustice.14 More confusing ideologies like the QAnon or Incel movement seemed to echo pandemic conspiracies but, for the most part, this merely fed into the wider chatter around their ideologies rather than transforming them.15 It was not clear from available research what the effect was on other faith-based extremisms – like Buddhist or Hindu extremists, for example.

Early Terrorist Action

Little of this noise translated into actual terrorist action, although there were widespread instances of civil disturbance – most prominently on January 6, 2021 when supporters of former US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This was one of many instances where large protests ended in violence and involved resistance to pandemic restrictions, amongst other motivations. In Australia, it seemed as though the Extreme Right actively took advantage of such protests to advance their ideas.16

It was not always clear the degree to which the protests were terrorist activity, nor whether the protests could be entirely placed in the ideological category to which they were often linked. For example, during anti-lockdown protests or the January 6 assault on the Capitol, there were undoubtedly many extreme right-wing leaning individuals involved, but it remains unclear if they made up the entire corpus of the protest. Nor is it clear that the protest could be described as entirely motivated by extreme right-wing ideas.

In terms of terrorist action that could be directly linked to the pandemic, the list is more limited. At the pandemic’s onset, two cases in the United States seemed to suggest a direct link to the government’s response to the virus – Timothy Wilson’s attempted bombing of a Missouri hospital and Eduardo Moreno’s train derailment targeting the US Navy’s hospital ship Mercy docked in the Port of Los Angeles. Whilst clearly targeting institutions linked to the government’s pandemic response, both had different origins.

Wilson, a long-standing subject of interest to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had links to a serving US soldier stationed in Kansas who was reportedly planning to fight alongside the Azov Battalion in Ukraine.17 He had also spoken of launching attacks on multiple domestic targets, including prominent Democrat politicians.18 Reportedly, Wilson had long been planning some sort of incident, and it is possible that the pandemic simply changed his targeting choices. He had also seemingly been planning his attack with the full knowledge of the FBI, although it was not clear whether this was because of an undercover agent who turned him in, or whether he was simply under FBI surveillance.19

In contrast, Moreno was a railway worker arrested for planning an attack by himself. This involved derailing the train he was working on in the Port of Los Angeles in an attempt to draw people’s attention towards the “government take-over” that he perceived was happening.20 As was stated in his indictment, “Moreno believed people needed to know what was going on with the COVID19” pandemic and the U.S.N.S. Mercy.21 Among other claims, Moreno stated that “they are segregating us and it needs to be put in the open.”22 He was also very specific in stating that “no one was pushing his buttons” in orchestrating the attack, reflecting his desire to not have his stated motivations dismissed.23

These two early cases received considerable attention, coming as they did in the immediate wake of the early announcements of lockdowns in March 2020, and as people sought a better sense of the pandemic’s likely impact on extremism. In both cases, action involving the perpetrators took place, and some inspiration from the pandemic response was involved in the attack planning, although not necessarily in the same way. While Moreno’s attack was clearly a response to the pandemic, Wilson seemed a longer-term extremist linked to Extreme Right networks who decided on a pandemic-related target relatively late in his planning cycle.24

From what is known about Moreno’s attack, it is possible to conclude that sans the pandemic the attack might not have happened. In contrast, Wilson’s pre-existing links to other extremists and networks suggest he could have acted even if the pandemic had not taken place. The pandemic appears to have presented an interesting targeting opportunity for Wilson, with the government’s response to the event reinforcing Wilson’s pre-existing worldview.25 This could also be the case for Moreno (he may have already held some anti-government ideas), but not enough is known about his case to draw a decisive conclusion.

In a survey of pandemic-related terrorism done in March 2021, Sam Mullins and Michael King concluded that this pattern of activity held across the extreme right-wing cases they surveyed.26 Looking at a dataset of seven cases, including both Moreno and Wilson, they concluded that all the individuals, aside from Moreno and one other where it was unclear, had pre-existing extreme right-wing tendencies (mostly linked to the anti-government Boogaloo Bois movement).27

The authors’ conclusion was that it remains too early to conclude that the pandemic has spurred more violence. While the cases they explored largely highlighted how problems of extremism have generally gotten worse along the same trajectory as prior to the pandemic, they are less clear about the pandemic’s potential accelerating effect.28 A survey of wider trends a year into the pandemic concluded something very similar, though it broadly surmised that the Extreme Right seemed like it was going to be affected more than the violent Islamist community.29

Trouble Spreading?

Largely, existing trends have continued and, as the pandemic ends, the expectation should be that extremist-linked activity will pick up as they had before. Consequently, parts of Europe may find themselves once again most seriously afflicted by lone-actor terrorism; the United States may face a metastasising menace of extreme right-wing and anti-government groups; Africa a sharpening terrorist threat linked to IS affiliates; the Middle East a constant threat; and Southeast Asia a threat that appears to have slowed over the past few years. Afghanistan has already started to export problems north and south of its border, suggesting the mid-2021 Taliban take-over is going to worsen long-standing terrorist problems across South Asia (and even into Central Asia). None of this brief overview seems to have been impacted notably by COVID-19.

However, there are some patterns that do appear to be worsening and can be linked to the pandemic. In particular, the extreme right-wing threat in Europe. A long-standing threat, it has in the past year shifted in a direction to resemble its North American counterpart in a way that is novel and potentially destabilising. There has been a notable number of large-scale disruptions that suggest networks of radicalised individuals, often with military training, inspired by extreme-right ideas and eager to strike targets associated with the pandemic response. Events in Ukraine have had an impact on the broader extreme right-wing in Europe, but this appears to have happened in parallel to the pandemic.

Recent cases have also put a spotlight on some worrying underlying trends. Specifically, these include the growing number of arrests of members of the security forces with links to extreme rightwing groups (something particularly noticeable in Germany); a growing number of vaccination centre bombings; and finally, spates of 5G mast attacks across Europe. The last two are not exclusively linked to the Far Right, though there are often links. All, however, point to a pent-up anger that could come to the fore in a dangerous fashion.

Two specific plots, which came a year apart from each other, underscore these trends. First, in mid-May 2021, Jürgen Conings, a radicalised soldier who was already under surveillance for his extreme right-wing links, fled with weapons stolen from his barracks, leaving behind a note for his girlfriend that claimed he was “going to join the resistance”30 and did not expect to survive. He had previously expressed anger towards a prominent Belgian virologist, and there were fears he was planning on targeting the latter for murder.31 Conings was found dead just over a month later, having taken his own life.

As investigation into his case continued, it was uncovered that Conings was a long-standing target of authorities and had close links to other prominent figures in the extreme right-wing movement in Europe.32 Conings’s case became something of a cause célèbre amongst the far-right and antivaccination communities in Belgium and French-speaking Europe, with thousands signing petitions and a number of protest marches organised in support of his case.33 While it is not clear whether his case inspired others to violence, it did illustrate the depth of support that exists below the surface, as well as the very smooth interlinking of extreme-right and anti-vaccination ideologies, all alongside the notion of using violence to fight back against the government.

This worrying pattern was found again in April 2022 in Germany, when authorities disrupted a plot involving a cell of five men who were planning to kidnap the country’s health minister and overthrow the government. The men had managed to obtain at least one Kalashnikov machine gun and were reportedly in advanced stages of planning their attack.34 Calling themselves the “United Patriots” (Vereinte Patrioten), the group had a long history of anti-pandemic activism.35 The leader had reportedly been boasting about his plans up to a year before the arrests, and the group was made up of individuals who were also active Reichsbürger members.

The Reichsbürger movement is similar to the Sovereign Citizen movement found in North America (and in parts of Europe), and is made up of a few thousand individuals who reject the German state, accusing it of being an overbearing construct imposed on the nation in the wake of the Second World War.36 They are a growing concern to German authorities, who find the individuals very violent during arrests, and are often discovered to have large caches of dangerous weapons. Prominent figures have also been arrested for the murder of security officials.37

What is notable about both these European cases is the high degree of similarity with earlier American cases. Long-standing extreme right-wing communities have now absorbed antipandemic sentiments, chosen targets and sought to launch terrorist attacks against them. The targets are often large symbols of the state, and the sort of attack being launched is a civil uprising, sometimes including a plot against a prominent politician or public leader. There is a strong strain of anti-government sentiment in these groups, with the pandemic offering the perfect context for the articulation of their anger.

This similarity may feel unsurprising but, within a European context, such large-scale anti-state activity is relatively new. While not unheard of, traditionally, European extreme right-wing groups or cells have tended to focus on nativist, white supremacist or xenophobic tropes and targets. Politicians and prominent figures have been targeted over the years (Anna Lindh,38 Pim Fortuyn39 and Jo Cox40 are a few examples), but it is usually part of an assassination plan undertaken by an isolated individual rather than an attempt to overthrow the government.

Where networks of extreme right-wing terrorists have been found, they tend to be groups that have gone on the run for long periods of time, launching repeated attacks on minorities (like the National Socialist Underground in Germany). Many European countries are plagued with white supremacist, nativist political parties, with some of these individuals spilling over into violence – though these are usually one-off cases. Organised extreme right-wing groups or individuals with an intent to truly overthrow the state are relatively rare.

The pandemic, however, seems to have pushed these networks to the fore or encouraged them in new directions. Angry at governments’ actions, they appear desirous of launching large-scale incidents to change the status quo. In this way, they are increasingly mirroring their American counterparts. The Patriot, Sovereign Citizen, Militia and extreme right-wing communities have a long history in North America; in Europe, these violent patriot-type ideologies are relatively new. Governments’ pandemic responses appear to have acted as a perfect storm to push groups forward in terms of providing them with a source of anger and thus instilling a new sense of purpose.

It is of course very difficult to absolutely link this trend to the pandemic. It is possible that the broader raising of profile and prominence of the Far Right during the Trump administration in Washington, as well as the fallout from the migration crisis of the mid-2010s, have created a context in Europe for the Extreme Right to mature in this new direction. It is also possible that the large-scale crackdowns that took place across Europe against the Extreme Right pushed some deeper into radicalisation (and we have yet to see the fallout from the growing mainstreaming of the far-right leaning Azov Battalion in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion).

In France, the Interior Ministry reported that such trends of extreme-right, anti-state violence took place in the year or so before the pandemic as well.41 Now that the trend has progressed in this direction, it is unlikely to go backwards. A far-right motivated individual or group, through complicated planning to undertake anti-state violence to overthrow the government, is likely to be an increasing norm in Europe. Old narratives of xenophobia and nativism will doubtlessly persist, but they will now be strengthened by this new expression of anti-state violence.

As such, the actual terrorist impact of the pandemic could well be gauged by the fostering of a new form of anti-state mobilisation in Europe that in part builds on prior developments (Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in 2010 was an early articulation of anger against the state, specifically with regard to migration policies),42 but whose organisation, links to the military and growing emergence across the Continent suggest something more substantial at play. And the pandemic response of imposing greater state control, alongside the likely impoverishment of large numbers in the wake of the pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all suggest a context in Europe where grievances can fester. While the blame cannot entirely lie with the pandemic, it is clear that the pandemic provided a context for the violent Extreme Right in Europe to worsen, and laid the foundations for a much deeper long-term problem.

About The Author:

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

Citations

1 Amy Chew, “Terror Groups Target Asia as Global Travel Reopens: Singapore Defence Minister,” South China Morning Post, March 30, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3172414/terror-groups-may-target-asia-global-travel-reopens-singapore.

2 Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism Won’t Be the Same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-thesame/.

3 Dan Sabbagh, “Pandemic has Spurred Engagement in Online Extremism, Say Experts,” The Guardian, October 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/19/covid-pandemicspurred-engagement-online-extremism.

4 Nikita Malik, “Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation-might-stopcoronavirus-but-spread-extremism/.

5 Richard Burchill, “Extremism in the Time of COVID-19,” July 15, 2020, Bussola Institute, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3693293.

6 Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: A Challenge or Opportunity for Terrorist Groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603, 263-275.

7 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

8 Nur Aziemah Azman, “Evolution of Islamic State Narratives Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Home Team Journal, Issue 10, June 2021, https://www.mha.gov.sg/docs/hta_libraries/publications/hometeam-journal-issue-10.pdf, 188-197.

9 Ibid.

10 “IPAC Short Briefing No. 1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, April 2, 2020, http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf; and https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/000/98/PDF/N2100098.pdf?OpenElement.

11 Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and Conspiracies: How the Far Right is Exploiting the Pandemic,” King’s College London, September 16, 2020, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/coronavirus-and-conspiracieshow-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic.

12 Jane Wakefield, “How Bill Gates Became the Voodoo Doll of Covid Conspiracies,” BBC News, June 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52833706.

13 Mark Scott and Steven Overly, “Conspiracy Theorists, Far-Right Extremists Around the World Seize on the Pandemic,” Politico, May 12, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/12/trans-atlanticconspiracy-coronavirus-251325.

14 The WannabeWonk, “Bremen is Emerging as a Hot Spot of Left-Wing Militancy in Germany,” Militant Wire, 30 November, 2021, https://www.militantwire.com/p/bremen-is-emerging-as-a-hotspot?s=r.

15 Marc-André Argentino, ‘QAnon Conspiracy Theories About the Coronavirus Pandemic are a Public Health Threat,” The Conversation, April 8, 2020, https://theconversation.com/qanon-conspiracytheories-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-are-a-public-health-threat-135515.

16 Michael McGowan, “Workers’ Rights or the Far Right: Who Was Behind Melbourne’s Pandemic Protests?” The Guardian, September 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2021/sep/25/workers-rights-or-the-far-right-who-was-behind-melbournes-pandemic-protests.

17 Mike Levine, “FBI Learned of Coronavirus-Inspired Bomb Plotter Through Radicalized US Army Soldier,” ABC News, March 27, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fbi-learned-coronavirusinspired-bomb-plotter-radicalized-us/story?id=69818116.

18 Ibid.

19 This detail might help clarify the degree to which others were involved in his planning and therefore how the pandemic actually impacted his targeting choices. But Wilson’s death has meant absolute certainty about exactly what was going to happen is now impossible.

20 Douglas Swain, “Statement of Probable Cause A. Moreno Derails Train at the Port of Los Angeles near USNS Mercy,” April 2020, https://www.courthousenews.com/wpcontent/uploads/2020/04/MercyTrain-CRAffadavit.pdf.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “FBI: Government’s Response to Virus Spurred Would-Be Bomber,” AP News, April 15, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/ad891a0e69f0e3d285c397a1626d1e0d.

25 Ibid.

26 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

27 While their targets were linked to the pandemic or some aspect of response to the pandemic, it was not clear that they were entirely driven forward by it.

28 Michael King and Sam Mullins, “COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?” Just Security, March 4, 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorismin-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/.

29 Raffaello Pantucci, “Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Vol. 13, Issue 2, March 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wpcontent/uploads/2021/03/CTTA-March-2021.pdf, 1-9.

30 Daniel Boffey, “Belgian Manhunt for Armed Soldier Who Threatened Virologist,” The Guardian, May 19, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/19/belgian-manhunt-armed-soldier-jurgen-cthreatened-virologist.

31 Helen Lyons, “The Hunt for Jürgen Conings: A Timeline,” The Brussels Times, June 16, 2021, https://www.brusselstimes.com/170779/far-right-terrorist-manhunt-marc-van-ranst-ludivine-dedonderalexander-de-croo-the-hunt-for-jurgen-conings-a-timeline.

32 “Un Terroriste d’Extrême Droite et Sympathisant de Jürgen Conings Comme Agent de Sécurité d’une Boîte de Nuit,” 7sur7, January 17, 2022, https://www.7sur7.be/belgique/un-terroriste-dextremedroite-et-sympathisant-de-jurgen-conings-comme-agent-de-securite-dune-boite-de-nuit~ab99df76/.

33 Evelien Geerts, “Jürgen Conings, The Case of a Belgian Soldier On the Run Shows How the Pandemic Collides With Far-Right Extremism,” The Conversation, June 16, 2021, https://theconversation.com/jurgen-conings-the-case-of-a-belgian-soldier-on-the-run-shows-how-thepandemic-collides-with-far-right-extremism-162365.

34 Philipp Reichert, “Putin-Fans und Corona-Leugner,” Tagesschau, April 26, 2022, https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/report-mainz/vereinte-patrioten-101.html.

35 “German Police Arrest Far-Right Extremists Over Plans to ‘Topple Democracy’,” Deutsche Welle News, April 14, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/german-police-arrest-far-right-extremists-over-plans-totopple-democracy/a-61468227.

36 Wolfgang Dick, “What Is Behind the Right-Wing ‘Reichsbürger’ Movement?” Deutsche Welle News, July 24, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-behind-the-right-wing-reichsb%C3%BCrgermovement/a-36094740.

37 The Reichsbürger community has been very active during the pandemic, bringing together a series of narrative strands about overbearing authority that resonated with the community. See “Former ‘Mister Germany’ Facing Life in Prison for Attempted Murder of Policeman,” Deutsche Welle News, October 9, 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/former-mister-germany-facing-life-in-prison-for-attemptedmurder-of-policeman/a-40881234.

38 “Suspect in Swedish Murder Makes Surprise Confession,” NBC News, January 8, 2004, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna3899995.

39 “Dutch Free Killer of Anti-Islam Politician Pim Fortuyn,” BBC News, May 2, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27261291.

40 Ian Cobain, Nazia Parveen and Matthew Taylor, “The Slow-Burning Hatred That Led Thomas Mair to Murder Jo Cox,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-slow-burning-hatred-led-to-jo-cox-murder.

41 Laurent Nuñez, “Contending with New and Old Threats: A French Perspective on Counterterrorism,” The Washington Institute, October 12, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/contending-new-and-old-threats-frenchperspective-counterterrorism.

42 Mark Townsend and Ian Traynor, “Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik,” The Guardian, July 30, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/30/norwayattacks-anders-behring-breivik.

Another piece to catch up from this past week, this time drawing on a previous project we worked on at RUSI looking at Lone Actor Terrorism. Co-authored with colleague Mo again, this one focuses on extreme right wing terrorism and its particular expression through lone actors for the BBC.

The clues right-wing terrorists give away

  • 9 February 2018
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a vehicle hit pedestriansGETTY IMAGES
Police guard a street in Finsbury Park after a van drove into a crowd near a mosque

Preventing terror attacks by lone individuals poses a serious challenge. But there are sometimes behaviours and actions that might give them away.

The growing problem of extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK has been highlighted by two high-profile cases in the past week.

First, Darren Osborne was sentenced to a minimum of 43 years in prison, after being found guilty of driving a van into a crowd of Muslims near a London mosque, killing one man and injuring nine other people.

In the second case, white supremacist Ethan Stables was convicted of preparing an act of terrorism, after planning a machete attack at a gay pride event in a pub in Barrow, Cumbria. He awaits sentencing.

Plans to kill by lone individuals such as these have been a persistent feature of the extreme right wing for many years.

Terrorists who act alone are often seen as particularly difficult for the authorities to spot.

Our research suggests that, more often than not, lone actors imagine that they belong to a wider movement – sometimes attending group activities such as rallies and conducting online research.

But it is often the case that they are not obviously connected to a wider group that might be under surveillance.

If they are planning to use weapons that are everyday items, such as knives or vehicles, it becomes even harder for the authorities to set up “trip wires” – the checks that might catch them before they act.

Ethan Stables, bare-chested with an air rifle
Ethan Stables was convicted of planning an attack on a gay pride event

However, it is not the case that these “lone actors” should be seen as entirely detached: there are often behaviours, or actions, that might act as a warning about their intentions.

It is significant that both Osborne and Stables spoke publicly of their intentions to carry out attacks, as many lone-actor terrorists are less secretive than might be expected.

A project led by the Royal United Services Institute examined “leakage” of intentions in 120 lone-actor terrorist cases of any type between 2000-14.

Individuals had leaked information about their plans in about half of all cases.

Osborne’s trial heard that he had told a soldier in a pub: “I’m going to kill all the Muslims. Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands.”

Meanwhile, Stables was stopped because he decided to announce to the world via Facebook that he planned to carry out an attack, posting to a chat group the words: “I’m going to war tonight.”

This type of leakage was common among both the extreme right wing and violent Islamist perpetrators that we studied.

And among those on the extreme right wing, most of this leakage took place online, as in the Stables case.

The reasons for this are difficult to discern, but could be linked to the fact that many of those involved lead comparatively isolated lives.

Given the relative anonymity found on the internet, people can live out fantasies through their online profiles, to compensate for their unsatisfying offline lives.

In contrast, we found that among Islamist extremists, the leakage tended to take place among family members or friends.

Arrest picture of Darren OsborneMET POLICE
Darren Osborne was found guilty of murder and attempted murder

It was also the case that among a third of the lone-actor terrorists examined by the study – again, both right-wing extremists and violent Islamists – there were potential signs of underlying mental health conditions.

Osborne’s partner described him as a “loner and a functioning alcoholic” with an “unpredictable temperament”.

Stables said that his mother had told him to leave home as a result of his mental health difficulties.

The judge has requested further psychiatric assessments, to help assess whether Stables should be sent to a secure hospital, or prison.

Thomas Mair, the killer of MP Jo Cox, was also a loner described as having mental health problems.

Islamist extremist Nicholas Roddis, who left a hoax bomb on a bus, was described in court as “prone to fantasy” and the judge pointed to his “immaturity and isolation”.

Muslim convert Nicky Reilly, who tried to blow up a restaurant with a nail bomb and later died in prison, had learning difficulties and Asperger’s syndrome.

Clearly, only a tiny minority of people with such difficulties would go on to commit a terrorist act, but greater awareness might help spot some perpetrators before they act.

Health workers and police are now working together on a nationwide projectto help identify people referred to counter-terrorism programmes who are in need of treatment for mental health problems.

None of this paints a picture of particularly sophisticated terrorist plots, or networks, in particular among those on the extreme right.

Rather, it suggests isolated individuals acting out an extreme ideology – and, in most cases, this has been the nature of the plots.

Potentially more worrying for the UK is the emergence of a more organised extreme right wing, with the recent banning of the neo-Nazi group National Action, for example.

On continental Europe this problem has existed for some time. The German case of the National Socialist Underground – which is accused of the murders of 10 people – being just one example.

Across the continent, the ideology around far-right extremists is varied and diverse, but some common threads can be found.

Racial “purity” is often highlighted, as are claims that the world is run by powerful elites, including Marxists, liberals and Jews.

Some minority groups are presented as posing a threat to European culture and society.

These ideas were echoed in the choice of targets and the details in both Osborne’s and Stables’s respective trials.

On the stand, Osborne stated he wanted to murder London Mayor Sadiq Khan, or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Once he had committed his act, he was heard to say: “I’ve done my bit,” in reference to his attempt to murder Muslims.

Children lay flowers in tribute to the victims of a van attack in the Finsbury Park area of north London.GETTY IMAGES
Flowers in tribute to victims of the 2017 Finsbury Park attack

Stables’s plan to attack a gay pride event reflected his desire to push back against what he saw as an “impure” homosexual culture.

As isolated individuals, they may be typical of the overriding majority of extreme right-wing terrorists in the UK.

But the continued existence of such people – often drawing on the ideology of a more organised extreme right wing, or the xenophobic beliefs of a vocal minority – has a damaging effect on society, causing frictions between communities and tearing at our social fabric.

Not only do their actions hurt those caught up in attacks, but they can drive others on the extreme right, as well violent Islamists – who use the sense of a divided society to justify their actions.

It is easy to simply dismiss Osborne and Stables as pathetic losers angry at society.

But they represent a broader trend that has worrying potential ramifications for the United Kingdom.

Presentational grey line

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from experts working for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank specialising in defence and security research.

Raffaello Pantucci is its director of international security studies, and Dr Mohammed Elshimi is a research analyst in its national security and resilience team. Follow him @raffpantucci


Edited by Duncan Walker

And a second post-Brexit article, this time for the Guardian, covering some of the same points but this time focused singularly on the far right and the implications for them for the Brexit vote. This has some depressing portents in the future for it, and lets hope that politicians and others can find ways to move us forwards.

Ignored by the authorities, emboldened by Brexit, Europe’s far right is surging

Rightwing extremists are a grave danger in themselves, let alone when you factor in their influence on mainstream politics, and on terrorism
Poles against migrants protest

The result of Britain’s referendum on EU membership has strengthened far-right activism across Europe. In the UK there have been reports of public racist abuse, while far-right-leaning parties across the continent have taken advantage of the situation to call for their own referendums. There is a danger that an already polarised political environment will become even more broken with some individuals choosing a path to violence in response.

Extreme rightwing terrorism has been a growing problem in Europe for some time. A recent study by a consortium led by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) highlighted that when looking at the phenomenon of “lone actor” terrorism in particular (terrorist acts conducted by individuals without any clear direction from an outside group), the extreme right wing was responsible for as many as Islamist extremists. And not all were random one-off killers – Anders Breivik was able to butcher 77 people in a murderous rampage in Norway. What was particularly worrying was the fact that these individuals sat at the far end of a spectrum of extremists that included elements closer to the mainstream.

In the runup to conducting his act of terrorism, Breivik claimed to have attended protests organised by the English Defence League (EDL), a group he admired for its stand against what he perceived as invading Muslim hordes in Europe. Founded in the UK in response to a perceived refusal by authorities to clamp down on the noisy extremist group al-Muhajiroun, the EDL became a grab bag of far-right, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant protesters who would take to the streets. It spawned imitators in continental Europe.

The emergence of the EDL, however, came at a moment when more established European nationalist groups such as Front National in France, the British National party (BNP) or the Austrian Freedom party, all became prominent in the public conversation. Far-right nationalist xenophobic sentiment has always been a part of the European conversation, but the strengthening of these groups highlighted how much the ideas they represented had started to slip into the political mainstream, largely off the back of anger with the usual parties of power. But while the far right tried to move itself into the mainstream, its violent edge remained, and as the European debate on immigration and Muslims has become more pronounced, there has been a growth in incidents of extreme rightwing violence.

The response from security forces has been mixed. While we have seen an apparent increase in extreme rightwing violence, there has been less attention paid to it by authorities. In the RUSI-led research, a particularly striking finding was that in about 40% of cases of far-right extremists, they were uncovered by chance – the individual managed to blow himself up or was discovered while authorities conducted another investigation. By contrast, around 80% of violent Islamist lone actors were discovered in intelligence-led operations – in other words, the authorities were looking for them.

But it is easy to understand why the extreme right wing gets overlooked. Most examples are fairly shambolic lonesome individuals whose efforts to launch terrorist plots seem amateurish at best. But they are still attempting to kill fellow citizens to advance a political ideology. And in the case of lone actors, they are at least as lethal as their violent Islamist counterparts – in our dataset of 120 cases, even when one removed Breivik as an outlier, the extreme right wing was as lethal as violent Islamists.

The concern from this phenomenon must now be twofold. On the one hand, the increasing mainstreaming of a xenophobic anti-immigrant narrative will feed the very “clash of civilisations” narrative that groups such as al-Qaida and Isis seek to foster – suggesting that there is a conflict between Islam and the west which they are at the heart of. It will only strengthen this sense and draw people towards them.

But there is also the danger of frustrated expectations. The reality is that notwithstanding a rise in anti-immigrant feeling in Europe, the migrants will still come. Attracted by the opportunity and prosperity they see in Europe (which is often a huge improvement on the environment they came from), they will come to seek low-paying jobs – jobs that western economies will still need to fill and are not taken by locals, which offer better prospects than where they came from. This economic dynamic means that people will not necessarily notice a dramatic change in their material environment. Foreigners will continue to come and will continue to be a presence around them – providing a community to blame when individual economic situations do not change or feel like they are getting worse.

Here lies one of the more dangerous sides of this new European political environment. A polarised society which does not appear to materially change – frustrating those who feel like they have expressed their political will only to find it unanswered. The result, unless handled properly by the mainstream political community, is a potential for violence that has already reared its head brutally on the European continent, and unless carefully checked will do so again.