Posts Tagged ‘XRW’

A new piece for my Singaporean institutional home’s keynote journal, Counter-Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA), this time trying to put some hard data on the question of what has the actual impact of COVID-19 been on terrorist threats. Whilst acknowledging it is hard to draw any hard and fast lessons, or really understand the causal links, the piece tries to explore the question using databases and existing information. This is part of a broader stream of work on this topic, including earlier pieces looking at how ideologies might adapt or develop going forwards, and some more data based projects that are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism

Synopsis

One year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking across militant violence, ideological narratives, recruitment and funding, it is evident that so far the impact of the contagion on violent extremism has been relatively limited. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the downward trajectory of global militant violence which started in 2016 continued through 2020 as well. Likewise, in the ideological realm, after initial incorporation of COVID-19 in their narratives as divine punishment or seeking to demonstrate capability to manage the virus, the subsequent messaging by violent extremist groups was more mundane about day-to-day developments. Looking at recruitment and fundraising trends, no significant change is visible except for the fact that lockdowns and travel restrictions have constrained extremist groups’ physical mobility and the ability to collect funds. In conclusion, the article notes that COVID-19 has been more of an enabler and accelerant of existing violent extremist trends but it is difficult to conclude whether, in the post-pandemic scenario (whenever that arrives), it will result in greater violence or if the downward trajectory which started in 2016 will persist.

Introduction

This article investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism since its outbreak one year ago. Notwithstanding vaccination rollouts, large parts of the world are still dealing with the virus as a very immediate problem with no clear end in sight. Methodologically, this fluid situation makes the actual assessment of the virus’ impact on violent extremism a difficult task. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so it is hard to conclusively assess what its full impact has been as it has not yet been entirely felt. It is already difficult absent the pandemic to draw clear causal links to explain why people become motivated by terrorist ideologies. To try to understand the specific impact of COVID-19 as it is still surging around the world is an  even harder task.

In an attempt to sketch out some preliminary understanding on the nature of the impact, this paper will focus on four broad areas of terrorist activity and explore what available research and information indicates about the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism. First, the paper will explore how terrorist violence has changed over the past year. Then, it will probe the evolution of how extremist ideologies and narratives have coopted, altered or responded to COVID-19. Lastly, it will look at how the coronavirus has impacted terrorist fundraising and recruitment.[1] Though this does not capture the full spectrum and detail of terrorist activity, it does hopefully provide a perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism.

The author has consulted multiple reports and databases for this paper, though the information has not always been methodically collected. Where the author is aware of openly accessible databases, they have been used to corroborate analysis or speculative writing that has been produced.

The overall picture is – as might be expected given we are still only in the midst of the pandemic – unclear at the moment. There is some evidence to suggest terrorist groups have profited from the pandemic, but nothing conclusive has been produced yet which shows how it has translated into longer-term material benefit. However, it is highly likely that over a lengthier trajectory the impact of COVID-19 will be to make terrorism trends worse, though exactly how this plays out (whether through new ideologies emerging or existing ones getting graver) is yet to be determined.

Violence

Violence is the most obvious indicator to measure the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism over the past year. A number of databases exist looking at conflicts, counting incidents of violence and death. Of course, each of these has its own limitations and focuses on slightly different aspects of the conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is distinct for having mapped various conflict indicators for a few years. ACLED started in the late 1990s by focusing on Africa; it now appears that most conflict regions around the world have been measured from 2018 until the present, though most of Europe appears to have only been added to the dataset in 2020.[2] While there are other similarly substantial datasets in existence like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)[3] or the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[4] neither of these appears to have data through the pandemic period available yet with both concluding in 2019.[5]

The most up-to-date public analysis of violence data during the pandemic year appears to have been produced by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Projects on Security & Threats (CPOST). Published in March 2021, the CPOST report draws on ACLED and their own Suicide Attack Database and concludes that across “The Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; South-Central Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan)”, there was a drop in violence in 2020. “All four regions saw attacks fall on aggregate by 5 percent. That fall was sharp in the first six months and rose again in the next six months.”[6]

But CPOST’s overall conclusion is consistent with ACLED’s cumulative annual data that is clear on the broader global trends, which show that by almost every metric calculated, violent activity is down year-on-year between 2019 and 2020. The exceptions to this trend in their data are what ACLED terms as “strategic developments” which show some limited growth and “protests” showing a much sharper rise.[7]

ACLED Overall Numbers:

ACLED Overall Numbers. Source: ACLED dashboard (accessed March 2021)[8]:

The broader trajectory on most of the violent indicators that ACLED gathers data on shows a downward trend from 2018 (with some exceptions). Removing “protest” data in particular reveals this trend more clearly. Looking at this against terrorism data more specifically, this downward trajectory is corroborated by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2020. Using data from 2019, GTI reports that “deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism.”[9] CPOST analysis of ACLED data identifies a similar trend in 2020, highlighting a 5 percent overall decline in violence year-on-year. At the same time, it specifies that in the first two quarters of 2020, this drop was noticeable, but by the third quarter of the year, violence was rising again, and by fourth quarter, the numbers were the same as a year earlier in quarter four.[10]

ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”:

Figure 2: ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”. Source ACLED dashboard, accessed March 2021.

The broader fall in violence that ACLED records since 2018 drawing on all conflict data is even sharper when focused just on violent acts. The two data points which ACLED notes as increasing, “protests” and “strategic developments”, suggest potential precursors to terrorist violence.[11] In both cases, they suggest that there is a continuing anger, or brewing tensions, which could later express themselves as violence. Anecdotally, in the Philippines there has been some suggestion that groups are using this moment to re-group and refresh,[12] while in Indonesia, there were reports that groups had seen the arrival of COVID-19 as a signal of impending apocalypse and had consequently stopped their operations and sat at home waiting for the end of days.[13] More frequently, however, reporting has suggested that repeated lockdowns have complicated groups’ physical mobility and ability to carry out attacks.[14]

When compared with other available datasets, a generally static picture in violence year-on-year appears. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) annual assessment of 2020 shows across regions covered in the report (South, Southeast, Central Asia, as well as the Middle East broadly) that violence year-on-year has reduced or remained the same during the pandemic year.[15] An IS-specific Southeast Asia dataset maintained by ICPVTR shows a year-on-year drop.[16] Noted Middle East terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin’s dataset tracking IS-claimed attacks during 2020 in Syria and Iraq has remained relatively static.[17] Likewise, the Deep South Watch, which monitors violence in Southern Thailand, illustrates a dip in terrorist attacks during the first half of 2020, but by the end of the year violence had returned to roughly the same level as 2019.[18] The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) also recorded a drop in terrorist activity from 2019 to 2020 in South Asia, but it broadly appeared to be on roughly the same pattern as the fall from earlier years. There was a more pronounced drop in SATP’s figures for Afghanistan, but this is likely attributable to the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.[19] An exception to this trajectory can be found in Europe, where according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, there was a spike in violent Islamist incidents in Europe in 2020 – though the rates of casualties or incidents remain in the low double digits.

Critically, there is little evidence to show that COVID-19 had a material impact on militant violence – trajectories over the year were for the most part with some specific drops which might be linked to restrictions on movements or activity that came from COVID-19. The spike in Europe of violent Islamist attacks still requires greater research and understanding, but there has been very little evidence presented that COVID-19 might have been a driver in some way. Rather, it is possible that the incidents might in part have been inspired by each other and broader social tensions (amongst different communities, as well as in the form of extreme right-wing violence) in Europe.

Ideologies

An absence of violence does not equate to an absence of threat. There are many reasons why violence could have gone down and it is not clear that they are necessarily linked to COVID-19. Some experts even note that lulls in violent activity are in fact more dangerous moments as it is during these moments that groups are able to prepare and plan for more attacks away from security services’ attention.[20] Clearly, extremist groups have brought COVID-19 related ideas and commentary into their narratives. However, the degree to which these narrative shifts have materially changed group capabilities or how long these narrative shifts will last is hard to assess.

There has been a lot of writing and analysis on how violent Islamist groups have talked about COVID-19, blending it into their worldviews or talking up the opportunities that it might afford them. There have even been examples of cells talking about trying to weaponise COVID-19 in some way – for example, a cell linked to IS in Tunisia was discussing coughing and spitting at security forces,[21] while Indonesian authorities reported overhearing a cell harbouring similar intentions.[22] However, there is little evidence indicating that COVID-19 has materially changed extremist ideologies.

For example, in its regular six-monthly report on IS(IL), Al Qaeda and associated individuals’ activity, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes:

“IS(IL) continues to emphasise the “divine punishment of arrogance and unbelief” narrative regarding the pandemic that it adopted in March 2020, and to exhort followers to attack the enemy while counter-terrorist defences are supposedly weakened. (It should be noted that some Member States have observed a shift in recent months away from the “divine punishment” narrative as the pandemic’s impact has spread.) However, no developed IS(IL) strategy has evolved for the pandemic. This includes weaponisation of the virus by using contagious supporters to infect opponents, which was mooted within IS(IL) in March but has not progressed as a practical proposition.”[23]

The Monitoring Group’s commentary on al-Qaeda is focused on the high level of leadership attrition that the group has suffered, with little evidence of the group focusing much on the pandemic. The group in fact waited until late March to issue some comment on the pandemic, and this was largely a broad commentary on how badly the west was handling the virus.[24] Later comments focused instead on the fact that western governments had failed to protect their elderly and infirm, though much of al-Qaeda’s commentary during this period seemed focused on proving their leader was alive or that they were not going to be negatively affected by the fact that the Taliban were seeking to strike a deal with the US in Afghanistan which would specifically eject them from Afghanistan.

Affiliates of al-Qaeda commented about the pandemic, and in some cases suggested that they were going to offer healthcare to help local affected communities, but it was not clear how useful or realistic this was.[25] According to UN reporting, al-Shabaab found itself obliged to provide some response after local communities and followers highlighted their failure to effectively respond.[26] Syrian Hayat Tahrir al Sham has continued to support the Salvation Government in the parts of Northern Syria where they exert control and have offered reporting on COVID-19, as well as limited medical care service.[27] And in any case, it was clear that the groups were simply seeking to advance a narrative of offering themselves as alternatives to the state in tune with their broader visions of their goals, rather than something new.[28]

In contrast, extreme right-wing groups in the West not only talked a great deal about the pandemic but even changed their behaviours or ideologies to absorb COVID-19 related narratives.[29] US and UK authorities separately noted an uptick in threats towards Jews and attacks using COVID-19.[30] In some cases, there has been credible evidence that this surge in right-wing propaganda has resulted in forms of violence. The most obvious example of this is the growing instances of violence against 5G masts, emerging from conspiracy theories related to the development of such masts and the spread of COVID-19.[31] In the US, narratives around COVID-19 restrictions became caught up in anti-federal government discourses, inflaming already angry groups.[32] In April 2020, an individual tried to derail a train in the Los Angeles Port Yard in an attempt to stop a US Navy vessel bringing aid to other parts of the country.[33] In Australia, there were reports that the local branch of the Proud Boys was using anti-lockdown protests as opportunities to specifically attack police.[34] Australian security forces repeatedly pointed out that they had seen an increase in their far right activity during COVID-19.[35] UK authorities also expressed concern about young people being radicalised as they were stuck online during lockdowns,[36] a concern which might have materialised in the growing numbers of teenagers being charged with extreme right terror offences.[37]

In some instances, however, far right groups have sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to instead push themselves further into the mainstream and used the pandemic as an opportunity to show their civic mindedness. In Ukraine, the Azov Movement and its offshoots have sought to offer training videos for people caught in lockdowns, support for those who are unable to get their shopping or need other forms of assistance.[38] This approach is similar to the modus operandi of violent Islamists who offer themselves as aid or healthcare providers during the pandemic. The key difference being that the violent Islamists need to control the territory in which they are doing it, while the extreme right (in Ukraine at least) are doing it within the broader societies in which they live. The idea is to generate more sympathy for their cause, rather than demonstrate governance capability.

Beyond these two core ideologies, it is very difficult to discern much of a change in other ideologies or groups as a result of COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of data and research, but also as it is not even very clear that COVID-19 has produced the specified change in the two principal ideologies to receive attention. The extreme right was ascendant prior to COVID-19, while violent Islamists have always held escatalogical narratives and sought to demonstrate governance capabilities. The only discernible shift in violence that could be credibly linked to COVID-19 is from the extreme right that has incorporated the pandemic into its radicalising narratives more convincingly and with greater impact than violent Islamists. The fact that the far right in the US has managed to penetrate the mainstream, and that conspiracy theories have now developed such a wide-ranging impact including driving people towards terrorist violence, opens the door to future potential ideologies.[39]

At the same time, it has to be remembered that the year 2020 was also the final year of the Trump presidency. This is important to bear in mind as with President Trump in the White House, the world’s most powerful leader was using his platform to provide oxygen to elements of the extreme right narrative – be this in terms of his tendency to fail to condemn the extreme right in the United States[40] or re-tweet far right extremist material.[41] Rather than being a fringe ideology, it became associated with the mainstream, an intoxicating elevation which may also help explain the level of fury and activity around the global extreme right. Seen in this light, COVID-19 may have simply been further fuel into an already inflamed global situation.

Recruitment and Fundraising

Very little published data has been released highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist group recruitment. There has been some reporting around the impact on terrorist fundraising. The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team February 2021 report provides some references to member states noting changes in fundraising patterns. Specifically, they point to enhanced difficulties of transporting money across borders due to travel restrictions complicating money transfers. But at the same time, the report indicates a growing level of use of cryptocurrencies and online transfers suggesting the impact might be mitigated through alternative cyber-routes.[42] Showing how these issues can intersect with COVID-19 specifically, there was the reported case of an ISIS fundraising network that was selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE) online.[43]

These concerns echo those articulated by the Eurasian Group (EAG) on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, though very few cases were provided to illustrate the particular terrorism financing concerns.[44] These findings were in turn similar to those generated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s report, which again mentioned terrorism financing as a potential issue and highlighted how charitable money flows in particular could be abused by terrorist organisations.[45] Both the FATF and EAG reports, however, pointed to the far greater risk coming from COVID-19 related fraud, be it in terms of fake (or non-existent) medical equipment, as well as abuse of COVID-19 relief packages offered by governments.[46] A sense of the potential scale of the fraud involved is illustrated by the UK case, where some reports suggested that as much as half of the £46 billion being doled out by the government could be lost to defaults and fraud.[47] While theoretically some of this money could have been taken by terrorists, no clear examples have been presented yet of this taking place in the UK or elsewhere.

Looking at more specific examples of where these threats intersect, the UN Monitoring Team report also points to a decrease in maritime kidnapping for ransom in the tri-border Southeast Asian region between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[48] However, this contrasts with reporting by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) which reports that there has been an increase in maritime piracy, with a particular growth in the Philippines and the Singapore Strait.[49] IMB-PRC does not specify whether there is a link to terrorism in this criminal activity, but the contrast to the UN report underscores this is an area where there is inadequate research at the moment.

Recruitment is equally challenging to track. While repeated reports show an increase in online activity, especially amongst extreme right wing groups[50], it is not yet clear whether this is pulling through to recruitment. UN reporting indicates how Eurasian member states have reported groups using the pandemic as an opportunity to offer individuals support and money, something which increases popularity and recruitment.[51] In most cases, however, the reporting is non-specific, suggesting that groups are increasing their propaganda and this theoretically translates into more recruits. However, there have been no evidence based reports showing this link successfully delivering new recruits in practice. There is repeated reporting and discussion around the threats from the increased amount of time that people spent online during the pandemic and the increased opportunities this presented for online radicalisation, but so far there has been no evidence based assessment of what the actual impact was.

Many of the specific cases of terrorism linked to COVID-19 that have emerged during the pandemic  are in fact individuals who had been involved or interested in extremist activity prior to COVID-19. For example, an early prominent attack which was linked to the pandemic in the US against a hospital focused on COVID-19 care was undertaken by an American extreme right wing adherent who had long been on FBI radars.[52] Even the very young followers in Europe who have emerged through arrest and conviction during this past year appear in many cases to be young men who had already been active on extreme right wing forums pre-pandemic.[53] COVID-19 related lockdowns may have been an accelerant towards more violent online rhetoric or given groups greater opportunities to reach out to captive audiences online, but so far it is not clear if it has translated into more violence from them. Overall, it is still inconclusive how terrorist group fundraising and recruitment have been impacted yet and whether the increased online rhetoric or activity has resulted in material change to groups’ coffers or numbers.

Conclusion

A year into the pandemic, it remains entirely unclear the exact impact that COVID-19 will have on violent extremism in the longer-term. It is clear that it has affected groups’ behaviour and action in the same way that it has affected everyone else, but it is not clear that it has materially changed things in a way that is utterly unique to the pandemic. Previous natural disasters have produced contradictory comparisons. For example, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was followed by a spate of anarchist violence which did not appear linked to the pandemic, while the 2004 Asian tsunami helped bring peace to Aceh and accelerated violence in Sri Lanka.[54] A RAND study from 2011 which sought to apply some methodological rigour to the question found that there was in fact an increase in terrorism-related death in the wake of natural disasters.[55] The same report explored the impact of natural disasters on government capacity to respond to terrorist threats and showed a dip in capability following the disaster which groups take advantage of, but within two years authorities are usually able to regain the upper hand.[56] This suggests something to pay attention to once the pandemic has been definitively brought under control.

At the moment, the most noticeable change in behaviour to have been generated by the pandemic has been the acceleration to prominence and wider acceptance of the use of violence to advance conspiracy theories. While at the moment this violence is an irritant, it is a first step on an escalatory path. Furthermore, the indicators in ACLED data that protests and groups’ preparatory action has persisted and even grown during the pandemic, suggest that while COVID-19 seems to have acted as an inhibitor of major terrorist activity during the first pandemic year, it has most certainly not gone away and might even be biding its time rather than in retreat. COVID-19 has in fact appeared to be something of an enabler and accelerator of existing trends and threats. The key question which has yet to be addressed is whether this means that terrorist violence will continue on the downward trajectory that most indicators appeared to show over the past few years, or whether in fact the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an increase in threats. In the longer-term, it is likely that COVID-19 will help foster a new wave of ideologies, though whether the pandemic is entirely to blame might be difficult to conclude. The end of the pandemic will expose a world which is likely to be even more divided than before, alongside a likely global economic recession. All of which will create a context in which the threat picture from terrorism might start on a gradual path upwards again in contrast to the trends over the past few years.

About the author Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, 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.


[1] The author is grateful for his ICPVTR colleagues’ comments during a brainstorming session in late 2020 which helped inform the creation of this list.

[2] “ACLED coverage to date” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Country-and-Time-Period-Coverage_updFeb2021.pdf

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Department of Peace and Conflict Research https://ucdp.uu.se/#/

[4] Global Terrorism Database: START https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd

[5] It is further worth noting that the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) annual terrorism review the Global Terrorism Index draws on data primarily from the GTD meaning it has also not provided any analysis or data for 2020 yet (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf).

[6] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[7] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard; In ACLED terms, “strategic developments” is classified as events which are linked to politically motivated groups that usually indicate a precursor to possible violence, but do not involve violence, while “protests” are classified as peaceful events. In other words, the two indicators that ACLED sees as having increased during the pandemic are non-violent ones.

[8] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[9] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, November 2020 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf (p.2)

[10] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[11] Peaceful protests are events which articulate mass public political anger, while “strategic developments” are activities which groups are undertaking (or experiencing, given arrests are also included within this category) that reflect non-violent action which could be interpreted as preparatory. “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Codebook_2019FINAL.docx.pdf .

[12] “The Fusion of Offline and Online Interventions against Extremism in the Philippines,” GNET-CENS workshop report, 16 December 2020 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-CENS-Workshop-2-Philippines-210114.pdf

[13] “IPAC Short Briefing No.1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), April 2, 2020 http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf

[14] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[15] Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol.13, no. 1, January 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January-2021.pdf – there are exceptions to this, like Myanmar where the report suggests an “intensification” of violence (p. 34). In other cases, the data is less categorical, but the characterization is of problems over 2020 that have either remained the same or reduced in violence.

[16] Closed database maintained by ICPVTR, February 2021

[17] Aaron Y. Zelin, @azelin, February 2, 2021 https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1356361479881183234

[18] “Summary of incidents in Southern Thailand, January 2021” Deep South Watch Database, February 15, 2021 https://deepsouthwatch.org/en/node/11973

[19] “Number of terrorism related incidents year wise” March 14, 2021 https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/southasia

[20] “What Happens Now? Terrorism and the challenges of counter-terrorism in the next decade” ICPVTR webinar by Suzanne Raine, Affiliate lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, January 27, 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/icpvtr-webinar-on-what-happens-now-terrorism-and-the-challenges-of-counter-terrorism-in-the-next-decade-by-suzanne-raine/#.YC9oFHczZ5w

[21] “Terrorists plotting COVID-19 contamination attack on Tunisian security forces arrested,” North African Post, April 17, 2020 https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[22] “Adjustment and Resilience: Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia during COVID-19 and beyond,” UNODC and Guyub Project, February 2021 (primary author Cameron Sumpter) https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2021/indonesia/Main_COVID_CT_Indonesia_PRINT_EN.pdf

[23] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[24] “Al-Qaeda invites ‘Western nations’ to Islam amid COVID-19,” BBC Monitoring reporting Rocketchat messaging service in Arabic, April 1, 2020 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201l1q3

[25] “The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19,” CTC Sentinel, vol.13, No.6, June 2020 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-limits-of-shabaab-care-militant-governance-amid-covid-19/

[26] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[27] “Coronavirus and The Salvation Government – Hay’at Tahir al-Sham,” Jihadology.com, March 1, 2021 https://jihadology.net/coronavirus-and-the-salvation-government-hayat-tahir-al-sham/

[28] Kabir Taneja and Raffaello Pantucci “Beware of terrorists offering COVID-19 aid,” Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 17, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/beware-of-terrorists-offering-covid19-aid-64731/

[29] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[30] “COVID-19: How Hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic,” Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906724/CCE_Briefing_Note_001.pdf and “Lauder: National Guard must protect Jews from Neo-Nazi coronavirus threat,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2020 https://www.jpost.com/International/FBI-Neo-Nazi-groups-encouraging-spread-coronavirus-to-police-and-Jews-622006

[31] Amongst the many conspiracy theories circulating was one which linked the expansion of 5G to the spread of the virus – in part technophobia, in part anti-Chinese sentiment. The result has been a spike in destruction of 5G infrastructure (usually masts) in parts of Europe in particular, though also in North America. Michael Loadenthal, “Anti-5G, Infrastructure Sabotage, and COVID-19,” GNET Insight, January 19, 2021 https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/19/anti-5g-infrastructure-sabotage-and-covid-19/

[32] Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic,” The Conversation, September 15, 2020 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-and-conspiracies-how-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-145968

[33] “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice, Central District of California, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[34] Michael McGowan, “Australian Proud Boys sought to combat-trained supporters to ‘arrest’ police at COVID lockdown protests,” Guardian, February 15, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/15/australian-proud-boys-leader-sought-combat-trained-supporters-to-arrest-police-at-covid-lockdown-protests

[35] Samaya Borom, “Increased visibility of Far-Right movements in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” GNET Insights, September 24, 2020 https://gnet-research.org/2020/09/24/increased-visibility-of-far-right-movements-in-australia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[36] Caleb Spencer, “Coronavirus: ‘children may have been radicalised in lockdown’,” BBC News, June 30, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53082476

[37] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[38] Michael Colborne, “For the Far Right, the COVID-19 crisis is a PR opportunity,” Fair Observer, April 13, 2020 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/michael-colborne-far-right-coronavirus-pandemic-assistance-covid-19-crisis-pr-news-10109/

[39] 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-the-same/

[40] David Smith, Lois Beckett, Maanvi Singh and Julia Carrie Wong, “Donal Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate,” Guardian, September 30, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-proud-boys-debate-president-refuses-condemn-white-supremacists

[41] “Donal Trump retweets far-right group’s anti-Muslim videos,” BBC News, November 29, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[42] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[43] USA vs Facemaskcenter.com and Four Facebook Pages, Case 1:20-cv-02142-RC, Filed 08/05/20 https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1304296/download

[44] “Information Note: Concerning the COVID-19 impact on the EAG countries’ AML-CFT efforts and measures taken to mitigate the ML/TF risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic” Eurasian Group (EAG), https://eurasiangroup.org/files/uploads/files/%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8B_%D0%B2_%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B8_%D1%81_COVID-19/Information_note_on_COVID-19_measures_eng_rev4.pdf

[45] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[46] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[47] Daniel Thomas and Stephen Morris, “A giant bonfire of taxpayers money: fraud and the UK pandemic loan scheme,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/41d5fe0a-7b46-4dd7-96e3-710977dff81c

[48] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[49] “Maritime piracy hotspots persist during 2020,” Hellenic Shipping News, Febrary 1, 2020 https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/maritime-piracy-hotspots-persist-during-2020/

[50] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[51] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[52] Pete Williams, “Missouri man planned to bomb hospital during pandemic to get attention for white supremacist views,” NBC News, March 31, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missouri-man-planned-bomb-hospital-during-pandemic-get-attention-white-n1172346

[53] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[54] Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: a challenge or opportunity for terrorist groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, vol.15, No.3, October 2020 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603?needAccess=true

[55] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html

[56] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html


I have a few longer papers that are due to land over the next few weeks, mostly on terrorism for a variety of different outlets. Some bigger China ones coming after that. First up is this piece which was actually written last year and was commissioned by the lovely people at the Vienna based European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP), and which draws on ideas which were first loosely sketched out in this earlier Foreign Policy piece. It is a bit of a forward looking piece trying to explore where trends might end up going. There are a couple of more empirically based pieces coming looking at the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism.

Terrorist Threats Post-COVID-19

It is too early at this stage to draw any definitive conclusions about what the impact on terrorism from COVID will be, but some early sketches can be drawn of problems which appear to be being exacerbated. The causal link to COVID is hard to tell. But there has been a noticeable shift in various terrorist ideologies in COVID’s shadow which merit a stock-take. The aim of this article is to dig into these shifts and try to offer some broad thoughts about where the longer- term threat picture might be going.

What have terrorists said about COVID-19?

As a start point, it is useful to explore what terrorist groups have actually said and done about COVID. In the early days of the virus, groups were commenting on it in much the same way as everyone else was. In some cases, they drew the ideas into the larger conspiracies they are signed up to seeking to explain it as part of a master plan to destroy the world and advance their ideology. Less apocalyptic responses focused instead on the practical things that groups could do to help populations fend off the virus. This form of social services was an attempt to win over hearts and minds to demonstrate how governments were failing. In many cases it built on a history of offering social services to their communities, and merely served to further endear them. And yet others instead chose to make the strategically sensible point that the net result was likely to be less attention by security forces and distracted authorities, therefore offering a useful moment to strike or take territory.216

There was also considerable discussion around the idea of trying to weaponize the virus, though the evidence around this happening has been very thin. Extremist forums churned out propaganda about what could be done, but very few actually moved forwards with their plans. One plan was dramatically uncovered in Tunisia, where a preacher was telling his followers to cough or sneeze on security forces in advance of an attack.217 For the most part, security services have not reported much change in the threat picture as a result of COVID.218 In the US some people have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation for threatening to actively spread the virus, though it is not clear there was any political motive behind their act.219

Having said this, there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of noise around terrorist groups,220 though it is not clear this has actually resulted in an increase in violence. While metrics are hard to get, using the data offered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), it would appear that all of the conflict and political violence metrics that they follow are down year on year across the world, and in particular in regions where terrorist groups are dominant.221 This is not an entirely surprising outcome. Given the general lockdowns and difficulties in travelling, it has become harder to practically mobilize in the same way as before. And while online activity has made the spread and virulence of extremist ideas and disinformation alongside it easier, it is not yet in a state to replace the physical act of violence.

But a lack of violence does not unfortunately necessarily equate to the absence of a problem. The underlying issues that can cause radicalization can take considerable time to turn into a visible terrorist threat. And the current immediate news environment can telescope our ability to properly assess the timeline required for problems to develop. Given the constant noise of threat that is now produced by groups, alongside constant reporting of threats globally at the same time, it can be harder to assess longer-term changes and patterns. The constant coverage gives an impression of an accelerating threat. This results in an expectation that threats materialize immediately, when in fact they can take time to mature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor is it one that is exclusive to the study of terrorism and political violence. In general, societal expectations around issues are wildly accelerated by a relentless news cycle which requires a constant digest of new information and news. The net result is a lack of patience in tracing consequences and impact from specific actions. From an analytical perspective, it can make it more complicated to appropriately describe problems and threats as the expectation is often that causal impact will be rapid and immediate. In fact, problems often take time to develop and ultimately articulate themselves in violence. The confusion that this reality creates is augmented in a static situation like that created by COVID-19 which has brought vast sections of human activity around the world to a standstill. Objectively standing back, it is hard to assess that COVID-19 has materially changed for the better many situations that were affected by terrorism, in fact, it can appear that the longer- term situation has likely been made worse.

A current stocktake

A complete overview of all terrorist threats globally for such a short paper would be by its nature incomplete and incorrect. Consequently, the author will focus on two dominant threat ideologies (violent Islamists and the extreme right wing) and provide a brief overview of their current status with some broad analysis of how things are advancing in the shadow of COVID.

Within the violent Islamist cohort, al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated organizations are the dominant representatives. And in both cases, an assessment with relation to the impact of COVID on them is fairly limited at this stage. Both groups continue to thrive in their different ways, though they appear to be facing issues related to their respective broader operating environments rather than anything linked specifically to COVID. Outside rhetoric, at this stage it is very difficult to find many studies that have conclusively pointed to any major change in behavior.222

For example, in 2020 al Qaeda marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack. This was communicated across al Qaeda publications and media channels, though the outputs were for the most part repetitive of previous years and revealed little that was new. The key message from leader Ayman al Zawahiri was an attack on an Al Jazeera documentary made about the attack.223 This reflects a broader stasis around the group which while not defunct, has largely faded from the high points of the past few decades. A useful overview of the organization by BBC Monitoring’s Mina Al Lami showed how its affiliates in Mali and Somalia are its best beacons of success, while its other affiliates are under considerable pressure.224

Similarly, while ISIS continues to exist as a global organization, it is very different to the organization which dominated the airwaves during its peak years of controlling territory in Syria and Iraq. Its core entity in the Levant is a shrunken version of its former self but is gradually gaining some space on the ground in Iraq in particular.225 Its global network of affiliates remains loose, with different ones showing greater degrees of effectiveness and connection to the core. Some are reduced in effectiveness, while others appear ascendant.226 As an overall organization, however, it appears to be in a stage of being an irritant in most of the environments it is present, rather than the existential threat it previously posed when controlling vast pieces of territory in the Levant.

This is certainly not to say that either organization is completely down. Key for the current paper, however, is the fact that neither group appears to have been impacted particularly by COVID. Rather, both persist on roughly the same trajectory that they did before the outbreak of the virus. The threat from them remains relatively constant, with some parts of the threat rising and others falling. The key point, however, is persistence with security agencies still prioritizing the threat from violent Islamist actors.227

More dynamic and impacted to a greater degree in some ways by the virus is the extreme right wing. A threat which was ascendant across Europe, North America and select parts of Asia (Australia and New Zealand) before the outbreak of COVID-19, white supremacist terrorism was something which has been an escalating concern for some time.228 However, in the shadow of the virus, the problem appears to have mushroomed in a number of different directions. Most prominently in the United States there has been a growth in prominence of a number of different groups, ideas and violence. Whilst their individual strains might be slightly different, there are key themes which appear to tie many of them together. From the anti-state Boogaloo Bois who are expecting an impending civil war, the now-prominent Proud Boys (a drinking club dedicated to fighting leftist protestors), to more classic far right groups stoking race war or the constellation of new groups clustering around aspects of the far right like the Incel movement, QAnon conspiracy theorists or angry online communities gathering on sites like 8kun, 4chan or Gab. The world of far right in the United States has achieved greater prominence recently.

These have all been exacerbated in recent times, though it is not clear whether this is related to the virus, or more simply American politics which have gone in a deeply divisive direction under President Trump. His active inflaming of racial tensions and anger towards left-wing protestors feeds the extreme right, groups he has actively promoted from his position as President of the United States of America. During the first Presidential debate, his comments about the Proud Boys group quite specifically brought prominence to them229, while his earlier tweeting has brought international prominence to a far-right British group Britain First.230

But he is not solely responsible for this rising right-wing. Under the auspices of COVID, some aspects of the acceleration of extreme right anger can be linked to the expansion of the state, something that has been happening in some parts of the country in response to COVID- 19.231 And there has been a growth in conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 response – like fears around vaccines or the impact of 5G technology – which have often stoked some of the growing constellation of groups gathered on the extreme right.232 This will be covered again later, but they are clearly playing into long-standing US narratives of an overbearing federal state which is seeking to disenfranchise groups, removing their guns, infringing on their liberties and generally becoming a menace to the free state as defined in the US constitution. Such Patriot or Sovereign Citizen groups have long been a feature of the American discourse, but recent political clashes, somewhat exacerbated by the further expansion of the state in response to COVID and polarized political narratives, have strengthened their hold amongst fringe communities.

In Europe, a more classic extreme right tends to dominate, with racist networks flourishing in the shadows of a growth of far-right political movements and a polarized debate around immigration. This phenomenon has been developing for some time, with Germany facing the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the late 2000s, while angry protest groups like the UK’s English Defence League (EDL) spawned imitators across Europe. Annual Europol reports point to a growing extreme right wing threat in Europe, while individual security forces point to disrupted plots.233 Renaud Camus totemic text The Great Replacement has captured a particular mood across the continent234, while mass violence associated with such ideas can be found earlier in Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack in Oslo and Utoya Island.235 Europe has also seem an emergence of conspiracy theorists, QAnon236 and Incels,237 and a growing rumbling of anti-government anger similar to that in the US.238

But similar to the narrative on the violent Islamist side, what has been happening on the extreme right is in many ways merely an extension of what was going on before. Extreme right- wing terrorism had been a growing phenomenon for the past few years and its fragmentation had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed. For some countries, the return to dominance of the extreme right was a reflection of a balance of threat that existed pre-September 11, 2001.239

Future threats

COVID-19 has, however, changed how society is functioning and this will have some sort of effect on terrorist threats. In particular, the change to society that is going to be wrought in the longer time by the virus or existing issues whose impact was accelerated by the virus will have some effect on terrorist threats.

As stated at the outset, it is at this stage quite difficult to measure the exact causal effect, but some trends appear to be accelerated in the shadow of the virus which point to how this moment might impact the longer-term threat picture. While life is returning to some semblance of normality, the constant fear of new waves of the virus and the consequent disruption to society that follows continues to hang over things. The economic damage done by the virus has still not been calculated and may be being artificially suppressed temporarily due to economic stimulus programs. But their impact will be felt in many different ways in terms of government budgets both at home and abroad. The abrupt shift online is likely to permanently change some industries and eliminate others. The effect on the workforces will be dramatic and abrupt, creating potentially large unemployed or underemployed communities.

The potential impact on political violence and terrorism is hard to gauge, but three areas stand out as potential spaces in which political violence may grow in the future in part as a result of the impact of COVID-19’s ravaging the planet. In many ways these are also extensions of previous problems, but their acceleration against other trends impacted by COVID is potentially going to create greater problems than might otherwise have emerged.

A web spun by COVID

One of the biggest winners of COVID-19 is the Internet. With the advent of lockdowns and working from home, people found themselves increasingly spending time online. The impact of this on terrorism is complicated and goes in many different directions. In the first instance there is the impact on online radicalization. Something that used to be seen as a peripheral aspect of the problem, with the majority of radicalization still requiring physical contact with other extremists, the last few years have seen a growth in cases involving individuals who are choosing to move towards terrorist ideas and then into action solely on the basis of contacts or material they have found online.

In some cases, this is simply a shift online of what used to happen offline. The phenomenon of remote direction as popularized by ISIS is a shifting of the relationship between group and individual attacker online. Whereas previously individuals would head to a training camp and then be directed to launch an attack back home, now the approach was to simply direct people from a distance to launch their attacks using the many encrypted applications that exist. Individuals like Junaid Hussain240 or Rachid Kassim241 became infamous for the networks of young westerners they directed from ISIS held territory to launch terrorist attacks.

But more recently this has developed differently where people are now seemingly ready to launch attacks in advance of ideas they have found online with little to no connection with the actual group itself. In some cases, the individuals are not even joining a group. In the case of something like Incel or QAnon, they are simply following an online phenomenon or chat group and stirring themselves onto violence. The connection between terrorist violence and organized networks and hierarchies is shifting. This has been described as ‘post-organizational’ terrorist plotting where groups, their links and structures are no longer as clear as they used to be.242 While structured organizations still exist, the growth of ideologies online which people can piece together themselves, connect with as imprecisely as they would like, and ultimately interpret in any way that they would like has created a range of problems which live beyond our current interpretations of political violence.

The expression of this can be found in how security services find themselves talking about threats. In the United Kingdom, there has been a growth in individuals who are radicalizing with an ideology which appears to be a mix of contradictory issues and ideas, they are being bracketed by the Home Office as being “mixed, unstable or unclear”.243 In the United States, terrorism is now handled by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) alongside “Targeted Threats”.244 In Canada they talk of “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.245 The key point is that there is a growth of individuals who are acting out in a manner which is reminiscent of terrorism, and yet when some investigation is done into their ideological motivation, it is unclear exactly what it is. It is even possible to question whether this should properly be called terrorism or whether it is in fact simply an expression of personal anger using the vernacular of terrorism to give it greater meaning.246

Whatever the case, this cohort of individuals is a growing phenomenon. There is a number of individuals who are becoming involved in terrorist activity who are suffering from mental health issues, others that are being identified as having autism spectrum disorders and a growing proportion of very young individuals being drawn into violent activity. Again, absolute numbers are hard to identify, but the number of studies looking into the question has grown while security agencies have increasingly expressed concerns. And while none of these phenomena are new, there is some evidence that the cases are being exacerbated as a result of the lockdown from COVID. In the UK there is the case of the fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly became fascinated with ISIS videos while stuck at home in lockdown, and started to make bombs off models he found online (he was ultimately cleared by a court).247 In Spain, a radical who had been under observation by security services, was arrested after authorities started to grow concerned about the fact that he was radicalizing further and moving towards action during lockdown.248 Finally, there have been lower level cases, like individuals who were going through periods of probation and suddenly found themselves underemployed who instead turned back to online activity.

And this roster accounts only for those of violent Islamist inclination. There is a growing concern around these issues for other ideologies as well. Focusing on the UK, there have been the disturbing cases in recent history of a deeply disturbed man arrested on charges related to left-wing terrorist activity who committed suicide while incarcerated.249 Online extreme right networks in Europe have been found to have been led by very young teenagers.250 There have been Incels found in Europe making explosives, including very young teenagers who have been identified as suffering from autism spectrum disorders.251 And then there is the confusing phenomena of very young individuals whose ideology appears to be a self-created mix of ideas drawing on a wide pool of extreme material they find online.

Such individuals who are self-assembling extremist ideas are often drawn towards conspiracy theories, or dark holes on the internet where such ideas can lurk. And the strength and potency of such online conspiracies has only grown – enhanced by the uncertainty and instability that COVID and geopolitics has created. Conspiracy theories like fears of the dangers of 5G, the threats from vaccines, super-conspiracies like those underpinning QAnon about dark cabals of pedophiles ruling the world are all now circulating online amongst communities of people who are spending ever larger volumes of time online on social media. While work has gone into trying to change or break the algorithms, companies are still struggling to completely control them and often these ideas grow in spaces beyond the big social media companies.

All of this is further exacerbated by active government disinformation campaigns that are working to stir up tensions online. In part this is directed against elections, but it is also simply a way of causing trouble. Sometimes it is not even clear the degree to which it is directed by states, rather than angry groups or bored children. But whatever the case, its impact is felt much more deeply part as a result of the general polarization that is taking place in politics, but also by the fact that an ever-increasing volume of people are spending time online.

Left, luddism and environmentalism

Tracking all of this forwards, the time spent online is not only something which is transforming our methods of communication and absorption of information, but it is further likely to have longer-term repercussions on the shape of our economies and workforces. As lockdowns and restrictions continue, entire industries are suffering and likely to be closing down. Physical retail, already in retreat thanks to the boom in online markets, is likely to take a further beating, while the food and beverage industry is going to continue to suffer for some time to come. The fundamental point is that a growing number of these services will shift online in some capacity, meaning that the physical jobs needed in shops or restaurants to serve people will not necessarily exist anymore. This will create a growing community of unemployed people, or people who end up under-employed or forced to take even more menial jobs. It is hard to gauge exactly what the volume of this shift will be, but it might start to inspire a backlash against the technology and firms that are abetting this shift.

Luddism, a concept first advanced in the 19th century by textile workers angry at the advance of modern technology which was rendering their jobs redundant, could make a comeback. This is not new. Theodore Kaczyinski, the infamous Unabomber, was an earlier luddite whose anger at technology’s dominance of society was something which led him to launch a one-man letter bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995 from a remote cabin in Montana.252 His manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published September 1995 in the Washington Post and started with the premise that “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”253 He may have been twenty years early, but many of the issues he raises in his manifesto are relevant today. As we enter an ever more interconnected and online world, not only are we likely to see more people reacting negatively to it, but also we will see more people becoming disenfranchised as a result. Stories have already emerged about the horrors of working for some of the big online retail companies,254 and these are likely to be exaggerated further in COVID’s wake as we see them assume an even more dominant place within our society.

It is not only a modern form of luddism that may emerge in reaction. Many of the ideas rejecting society or large industrial take over is reminiscent of ideas emanating from the left – where capitalism’s imposing structures crush individuals in advance of profit. These fundamental ideas which are often appropriated by groups on both sides. Consequently, the massive expansion of some companies, of an internet which is controlled by large firms and which is ultimately disempowering people and eliminating employment has the potential to be attractive as an adversary to those on the far left as well. Anti-globalization groups that used to have prominence in the pre-September 11 world,255 have in the past two decades been dominated by a terrorist narrative which focuses on the threat from violent Islamist groups and latterly those on the extreme right wing. The left has receded as a dominant threat, notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations otherwise.256 Yet, within the chaos wrought by COVID-19, it is possible to see a re-emergence of elements of a far-left threat, angry at the rampant far-right and seeing inequality deepening.

Atop this, issues around environmentalism may have been pushed to one side due to COVID-19 concerns, but the problems remain. From a governmental perspective, there is still a need to resolve them, though the pace of change is one that is not happening fast enough for a number of activists. Whilst violence associated with the environmental movement is rare, the fall-out from COVID and the likely de-prioritization of environmental issues in favor of healthcare and repairing stricken economies, may stir more violence. An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has in fact been the mainstreaming of environmental anger into other ideologies. In some cases, like al Shabaab’s banning of plastic bags, it appears banal and almost comical,257 but in others, like the attackers in El Paso and Christchurch declaring they are eco-fascists,258 it shows how environmental ideas can be absorbed into more mainstream violent ideologies in a way that enhances the narrative. Suggesting that for environmental issues to become a terrorist problem, they do not necessarily have to emerge solely from the environmental movement’s mainstream or fringe. Played against the broader backdrop of instability and likely environmental degradation which will continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it is possible such narratives will gain greater salience.

China

A final threat which is likely to rise further, accelerated by COVID-19, is the growth of China as a target for violence and terrorism. Already a trend that was visible pre-COVID-19, it was something which was likely in part a product of China’s rise to a preeminent place on the international stage, as well as a reaction to China’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, the treatment of its Uighur minority has long-spurred anger rhetoric against China, but it has generated surprisingly little terrorism. Domestic violence within China associated with Uighur extremism is often rather expressions of anger at the state, with only some incidents justifiably considered terrorism.259 China’s heavy-handed crackdown has largely suppressed these instances of violence at home, but there have been a few abroad associated with Uighur networks.260 More dominant has been the growing targeting of Chinese nationals and interests by groups elsewhere – more often than not local networks rather than international ones.

For example, in Pakistan, China has increasingly become the target of Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. While there is a consistent level of concern around violent Islamist groups within the country, they have for the most part not targeted Chinese specifically.261 When they have hit Chinese targets, it has tended to be incidental and as part of a larger assault against foreigners or the state. In contrast, Sindhi and Baluchi groups have specifically targeted Chinese institutions and repeatedly put out messaging saying that China was their target. Similarly, in Indonesia, there may be a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, but recently there has been a growth in specific thinking about targeting Chinese nationals within the country by violent Islamist groups. In part they consider this retribution for the treatment of Uighurs, but it also reflects an anger towards China as an invading colonial force.262

This particular anger is something that is only likely to grow going forwards. Beijing will find that as China rises to become an ever more central pillar in international affairs, it will attract as many detractors as it will supporters. And some of these detractors will be infuriated at Chinese behavior enough to want to commit acts of violence against Chinese interests. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 moment the world is going through. Beijing’s unapologetic response to its links to the origin of the virus, subsequent aggressive public relations diplomacy captured under the moniker ‘wolf warrior’263 and forceful posture on the world stage has done little to endear China to the international community.264 All of this is likely to attract different levels of public anger, some of which is likely to articulate itself as terrorism.

In some parts of the world this has already taken something of an ugly twist with the growing targeting of East Asian nationals in racist attacks.265 Taken alongside the growing levels of tension towards China, this is the sort of violence that has in other contexts ended up expressing itself through violence. China and ethnic East Asians are likely to find themselves increasingly potential targets of violence going forwards.

Conclusions

Much of this is of course speculative at this point. The world is still battling COVID with no clear timeline for when we will be able to talk about being in a post-COVID-19 world. And the longer the world suffers from COVID, the deeper the consequences touched upon in this paper are likely to be. The societal divisions, the economic damage, the transformed economies, and societies are all issues where impact is already visible, and this will only become more acute as more time passes. Society will change and this will have some sort of knock-on effect on the world of terrorism and political violence.

It will likely take some time, even years, before a clear causal link will be possible between the current events and the longer-term changes that might take place in terms of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Some of these effects might in fact be mere accelerations of what was already happening. This is something that is visible already in the growing prominence of the extreme right. Its rise was already visible pre-COVID, with the pattern tracing back years. But in the shadow of the disease and the societal, political and economic impact it has wrought we are seeing its rise sped up and worsened. Of course, this has to be played against the polarized political environment in Washington, DC in particular, which has amplified the noise around the far-right, something which has also likely been made worse by COVID-19. The point being that separating out effects and causal links will be something which is going to be hard to measure and quantify.

One issue which is likely to change in the west in particular in the wake of COVID-19 is the role of state in society. The massive bailouts, new healthcare and security infrastructure which will be needed to ensure future pandemics are better managed, and large public debt that will follow will require management. They will generate unhappiness in unexpected quarters, and in some cases, outright rejection. Given terrorism is at its root a form of anti-establishmentarianism, the massive growth of the state that is likely to result in post-COVID world could be a key underlying issue to look at when trying to explore how terrorism might evolve in the future. This is already most prominently visible in the United States, where it builds on a long history of libertarian and anti-federal government activity, but it is possible that similar strains may start to emerge elsewhere. In some ways, the anti-Chinese anger which may become exacerbated is another expression of this, with China becoming such a dominant figure globally that it is consequently attracting ire.

All of this needs to be kept into perspective of course. While COVID may have some effect on terrorism and political violence, its principal impact will most immediately and dramatically be felt in other aspects of human behavior. However, understanding how these ripples will echo in terrorism remains an important aspect to observe.

Sources

[216] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[217] https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[218] https://apcss.org/assessing-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-terrorism-and-counter-terrorism-practitioner-insights/

[219] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-charges-terror-crimes-threats-spread-virus-70052376

[220] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/27/comparing-jihadist-and-far-right-extremist-narratives-on-covid-19/

[221] https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard

[222] There has been considerable work, however, looking at the potential risks. For example, IPAC in Indonesia has written a number of useful papers looking at threats there: http://www.understandingconflict.org/en.html and the UN has summarized what has been happening in CT and CVE terms: https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CTED-Paper%E2%80%93-The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism.pdf, and finally, Abdul Basit has provided a useful summary of a number of trends across the terrorism space and the threat and opportunity it provides for terrorist organizations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603

[223] https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/09/zawahiri-asserts-al-qaedas-independence-in-new-message.php

[224] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54102404

[225] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/when-measuring-isiss-resurgence-use-right-standard

[226] ISIS Somalia has had a very bad year so far: https://public.tableau.com/profile/fddmaps#!/vizhome/SomaliaClaims/Dashboard1 while its affiliate group in Mozambique has been increasingly effective: http://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/CEEI_Security_Brief_3.pdf 

[227] The US intelligence community is one prominent example: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/20200917_HCHS_Miller_SFR_Final.pdf, though it is not clear that this applies internationally and domestically to the same degree. A recent DHS assessment pointed to an expanded White Supremacist Threat in particular at home: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[228] Australia has recorded a particular rise: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-its-counter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism as well as the United States: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[229] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/30/politics/proud-boys-trump-debate-trnd/index.html

[230] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[231] The case of Eduardo Moreno is instructive in this regard: https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[232] https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/Graphika_Report_Covid19_Infodemic.pdf

[233] file:///Users/raffaellopantucci/Downloads/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf

[234] https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2019/03/15/la-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-de-l-ecrivain-renaud-camus-aux-attentats-en-nouvelle-zelande_5436843_4355770.html

[235] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14259989

[236] https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html

[237] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/rise-women-haters-inside-dark-world-british-incels/

[238] https://raffaellopantucci.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/f1810-source_d3.7_assr4.pdf

[239] Australia is a case in point where far right violence was the dominant threat pre-9/11. Similarly, within Europe, while various separatist groups were the dominant terrorist threat, the far right was a problem that sometimes spilled into violence.

[240] https://ctc.usma.edu/british-hacker-became-islamic-states-chief-terror-cybercoach-profile-junaid-hussain/

[241] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-islamic-state-weaponized-the-chat-app-to-direct-attacks-on-the-west-1476955802

[242] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/confronting-the-challenge-of-post-organisational-extremism/

[243] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/763254/individuals-referred-supported-prevent-programme-apr2017-mar2018-hosb3118.pdf

[244] https://www.dhs.gov/tvtp

[245] https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/csis-scrs/documents/publications/PubRep-2019-E.pdf

[246] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/09/22/who-is-a-terrorist-actually/ ; https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/running-amok-in-an-age-of-meaningless-terror

[247] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54450013

[248] https://www.catalannews.com/society-science/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-for-allegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack

[249] https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/leeds-news/dominic-noble-huddersfield-dies-prison-18812989

[250] https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

[251] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/fantasist-obsessed-incels-jailed-over-17998017

[252] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber

[253] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabomber/manifesto.text.htm

[254] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/11/hired-six-months-undercover-in-low-wage-britain-zero-hours-review-james-bloodworth

[255] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[256] https://www.ft.com/content/fdf5e423-4a4e-482c-8ca8-e0bf71fcfbcd, it is also worth noting that some left-wing terrorism still exists in parts of southern Europe – for example, Italy and Greece.

[257] https://www.businessinsider.com/al-shabab-bans-plastic-bags-as-a-serious-threat-to-people-2018-7

[258] https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-eco-fascism

[259] https://raffaellopantucci.com/2014/07/24/chinas-domestic-insurgency/

[260] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-china-embassy-jailed/28583623.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-blast-idUSKBN13A0FR

[261] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160918/lesson-pakistan-suicide-attack-china-will-have-pay-high

[262] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3099151/indonesian-terrorists-planned-attack-shop-owners-areas-chinese

[263] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/beware-the-spirit-of-the-wolf-warrior

[264] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/

[265] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804

The other half of my contribution to ICPVTR’s annual assessment document is an overview of what has been going on with the extreme right wing over the past year with Kyler. We have been doing a lot on this topic and have a few other projects in the pipeline this year which am looking forward to. This particular piece pre-dates the whole debate at the moment in the US about whether what took place on Capitol Hill was terrorism or not. My own brief assessment would be that the appearance of improvised explosive devices certainly helps push it in this direction, though we still have to see what is eventually uncovered about the levels of organization involved in the overall assault.

This aside, an earlier piece for the Central Asia Program at George Washington University has now been re-published in an edited volume CAP has published. It looks at Central Asia and the pandemic more broadly, and is full of other fascinating stuff by a wide gamut of Central Asia experts. The subject of China-Central Asia in particular is a topic am hoping to do more on this year and which my eventual book will also cover. Watch this space for more on that.

Persistence of Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the West

Global events provided fertile grounds for already ascendant extreme right-wing ideology and violence to thrive and further metastasise in 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the November Presidential elections in the United States (US) and continuing anti-immigrant antipathy in Europe, all point to cleavages that are likely to continue to widen over the coming year. Fueled by an increasingly polarised global political discourse and growing dependence on easily manipulated social media, the problems currently remain most acute in North America, although a persistent roster of incidents, networks and plots across Europe, Australasia, and beyond, show how transnational the problem has become.

2020 Threat Landscape

Extremist Violence

In some ways, 2019 marked the current apex in extreme right-wing violence with the mass casualty attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that claimed 51 lives and directly inspired at least six other shootings.891 The broader global problem had simmered for some time, but the Christchurch shootings marked a high point of violence in recent years.892 The year 2020 saw a continuance of this threat, with a multiplication of groups in the extreme right ideological camp. White supremacists, racists, anti-government militias, misogynists, anti-globalizers, and antivaxxers, amongst others, have sought to capitalise on the global social and political upheaval to advance intolerant ideas and in some cases inflict violence. This growing fragmentation of the extreme right is a significant feature of recent years, with a growing chorus of groups espousing variations of intolerance that appear to be part of a spectrum of ideologies that makes up the modern extreme right-wing. Many have produced violent attacks that are conducted by lone actors or small groups without formal direction from a centralised leadership.

Globally, the number of attacks and plots appears to be sustaining, though there is some variance in different locations. According to a brief by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 67 percent of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the US between January 1 and August 31, 2020 were carried out by rightwing extremists, and the absolute number of ‘violent far-right’ attacks remained the same as in 2019.893 The 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment by the US Department of Homeland Security noted that White Supremacist Extremists (WSE) alone “remain[ed] the most persistent and lethal threat” in the country and accounted for approximately 40% of all terrorist attacks and plots recorded in 2019.894

This trajectory is not surprising given the potent mix of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and rising political tensions in the run up to the year-end US Presidential Election, among other concerns, have heightened security risks. The blend of issues has also shone a light on how right-wing extremists, including WSEs, as well as other anti-government fringe groups such as the Boogaloo movement, QAnon,895 the Proud Boys, as well as various Patriot or militia groups, all coalesce over shared attitudes on the “legitimacy of the pandemic, lockdown orders and the role of the law enforcement and other government officials.” The result is a “militia-sphere” which has produced incidents of violence and aspirational plots.

There has been, for example, an attempted terrorist plot to blow up a hospital with COVID-19 patients896 and an attempt to derail a train in order to disrupt a medical ship that was being deployed to counter the virus.897 Some have attended anti-lockdown and BLM rallies as platforms to spread misinformation, sow social disorder, and incite or attempt violence,898 while others have orchestrated lethal attacks in the midst of chaos.899 Most recently, a cluster of individuals identifying themselves as the Wolverine Watchmen planned the kidnapping of the Michigan state Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Some of the individuals involved had previous convictions for terrorism offences, while others were involved in an earlier plan to attempt an armed take-over of the state capital building in Lansing, Michigan.900

Europe has also faced a growing problem of extreme right violence. While definitional and reporting variance makes it difficult to draw exact statistics on right-wing violence and terrorism across the European Union (E.U.), the extreme right threat is a problem across Europe with variations from country to country.901 For instance, Germany faced no less than 35 such events in 2019,902 and last February saw a foiled mass casualty attack targeting mosques as well as the mass shootings at various shisha bars in Hanau, that took nine lives.903 More recently in November, German authorities charged a network of 12 who had been arrested in February for planning attacks on minorities and politicians.904

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has faced two disrupted ‘ultraright’ terrorist plots targeting him in 2017905 and November 2018,906 while a network targeting minorities and opposition politicians was disrupted in October 2017.907 In October 2020, a pair of Muslim women were attacked with knives under the Eiffel Tower by a pair of disgruntled women, who also called them “dirty Arabs.”908 Separately, a psychologically troubled man wearing markers identifying himself as linked to the identitarian movement in France, attacked a passersby in Avignon on October 30.909 In the United Kingdom (UK), the proportion of prisoners with “far-right ideologies” has also increased significantly since 2018, from 33 to 44 in 2020.910 Metropolitan Police Counterterrorism lead Neil Basu has referred to the extreme right-wing as the fastest growing part of the terror threat that his officers face. New MI5 Chief Ken McCallum has also pointed out that “of the 27 late-stage terrorist attack plots in Great Britain disrupted by MI5 and CT Policing since 2017, 8 have been right wing extremist.”911 Elsewhere around Europe, the threat picture is highly varied. In some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, for example, migrants continue to be targets of regular abuse, and racist treatment and behaviour. In many countries, the line between violent groups and far-right political parties is also often blurred, complicating cross-continent data collection. Finally, the battlefield in Ukraine continues to be a draw for extreme right-wing fighters from around the world.

The wave of violent right-wing extremism has also reached the Oceania, most notably with the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting. Australia, while having not experienced right-wing violence in recent years, has recently reported an increase of violent right-wing extremist counter-terrorism caseload to about 40% in 2020.912 While Islamist terrorism remains the dominant threat, US President Trump’s hyped up populist conservative politics have been appropriated to fit local context, with the President championed as a defender of “white identity.” Narratives in Australia around COVID-19 responses have also echoed developments in Europe and the US, with race and anti-establishment views being woven into extreme right identities.913 This has even reached outside the white Caucasian world with QAnon narratives being picked up in Japan, adapted to the local context but part of the global problem.914

A final transnational element which is woven into this tapestry of the extreme right is the Incel (Involuntary Celibate) movement. Misogynist tendencies can be found amongst most of the groups that have been mentioned so far, but the Incel movement focuses in on them. The ideology, found mostly in online forums and communities, justifies violence against women and society as a revenge for men’s inability to have sex or enter into a relationship with a female. In Europe and North America, there has been an uptick in violence by such individuals since 2018, with more than a dozen perpetrated by Incel adherents.

Ideological Confluence

Placing Incels within this context also highlights the complexity of the current extreme right. Made up of a spectrum of ideological groups, often their ideologies drift beyond traditional extreme right narratives. Incels, for example, are not uniformly rightwing (though many of those who appear motivated towards violence show xenophobic tendencies). Questions also abound over whether the group should be classified as a terrorist movement, given that its adherents’ acts of violence can be regarded as personal revenge attacks rather than aiming at an overarching political goal. While it can be argued that Incels mimic traditional terrorist modus operandi and that their misogynist ideological convergence with the extreme right-wing render them perhaps “simply another articulation of the modern extreme right,”915 this has still faced criticism. This conflict is most visible in Canada, where authorities in Toronto opted to prosecute as an Incel terrorist incident a February attack where a teenager stabbed a woman.916 By contrast, a 2018 car ramming attack in Toronto that killed 10 by an individual who admitted inspiration by Incel ideologies was not prosecuted as a terrorist incident.917

Other cases are clearer cut. The Hanau shooter, for example, had clearly expressed racial hatred in targeting minority communities in Germany, although amongst the ideological materials he left behind, such as his 24-page manifesto, was clear evidence of Incel thinking, as well as antigovernment QAnon-esque ideologies.918 QAnon itself, a conspiracy theory which has both inspired terrorists and drawn sympathy from former President Trump and a growing roster of US Congressional candidates,919 has increasingly converged with the extreme right as well as right-wing politicians, but is not an entirely right-wing conspiracy. Part of the ideology is centred around a perceived Jewish ploy to replace the white race (adherents also believe that President Trump is a heroic figure fighting a cabal of pedophilic elites) which helps explain why the conspiracy theory fits with white supremacist narratives in particular.

Other parts of the extreme right connect actively with other terrorist ideologies for more opportunistic reasons. In September, the US Department of Justice announced charges against a pair of men who were part. of the Boogaloo Bois group (a movement focused on an impending American Civil War) for offering their mercenary services to undercover FBI agents who were posing as members of Hamas.920 The men spoke of their common desire to overthrow the US government, as well as offering material support to the group.

The ideological confusion has been heavily influenced by current events. New strands of ideological conspiracies have also emerged as a result of the BLM movement, as well as propaganda linked to COVID-19, which has focused on racist, anti-Semitic, and other tropes, as well as more odd beliefs like the impact of 5G technology on infection rates.921 Traditional figures of paranoia like George Soros or Bill Gates have been woven into these narratives, and the tensions have been exacerbated by the recent US election, leaving a confusing array of ideologies whose only clear fact is that they are increasing. The Anti-Defamation League’s H.E.A.T Map recorded 3346 incidents of white supremacist-related propaganda, compared to 2724 incidents in 2019, amongst which they included propaganda related to COVID19, BLM and the election.922

Social Media Exploitation

An important component of the proliferation and confusion of ideologies is the everincreasing penetration of social media and the internet into people’s daily lives. QAnon, for example, is an ideology which has emerged from the ether, while Incels have been able to forge connections online. The past few years have seen a number of high profile terrorist incidents involving individuals who appeared to be lone actors, but were later discovered to be active in online forums. Often, they have signaled their act or posted videos showing their attack on social media platforms or discussion forums. Providing a platform for individuals from around the world to gather and plot anonymously, the Internet has proven a particularly useful asset in helping fringe ideologies proliferate.

The anonymity offered by the Internet has also helped lower substantially the age of individuals involved in extreme right activity. This was highlighted in Europe during this past year with a number of teenagers convicted, uncovered or arrested in the UK for their involvement in extreme right online forums like Fascist Forge,923 the British Hand,924 or the Order of Nine Angels.925 Feuerkrieg Division, a now proscribed organisation, was revealed to have been led by a 13-year-old Estonian boy.926

Over the past year, the heavy restrictions imposed on people’s movement and employment in the wake of COVID-19 has exacerbated the spread of extremist ideas as people spend a growing amount of time online. For instance, Boogaloo-related chatter in various gun-rights and militia enthusiast communities as well as message boards catered to violent racial conspiracies has surged on both Reddit and 4Chan, with calls urging followers to amass arms in anticipation of a second civil war and fight against perceived civil liberties-violating lockdowns.927 Extremists are also using bots to spread misinformation on scientifically baseless conspiracy theories about the virus to fuel political polarisation.928 A number of terrorist suspects have been charged and arrested during this period, with evidence indicating they have further radicalised themselves as a result of spending an excessive amount of time online.929

Responses

Addressing the extreme right threat has proven deeply complicated for states. Given the bleed into the political mainstream that can often be found, the problem becomes very difficult to isolate and eradicate in the same way that violent Islamist ideologies can be targeted.930 While some programmes have been developed to deradicalise or grapple with at-risk individuals, efforts to deal with the underlying causes that leave people prone to exploring such extremist ideologies remain elusive. Similarly, removing extremist content can be complicated by the fact that it echoes mainstream politicians’ views, making it almost impossible to police for social media companies who have to be responsive to local sensitivities which will vary between jurisdictions.

Social Media Crackdown

Nevertheless, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their bans on content, deployed more aggressive algorithms to take-down material, and expanded their efforts to focus not just on violent organisations, but also fake news that has proliferated on their platforms.931 Recently, Facebook moved to ban all content and accounts promoting QAnon material, recognising the level of influence this movement has on swaying American voters’ sentiment through misinformation.932 The platform’s more aggressive policies were showcased in the wake of the detention of a group of extremists planning to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman, when it was revealed that Facebook had alerted the authorities to the group’s online activities some six months prior to their arrests.933

One result of the such removals by social media companies is the migration of extreme right groups to other platforms. TikTok, for example, has become a particular target for QAnon conspiracy theories and their followers, especially in the lead up to the November US Presidential Election. In June, videos with #wwg1wga, an acronym for “where we go one, we go all”, a QAnon slogan, garnered more than 100 million views to date. While TikTok has also joined other big social media companies in banning extremist content and hashtags largely related to QAnon (e.g., #wwg1wga or qanon) is no longer searchable on its platform and have largely dwindled, QAnon adherents continue using TikTok to promote pro-Trump videos, QAnon conspiracy theories, COVID-19 and BLM disinformation. This habit of migrating across platforms is a common modus operandi amongst various extremist ideological camps.

What is more particular to the extreme right, however, and has raised issues the world over, is the occasional spill-over between parts of the extreme right’s ideological edge, and mainstream political parties. The problem is a particularly acute one for online companies, as it can mean they find themselves having to block mainstream political organisations or leaders for posting material which falls foul of their community guidelines. For Twitter and Facebook this has meant controlling the output of the President of the US.934 The problem is one that is not exclusive to the west, however, with Indian politicians also regularly falling foul.935 This problem came into particular focus last year given the high-profile US elections but is likely to be a consistent issue with extreme right, far right or populist politicians’ output going forwards.

Managing Problems at Home

Governments have increasingly sought to proscribe extreme right groups, though this has so far been patchy rather than systematic. In 2020, the United States proscribed the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM),936 the UK Feuerkrieg Division (FKD) and Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD),937 and Germany Combat 18938 and Der Fluegel [which translates as ‘the wing’ and is a radical wing of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD)].939 There is a heated debate in the US about adding more of the constellation of extreme right-wing groups to lists managed by domestic security agencies like the FBI or DHS, but this has collided with the political discourse in the US where the Trump administration has preferred to repeatedly highlight the impact of extreme left-groups like Antifa. The administration’s own security forces, however, seem divided on the menace of such groups, with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report not mentioning Antifa at all and instead focusing on white supremacists as the biggest threat faced by the United States.940

There is also a growing incidence of security forces being accused of extreme right biases or outright membership. While this is not a new problem, it gained new salience last year with a number of cases in Europe and North America. In June, the UK’s Metropolitan Police charged a 21-year-old officer for membership of banned extreme right-wing group National Action.941 In the US, Private Ethan Meltzer was arrested and charged with membership of a Satanist-Neo-Nazi group, the Order of the Nine Angels (O9A), and planning an attack in advance of the group’s ideology against his own unit.942 Other disrupted extreme right-wing plots in the US were made up of cells which included veterans, including the cell planning to kidnap Governor Witmer.943 In Canada, an undercover investigation led to the exposure of an Army engineer who was a reported member of The Base.944 Dramatically highlighting the severity of the threat in Germany, the country disbanded a company within the army’s elite Special Command Forces (KSK) due to allegations of infiltration by right-wing extremists.945 In North-Rhine Westphalia, 29 police officers were dismissed for sharing Nazi imagery online, while a former officer and his wife in Berlin were charged with sending threatening emails to well-known figures of immigrant background.946 Germany’s Military Counter Intelligence Service has reported that it believes some 600 soldiers serving in the army have extreme right-wing sympathies.947

Outlook

While yet to achieve the gravitational power and structure of violent Islamist threats, there has been a steady patter of incidents linked to the extreme right over the past year, which points to a growing and globalising problem. For example, the expulsion by Ukraine of two American members of Atomwaffen division who were reportedly seeking to join the white supremacist Azov Battalion.948 This is not a new phenomenon, but its persistence suggests the beginning of a transnational movement of individuals built around practical potential terrorist training.949 This has also migrated to other battlefields. In October last year, the leader of the French extreme-right group Zouaves Paris, Marc de Cacqueray-Valmenier, announced on social media that he had left to fight alongside the Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against Azerbaijan.950 The US’ decision to proscribe the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) also came after reports of the group providing training to German and Scandinavian extreme right-wing terrorists.951 Online, the links are clear, with groups regularly moving across borders and bringing together like-minded extremists together. An investigation into the group The Base uncovered the fact the group was led by an American living in St Petersburg, who was actively seeking to recruit UK and US teenagers.952 The confluence of many of these links to Russia, as well as activity by Russian government actors online to stir up race as an issue during the US election, all points to a nexus which is worth watching given the potential geopolitical consequences.

A further worrying feature which requires close monitoring is the growing confluence of extreme right and violent Islamist ideologies online. Again, while not new, it is notable during this past year that a growing number of cases have been disrupted where extreme right networks openly praise or emulate violent Islamist group activity. Ethan Melzer, for example, had reportedly disclosed sensitive information to al-Qaeda, and praised the Islamic State’s brutality.953 The case of the two Boogaloo Bois elements willing to provide material support for Hamas shows their ideological malleability. In Europe, extreme right online networks now regularly employ the same propaganda strategies as the Islamic State (IS) to recruit into their ranks, something that is unsurprising given their shared common enmity towards western governments. This confluence points to a potential danger worth monitoring going forwards, especially given the far more mature violent Islamist support networks that exist.

There is a perception in the analytical community that a major driver of the current surge in extreme right-wing violent activity is linked to the US Presidential Election and President Trump’s sometimes ambiguous statements about extreme right groups in the US. This suggests that last year’s presidential election might act as a breakwater (or accelerant) of the current problems. Yet, it is instructive to note that 2020 marked the 25th anniversary since the Oklahoma City Bombing in the US, an attack carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a US Patriot figure still venerated amongst the US’ extreme right, libertarian and anti-government movement. While things appeared to become more confrontational and aggressive during President Trump’s tenure, it is not clear that the broader trajectory is linked to him. This suggests a problem which has rooted itself in western societies.

Finally, the problem of political bleed between the extreme right and far-right politics (and even mainstream right-wing politics in some contexts) is going to continue to make it very difficult for security forces to effectively deal with the problems of the extreme right. The proximity of ideologies and ideologues points to a problem which governments will struggle to legislate against and security forces will consequently find difficult to move against. This problem will likely only become sharper going forwards given the increasingly polarised political conversation in most western countries.

About The Authors

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.

Kyler Ong is 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.

891 These include perpetrators such as William John Shutt, John Timothy Ernest, Patrick Crusius, Philip Manshaus, Stephan Balliet, and Filip Golon Bednarcyzk. In each case, there is clear evidence that the individuals involved knew and praised Brenton Tarrant’s terrible act.

892 In terms of sheer volume of violence, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 massacre in Norway marked an earlier high point that was in fact glowingly cited by the Christchurch murderer.

893 Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Nicholas Harrington, Grace Hwang and James Suber, “The War Comes Home. The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/war-comes-homeevolution-domestic-terrorism-united-states

894 “Homeland Threat Assessment,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, October 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/publication/2020-homelandthreat-assessment p.18.

895 Whilst not all Boogaloo adherents are white supremacists, some clearly are. Broadly speaking, adherents to this movement espouse the need to overthrow the government through armed action. QAnon adherents believe that there’s a “deep state” comprising Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros plotting a coup d’état against Donald Trump. This “deep state”, it is alleged, is also involved in an international child sex trafficking ring that works for the benefit of the global elite. For further reading on each group, please see Leah Sottile, “The Chaos Agents,” New York Times, August 19 2020 (for Boogaloo) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/19/magazine/boogaloo.html , or Adrienne LaFrance, “The Prophecies of Q,” The Atlantic, June 2020 (for QAnon) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567

896 Michael Kosnar and Phil Helsel, “FBI says man killed in Missouri wanted to bomb hospital amid coronavirus epidemic,” NBC News, March 26, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fbi-says-man-killed-missouri-wanted-bomb-hospital-amid-coronavirus-n1169166

897 “Train operator at Port of Los Angeles charged with derailing locomotive near US Navy’s hospital ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice Press Release, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usaocdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-chargedderailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

898 Anna Orso and Ellie Rushing, “White Supremacists and Other Extremist Groups Are Using Protests and a Pandemic to Amplify Their Message,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13, 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/news/whitesupremacistextremists-reopen-rallies-black-lives-matter-protests20200613.html

899 Maura Dolan, Richard Winton and Anita Chabria, “Suspect in Killing of 2 Bay Area Officers Tied to Right-Wing ‘Boogaloo’ Group, Prosecutors Alleged,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-16/suspects-charged-killing-santa-cruz-cop-andoakland-federal-officer

900 United States of America v. Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, Continuation of a Criminal Complaint, Case No. 1:20-mj-416-SJB, https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdmi/pressrelease/file/1326161/download ; Kelly Weill, “Sixteen ‘Boogaloo’ Followers Have Been Busted in 7 Days,” Daily Beast, October 9, 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/with-the-govgretchen-whitmer-busts-16-boogaloo-followershave-been-busted-in-7-days?ref=scroll

901 The EU TE-SAT report for instance reported six right-wing terrorist attacks and plots in 2019, whilst another independent report by the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism noted a total of 116 right-wing violent events in Western Europe in the same year. See European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020,” June 23, 2020, https://www.europol.europa.eu/activitiesservices/main-reports/european-union-terrorismsituation-and-trend-report-te-sat-2020 , p.18; Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Sofia Lygren, Anders Ravik Jupskås and Tore Bjørgo, “RTV Trend Report 2020. Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe, 1990-2019,” 2020, https://www.sv.uio.no/crex/english/groups/rtvdataset/rtv_trend_report_2020.pdf

902 Ravndal et al., “RTV Trend Report 2020. RightWing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe, 1990-2019,” p.8.

903 Agence France-Presse (AFP), “German FarRight Arrests Reveal Plot to Attack Multiple Mosques,” The Guardian, February 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/17/german-far-right-arrests-reveal-multiple-mosqueattacks-plot ; Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, “Germany Shooting: Far-Right Gunman Kills 10 in Hanau,” The Guardian, February 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/shooting-germany-hanau-dead-several-people-shishanear-frankfurt

904 “Germany charges 12 in far-right ‘terror’ plot: reports,” DW, November 12, 2020 https://www.dw.com/en/germany-charges-12-in-farright-terror-plot-reports/a-55574323

905 Chris Baynes, “Right-Wing Terrorist Plot to Kill French President Foiled,” Daily Mercury, July 4, 2017, https://www.dailymercury.com.au/news/rightwing-terrorist-plot-kill-french-president-fo/3196432/

906 “Six Arrested over Far-Right Anti-Macron Plot,” Radio France Internationale (RFI), November 6, 2018, https://www.rfi.fr/en/20181106-six-arrestedover-far-right-anti-macron-plot

907 “French Far-Right Plot to Attack Mosques, Migrants, Politicians Uncovered,” RFI, October 18, 2017, https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20171018-french-far-right-plot-attack-mosques-migrants-politicians-uncovered

908 “Two French Women Charged Over Racist Stabbing of Veiled Muslims,” Al Jazeera, October 22, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/22/two-french-women-charged-over-racist-stabbing-of-veiled-muslim

909 It is worth mentioning that outside the identitarian badge, the individual in question was not clearly understood to be launching a terrorist attack. See “Avignon: un homme armé abattu par la police, la piste terrorist écartée,” Le Monde, October 30, 2020 https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/10/30/a
vignon-un-homme-arme-abattu-par-la-police-lapiste-terroriste-ecartee_6057835_3224.html

910 U.K. Home Office, “Operation of Police Powers Under the Terrorism Act 2000 and Subsequent Legislation: Arrests, Outcomes, and Stop and Search. Great Britain, Financial Year Ending March 2020,” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/891341/police-powers-terrorism-mar2020-hosb1520.pdf p.18.

911 Address by MI5 Director General Ken McCallum, October 14, 2020, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/news/director-general-kenmccallum-makes-first-public-address

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

913 Ibid.; Daniel Hurst, “US-inspired Rightwing Extremism an ‘Insidious’ Threat to Australia, Study Finds,” The Guardian, October 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/2020/oct/09/us-inspired-rightwing-extremism-an-insidious-threat-to-australia-study-finds ; Henry Storey, “Is Australia Taking the Threat of Right-wing Terrorism Seriously?” The Diplomat, April 10, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/is-australia-taking-the-threat-of-right-wing-terrorism-seriously

914 “QAnon’s rise in Japan shows conspiracy theory’s global spread,” The Straits Times, November 30, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/qanons-rise-in-japan-shows-conspiracy-theorys-global-spread

915 Raffaello Pantucci and Kyler Ong, “Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation as Security Threat,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Commentaries, October 6, 2020, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/incelsand-terrorism-sexual-deprivation-as-securitythreat/#.X4U7bmczblw

916 Simon Cottee, “Canada May Host the World’s First Incel Show Trial,” Foreign Policy, June 1, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/01/canadamayhost-the-worlds-first-incel-show-trial/

917 Nicole Brockbank, “Alex Minassian Reveals Details of Toronto Van Attack in Video of Police Interview,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), September 27, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/alekminassian-police-interview-1.5298021

918 Tobias Rathjen, the Hanau mass shooter, demonstrated inherent misogyny, QAnon-esque conspiracy leanings, as well as a twisted interpretation of Inceldom, where he blamed his inability to find a romantic partner on the government. See Blyth Crawford and Florence Keen, “The Hanau Terrorist Attack: How Race and Conspiracy Theories Are Fueling Global Far-Right Violence,” Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) Sentinel 13, no. 3 (March 2020), https://ctc.usma.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2020/03/CTC-SENTINEL032020.pdf , p.1-8.

919 “What Is QAnon? What We Know About the Conspiracy Theory,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-isqanon-what-we-know-about-the-conspiracy-theory11597694801 ; Clare Foran, “GOP Candidate Who Embraced QAnon Conspiracy Theory Wins Georgia Runoff, CNN Projects,” Cable News Network (CNN), August 12, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/11/politics/marjorietaylor-greene-georgia-runoff-qanon-conspiracytheory/index.html

920 “Two Self-Described ‘Boogaloo Bois’ Charged with Attempting to Provide Material Support to Hamas,” Department of Justice, September 4, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/two-selfdescribed-boogaloo-bois-charged-attemptingprovide-material-support-hamas

921 “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right Wing Terrorism,” CTED, p.2.

922 Anti-Defamation League (ADL), ADL H.E.A.T. Map, accessed 13 October 2020 https://www.adl.org/education-andresources/resource-knowledge-base/adl-heat-map

923 Daniel De Simone, “Harry Vaughan: House of Lords Clerk’s Son a ‘Neo-Nazi Satanist’,” British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), October 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london54568916

924 Patrik Hermansson, “Hitler Youths. The Rise of Teenage Far-Right Terrorists,” Hope Not Hate, September 2020, https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2020/09/HnH_Hitler-Youthsreport_2020-09-v2.pdf

925 Daniel De Simone, “UK Nazi Satanist Group Should Be Outlawed, Campaigners Urge,” BBC, March 2, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk51682760

926 Michael Kunzelman and Jari Tanner, “He Led a Neo-Nazi Group Linked to Bomb Plots. He was 13,” The Associated Press, April 11, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

927 Joel Finkelstein, John K. Donohue, Alex Goldenberg, Jason Baumgartner, John Farmer, Savvas Zannettou and Jeremy Blackburn, “COVID19, Conspiracy and Contagious Sedition. A Case Study on the MilitiaSphere,” The Network Contagion Research Institute, https://ncri.io/reports/covid-19-conspiracy-and-contagious-sedition-a-case-studyon-the-militia-sphere/ , p.5-6.

928 “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme RightWing Terrorism,” CTED, p.1.

929 This has been more clearly visible on the violent Islamist end of the scale with a number of cases in courts in Europe showing evidence of individuals having further radicalised during lockdown. See BBC, “Boy, 15, Found Not Guilty of Terror Plot,” October 9, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/ukengland-hampshire-54450013; The Catalan News Agency, “Man Arrested in Barcelona for Allegedly Plotting Terrorist Attack,” May 8, 2020, https://www.catalannews.com/societyscience/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-forallegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack ; Emily Pennink, “Ilford Extremist Who Shared ‘Attack, Attack’ Video in Group Chat Found Guilty of Terrorism,” Ilford Recorder, October 20, 2020, https://www.ilfordrecorder.co.uk/news/crimecourt/royal-festival-hall-extremist-guilty-of-terrorism1-6892474

930 It should be noted this is something that is equally problematic in Asia, where far right political parties often appeal to an ethno-nationalist political base – for example, Hindutva in India’s relationship to the ruling BJP Party, or the Myanmar government’s relationship with Buddhist extremists.

931 CTED, “Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism,” p.5.

932 “Facebook Bans QAnon Conspiracy Theory Accounts Across All Platforms,” BBC, October 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada54443878

933 Kurt Wagner and Christian Berthelsen, “Facebook Approached FBI About Michigan Militia Six Months Ago,” Bloomberg, October 9, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-09/facebook-approached-fbi-about-michigan-militia-six-months-ago

934 Jessica Bursztynsky, “Facebook, Twitter Block Trump Post That Falsely Claims Coronavirus Is Less Deadly than Flu,” Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), October 6, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/06/facebookremoves-trump-post-falsely-comparing-coronavirusand-the-flu.html

935 Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz, “Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide with Indian Politics,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-hate-speechindia-politics-muslim-hindu-modi-zuckerberg11597423346

936 Nathan A. Sales, “Designation of the Russian Imperial Movement,” U.S. Department of State, April 6, 2020, https://www.state.gov/designation-ofthe-russian-imperial-movement/ ; Arie Perliger, “The ‘Domestic Terrorist’ Designation Won’t Stop Extremism,” The Conversation, June 29, 2020, https://theconversation.com/the-domestic-terroristdesignation-wont-stop-extremism-141258

937 “Proscribed Terrorist Organisations,” U.K. Home Office, July 17, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/901434/20200717_Proscription.pdf

938 “Raids in 6 states as Germany bans ‘Combat 18’ neo-Nazi group,” DW, January 23, 2020 https://www.dw.com/en/raids-in-6-states-asgermany-bans-combat-18-neo-nazi-group/a52116504

939 Joseph Nasr, “Germany Designates Radical Wing of Far-Right AfD as “Extremist Entity’,” Reuters, March 12, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germanysecurity-idUSKBN20Z1SW

940 Betsy Woodruff Swan, “DHS draft document: White Supremacists are greatest terror threat,” Politico, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/04/whitesupremacists-terror-threat-dhs-409236

941 Nadeem Badshah and Vikram Dodd, “Met Police Officer Charged with Belonging to Far-right Terror Group,” The Guardian, July 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uknews/2020/jul/09/met-police-officer-charged-withbelonging-to-far-right-terror-group

942 U.S. Department of Justice, “U.S. Army Soldier Charged with Terrorism Offenses for Planning Deadly Ambush on Service Members in His Unit,” June 22, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/usarmy-soldier-charged-terrorism-offenses-planning-deadly-ambush-service-members-his-unit

943 Meghann Myers, “Far-Right Groups Like the ‘Boogaloo’ and ‘O9A’ Continue to Attract Troops and Veterans,” Military Times, June 23, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/yourmilitary/2020/06/23/far-right-groups-like-theboogaloo-and-o9a-continue-to-attract-troops-and-veterans/

944 “Far-Right Infiltration of Canada’s Military Poses a Serious Threat, Says Winnipeg Reporter,” CBC Radio, September 18, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/ruth-bader-ginsburgdead-at-87-the-far-right-in-canada-s-military-supermario-at-35-and-more-1.5728537/far-rightinfiltration-of-canada-s-military-poses-a-serious-threat-says-winnipeg-reporter-1.5728539

945 “KSK: German Special Forces Company Dissolved Due to Far-Right Concerns,” Deutsche Welle, July 30, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/kskgerman-special-forces-company-dissolved-due-tofar-right-concerns/a-54386661

946 “Germany Far-Right: Police Suspended for Sharing Neo-Nazi Images,” BBC, September 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe54174393

947 AFP, “Germany to Present Report on Far-Right Extremism in Police,” Bangkok Post, October 6, 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1997487/germany-to-present-report-on-far-right-extremism-in-police

948 Christopher Miller, “Ukraine Deported Two American Members of A NeoNazi Group Who Tried to Join a Far-Right Military Unit for ‘Combat Experience’,” Buzzfeed News, October 8, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/ukraine-deports-american-neo-nazi-atomwaffendivision

949 Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Right-Wing Extremism in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13, no. 4 (April 2020), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-nexus-between-far-rightextremists-in-the-united-states-and-ukraine/ , p.30-41

950 “Extrême droite: le patron des Zouaves Paris part combattre au Haut-Karabakh,” La Gazetteaz, October 30, 2020 https://www.lagazetteaz.fr/news/politique/2975.html

951 Kyler Ong and Raffaello Pantucci, “From Fringe to Mainstram: The Extreme Rightwing in Europe,” Observer Research Foundation, July 1, 2020,
https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/fringemainstream-extreme-rightwing-europe-68848/

952 Daniel De Simone, Andrei Soshnikov and Ali Winston, “Neo-Nazi Rinaldo Nazzaro Running US Militant Group The Base from Russia,” BBC, January 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51236915

953 U.S. Department of Justice, “U.S. Army Soldier Charged with Terrorism Offenses for Planning Deadly Ambush on Service Members in His Unit.”

Happy holidays to everyone out there who is celebrating! Have a few pieces that have landed during this period and will post them over the next few days. A few longer pieces due out in January which with hope will set the pace for what will be a busy and interesting year. As ever, appreciate comments, criticisms, or whatever else you feel the need to share (though abuse is never particularly pleasant). This is a short policy recommendation piece for RUSI in London which joins the flood of material being pumped in the general direction of the incoming administration in Washington, this time focusing on the extreme right wing.

Cooperating in Tackling Extreme Right-Wing Ideologies and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 18 December 2020
United StatesTackling ExtremismUKTerrorism

Europe and the Biden administration in the US should be ready to expand their cooperation on combating right-wing violent movements.

Recent international counterterrorism cooperation has for the most part focused on dealing with threats from violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qa’ida. And this will likely remain a priority for security officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking forward, however, the transatlantic alliance should focus in a more considered way on the growing menace from the extreme right wing. This threat has been rising on both sides of the Atlantic for the past few years, has growing international connections and is a problem which was difficult to address during the Trump administration, as the president often appeared to prevaricate on far-right extremist activity in the US and re-tweeted Britain First (a UK extreme right group) material. Focusing on it in a Biden administration would provide an excellent springboard into cooperation in an area of clear joint concern and help to strengthen security bonds that may have weakened during the turbulent Trump years.

Different Roots

The roots of extreme right-wing ideologies in Europe and North America are traditionally different. The extreme right in the US is a mix of classic white supremacists and neo-Nazis, alongside survivalists and extreme libertarians with a deep resentment directed towards the Federal government. In Europe, the movement is characterised by deep xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, which has most recently coalesced around the idea of Muslim ‘hordes’ replacing settled European white communities. The exact interpretation of this supposedly apocalyptic shift varies depending on where you are in Europe. The modern extreme right (reflecting a pattern visible across extremist ideologies – from the far left, to violent Islamists, and others, ideologies are increasingly fusions which draw on multiple different sources) is a confusing kaleidoscope of ideas, including anti-globalists, misogynists, societal rejectionists, and conspiracy theorists. Yet what broadly unifies the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic is a sense that their supposed (and often racially defined) ‘supremacy’ in their country is being challenged.

This is reflected in an increasingly shared ideology, networks and activity across the Atlantic and around Europe. The UK has already seen extreme right-wing incidents with links to Poland and Ukraine, while some Americans (as well as numerous individuals from around Europe) have gone and fought in Ukraine. Imagery, ideas and texts are widely shared on chat groups that are run from around Europe or the US with members from across the transatlantic community and beyond. Groups like The Base or the Order of the Nine Angels cast a net with members across Europe and North America, online groups like Feuerkrieg or Atomwaffen Division boast members around the world. Meanwhile, organisations like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) have provided physical training camps for extreme right adherents from across Europe and even North America.

Links to Russia

The repeated appearance of links to Russia are a notable feature of the growing contemporary extreme right wing. Earlier this year the US proscribed the RIM for its links to active terrorist networks, while the leader of The Base is reportedly an American living in St Petersburg. And the number of foreigners that went to fight in Ukraine provides another point of connection with Russian-supported groups on the ground. Exact numbers and volume of flow are unclear, but the expulsion from Ukraine in October of two American members of Atomwaffen Division shows it is ongoing. Finally, Russian interference campaigns have regularly focused on seeking to exacerbate societal tensions in the West – including focusing on racial tensions, feeding an underlying rhetoric that sustains the extreme right wing.

Transatlantic Cooperation

All of this points to a common problem that would benefit from greater transatlantic cooperation. Furthermore, the shared networks and ideologies and the implications of the links to Russia add a further dimension to the already challenging relationship with Moscow.

This aspect in particular is something that a Biden administration will find easier to address than a Trump one. President Trump’s hesitant relationship towards Russia, his retweeting of UK far right ideologues’ material, and his refusal during presidential debates (and before) to bluntly condemn white supremacist groups and, when pressured, his ambivalent corrections, made him an awkward partner in such a fight.

However, his departure from office will not address the broader issue of ideological overlap between the extreme right and narratives that are often raised by mainstream politicians in both Europe and North America. In some parts of Europe, for example, the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by mainstream politicians is not far off the same narratives advanced by extreme right groups in others. This ideological overspill is visible in other ways as well. Both the UK and Germany, for instance, have recently undertaken major investigations after uncovering adherents of extreme right ideologies within the ranks of their security forces.

None of this will be easy to unpick, but it is clearly a subject of growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic which should provide a basis for closer security cooperation. The growing networking of the different parts of the movement and individuals across the Atlantic provides a direct point of engagement for intelligence and security officials at every level, while the links to Russia tie into a broader threat narrative of confrontation with state actors.

Finally, the larger problem of trying to deal with the overlap between the extreme right, far right and mainstream politics is going to be very difficult to address. Managing rhetoric in this space will immediately start to tread on issues of freedom of speech. The issues and where the ideological bleed takes place, are clearly different on both sides of the Atlantic, but the complex mix of legislation and enforcement that will be needed to deal with it would benefit from transatlantic coordination and engagement. Disrupting these networks provides a platform to rebuild a transatlantic security relationship and reverse some of the damage of the Trump years.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: A neo-nazi rally. Courtesy of ARNO BURGI/DPA/PA Images

Been doing a bunch of media around the terrible attacks in France. Tensions seem very high in and around the country at the moment, depressing how these cycles never seem to end. Ahead of the upcoming US election, however, wrote this short piece for my local paper the Straits Times looking at the potential for domestic terrorism in the US and drawing the narrative of this threat back in American history.

In the US, terror is increasingly coming from inside the country

US President Donald Trump has consistently baited the extreme right wing during his presidency. From retweeting extreme right material to refusing to condemn groups during presidential debates, the concern is that by election time he will have unleashed a wave of uncontrollable anger that will result in mass civil unrest.

This is unlikely, but it is equally likely that no matter the outcome of the election, violence of some sort will follow.

The stage has been set for the continuation of a persistent problem in America that will continue to cloud and confuse the political debate and sadly result in domestic terrorism.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The attack, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700, remains the worse incidence of domestic terrorism the United States has seen.

The perpetrator of the attack, Timothy McVeigh, was an unrepentant member of the Patriot movement who feared an oppressive government was going to take away people’s guns as a first step towards a tyranny.

He saw his fears realised in a series of incidents in the 1990s when the government used violence against individuals he believed were simply trying to live lives away from the federal government.

His strain of libertarianism is not new to the American political discourse. Founded by men and women who carved out their piece of territory in the Wild West, the US has always seen itself as a frontier nation peopled by rugged and independent individuals.

This has fostered a national spirit founded on the importance of independence of mind, body and spirit – rejecting central control and fearful of anything that impedes human development.

This in part helps explain the endless optimism and opportunity that characterises America. However, it has also meant the existence of a deep tension in some parts of American society.

Some take these basic societal principles to the extreme. These are people who reject government, and believe lives should be lived independently away from strong central authority.

They reject taxes, rules around education and other strictures imposed by the government. Those eager to live off the grid are often ardent supporters of gun ownership rights and, more often than not, tend towards Republican politics, if they believe in the party system.

The Patriot movement that McVeigh emerged from was one that was closely linked with various Christian religious groups and militias that exist in America’s remote areas.

These communities seek to live self-sufficient lives out of government control, though sometimes ending up making choices which breach the laws of the land.

This leads to clashes and confrontations with the state, most often law enforcement at a local and federal level.

With McVeigh’s atrocity, much greater attention was placed on these groups and communities, leading to a reduction in their capability and a number of disruptions.

But the problem of terrorism for US law enforcement was upended by the events of Sept 11, 2001, which refocused attention on the danger of external threats.

The internal threats, however, never went away, and the Patriot movement, militias and various extreme right-wing groups continued to fester.

In the mid-2010s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation highlighted its growing concerns about the sovereign citizen movement, members of which believe they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and think they should not have to pay taxes. The group had developed alongside the Patriot milieu and sought to use violence in some cases to separate themselves from the federal government. They were part of a broader community that has long existed but often felt marginalised.

The Trump administration has been a boon to such groups. Already ascendant prior to his arrival, his polarising form of politics has merely served to strengthen their sense of conflict within the country, for which they need to prepare.

This has fostered the more public emergence of a range of groups that have long existed in various forms – from armed militias around the country such as the Wolverine Watchmen, who were planning to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer; groups like the Boogaloo Bois, whose aims are confused but talk often of provoking a second Civil War; the Proud Boys, who see themselves as fighters against left-wing extremists; the Oath Keepers, made up mostly of former and current servicemen and police officers who believe the government is failing; to a whole range of violent extreme-right groups who barely hide their xenophobic beliefs.

The dilemma is what will happen after election day. Unfortunately, it is unlikely any good will follow.

If President Trump wins, such groups will likely feel emboldened. Their sense of impending conflict will be fuelled by the fact he is likely to continue to see his polarising politics as an effective way to govern.

The likely backlash from the left and others angry at Mr Trump’s re-election will only feed their sense of a civil war within the country.

Should his Democratic challenger Joe Biden win, doubtless they will see an election stolen. President Trump’s repeated comments and tweets raising questions about mail-in voting and election rigging have set the tone. His loss will likely speed them on their confrontational path towards violence.

Mr Trump may not be the creator of these groups, but he is providing substantial succour to them. And whether he wins or loses, they will continue to exist.

This is not a guarantee there will be violence on election day – though given tensions it would not be surprising – but it does mean that the problem of an extreme right and libertarian violence will persist in America after election day no matter who wins.

The problem predates Mr Trump and speaks to something deep in some parts of the American psyche.

Sadly, neither a President Trump nor a President Biden will be a salve to soothe this.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

More belated posting, this time a bit more recent in the form of a Commentary post for my Singaporean institutional home RSIS. Looks at the question of Incels and whether they are a terrorist threat, something people here have been wondering about. Written with my excellent colleague Kyler with whom there are a few projects on the boil. More to come.

Incels and Terrorism: Sexual Deprivation As Security Threat

ON 24 FEBRUARY 2020, a Canadian teenager stabbed a female owner of an erotic massage parlour in Toronto. Identified by police as an ‘Incel’ – short for Involuntary Celibate – he was accused of being motivated by a misogynist ideology and later charged with terrorism. He was the first Incel to be prosecuted as a terrorist. Since 2009, Incels have committed at least 16 attacks, mostly in North America and Europe, often in the form of indiscriminate violence against members of the public. In the first half of 2020 alone there have been four attacks.

Incels justify their acts of violence as revenge against women or society in response to their inability to have sex or enter into a relationship with women. They see themselves as having more inferior genes, and are angry at women who prefer men they describe as “Chads” (men who are ‘sexually successful’). Whilst the movement remains generally non-violent and confined to online chat forums, a more militant community has emerged recently that encourages the expression of their frustrations in lethal ways.

Incels and Terrorism

There are myriad definitions of terrorism. What draws most of them together is the use of violence against non-combatants in advance of a political goal, usually by a non-state group.

One of the biggest hurdles therefore in including Incels within the roster of terrorist organisations is the absence of a clear political goal, beyond a revenge for their personal rejection by the opposite sex. Some Incels discuss an imagined historical world in which women were more subservient to men and hearken back to it, but there does not appear to be a concerted strategy to achieve such a goal.

There are elements within the Incel community, however, that mimic traditional terrorist modus operandi. The self-directed attacks, use of social media to network and radicalise, and the employment of non-sophisticated weapons, are all tactics that resemble broader trends in contemporary terrorism.

By posting pre-attack manifestos or intent to start an “Incel rebellion”, some Incel attackers resemble traditional terrorists as they appear to have a wider goal, seek recognition, presence and broader meaning to their act. These texts are for the most part confused, however, and do not appear to articulate a very coherent broader worldview and plan.

Ideological Convergence with Extreme Right-Wing

Moreover, the Incel ideology converges with the broader range of ideologies which characterise the extreme right-wing today. Strands of white supremacy, misogyny, anti-government sentiments and racism are weaved into Incel narratives.

Elliot Rodger, the first Incel attacker, was vehemently against interracial relationships and partially attributed his inability to get a girl to competition from other races. Tobias Rathjen, the Hanau shooter in Germany, launched his acts of terror in the name of anti-immigrant feeling, but there were clear strains of Incel thinking in his manifesto.

Taken alongside the many other extreme right narratives that have emerged in the past few years – from the militant North American Boogaloo Bois to the increasingly global QAnon movement (which the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regards as a potential terror threat) – it is possible that Incels should potentially be defined as simply another articulation of the modern extreme right, where misogynistic ideologies are rampant.

This definition places Incels within a frame which is relevant to national security actors, reflecting them as part of the confusing new expressions of terrorism focused around lone actor violence which have increasingly taken centre stage around the world.

Relevance for Asia: Currycels or Ricecels?

The correlation between Incel and the extreme right-wing throws a spanner in the works when trying to establish their relevance in Asia. Given that the extreme right-wing is still mostly a white supremacist movement which therefore resonates in areas of white majority populations, outside New Zealand or Australia, the nexus is less salient in Asia.

But it is worth noting that there are many Incels who are also non-white. Rodger himself was of a mixed-race descent, but considered himself to be descended from “British aristocracy,” placing him as part of (what he considered) a superior race. Pure Asians, especially the diaspora community found in Western countries, also embrace their own interpretations of Inceldom, dubbing themselves “currycels” or “ricecels” depending on their ethnic origin.

Incels are in part a reaction by young male populations of the perceived feminisation of society and their relative weakening. While admittedly a generalisation, Asian societies tend to be dominated by an uncontested patriarchy, where misogyny (and its associated violence) is not uncommon. The growing women’s rights movement may provide the same impetus that has in part produced Incels in the West.

Such narratives are already visible in online communities. A case in point in Singapore is the dissatisfaction of losing girls to white immigrants. Others take on a slightly different but equally misogynistic flavour, such as the sentiment of how military conscription sets men back in their career whilst self-serving and career-minded women are given a step ahead to advance in life. This sense of male victimhood is something which is universal and could find resonance and manifest violently in an Asian context through something that might look like Incel violence.

Policy Implications

The question then is whether this group of angry young men warrant the sort of rigorous counter-terrorism efforts that have been poured into tackling jihadist extremism.

Certainly the rise of the extreme right appears to be something that the security community in the west had overlooked. Some extreme right imagery and ideas from Reddit, 4chan or 8kun have penetrated Asia and been repurposed for local conflicts. Pepe the Frog has appeared amongst the Hong Kong democracy movement, while anti-Muslim feeling in India or Myanmar often steal imagery and ideas from western discourses online.

This suggests a spread of ideas from West to East with potentially dangerous consequences. Male anger is an issue in Asia which might ultimately start to see Incel ideas as meshing with their broader rage and even present a useful outlet. Violence could be the result.

Regardless, any decision to draw Incels into the realm of national security effort must consider the costs (such as the risk of pushing the community underground) and benefits (heightened efforts to thwart the threat) of doing so. A community of angry young men feeling they do not have a place in society is not a new human phenomenon, putting a terrorist label must be carefully calculated.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow and Kyler Ong an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

A short and unfortunately incomplete post this time for a short essay published by Hope not Hate, a UK advocacy group that does excellent work on countering extremist and divisive narratives in the UK. Have written for them in the past as well, and this time the piece looks at how extreme right and violent Islamist narratives tend to converge (like most extremists in some ways). Not a world apart from what I wrote about last time for them I see. Unfortunately, the magazine only partially goes online, so I have a snapshot of the first pages posted in the image below and the rest hardcopy. You can get it by either subscribing to support them or if you ask me very nicely, I may be able to help. For the time being here is the first page with the very striking picture they decided to use.

As ever, I have been very delinquent in my posting, so am going to do a catch up blast on a Sunday. First up is my latest interview for the CTC Sentinel’s series with the EU’s Counter-terror coordinator Gilles de Kerchove.

A View From the CT Foxhole: Gilles de Kerchove, European Union (EU) Counter-Terrorism Coordinator

DE-KERCHOVE-Gilles-1

August 2020, Volume 13, Issue 8

Authors: Raffaello Pantucci

Gilles de Kerchove has been the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator since September 2007. From 1995 to 2007, he was Director for Justice and Home Affairs at the Council Secretariat. From 1999 to 2000, he was deputy secretary of the convention that drafted the charter of the fundamental rights of the European Union. Between 1986 and 1995, he worked for the Belgian government. He is also a European law professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, the Free University of Brussels, and the Université Saint Louis-Brussels, and has published a number of books and articles on European law and security issues.

CTC: What role does the European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator play?

De Kerchove: The position was created by the Heads of State and Government in the wake of the 2004 Madrid bombings, and I am the second incumbent, having been in the job for 13 years. The aim is to contribute to the implementation and evaluation of the E.U.’s counterterrorism strategy as well as to ensure coordination between the various relevant policy strands. This implies, on the one hand, to support coherence between the E.U.’s internal and external counterterrorism (CT) policies and to foster better communication and cooperation between the E.U., third countries,a and international organizations such as U.N., NATO, IMF, WB, etc.; and, on the other, to present policy recommendations and propose priority areas for action to the European Council and to the Council,b informed by threat analysis and reports not least from INTCENc and Europol.1

Heads of State and Government wanted someone to look into every aspect of CT and identify loopholes in cooperation, not only at the E.U. institutions level in Brussels, but also between Brussels and member states. Additionally, they wanted an independent voice to assess policy and inject new ideas as well as identify and anticipate problems. I have always tried to spot looming problems to allow the system to start to prepare. I think I was probably the first to raise the issue of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) within an E.U. context, and I presented a package of ideas as early as 2013. Now I am focusing on what I call the effect of disruptive tech and extremist ideology, but I will explain that later. Our goal in the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator’s office is to alert the system and come up with relevant policy proposals.

In doing so, I am engaging with many different communities (intelligence, law enforcement, criminal justice, diplomats, development, humanitarian, Defence, Finance, private sector, non-profit sector, academia) inside Europe with its 27 member states, close allies, international organizations, as well as other external partner nations.

I do not really have a single counterpart in the American system. My counterpart in Washington could be said to be within the State Department, but when I visit, I also have meetings with senior officials in several other departments, depending on the issues: DOJ (access to digital evidence, encryption, cooperation between the FBI and Europol), DHS (aviation security, access to travel data (PNR,d APIe), counter violent extremism), Treasury (sanctions, terrorism financing). And then I also interact with the relevant parts of the intelligence community, including the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence], the NCTC [National Counter Terrorism Center], and the relevant counterterrorism person within the White House.

At the end of the day, I am not involved in operations but am rather looking at policy. But it is extremely important to be very close to the operational people, from intelligence, law enforcement, and prosecution. When I visit member states of the E.U., I always see the head of police, the head of the prosecution service, the head of the internal security service, and sometimes the head of the external intelligence service as well. The difference between the U.S. and E.U. is that the E.U. is not a federal state, as most of the policies in the areas that I am looking at are in the member states’ hands. The role is one that is very much in support of member states, but it has transformed a great deal in the past five years. After the Daesh [the Islamic State] attacks in Paris and Brussels, member states asked for a much more ambitious involvement of the E.U. in CT, which led to an increase in my office’s role and responsibilities to help coordination, as those attacks highlighted deficiencies in the system.

CTC: What is the biggest terrorist threat you see to Europe at the moment?

De Kerchove: The threat from terrorist organizations like Daesh and al-Qa`ida remains high, but it has morphed in different forms. The fact that the number of Daesh-inspired attacks has declined in the E.U. does not mean that the threat has disappeared. It primarily means that we have got better at detecting and breaking up terrorist plots, as demonstrated by continuing arrests of terrorist suspects in E.U. member states. Home-grown radicalization remains a challenge. Daesh’s presence on the internet remains strong. Extremist Islamist proselytization and violent right-wing propaganda create a fertile ground for terrorism. There are several additional risks which are of growing concern such as the hundreds of prison leavers convicted for terrorism-related offenses but who have served short sentences, FTF returnees, and FTFs and families still in Syria and Iraq, who—be they E.U. nationals or otherwise—need to be prevented from entering the E.U. undetected.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we have become increasingly concerned about the rise of attacks perpetrated by right-wing violent extremists. In 2019, Europe faced several terrorist attacks motivated by right-wing violent extremism. We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise of right-wing violent extremist propaganda on the internet and increasing cross-border connectivity (notably online) between right-wing violent extremists. Right-wing extremist terrorists in Norway, Germany, the United States, and New Zealand have all referenced previous atrocities and attempted to broadcast their own attacks online.

Finally, I worry about instability in Europe’s immediate neighborhood in the Middle East and North and West Africa, especially in Syria and Iraq as well as in Libya and the Sahel because the presence of terrorist groups there constitutes a threat to the EU’s security.

The threats from violent separatists in Europe is much reduced. In Northern Ireland, there is still a low level of what the British call national security incidents (attacks on police and prison officers), but these threats do not seem to have extended across the sea to Great Britain. Whilst the numbers of incidents have been low in recent years, the level of capability retained by terrorist groups in Northern Ireland remains serious. There was a concern that the potential reestablishment of a border between the north and the Republic of Ireland would maybe have a negative impact on security and inflame tensions; this has not materialized significantly to date, but concerns remain and recent arrests indicate that police and security services continue to work hard to keep the threat under control. The Spanish terrorist group ETA is completely over as an entity, thanks to the relentless efforts of the Spanish security apparatus. Two E.U. instruments have helped in this fight: the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which changed completely the way Spain was able to secure arrests and deal with Basque terrorists hidden in other member states, and the Joint Investigation Teams (JITs), which facilitated the way in which the French and Spanish were able to crack down on the organization.

And I hope that I am wrong, but we may see the development of other forms of extremism like technophobia or something like that in the coming years. With the development of disruptive technologies, some people may feel disenfranchised or marginalized by this rapid evolution of technology and its impact on society, and they might react violently. We have maybe already started to see this develop during the COVID crisis, where we have seen 5G masts being burned2 and the offices of telecom companies being attacked. This is something that we have to monitor; it may evolve in a more worrying direction. And let us suppose that it is linked to environmental violence, people who believe that the world is close to collapsing and government is not taking the right decisions to address the warnings on global warming. They might believe that they need to use violence to wake the government up. You could see developments around this technophobia linked with some sort of ecological extremism. But this is not the core of the threat, which remains foremost violent Islamists and to a much lesser extent the rising right-wing violent extremism.

CTC: Thousands of Europeans are believed to have joined the Islamic State or al-Qa`ida-affiliated terrorist groups as foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) in Syria and Iraq. How is the European Union working to manage the potential threat they pose?

De Kerchove: This is a priority for me. Tens of thousands of people have left their own countries and joined Daesh, including about 5,000 Europeans. About 25 percent of them have returned to Europe and another 25 percent have died on the battlefield, but others could in the future perpetrate terrorist attacks at home or in third countries.

Internally within the European Union, we are working to implement agreed arrangements on our border security to ensure that known foreign terrorist fighters (both E.U. citizens and non-citizens) are detected and stopped at the EU’s external borders. Furthermore, as part of an interoperability project, the E.U. is connecting six centralized E.U. databases in the fields of security, migration, and borders so that border guards and police officers can, under precisely defined circumstances, check data in a comprehensive fashion, detect identity fraud, and hence better spot third-country terrorist suspects. The E.U. is also strengthening the use of biometric data in this context. For those who already returned, E.U. supports sharing of good practices (through a Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN)f handbook). And a number of member states have specialized programs for children.

The E.U. has also been working on better access to battlefield information to support investigations, prosecutions of FTF returnees, and border security. We must ensure that foreign terrorist fighters can be investigated and tried in a court of law. To this end, we are studying how information gathered by coalition armed forces on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq can be made available to investigators and prosecutors, in ways that are useful during trial procedures. For the material collected by the Iraqi forces, we have been pushing a program for all the information collected to be indexed and digitalized so that it can be analyzed and processed properly. One of the reasons our member states are so wary of repatriating FTFs is a lack of evidence of the acts they committed on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, which can be used against them in a court of law. If someone gets back to Europe and we do not have enough evidence, the best you can secure is three or four years in prison for the crime of participation in a terrorist organization, even if, based on intelligence information, you know he or she may have killed people. So, it is very difficult to tell the population that you are bringing back someone who is a real murderer and he will be back on the streets of Paris, Brussels, or Madrid three years after his return. The more we can get access to evidence, the more likely we will be to secure long-term sentences and the more likely the public and governments are to accept repatriation.

As this is material and information primarily collected by coalition military personnel on the battlefield, it is not easy for investigators and prosecutors in Europe to locate it and then introduce it into criminal proceedings in courts in member states. Prosecutors and judges are used to a specific forensic treatment of material, which battlefield information often lacks as it is not collected by police officers who are forensically trained but rather is picked up in a battle situation. The material or information is often fragmented and can only be used as a lead or supplement to other evidence. U.S. authorities have gained a lot of experience in the use of battlefield information in criminal proceedings since 9/11. In addition, the U.S. military has been able to collect battlefield information from important theaters such as Afghanistan and Iraq. For these reasons, the U.S. government is an important partner for us in this particular issue.

It is also important to address the legacy of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Member states are deciding on repatriations on a case-by-case basis; the E.U. is not involved. Some member states do seek to repatriate children but on a case-by-case basis, and they try to start with orphans. But the problem here is that sometimes the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces do not want to repatriate the children alone and want to send them back with their mothers.

Several member states are working to find a solution so that their nationals can be tried in the region where they committed their crimes. There is currently an ongoing negotiation between these member states and Iraq to try them in Baghdad courts. There are numerous challenges: the death penalty, fair trial, what to do post-conviction, who will detain them, and who will pay for all of this. The Kurds in Syria recently suggested they could do it themselves. They want to get international support to set up a court themselves, but this is not something the E.U. is involved in.

While we wait for an outcome of this negotiation or possible repatriation, the E.U. is exploring how to improve the situation in the camps and prisons in Kurdish-held territory in northeastern Syria. It is indeed important to reduce radicalization in the camps, in particular Al-Hol and its international annex, which is in the hands of the most radical women, and prevent them from becoming a time bomb for radicalization. The camps are a mess, and there is some money that is coming in through crowdfunding so the women can bribe the guards and arrange escapes. The kids are forced to follow sharia classes and are getting more and more radicalized in some cases. We should focus on trying to reduce these particular problems, as some of these children may end up going home one day and they will be a lot more radicalized than they were at the beginning. In addition, the sanitary conditions in the camps and prisons are very bad, including problems around tuberculosis, and we are very worried that COVID-19 may enter.3 This may lead to riots and prison breaks. We know Daesh is very keen to support flights and prison breaks.

The E.U. has just adopted a support package for the prevention of radicalization in northeastern Syria, which does include support for the camps. The following additional measures are currently being analyzed. First, we are trying to find ways to decongest Al-Hol by helping the return of Syrian women and children to their Sunni tribes in northeast Syria. There is a system of sponsorship for their return, similar to something that was run in Afghanistan, and we can support that process. I am also in contact with senior officials in Iraq to see if we can speed up the return of some of the Iraqi women and children currently in Al-Hol to Iraq. Second, we have been working to encourage a Prevent-type programg in Al-Hol through NGOs, focused in particular on children. Third, we are working to improve the detention conditions in the prison, something that the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in particular has asked us to do. There are currently several hundred young people detained with adults. They should never have been placed in a prison facility. The global coalition suggests that an existing youth rehabilitation center is expanded to be able to receive these young people. Fourth, an evaluation of the women in the international annex of Al-Hol would allow us to obtain a better picture of what is actually going on and to separate the most radicalized women from the rest, and offer more assistance, including psycho-social support and rehabilitation to the less radicalized women and their children.

There is still a window of opportunity to act right now. A new escalation could lead to the dispersal of terrorists, including possible travel of some FTFs to Europe. My efforts are focused on what we can do in the short- and medium-term to make sure the situation does not worsen.

The E.U. is also providing assistance to third countries to deal with FTF returnees and their families, including via the U.N. We have developed several programs to help Tunisia, the Western Balkans, and many other countries to do that in the best way possible.

CTC: In April 2020, German authorities thwarted a plot against U.S. military facilities by a network of Central Asians who, according to prosecutors, had contacts with high-ranking Islamic State figures in both Syria and Afghanistan.4 Can you talk us through how this plot fits into your sense of the threat in Europe, including from the Islamic State in Afghanistan?

De Kerchove: This plot shows, once again, that we should remain vigilant about the threat of Daesh attacks in Europe and that the threat does not come only from individuals who are inspired by terrorist propaganda online and act independently. Daesh continues to seek contact with potential attackers in Europe whenever it spots an opportunity to do so, to guide them in their attack plans. This should inform our response as well. The threat from Daesh remains diverse, and we need to prepare for a range of attack methodologies with widely divergent levels of sophistication and for attackers whose profiles vary a great deal.

Afghanistan does not represent the same level of terrorist threat to Europe as Syria. That said, we should never be complacent about the threat of armed terrorist groups, even if they are located far away from the E.U. Many Daesh and AQ affiliates do not currently focus on attacks in the West but would not hesitate to support or facilitate one if they had the chance. This applies to Daesh in Afghanistan, but also to Daesh and al-Qa`ida affiliates in Africa.

We have been working on the Central Asian threat picture for some years. Part of the problem of why a lot of Central Asians were joining Daesh in Syria and Iraq was that a lot of them were working in Russia and lost their jobs because of the economic crisis there. Many of the Central Asian countries they come from are not wealthy, making it difficult for them to return home to find employment or continue to support their families remotely with remittances. When these individuals lost their jobs and became disenfranchised, they started to become attracted by Daesh rhetoric. There was a very active Russian language propaganda effort from Daesh in Syria and Iraq, which drew some people there. That was not the E.U.’s top priority in 2015. The main focus was on the E.U.’s immediate neighborhood. Now there is a wide consensus to do a lot more in Central Asia. We have deployed a CT expert in the region, we have supported a number of UN projects in the region, and I have myself visited many of these countries.

CTC: There has long been concern about al-Qa`ida reemerging as a global threat, and it appears the group’s Yemeni affiliate had a significant role in the December 2019 shooting in Pensacola, Florida.5 What kind of threat does al-Qa`ida pose today? Would you place it as a higher or lower risk than the Islamic State or an ideology like the extreme right-wing?

De Kerchove: This is an important question because we sometimes underestimate the continuing threat from al-Qa`ida. AQ remains an important threat to Europe today. Core AQ, as well as affiliates such as AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, have long planned for mass-casualty attacks in the West, notably on aviation. Core AQ is still present in Afghanistan. Admittedly, the peace agreement between the Americans and the Taliban has explicitly foreseen that the link between AQ and the Taliban should be completely severed, but I do not know if this will happen. History shows that the Taliban have always lied on that front, so it is still a concern. AQ in the Islamic Maghreb and the organizations it controls are killing European soldiers in the Sahel through sophisticated attacks. They constitute a serious threat to countries in the region. In some regions, AQ’s branches are often stronger than Daesh affiliates.

Ranking the threat of terrorist organizations is not an exact science. There is little point in stating that one terrorist group represents a slightly higher threat than another. My general assessment is that the threat from Daesh and AQ to Europe remains high and that the threat from right-wing violent extremism has risen quite significantly.

The current threat within Europe is mainly from people who have no formal link to Daesh or al-Qa`ida and are inspired by the ideology. For these groups, attacks by people who endorse their ideology and who they later praise represent a low-cost attack strategy. The threat now comes more from inspired attacks rather than the kind of directed attacks we saw in the 2015 and 2016 attacks in Paris and Brussels.

In the past, the threat from AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular to aviation, was very strong. At the moment, my assessment is that neither AQ nor Daesh have the capability to launch a major attack in Europe, but they still have the intent. They will not hesitate to attack if we let down our guard. There is still a threat to European citizens when they travel to other countries, and of course, there is a threat to the countries themselves where the groups are still active. If they are able to destabilize and make countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso ungovernable, it would pose a serious problem for everyone. This is why we have to help countries overseas to address the threats from al-Qa`ida and Daesh.

There are several places around the world where AQ keeps developing, and in fact, they have learned from their mistakes and become much more patient than Daesh. They understood that using extreme and indiscriminate violence was not the best way to attract hearts and minds. In the period when we focused on Daesh, AQ continued building, focusing on local grievances

In Syria, and Idlib in particular, where HTS [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] and Hurras al-Din are active, there are a lot of violent people who are AQ related. And of course, you have AQ affiliated al-Shabaab in East Africa.

CTC: There is a lot of talk of a reemergent extreme right-wing as a major threat, yet the attacks we have seen remain predominantly lone-actor type attacks. Can you sketch out whether you see the potential for this escalating into something more organized?

De Kerchove: Right-wing violent extremist groups realize that lone-actor terrorism is more beneficial to them than any form of violence that they organize themselves. Structured right-wing violent extremist groups often know exactly how far they can go in their statements and in their activities to remain just within the limits of what is legal. In the meantime, they leave it to ‘fanboys’ on the internet to take action by themselves, without any risk to the organization.

Unorganized right-wing violent extremists, who used to get together at concerts, motorcycle gatherings and other events in the past, now meet online. I do not know whether the spate of lone-actor attacks could escalate into something more organized, but I think that—from the perspective of the violent right-wing extremist scene—a sustained campaign of lone-actor attacks can be far more effective. I am certainly expecting more of those.

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing number of right-wing violent extremist attacks. The extent of violent acts motivated by racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry may actually be underestimated in Europe, as we do not have a uniform method of classification. Some attacks are counted as hate crimes; others are treated as ordinary forms of criminality. At [the] E.U. level, we need to agree on a methodology to systematically count and classify these attacks in order to appreciate the extent of the problem and to combat it better.

We see increased international connectivity between right-wing extremists, notably via the internet. Individual right-wing violent extremists often imitate and reference previous attackers when carrying out a violent act. A formerly disparate group of marginal extremists thus increasingly turn themselves into a well-connected movement with a coherent ideology structured around the notion of the “Great Replacement.”

There are some differences between the right-wing violent extremism in the U.S. and Europe, but I think they all share the common rhetoric with the Great Replacement book written by Renaud Camus.6 It is also notable how much jihadi rhetoric and ideology share with right-wing violent extremism rhetoric. It is often about misogyny, with Incel7 a good example of this particular aspect of the phenomenon. It is a lot about a rejection of globalization. It is often about projecting a black-and-white vision of the world, hatred of Jews and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not just linked to the right-wing, by the way; Islamist extremism is a case in point, but there is a strong strain of anti-Semitism on the far left as well, but this is linked to anti-Zionism and an anti-Netanyahu feeling rather than the exact same strands of ideology linked to the far right. There are some survivalists amongst those on the far right, and I acknowledge there is a wide diversity of elements in the right-wing violent ideology, but what is interesting is that there are some key ideas that tie them together—hatred toward Arabs and Jews, misogyny, anti-globalization, for example.

There are also foreign powers that are playing into this and extending their outreach into Europe as part of a hybrid warfare, which focuses on destabilizing Europe. There is an interesting confluence in online ideas at the moment. Terrorism speech, hate speech, and disinformation are all coming together. Disinformation has been pushed both by state actors and non-state actors. One of the policy answers I draw from that is that we need to have a greater coordination between various strands of policy work in the online space. We currently have three separate dialogues with internet companies: one on terrorism speech, which we will soon result in legislation; a separate one on hate speech; and a third one on disinformation. To be more efficient in our dialogue with technology companies, we should be bringing these three together, as the strands and necessary responses are likely interlinked.

We have not looked enough at the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Ukraine. I was very impressed by the figures produced by the Soufan Center recently about the many hundreds of right-wing Europeans who had gone to fight in Ukraine on both sides of the conflict.8 There are more and more people traveling in Europe to rally and train around right-wing violent extremism groups in different parts of Europe. Fears around globalization, migration, “the Great Replacement,” and the threat to the white community are key elements that tie the right-wing violent extremists together on both sides of the Atlantic.

CTC: What other ideologies do you see on the horizon or at the moment that have the potential to pose a major terrorist threat to Europe?

De Kerchove: The potential future rise of new forms of terrorism, rooted in conspiracy theories and technophobia, is a cause for concern. Disinformation is not necessarily rooted in political ideologies, although it is often amplified by right-wing and left-wing extremists. We have already seen small-scale acts of violence caused by a belief in conspiracy theories—for example, as I already noted, against telecom masts—and given the amount of disinformation online, we could see more serious examples of this in the future. I am also concerned about increasingly violent ecologist and animal rights groups.

In parts of Europe, left-wing violent extremism is already a threat. Left-wing violent extremists are responsible for a large number of non-lethal attacks. Depending on how the economic crisis develops in the wake of the health crisis we are currently facing, inequality is going to be exacerbated, and this might inspire more violent left-wing extremism that could have the potential to become more lethal and more geographically dispersed than it currently is.

CTC: What indicators do you see of these kind of threats that are developing as a result of the impact of COVID-19?

De Kerchove: I do not have many indicators around these threats at the moment. But if I take only my country, Belgium, it is one which is always split along the border between the Flemish part and the Walloon. It is interesting to see that telecom company Proximus has had a lot of problems trying to deploy 5G in the southern part of the country, in contrast to the more economically dynamic northern part. This could be an interesting indicator.

We are just at the beginning of a major change in society. I do not think we realize how different the world will be in five years’ time thanks to artificial intelligence. A lot of it we can see coming very quickly and will have deep-reaching impacts. The way justice will be delivered in the future will no longer be the same. The delineation between law enforcement and intelligence might be a bit blurred, and the digitalization of everything will have an impact across society and security.

In the last two decades, the left-wing violent extremism menace was more located in Italy and Greece, and we still have some groups there, but the truth is Europe is not homogenous when it comes to left-wing and right-wing violent extremism. Right-wing violent extremism is, for the time being, a major concern in the northern part of Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, and the U.K., on top of what is happening in the United States, where some assess it is now a bigger threat than jihadism. Other countries, like France, emphasize left-wing violent extremism, like the ultra-gilets jaunes, the violent segment of the group.h

It is interesting because there was something like that going on just before 9/11, in the form of a very active anti-globalization movement. This was the main topic on the agenda when discussing emergent extremisms in Europe. You had groups of violent left-wing extremists traveling all over Europe to disturb G7 meetings, meetings of the European Council, and so on, and it was definitely a growing movement. And then 9/11 happened, and this disappeared completely for many years. But now we can see left-wing violent extremism coming once again. We have seen it in Germany last year, we see it at some big international events, and the French in particular are raising the issue as one of growing concern. And we may see, but of course this is just speculation for the time being, that it starts to grow once again because of the COVID-19 crisis and the economic fallout. I am in the midst of doing some work on this, in much the same way as I did some work on the right-wing violent extremism threat before. It is not at the same level of intensity as the right-wing violent extremism, but if you take the economic concerns and add those to some of the criticism that we see online with the debate around COVID-19 tracing apps and the perception that there is a big-brother society that is gathering data on people to control everything, we could maybe see this develop into something more coherent and growing dramatically.

CTC: We are entering a moment of great-power tension. This can have repercussions in the non-state actor space through the use of proxies. Do you see a rising threat in Europe from state-supported terrorist actors? For example, from Russia or Iran?

De Kerchove: No. But that is not to say that there are no violent consequences resulting from some third countries’ deliberate interference to weaken our democracy and undermine the European Union. While they do not use terrorist proxies, some foreign powers deliberately spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to divide us. Their support to ultra-nationalist and right-wing extremist worldviews indirectly fosters violence because this sort of propaganda also fuels the actions of violent extremists and terrorists.

The current stance of the E.U. is that we only placed the military branch of Hezbollah in Lebanon on the E.U. list of terrorist organizations in the wake of the attack in Burgas and a plot in Cyprus.i Some of our member states have chosen recently to go further than just the military branch.9 In Germany, it is not a formal listing, like in the U.S., but a ban, which is legally a bit different. I am not sure we would follow our American friends and expand to a listing for the whole organization, but it is important to note that the E.U. proscription is not a precondition for prosecution and anyhow we are active and vigilant on the organized crime aspect of the organization. The organization is indeed collecting money from all over the world with sophisticated money-laundering schemes with links to Africa, Latin America, using drugs and the like. Europol, working closely with the American law enforcement agencies, conducted a major operation called Cedarj a few years ago in which millions, if not hundreds of millions, of euro being laundered between cartels in America, Latin America, Europe, and Africa were traced and linked to the Lebanese Hezbollah group. We are not soft on the organization, but there is no unanimous decision to list the whole organization.

On Iran, the E.U. put a directorate within the Ministry of Intelligence [and Security] (MOIS) on the list of terrorist organizations, as well as two members of the Iranian government.10 This was done after a foiled attempt to murder an exiled Iranian from the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA)k in Denmark, and the disruption of a plot to blow up the yearly meeting of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalk (MeK)l in Paris, which was due to be attended by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s close adviser. This is a new development, placing a part of the State of Iran and officials of Iran on the EU’s list. We have had several recent cases of proxy fights between Gulf States and Iran in the Scandinavian countries.11 This does not quite qualify as terrorism, but it is criminal behavior. It is, of course, unacceptable that other states use European soil as a place to target each other by proxy.

As to Russia, we have had several cases of major concern around killings of Chechens in Europe. The Germans are currently prosecuting someone for the killing of a Chechen commander on their soil.12 And there are cases like Sergei Skripal.m But these again are cases which do not meet the criteria of being terrorism. They are not done to influence the population or the host government into changing its policy. These incidents and attacks are more about internal Russian and Iranian domestic politics, targeting dissidents, with Europe simply the location where they are taking place.

CTC: Could you talk us through some of the impact of Brexit on European counterterrorism?

De Kerchove: It is always a bit difficult for me to express myself on this topic because we are in the middle of a difficult negotiation and I do not want to say anything which could have a negative impact on these negotiations. The starting point is what former Prime Minister Theresa May said, “Brexit means Brexit.” Brexit has consequences. Once you are no longer a member state, this means you no longer have the same rights as a member state. So that is the starting point, and I am sorry for that. The relationship will have to be different to that of other non-E.U. states who are in Europe like Norway or Switzerland as they are part of the Schengen free-movement space within Europe.

The second aspect, a lot of what we have been developing over the past 20 years in the field of justice and home affairs, like mutual recognition of criminal justice decisions or the availability of information, have only been able to develop as a result of very strong safeguards in place, and these safeguards are linked to human rights. We have the charter of fundamental rights, the human rights convention, and very strong rules on data protection and privacy. Some believe we are going too far in this direction, but that is where we are. And so it is difficult to have the same agreements in place with non-E.U. members who might not have the same safeguards in place in the future.

Having said this, I have spent the last 25 years of my life working in the field of security and justice in transatlantic affairs, going back to when Janet Reno was the U.S. Attorney General. During that time, we have built an amazing amount of cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. I would be very surprised if we did not do the same with the U.K. outside the European Union. I do not see why the U.K. would end up in a lesser position than the U.S. in this regard. So, it could be a U.S.-type relationship, and it is in our mutual interest to have a strong relationship. But there are legal constraints on what we can do, and I am sorry for that.

It is worth noting that intelligence is outside the E.U. framework. The E.U. 27 member states plus Norway, Switzerland, and the U.K. are working outside the E.U. framework already through the Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) where they all meet. They have developed common platforms and databases, and there will not be any impact on this from Brexit. So, on the intel front, I do not see any impact. Where we will lose something—and I hope the negotiator will find a smart way to compensate for this—is the outstanding and very impressive input of the Brits on the policy side. I have myself worked very closely for the past 13 years with the U.K. in this regard, with numerous Home Secretaries, National Security Advisers, MI5, MI6, and others. In terms of ideas and shaping the policy, they were very creative and helpful. But we will keep talking to each other.

The U.K. has been and will remain an important partner in the fight against terrorism. Counterterrorism depends on swift and effective exchange of information, and on close operational and political cooperation. The E.U. and the U.K. are currently negotiating their future relationship, including a framework for cooperation in law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, which will be the basis for future CT cooperation between the E.U. and the U.K. as a third country.

A lot of technical details are being addressed in the negotiations. Many E.U. instruments relevant for CT are based on the principles of mutual recognition and availability of information, which require certain essential safeguards (such as equivalent data protection standards, respect of the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, supervision by the European Court of Justice), some of which are redlines for the U.K., which means that different ways for cooperation need to be found. As I already noted, there are models for cooperation with third countries in a similar situation, such as the U.S., where we have created a strong CT partnership over time. The Union’s ambition is clearly that the counterterrorism relationship with the U.K. will remain strong; it is in the interest of both sides.

CTC: You recently wrote a paper for the Council of the European Union looking at how terrorist threats were evolving as a result of COVID-19. What are the key takeaways?

De Kerchove: While the current health crisis appears to have had only a limited impact on the terrorist threat to date, there is an increased risk of terrorism in the future. We must prevent the current health and economic crisis from becoming a security crisis as well.

The terrorist threat depends on three factors: intent, capabilities, and resilience. Terrorists had the intent to stage mass-casualty attacks long before the current crisis. The diminished resilience of targeted countries as a result of the pandemic is already a cause for concern, and this could reinforce terrorists’ capabilities in the longer term. Extremist propaganda could resonate more as a result of the economic and sanitary crisis, strengthen terrorists’ morale, and expand the breeding ground for radicalization. COVID-19 might result in a diminished focus on CT among our law enforcement and armed forces and disrupt military and intelligence operations.

Right-wing violent extremism and terrorism was already on the rise before the pandemic. Violent right-wing extremists have been particularly shrewd in exploiting the coronavirus crisis, blaming minority groups, and spreading disinformation. Right-wing extremist hate speech and incitement to violence on the internet has increased dramatically since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Violence against minorities—particularly Jews—has increased during the pandemic. We need to tackle these problems and counter anti-Semitic hate speech and violence.

The pandemic has also sparked conspiracy theories that have no direct link to existing extremist ideologies. As I’ve already noted, as a result of such theories, telecommunications masts have been set on fire in several member states. The motivation behind this is linked to a movement of technophobes with indirect links to right-wing and left-wing violent extremists, which is gaining in strength.

CTC: Do you think there will be a reduction in CT and CVE (countering violent extremism) funding and attention post-COVID-19?

De Kerchove: I acknowledge that allocating the same level of resources to CT and CVE post-COVID-19 might be challenging, but I hope that policymakers will recognize that the prevention of terrorism remains crucially important. The E.U. is analysing the impact of COVID on terrorism and security more broadly in our neighborhood and beyond, and is providing COVID-related additional assistance. Given the probable rise in radicalization resulting from the health and socio-economic crisis, prevention and CVE will be even more important than before. Money spent on CVE is money well spent, especially in a time of crisis. Health, the economy, and security influence each other. Hence, we should prevent the emergence of a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing sanitary, socio-economic, and security problems.

CTC: Technology continues to advance rapidly, with disruptive technologies increasingly the norm from online innovations, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, novel materials, the internet of things (IoT), space, and more. These are impacting our daily lives with ever greater frequency. How do you think this will impact the terrorist threat picture and E.U. response?

De Kerchove: Around three years ago, I began to worry that at the E.U. level, not necessarily at the member state level, we may have overlooked the impact of digitalization and disruptive tech on security and criminal justice. We have not properly assessed the threats that they potentially pose. Nor have we understood or yet maximized the opportunities they provide for delivering security and justice in the future.

Disruptive technologies can be indeed looked at under three different angles: the threat that they create/amplify, the potential they offer to increase the effectiveness of the law enforcement agencies/justice, and the impact they have on the way we will provide security and justice in the future. It is important therefore that the security community devotes more attention to these techs.

From a threat perspective, terrorist and violent extremist groups are harnessing new technologies. For example, those groups use increasingly cryptocurrencies to raise funds in an undetected way. Online gaming is another new field which deserves to be looked at. The scale is unbelievable, with about two billion people playing games online, who could be potentially targeted by terrorist and violent extremist propaganda. Another example, COVID may inspire people to use bioweapons, having seen the impact that the virus has had.13 If I were the head of a terrorist organization, I would say, that is clearly the best way to cause chaos and disrupt the West. But at the moment, it is quite difficult to weaponize the virus. You may send some ricin or anthrax by letter, which people have tried, but with COVID, this is going to be much harder.

But I do not exclude that in the coming years, it will be possible for a lone actor to mount an attack with catastrophic consequences. The current assessment is that the lone actor will just use a knife or a car and mount a low-cost attack. But for someone with the relevant education, armed with the democratization of knowledge, it might be much easier to process a virus in a cloud lab.n So, when you look at the convergence of these threats, you see a quite dangerous potential threat on the horizon. Someone could process a virus in a cloud lab, take a drone and use a GPS geolocation system to steer the drone, and go to a football stadium to spread the virus created and kill 50,000 people. So, my point is that we need to properly assess every possible threat that these new disruptive techs might pose.

At the same time, the opportunities provided by big data analytics, notably to find weak signals on the internet, artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, robots, drones, and more are already helping police as well as justice, and will likely do more in the future. From a European perspective, the key will be to make sure this takes place across the E.U.

There is also the transformative impact. For instance, within five years, we might lose a significant percentage of the workforce in the field of justice because machines will do some jobs better than humans. I have worked hard to try to convince E.U. institutions to invest a lot more on this, because we were a bit lagging behind.

Disruptive techs raise several huge challenges. First, we should ensure that law enforcement and the judiciary maintain their lawful tools of interception. On 5G, the E.U. is working towards ensuring that lawful interception remains possible, and is active in standardizing processes for such interception across the continent. The E.U. has worked on encryption for several years, in particular device encryption, via Europol and the European Commission’s JRC.o I believe there is a need for a more comprehensive, legislative solution.

Second, we see more and more the importance of data protection and privacy, with consequences on security. The question is, how much can we rebalance this relationship? One of the reasons why the Americans or the Chinese are much more advanced in AI than Europe is because every day, their firms get billions of data points from you and me. They get this information for free and can process it to help with their machine learning. In Europe, it is much harder for companies to get access to the volume of data necessary to train their algorithms because they are protected by GDPR [the European Union General Data Protection Regulation]. GDPR is a great achievement to curb the loss of control on personal data by Europeans, but its implementation should at the same time seek to foster innovation. It is then important to work closely with regulators and supervisors of data protection and fundamental rights, to take full profit of GDPR’s flexibilities to experiment, through regulatory sandboxes and testing facilities (where companies can test out new potentially disruptive technologies, and reflect on adapting/adopting regulation), [and] see how this might be used in the justice space as well as putting oversight mechanisms.

Third, disruptive techs also raise issues of sovereignty, and where information and data are kept. The COVID crisis has highlighted what current supply chains and dependencies look like with greater clarity, and in particular how dependent Europe had become on non-E.U. countries like China. To some degree, we are lagging behind the Americans and Chinese in most of these disruptive techs, and there is therefore a need to bolster transatlantic cooperation on this. Fortunately, this European Commission has decided to invest a lot into research technology and digitalization to catch up.

Turning back again to the threat that disruptive technologies create/amplify, there is a direct impact from internet companies and the degree to which social media companies have amplified the jihadist and right-wing violent extremist propaganda. We have started working on this, but not enough.

I’m worried by what I call algorithm amplification, whereby these companies—YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and so on—design their algorithm in a way that they keep you online as long as possible because their business model is based on watch time for selling ads. And the issue is to hook people by giving them a lot more problematic content. I am not suggesting illegal content, but a lot more conspiracy theories, a lot more titillating material. It is like junk food. It is not by coincidence that junk food is full of salt to keep you coming back. It is the same with the internet; they bring stuff that is exciting and interesting and will draw you in. If you are interested in violent, hateful speeches, you will get more of the same and often more and more extremist content. It creates a common dynamic between disinformation, hate speech, and terrorist content.

There is a lot more we can do in this space. I have been working with the European Commission on looking at how we can bring the law enforcement and criminal justice community more into all these files and create an innovation hub at Europol which brings together all the interior and justice ministries from member states, as well as all the many European agencies that cover related security issues (Europol, Eurojust,p Frontex,q CEPOL,r eu-LISA,s etc.), with the ambition to later connect to cyber, space, and defense actors. We need people (at policy as well as operational levels) who understand all of the different issues to be able to deal with them.

CTC: There has been considerable debate about the threat posed by terrorist recidivism and whether prison sentences for terrorism offenders should be extended. A recent study in this publication by Thomas Renard that focused on Belgium argued that the phenomenon of terrorist recidivism, while a problem, has been “overblown.”14 What is your view on this issue?

De Kerchove: It is good that Thomas Renard has systematically looked at recidivism rates among terrorist convicts. His conclusions are reassuring, but of course, any terrorist attack committed by somebody previously convicted for a terrorist offense is one too many. In this context, it should also be borne in mind that terrorist acts have a very serious impact on society—more serious, in fact, than most ordinary crimes.

The fact that several hundred inmates convicted for terrorist-related offenses will be released from European prisons in the very near future also compels us to prioritize rehabilitation and disengagement efforts. Even if only a small number of them reoffend, then the sheer magnitude of the wave of prison releases still creates a significant additional security risk and pressure on security forces.

That is why I think the EU Council conclusions of 6 June 2019 on “preventing and combatting radicalisation in prisons, and on dealing with terrorist and violent extremist offenders after release”15 are important. The E.U. is supporting risk assessment and rehabilitation programs in prisons in member states and sharing of good practices and lessons learned.

CTC: What is the role of mental health and other personality disorders, and how does this affect the threat picture and response?

De Kerchove: This is a subject that attracts increasing attention among CT practitioners and policymakers, including at E.U. level. There is no clear profile or prototype of a terrorist. It is clear that mental disorders do not cause terrorist acts, but they sometimes influence terrorist behavior in connection with other—political, sociological—factors. There may be a greater than average prevalence of mental disorders notably among lone-actor terrorists. A number of lone actor terrorist attacks in Europe in the last two years—for example, in France, the U.K., and the Netherlands—were committed by lone actors with underlying mental health problems.

Given the increase in lone-actor attacks in the West, we should pay more attention to mental health issues in our policy response. The COVID-19 crisis, which is likely to exacerbate mental health problems in some individuals and to make them spend more time online, makes this an even more important topic.

How can we use knowledge on mental health in CT? We can, for instance, look at risk assessment tools: while psychopathology in itself is not predictive of terrorist behavior, mental health issues play a useful role in risk assessments, in combination with other factors. It is worth looking at it in rehabilitation and disengagement programs—using customized treatment to rehabilitate former terrorists or to achieve disengagement of radicalized individuals.

I know that much research on the role of mental health issues in radicalization and terrorism has been conducted with regard to jihadist radicalization. But we need to understand better what role mental health problems play in driving the men responsible for right-wing violent extremist attacks as well. The E.U.-sponsored Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) recently published a very useful handbook for practitioners on dealing with mental health in the context of CT.16

Finally, I am concerned about the mental health of the women and children in the camps in northeastern Syria with a risk of future radicalization and involvement in terrorism. I already talked about what we’re doing to prevent this from happening and why. On a case-by-case basis, member states are repatriating minors from the camp. It is important that they receive good psychiatric and psychological care.

CTC: What do you see as the biggest outstanding problems in CT and CVE?

De Kerchove: I have touched upon several of the biggest outstanding issues in CT during this interview. The fight against the rising threat of right-wing violent extremism and terrorism is certainly one of those. Contrary to the U.S., the E.U. legal framework applies to all forms of terrorism. I expect that the EU Internet Referral Unit at Europol will soon start flagging violent right-wing extremist content in addition to its current work on jihadi content. We also need to look into ways to curtail financing of right-wing violent extremist propaganda and step up prevention, rehabilitation, and exit programs; some member states have an interesting experience in this context.

We have been working for many years in the area of prevention of terrorism. The E.U. has been funding projects, for instance, among vulnerable youngsters to prevent radicalization. The E.U. is facilitating exchange of best practices between policymakers and practitioners (such as teachers, social workers, police personnel, etc.). We have always included all forms of radicalization in these programs, but we need to focus even more on right-wing and left-wing violent extremism in the near future.

Additionally, we need to do more to counter the ideologies that fuel terrorism, in particular Islamist extremism. While there is a range of factors that drive people to become terrorists, terrorism would not exist at all without underlying extremist ideology. Hence, we should not avoid this difficult subject, but talk about it. Many mainstream Muslims are worried about Islamist extremism dominating the dissemination of Islamic religious texts, supported by wealthy donors from the Gulf area. This is a problem for integration in the E.U., which the E.U. has started to analyse within its borders and beyond, and has initiated a dialogue with relevant third countries. It is important to take note of the many European Muslims raising concern about extremist Islamist influences which challenge the values, fundamental rights, and rule of law which bind Europe together.

We should do more to combat terrorist content, hate speech, and disinformation online while protecting the right to free speech. The E.U. is working on a new Regulation on Terrorist Content Online, which will oblige digital companies to block terrorist content within one hour when they are alerted to such content. At the same time, digital companies should do more to enforce their own terms and conditions on hate speech and disinformation. They need to stop the amplification of sensationalist hateful content via algorithms aimed at generating as much user traffic as possible.

Last but not least, the many threats that stem from the rapid digitalization of our society and the quick development of disruptive technologies, as I have explained above, call for a major investment of the security community in this field. The excellent communication on the EU Security Union Strategy that the European Commission adopted at the end of July17 illustrates the strong determination of the E.U. to rise to the challenges.     CTC

Substantive Notes

[a] Editor’s note: Defined by the European Union as “a country that is not a member of the European Union as well as a country or territory whose citizens do not enjoy the European Union right to free movement.”

[b] Editor’s note: The European Council consists of “the heads of State or Government of the 27 EU Member States, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission” and “defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities.” See https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/european-council/. The ‘Council’ (full name: The Council of the E.U.) “is the institution representing the member states’ governments. Also known informally as the EU Council, it is where national ministers from each EU country meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.” See https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/

[c] Editor’s note: INTCEN is the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre, a central intelligence collection and assessment body that works with the European Union’s foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

[d] Editor’s note: Passenger Name Recognition

[e] Editor’s note: Advance passenger Information

[f] Editor’s note: The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) is an E.U.-sponsored network of practitioners across Europe that seeks to bring together best practices in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) work.

[g] Editor’s note: “Prevent” is the pillar of the U.K. counterterrorism strategy that seeks to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

[h] Editor’s note: The gilets jaunes (literally, yellow jackets) are a protest movement active across France.

[i] Editor’s note: In July 2012, a Hezbollah-linked suicide bomber targeted a busload of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing seven, including the bomber. The same month, Israel accused Hezbollah of plotting to attack Israeli citizens in Cyprus. Angel Krasimirov, “Bulgaria says clear signs Hezbollah behind Burgas bombing,” Reuters, July 18, 2013; Dan Williams, “Israel PM accuses Hezbollah of Cyprus attack plot,” Reuters, July 15, 2012.

[j] Editor’s note: According to congressional testimony by analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi, “DEA revealed the full extent of Hezbollah’s terror-crime nexus and its centrality to Hezbollah’s organizational structure in 2016, when it announced multiple Hezbollah arrests across Europe in an operation, codenamed Operation Cedar, involving seven countries. According to a former U.S. official familiar with the case, the targeted ring involved shipments of cocaine to Europe, which were paid for in euro, and were then transferred to the Middle East by couriers. Hezbollah made more than €20 million a month selling its own cocaine in Europe. It also laundered tens of millions of euro of cocaine proceeds on behalf of the cartels via the Black Market Peso Exchange, retaining a fee.” Emanuele Ottolenghi, “State Sponsors of Terrorism: An Examination of Iran’s Global Terrorism Network,” Testimony Before the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, April 17, 2018.

[k] Editor’s note: The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA) was established in 1999 seeking to establish an independent Arab state from Iran’s southwest. Iran classifies ASMLA as a terrorist group, and it has been linked to violent incidents within Iran, as well as in Europe where a number of the group’s members reportedly reside. For more information, see “The Story behind Iran’s ‘murder plot’ in Denmark,” BBC, October 31, 2018, and Nada Bashir, Euan McKirdy, and Kara Fox, “Denmark arrests suspect over Iranian ‘assassination’ plot,” CNN, October 31, 2018.

[l] Editor’s note: MeK is an Iranian group that opposes the regime in Tehran.

[m] Editor’s note: Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer recruited by the British as a spy, was, according to the U.K. government, targeted for assassination by Russian military intelligence agents in the United Kingdom, but he survived the attempt to kill him with a military grade nerve agent. “UK blames Russian military intelligence agents for Skripal attack,” Financial Times, September 5, 2018; Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “A Spy Story: Sergei Skripal Was a Little Fish. He Had a Big Enemy,” New York Times, September 9, 2018.

[n] Editor’s note: Cloud labs refer to automated labs using AI to synthetize genetic sequences that can become the basis to produce a toxin or a bio-agent. See Eleonore Pauwels, “The new geopolitics of converging risks – The UN and prevention in the era of AI,” UN University, 2019.

[o] Editor’s note: The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (DG JRC)

[p] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation

[q] Editor’s note: European Union Border and Coast Guard Agency

[r] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training

[s] Editor’s note: European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice​

Citations
[1] Editor’s note: For more on Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, see Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director, Europol,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[2] Editor’s note: See, for example, Nazia Parveen and Jim Waterson, “UK phone masts attacked amid 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theory,” Guardian, April 4, 2020.

[3] Editor’s note: For more on this issue, see Audrey Alexander, “The Security Threat COVID-19 Poses to the Northern Syria Detention Camps Holding Islamic State Members,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).

[4] “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” DW, April 15, 2020.

[5] “Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray Announce Significant Developments in the Investigation of the Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 18, 2020.

[6] Editor’s note: For more on Camus, see Norimitsu Onishi, “The Man Behind a Toxic Slogan Promoting White Supremacy,” New York Times, September 20, 2019.

[7] Editor’s note: For more on the Incel subculture, see Zack Beauchamp, “Our incel problem: How a support group for the dateless became one of the internet’s most dangerous subcultures,” Vox, April 23, 2019.

[8] Editor’s note: See “White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement,” Soufan Center, September 27, 2019, p. 29.

[9] Editor’s note: For more on this, see Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy, “Germany Hardens Ban on Hezbollah,” New York Times, April 30, 2020.

[10] Editor’s note: “Fight against terrorism: Council renews the designations on the EU terrorist list and adds two Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity in response to recent foiled attacks on European soil,” European Council press release, January 9, 2019. See also Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen, Robin Emmott, Anthony Deutsch, “In shift, EU sanctions Iran over planned Europe attacks,” Reuters, January 8, 2019.

[11] Editor’s note: For example, see Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Trial Exposes Iran-Saudi Battle in Europe,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2020.

[12] Editor’s note: Bojan Pancevski, “German prosecutors say man charged in Berlin murder was acting for Moscow,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2020.

[13] Editor’s note: For more on the potential implications of COVID-19 for counterterrorism, including in relation to bioterrorism, see Paul Cruickshank and Don Rassler, “A View from the CT Foxhole: A Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and Counterterrorism with Audrey Kurth Cronin, Lieutenant General (Ret) Michael Nagata, Magnus Ranstorp, Ali Soufan, and Juan Zarate,” CTC Sentinel 13:6 (2020).

[14] Thomas Renard, “Overblown: Exploring the Gap Between the Fear of Terrorist Recidivism and the Evidence,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020).

[15] Editor’s note: See “Radicalisation in prisons: Council adopts conclusions,” European Union Council press release, June 6, 2019.

[16] Editor’s note: Jordy Krasenberg and Lieke Wouterse, “Understanding the mental health disorders pathway leading to violent extremism,” RAN Ex Post Paper, March 13, 2019.

[17] Editor’s note: “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the EU Security Union Strategy,” COM(2020) 605 final, July 24, 2020.

Have not posted for a while. Delivered a book project which should ultimately emerge sometime next year, which kept me busy. But have been writing, including this piece for Prospect magazine in the UK on the fifteen year anniversary of the July 7, 2005 bombing which was the big lynchpin event of my earlier book.

Also have numerous projects in motion at the moment pulling me in lots of directions at the same time. Going to do a media catch up in the next post, but for the time being here is a video of a webinar with my Singaporean hosts RSIS looking at the evolution of the UK threat picture.

 

 

Fifteen years on from 7/7, terrorism has changed but the jihadist threat persists

Ideologies have fragmented and dangers become more difficult to track
by Raffaello Pantucci / July 7, 2020

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images:
Court artist sketch of Safiyya Amira Shaikh, 37, of Hayes, West London, who pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts Picture: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like we have moved into a new era of terrorist threats. Gone are the days when we faced large organised plots involving networks linking the UK to dark corners of faraway lands: now terrorist attacks are made up of random mass stabbings in public places like the attack near London Bridge in 2017. The terrorists being processed through our courts are former drug addicts with troubled pasts, like convert Safiyya Shaikh who was jailed recently for plotting to blow up St Paul’s.

At the ideological end it is equally confusing, with violent Islamists seemingly replaced by a gaggle of extreme right wingers, involuntary celibates (Incels) and individuals whose ideological leaning is so confused the Home Office brackets them together as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” Yet there is more consistency than you might expect. Terrorist threats come in ebbs and flows, sometimes receding but rarely disappearing. Instead, they tend to morph and create new problems. What is constant, however, is our inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The most talked about threat on the rise is the extreme right wing. But it is not clear how much of a threat it actually poses. Prior to the 7th July bombings 15 years ago, the most lethal non-Irish related terrorist attack the UK had faced was David Copeland’s one-man bombing campaign targeting London’s minority communities in 1999. Leaving devices in locations targeting London’s black, South Asian and gay communities, his homemade bombs murdered three and injured 140. While Copeland seemed to plan and execute his campaign by himself, he was part of the extreme right in the UK (albeit on the fringes), and a former member of the British National Party, the National Socialist Movement and even the neo-Nazi Combat 18 group.

For years the extreme right was largely the remit of the police, but in the late 1990s it was also coming into MI5’s crosshairs. As Jonathan Evans, a former director-general of MI5, told me earlier this year: “the service worked closely with police to undertake some disruptions in the late 1990s of Combat 18 associated individuals who were consorting with people of a similar cast of mind in eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. These groups had explicitly decided that terrorism was part of the way forward in order to try to destabilise what they characterised as the Zionist Organised Government (ZOG).” The attacks were disrupted, and soon after MI5 ended up getting almost completely overwhelmed focusing on the violent Islamist terror threat that erupted so violently in 2001.

But the extreme right never went away, and in some ways went mainstream with a rise in far-right parties across Europe. At the terrorist end of the scale, throughout the 2000s police were disrupting extreme right-wing plots. While the majority were fairly shambolic, some more organised ones would occasionally emerge. The Aryan Strike Force (ASF) was a group built around a father and son core who were bent on race war, were running training camps in Cumbria and managed to make enough ricin to kill nine people. But for the most part, they were, as Evans put it to me, “zoological” curiosities who were distinguishing mostly in their oddness.

The emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) and subsequently National Action (NA) changed the picture. From being a scattered group of individuals who were as likely to be involved in child pornography as they were extreme right-wing terrorism, these two groups instead spoke to something more organised coming together. It was also confusing ideologically, with both groups quite explicitly reacting against the violent Islamist groups that dominated public attention, yet also clearly using their tactics and language. National Action speaks of launching a “white jihad” while the EDL was born in reaction to now banned Islamist group Al Muhajiroun’s presence in Luton. And while there is a clear white supremacist tone to both groups, the EDL promoted non-white members.

More explicitly, political far-right group Britain First provided another wrinkle within this fabric, espousing a white supremacist ideology using Christian iconography. There is a palpable religious overtone to their narratives which feels more reminiscent of the violent Islamist threat that brought together religion and totalitarian views about society. This mix of ideas helped give them a strong base of support in parts of eastern Europe.

This confusing ideological background has been matched by the emergence of online ideologies drawing on fears of the “Great Replacement” of white communities. This has become the backdrop against which a whole range of ideologies have developed, spinning the extreme right in numerous different directions: ideas like the Incels movement, made up of young men who feel themselves rejected sexually. The QAnon movement, which has not only appeared at Trump rallies but now also appears to have three adherents among American congressional candidates, is made up of conspiracy theorists drawing on the vast information pool now available online to concoct narratives about controlling deep states, the dangers of 5G technology and stories of powerful paedophiles. And in one of the stranger threats to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth in groups fearing the increased role of the state. Groups like the Sovereign Citizen movement have become more influential as some fear the virus response is simply an excuse to expand the power of the state to ultimately oppress them.

But notwithstanding this increasingly baffling threat picture, it has still not eclipsed the violent Islamist threat in the UK. In a recent interview, the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that the extreme right wing took up about 10 per cent of his officers’ time. While it is, as he put it, the “fastest-growing” aspect of the threat picture, and cases have managed to rise to the very top of the terrorist “matrix” that MI5 uses to prioritise its threat picture, it is not the majority yet. The biggest threats continue to come from those inspired or linked to groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS).

This is something you hear consistently from security officials. Yes, the extreme right is a growing concern, but the violent Islamist threat persists and there is little evidence that the pool of problems that created it have gone away. They point to foreign battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or parts of north, west or east Africa, where al-Qaeda- and IS-linked groups continue to thrive. These are the sorts of environments that produced the 7/7 attacks. Just last month, security officials in Germany disrupted a plot in which a group of Tajiks stand accused of being directed by IS networks in Syria and Afghanistan to launch an attack in Europe.

In the UK it has been a while since we have had a major public disruption like this. Instead, incidents like last year’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall or the attempted stabbing in Streatham—when a recently released terrorist convict launched a one-man attack—are the norm. In these and other more recent cases still winding their way through the courts, isolated individuals, sometimes with links to violent Islamist networks, and usually with histories that have brought them to MI5’s attention at some point, launch one-man campaigns with no outside direction and weapons such as knives found in every household. A growing proportion of them have serious mental health or social problems, making them deeply volatile and unpredictable people. This makes them almost impossible to stop, but nevertheless results in a vast outpouring of noise from politicians and the public demanding that something must be done.

It is never a good idea to legislate in the immediate wake of a disaster. Objectivity will go out of the window, leading to ill-considered choices. We saw this in the wake of the 7/7 attacks—when the shock to the country led to a surge in focus and attention on the UK’s Muslim community. Politicians’ rhetoric sharpened, demanding they “do something.” A money spigot was opened which gave the security services more resources to manage the problem—including developing community profiling tools like Project Rich Picture, which aimed to develop a detailed understanding of the UK’s Muslim community, identifying them as the source of the threat. Self-appointed leaders (or “professional Muslims” as one colleague once sarcastically put it) popped up everywhere speaking for no one but themselves, but nevertheless able to garner grants from the government to bolster their so-called community work. Some did positive work. Others it was less clear.

All this did little to improve Muslim community relations and instead created a sense among many Muslims that they were being unfairly targeted. Paradoxically, it also created animosity among white communities who were angered by the austerity and economic marginalisation they were facing in contrast to this visible push in support to Muslim communities. We have not seen a similar outpouring of money or attention towards deprived white communities in the wake of the growing rise of the extreme right.

A decade and a half since July 2005, we seem not to have learned some of these lessons. Politicians appear unwilling to acknowledge that part of the problem of the resurgent extreme right is a product of the racially-tinged politics that have been stoked by mainstream voices in the past few years, while the growing presence of seriously troubled individuals at the sharp end of the terror threat as lone actors reflects years of under-investment in mental health services, probation and social services. The recently convicted Safiyya Shaikh, formerly Michelle Ramsden, in some ways fits this mould perfectly—a deeply troubled woman whose online life developed into her becoming a webmaster and coordinator for IS-supporting groups and plots across Europe.

We have gone from networks directing plots against our public transport to lone actors lashing out at people going about their daily lives. The underlying ideologies remain the same, though their expression has become more confusing. In many ways little has changed except for the volume of people affected and our security services’ capability to manage terrorist threats (one of the biggest reasons why we have not seen anything larger than a lone actor attack in a while). But our politicians seem unable to grasp the difficult nettles that are required to deal with these issues in a sophisticated fashion. Either we learn to live with the problem or focus on the real underlying issues.

 

A new piece for a place have been contributing to increasingly of late, the Indian Observer Research Foundation (ORF), this time a piece on the extreme right wing in Europe with RSIS colleague Kyler.

Going to start catching up on other media or webinar appearances as well, including a new format I have not used before which is the embedded YouTube feature. Here below is a video of the webinar that I did with Marlene and her Central Asia Program on China and Central Asia during COVID-19, which drew on a paper of mine they kindly published.

 

From fringe to mainstream: The extreme rightwing in Europe

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 06.41.30

Europe has long suffered from far-right politics and extreme right terrorism. Over the past decade, however, the terrorism associated with the ideology has grown in influence and potency. The increasing mainstreaming of racist narratives which hold non-whites culpable for the current dire state of affairs has brought fringe views into broader public view. At the same time, Europe has seen a growth in an increasingly networked and armed extreme rightwing, showing a threat picture evolving in worrying directions.

Mainstreaming far-right narratives

In Europe, just as in some other parts of the world, governments’ bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 brought rightwing extremists to the forefront of anti-lockdown protests. In Germany, for instance, extremists have attended rallies organised by a mainstream far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and leveraged the pandemic to spread anti-semitic and racist conspiracy theories. Many of these theories have attributed Jews as the source of the crisis and reason for lockdown, and blamed migrants for being the original carriers of the virus.

Separately, the killing of a Black American man, George Floyd, on 25 May 2020 by a police officer in Minnesota, has ignited anti-racist protests and counter-protests globally. Rightwing extremists in Europe are exploiting the chaos to conduct counter-protests against “white racism” in Paris, the tearing down of national monuments linked to slavery and colonialism in London, and ultimately to incite violence.

This trend of the extreme right taking advantage of the chaos generated during COVID-19 and the race protests is not surprising. But it comes after a general trend in European politics of the mainstreaming of far-right voices. Be it France’s Front Nationale, Germany’s AFD, UKIP in the UK, Italy’s Lega Nord, Spain’s Vox or Victor Orban in Hungary, there has been a growing trend across Europe in the past decade or more of parties mainstreaming far-right narratives. Mostly focused on immigration, they tap into racist sentiment dressing it up as nationalism to move closer to power. In some cases, they have achieved their goal and won political office, but in others they have served to simply drag the existing mainstream right deeper towards their narratives as they attempt to reclaim the political territory.

The net result of this shift is previously fringe narratives and parties being brought closer to the center. In turn, this means the extreme right is also brought in, empowering those on the hard edges who see the winds blowing in their direction and an opportunity to capitalise. In Germany, this link has been quite explicit, with the radical wing of AfD (known as Der Flügel) placed under surveillance by German domestic intelligence. The growing mainstreaming of nativism is also not exclusive to the rightwing, and is visible at the other end of the political spectrum as well. Some leftist parties are fighting to “bring back” populist votes by championing “ours first” policies in their electoral campaigns. This is visible in the Danish Social Democrats or Italy’s leftist Five Star movement which has been willing to enter into coalition with far-right parties to get into power.

A European Union of hate

Somewhat paradoxically given their tendency to oppose the European Union, these far-right political groups have found themselves networking across the continent. Drawing on each other’s successes, they have held rallies together, spoken admiringly of each other as a way of highlighting the substance to their movement across the Continent, and even formed political blocs in the Union. This connectivity is something that is equally visible on the extreme right, where groups like the English Defence League (EDL) have been emulated across Europe. And on the even harder edge, we can see how terrorist groups or individuals are linking up across the continent. Anders Behring Breivik, a man who presented himself as the forefront of a movement with his attack in Norway in 2011 and has subsequently become something of an icon to parts of the extreme right, reported contacts with extremists in the Balkans, as well as attended EDL marches in the UK.

In the UK, the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student who moved to Birmingham in 2013 and launched a one-man terror campaign against the West Midlands Muslim community, was an early indicator of what could come. Britain First, the fringe far-right group, has found support in Eastern Europe with its leadership going to rallies in Poland, posting materials in Polish and hosting Poles in London. Some of their Polish followers have launched attacks in the UK. This link draws on the 1990s when UK far right extremists made connections with their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Networks of extremists from Germany, Eastern Europe and Nordic countries have long formed sub-cultures around the white power music scene. This has provided a backdrop for networks of extreme right-wing terrorists like the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany.

Further multiplying concerns has been the growth in links to battlefields and training camps. Rightwing extremists in Europe have travelled and developed relations with individuals and networks within and outside of the continent, and vice versa. White supremacist groups originating from the United States, such as The Base, also have presence in Europe. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has turned it into a battlefield pitting pro-Russian separatist against ultra-nationalist groups, and turning it into a transnational hub attracting foreign fighters to join both sides. The Azov Battalion is known to have conducted recruitment outside of Ukraine and trained white supremacists who have travelled to Ukraine. Fighters from across Europe have shown up, with a number tracing links to far-right groups back home.

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The growing cooperation is not only restricted to Ukraine. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a Russian ultra-nationalist, quasi-paramilitary organisation, has hosted training camps that have attracted Swedish, Finnish and German extremists. Some went to Ukraine, but others returned home. German neo-Nazis, particularly the youth wings of two neo-Nazi German political parties, the National Democratic Party and The Third Path, attended camps before returning home to promulgate far-right ideas. Two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement who trained with RIM went on to construct explosive devices which they used to target sites in Sweden associated with migrants in 2016 and 2017. The US has recently designated RIM as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, partly for its role in these attacks.

Ideological twist and shout

There is also a growing confusion at the ideological end of the spectrum. The nexus between far-right political ideologies and extreme rightwing, non-affiliated lone terrorists, is murky and has in some cases led to acts of extremism and terrorism perpetrated by lone terrorists being politicised. Germany’s AfD was initially blamed for Tobias Rathjen’s 19 February shootings at a series of shisha bars in Hanau, though there was no evidence of a link and ultimately questions were raised around Rathjen’s mental state. Similarly, the murder of UK MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair was initially associated with the group Britain First, given his past involvement with the group and reports of him shouting the group’s name during his attack. The link was ultimately revealed to be unclear and denied by the group.

This ideological confusion between violence and politics has become even more opaque with the growth of ideologically overlapping subcultures online. While the classic extreme right of neo-Nazi’s, skinheads and hooligans still exist, they are now joined by fringe ideologies such as “incel” (which is shorthand for “involuntary celibate,” an adherent who believes that attractive women and men are to be blamed for their inability to find a romantic or sexual partner), anti-government movements such as Sovereign Citizens (which already has sizable membership in Europe), QAnon or conspiracy theorists focused on the dangers of 5G technology. These ideas, ideologies, online sub-cultures all merge together and have produced terrorist attacks. A growing number of European cases draw on a range of these ideologies, with a strong extreme right undertone tying them together. Philip Manshaus (August 2019 Bærum mosque attack), Stephan Balliet (attempted October 2019 Halle synagogue attack), and Tobias Rathjen (February 2020 shisha bars attack), were all triggered by their hatred for immigrants, but showed incel refrains in their manifestos. Even if the fringe ideology may not have been the main driver to the act of terror, the convergence of rightwing extremist ideologies (e.g., white supremacism), inceldom and conspiracy theory driven movements is increasing.

At the other end of the ideological construction there is a problem of reciprocal radicalisation where elements of the extreme right draw their motivation from ideological adversaries on the far-left or violent Islamists. But there has also been a growth of groups subsuming ideological strands or messaging from opposing groups into their own ideologies — in part out of acknowledgement of success others have had in projecting their messages. For example, the UK’s National Action talked of white jihad, used tactics and imagery aping ISIS, while stirring up neo-Nazi messaging and using the direct-action political activism reminiscent of al-Muhajiroun.

Overall, however, an underlying narrative that tends to drive the extreme right in Europe is the “Great Replacement” theory, which promulgates that “indigenous European population is replaced by non-European migrants.” Anders Brevik and Tobias Rathjen have cited the incipient threat of white genocide in their manifestos as reasons for taking up arms to fight against the colonisation of western civilisation. This is a narrative also popular amongst some far-right and libertarian politicians across Europe.

What the future holds

Extreme rightwing terrorism in Europe has contributed an increased share of total terrorist attacks in the last five years (in some years, it even represented the largest threat). According to Europol’s figures, notwithstanding reporting issues (member states have a habit of reporting in different ways), there has been a consistent increase in reported arrests on the extreme right since 2015 (coinciding with the migrant crisis), and these numbers have more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, potentially demonstrating heightened counter-terrorism efforts. Just in June this year, the German Interior Ministry placed a ban on the anti-semitic rightwing extremist group, Nordadler. In the same month, the Belgian government reported that some 20 of its citizens have participated in paramilitary training camps in Eastern Europe in recent years. As reciprocal radicalisation, lone actor attacks drawing on a mixture of warped extreme right ideologies, and mainstreaming of far-right ideas continue to grow, the problem is not going away. With violent Islamist threat appearing to retreat, rightwing extremism and terrorism remain amongst the most dangerous ideologies on the continent, and a growing force to be reckoned with.