Posts Tagged ‘XRW’

My last column of last year for the Financial Times, thinking some rather unseasonal thoughts about the terrorist threat and what is happening to responses towards it. In large part draws on some very specific discussions I had in the last quarter of last year. Am always a bit concerned about sounding like a doom-monger, but at the same time the problem with these threats is they can surprise and in the absence of concerted response get worse. Yet, if there is a response then the problem never appears. Better to be Cassandra or crying wolf?

Downgrade counter-terrorism efforts at your peril

Resources are being reallocated towards state-based threats, but the risk posed by extremists is too deadly to ignore

People run away from the Twin Towers in New York on September 11 2001. Trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful attention © Suzanne Plunkett/AP

The growing consensus among the UK national security establishment is that terrorism is no longer the biggest threat. As migration, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Chinese military expansion increasingly top the list of concerns within Whitehall, terrorism has fallen out of vogue.

To some degree this is a positive thing. Al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks warped the global security apparatus, and the exaggerated response to this event, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, created their own security problems. But it is alarming how quickly the terror threat has been downgraded: capability and resources are now being reallocated towards state-based threats. For the security agencies, China, Russia and Iran are the priorities, and more attention is being paid to them. Generally this resource is reallocated (often from counter-terrorism) rather than created.

Terrorism has been a feature of human society for generations. Back in the early 2000s, the scholar David Rapoport posited the idea of this threat operating in 40-year “waves”. He traced an “Anarchist wave” (1880s to 1920), an “Anti-Colonial wave” (1920s to early 1960s), a “New Left wave” (mid-1960s to 1990s), and the current “Religious wave” that began with the siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the fall of the shah of Iran and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

By his calculations, the religious wave is now receding. The UK and Australia have both recently lowered their terror threat levels. The question is where, and when, the next wave will emerge. Polarised politics, stratified societies, growing anti-establishment sentiment, public concern about climate change or other large-scale injustices and numerous global conflicts are all potential fissures.

Tracking potential new risks while keeping an eye on existing ones requires a monitoring mechanism. The signs are there if you are alert to them. Al-Qaeda loudly and repeatedly telegraphed its intention prior to its attacks in Africa, Yemen and the US. The emergence of the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq and the consequent expansion of terrorist threats globally was clearly signalled in reporting prior to the invasion. The over-optimistic early responses to the Arab Spring masked the clear growth of threats in Africa as Libya’s weapons stockpiles were drained.

Meanwhile, the flame of conflict was ignited in Syria. The emergence of Isis on the battlefield may have been a surprise to some, but not to those who had been watching ISI, its precursor organisation in Iraq, in the wake of the 2009 US withdrawal.

Elsewhere, the growth of the extreme right in Europe was relatively predictable given the increasing disquiet about immigration and Muslim extremism. The 2011 attack in Norway by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was an early indicator which has subsequently proven to have inspired a wider neo-fascist community. Breivik’s attack was directly referenced by the 2019 Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant.

These things tend not to come out of the blue. But trying to divine where the next hazards may emerge requires careful observation, assessment and attention. While there was clearly a need to adjust the terrorist threat response given the growing state-based threats, the concern now is whether we are going too far the other way — especially when the picture is so confusing.

The UK Home Office has created a category of threat called “mixed, unstable and unclear”, referring to extremists with no clear ideology, or those citing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, influences. And while it is unlikely that another epoch-changing event on the scale of September 11 is around the corner, even smaller-scale terrorist events can prove deadly and scar societies.

Any reduction in resources, therefore, must be carefully thought through. Re-evaluating the risk is fine — forgetting it entirely is not.

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Another piece from late last year, this time for RUSI looking at the threat assessment provided of the current threat picture to the UK and the work of his Service by MI5’s chief in November. It digs into what he said, and tries to draw on wider data to build up a more detailed picture of what is going on with the picture he painted.

The Evolving Terror Threat to the UK

As the government conducts a review of its counterterrorism strategy, a speech by the head of MI5 offered some pointers about the changing nature of the threat.

Main Image Credit Big picture: Director General of MI5 Ken McCallum gives a speech on threats to the UK on 16 November 2022. Image: PA / Alamy

In mid-November, MI5 Director General Ken McCallum gave his annual threat assessment speech, outlining the threats to the UK that his service was monitoring. Much of the focus of the subsequent media reporting was on the state-based threats that he covered (emanating from China, Russia and Iran), but he also highlighted that since his last presentation in July 2021 his service had disrupted eight ‘late-stage attack plots’. Only briefly mentioned was that during this same reporting period, the UK had suffered three terrorist attacks – leading to the death of one attacker and Sir David Amess MP. A close examination of all of this plotting suggests that some important tweaks are necessary to the UK’s CONTEST counterterror strategy to ensure it is able to deal with the complicated threat the UK continues to face.

In his speech, McCallum outlined that the plots the MI5 had detected emanated from ‘a mix of Islamist and extreme right-wing terrorism’ and that the ‘lines demarcating what is and is not terrorism’ were increasingly hard to draw. The focus was largely on lone actor plots (or self-initiated attackers), which his service found across ideologies. He also mentioned the continuing aspiration by groups to launch something more substantial, though this has become much harder for them. All of this may seem a fairly clear assessment, but it is in fact quite difficult to dig into in much detail given current levels of reporting around terrorist plots in the UK.

Security Service reporting around attack plots is increasingly opaque. The habit currently is to refer to disrupting ‘late-stage attack plots’, in which the investigators think that the individual was going down a path of trying to launch an attack rather than conduct some other form of terrorist activity (for example, dissemination of extremist material, radicalisation of others or fundraising in some way). Yet what exactly this looks like has not been clearly defined, and an examination of reporting around terrorism arrests in the UK since July 2021 (when he last gave the speech) reveals only six cases can in which some form of identifiable attack was reportedly being planned.

Many of these are still being managed through the courts, and consequently specific mention needs to be done carefully, but drawing on open source reporting, the following trends are visible in the caseload.

In ideological terms, half appear to have Islamic State inspiration, while the other half have elements of extreme right-wing (XRW) thinking in their make-up. In two of the XRW cases, the ultimate target was a 5G mast, suggesting the influence of conspiracy theories. Both of these cases had deep anger against the government also present in reporting, and both plots involved older individuals (38, 59 and 59). The 59-year-olds were a male and female pair who were reportedly in contact online.

All of the other cases are made up of teenagers, with two cases involving pairs (one two boys of 15 and 19, and the other a male/female 17/18-year-old pair). Of the Islamic State-inspired ones, only one case involves someone with a name of likely Muslim origin, while the others all appear to be non-Muslim origin names, with no reference to conversion in their cases. The targets are all quite general, but it appears that anger against the police or security state is high on their priority list, with two accused of conducting hostile reconnaissance of security establishments (one from each ideology).

They are scattered around the country, and were all active on various online platforms – from large established Telegram groups to gaming platforms and Discord. At least two of the younger boys are identified as being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

When held up against the three attacks that took place during the reporting period which McCallum mentioned only briefly in his speech (Sir David Amess’s murder, the Liverpool Hospital bomber and the Dover migrant centre firebomb), the most obvious similarity is the older nature of the XRW terrorist who attacked the Dover migrant centre. A 66-year-old, his profile fit that of the last four older male XRW terrorists in the UK who launched lone actor plots (Jo Cox MP’s murderer; the Finsbury Park mosque attacker; a man seeking to kill Muslims who stabbed a person in Surrey in 2019; and a Britain First supporter who drove into a curry house owner in Harrow in June 2017). The previously mentioned two disrupted cases seeking to strike 5G masts also somewhat fit this profile.

The other two do not. The ideology of the Liverpool bomber remains unclear, and while he was a younger man, neither he nor Sir David Amess’s murderer were teenagers. Sir David’s attacker appears to have a been a residual case from the cohort of young men radicalised by Islamic State who waited years to launch his attack. This stands in contrast to the confused Islamic State-inspired teenagers in the arrested cohort.

It is hard to know what to draw from this. The most obvious point is the continuation of the previously identified trend of older men (for the most part) being those interested in launching XRW attacks. The fact that 5G masts are a desirable target highlights how the conspiracy theory-driven ideologies that thrived during the pandemic have taken hold among parts of this community. It does suggest a possible new profile of offender that security forces might need to focus on (as general as it might seem). On the violent Islamist side, the Sir David Amess case highlights that there are still residual concerns around the Islamic State-linked cohort, highlighting the long tail this problem can have.

The other side to the age question is the seeming lack of attacks involving teenagers. It is clear from other reporting that the volume of teenagers being arrested is up, but not many are actually launching attacks. Among the XRW community, there have not been any teenagers involved in attacks, and one has to go back to September 2017 and the attempted bombing of an underground train at Parsons Green to find a teenager inspired by Islamic State launching an attack. This is not to discount the potential threat posed by this group, or to suggest that security forces only need to respond to the threat they observe, but it is likely worth considering the extent of the menace actually posed by this young cohort. Jonathan Hall QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism, has raised similar questions, identifying parts of this alarmingly young cohort as ‘keyboard warriors’.

It is also notable that in three of the cases, pairs of individuals were arrested, and in two others there is evidence that the individual was plotting with others online. Only one appears from reporting to be an isolated actor (though this may of course be untrue). This hammers home the oft-repeated point that lone actor terrorists are never really alone. It also raises questions around the three successful attackers – all of whom appear thus far to have been identified as isolated.

This picture is, of course, incomplete and the dataset too small to draw any scientifically satisfactory conclusions. McCallum referred to eight plots, while this author was only able to locate six. But taking this group alone, it is notable how there is a balance between the XRW and violent Islamist groups. The actual danger posed by all of them in national security strategic terms is questionable, though any threat to life clearly needs to have substantial resources dedicated towards countering it. Another aspect McCallum touched upon which is increasingly obvious in XRW plots is the desire to own or use 3D printers to manufacture weapons. Whether this is just for collection or for actual use is unclear, but it helps overcome one of the major hurdles faced by terrorist cells in the UK, which is sourcing weaponry that they can use to cause mass carnage. Guns are hard to obtain in the UK, while bombs require practice to make. Bladed weapons will always limit capability.

Bigger potential terrorist threats were hinted at in other ways. In his speech, McCallum also referred to at least 10 incidents since January of threat to life or kidnapping in the UK involving Iranian actors. This is not new behaviour for Tehran, but the volume when compared to the indigenous domestic threat is notable. It will be interesting to see how much he identifies similar threats from China and Russia, the two other adversaries highlighted, in the future – Russia of course already has form for such action in the UK – and how (or if) the counterterror strategy might seek to address this threat.

There are aspects of the threat beyond the speech which also bear noting. Earlier in November, a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old were arrested in Birmingham for planning to join Islamic State Khorasan Province. This followed earlier reporting of Taliban officials detaining a pair of Britons crossing over from Uzbekistan who were trying to join the group, and a video that emerged from Pakistan which showed an individual identifying himself as Asadullah from England calling for people to come and join the jihad in Pakistan in a strong British-sounding accent. There is a longstanding connection between the UK and jihadist groups in South Asia, and it appears to still be active.

Looking further afield, Syria continues to host a number of potentially threatening groups and UK-linked individuals in Kurdish custody, while Africa has been repeatedly identified as an area where a growing volume of terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qa’ida and Islamic State continue to gather and plot. While it is not clear how much of a threat any of this poses directly to the UK, it illustrates that the threat picture remains fairly constant across much of the globe.

But focusing back on the UK and McCallum’s speech, the most important thing is to try to unpick which aspects of the threat require additional consideration and engagement as the government goes through a review of the CONTEST counterterrorism strategy, and the long-awaited review of PREVENT is released. The threat has clearly changed; it remains to be seen in what way the response will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threat Landscape Prior to 2021

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

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

2021 Threat Landscape

Decline in Terrorist Incidents

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological Confluence

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracies Chasing Meanings

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

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

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

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

Outlook

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

About the Authors

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

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

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

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

821 Ibid., 119.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

841 Koh, “Teen Detained for Planning.”

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

843 Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

856 “ASIO Annual Report 2020-21,” 38.

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.