Failing to take far right violence seriously

The threat of far right terrorism and political violence ought to be taken at least as seriously as the radical Islamic one. Obstacles include the false belief that far right violence is local and not globally connected.

For at least four decades a small number of specialist academics have pointed to a failure by governments in Europe to take the threat of far right terrorism and political violence sufficiently seriously. This selective blindness has become all the more striking during the decade of the war on terror when the same governments have paid endless attention to the threat of another kind of home grown terrorism and political violence.

Indeed, unintentionally but not unforeseeably, much government rhetoric aimed at home grown ‘radical Islamists’ in European countries has helped feed far right propaganda that demonises the same targets. This is not to argue that extremist Muslim threats of terrorism and political violence do not exist and do not deserve to be treated seriously. To the contrary, I argue that governments should be alert to both threats and should respond to them in the same way. To be blind to one and overzealous to the other is to risk fuelling both.

In the past selective government blindness was sometimes explained by reference to the fact that far right terrorism and political violence (in contrast to far left terrorism and political violence) did not directly threaten the state. While this may have been a satisfactory academic explanation it was hardly ever a satisfactory excuse for governments. Far from it, the victims of far right violence are invariably the most vulnerable citizens who deserve the greatest protection by governments and police.

More recently, academics have pointed to the same failure in the context of an upsurge of anti-Muslim violence in Europe and the US, much of which is carried out by members and supporters of the far right. Moreover, in light of Anders Breivik’s terrorist targeting strategy it may be complacent to suggest that far right violence does not directly target the state. It is certainly worth noting similarities with Timothy McVeigh’s far right bomb attack on a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 which killed 168 people, injured 680 more, and destroyed or damaged 324 buildings.

Equally, an established analysis that the far right advocates strong support for law and order may need to be revised for the same reason. Indeed, such is the extent to which a pejorative notion of ‘state multiculturalism’ has become the enemy of the far right that further terrorism and political violence against government targets cannot be discounted. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that far right violence in Europe is in urgent need of a fresh and comprehensive re-assessment.

Arun Kundnani’s report Blind Spot? Security Narratives and Far-Right Violence in Europe for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague is the latest to draw attention to a failure to adequately recognise and respond to the threat. Kundnani lists a disturbing catalogue of cases of far right violence that have not received sufficient attention at government and EU level.

Of particular concern, in Kundnani’s report, ‘a German neo‐Nazi group – the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU, National Socialist Underground) – operated ‘for thirteen years without arrest, during which time eight people of Turkish origin, a Greek man, and a policewoman had been killed, despite federal and regional intelligence services reportedly having infiltrated the group’. As he says, while ‘it remains unclear why the NSU was not intercepted earlier’ it ‘appears that part of the problem was that efforts to counter right‐wing violence rested with regional states, which did not consider it a priority, in contrast to initiatives to counter the threat of jihadist violence, which were well‐resourced and centrally co‐ordinated at the federal level’.

Last year Gerry Gable and Paul Jackson published a similar report on the UK far right scene, Lone wolves: myth or reality?. Gable and Jackson provided ‘case studies of nearly 40 individuals holding far-right political views [....] convicted [of] violence or terrorist offences’. ‘The details revealed in court’, the authors note ‘showed that they were motivated, and obtained the knowledge and wherewithal to carry out their acts, through dangerous networks that introduced them to a perverse ideological world’. ‘Many of them’, Gable and Jackson observe ‘used the internet to associate with likeminded people, exchange ideas and obtain information about how to acquire weapons or make explosives and deadly chemicals’.

To a certain extent the present problem can be linked to the rise of popularist radical right parties in Europe and attempts by mainstream political parties to win back voters who have defected to them. However, links between radical right politics and political violence have to treated very carefully – as is the case in all other areas of politics. What is sufficiently clear is that the rise in radical right politics forms an essential backdrop to the recent acts of far right terrorism and political violence that have taken place. Moreover, the historical record shows that far right politics is often directly or indirectly implicated in terrorism or political violence of one kind or another that is carried out in its name.

So how should we think about the significance of far right politics in terrorist cases like Breivik’s? His manifesto, Kundnani suggests, ‘makes clear that he believes Islam to be a totalitarian political ideology that aims at infiltrating national institutions to impose sharia law on Muslims and non‐Muslims, and that this process of ‘Islamisation’ has been enabled by elites in Western countries, through their weakening of immigration controls and introduction of multiculturalist policies’ – views that, Kundnani makes plain ‘have significant overlaps with official discourse’.

Kundnani is also right to highlight the fact that far right groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), ‘share the same definition of the ‘problem’ [as Breivik] but employ different tactics, favouring demonstrations and street‐based activism, often involving public disorder, racist violence and incitements to anti‐Muslim hatred’. He is also right that ‘both examples demonstrate how the ideological basis for far right violence has grown more complex, as new actors appropriate narrative elements from official security discourses in innovative ways, potentially making far right threats harder to identify’.

Governments should re-assess their threat assessments and their priorities in relation to terrorism and political violence. As Kundnani notes, ‘since 1990, at least 249 persons have died in incidents of far right violence in Europe, compared to 263 who have been killed by jihadist violence, indicating that both threats are of the same order of magnitude’.

In a report I co-wrote with Jonathan Githens-Mazer in 2010, Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies, we outlined a case for greater parity in resources for tackling both threats in the UK. As we explained then, arguments we had ‘heard from politicians and public servants involved in Prevent policy that the threat from violent extremist nationalists in the UK [was] local and lesser when compared to the al‐Qaeda threat which [was] global and greater [were] not compelling [then] and likely to become less so during this new decade as it unfolds’. ‘In fact’, we argued, ‘the evidence is already sufficiently clear to conclude that violent extremist nationalists in the UK take inspiration from propaganda that is every bit as global in nature as that which promotes al‐Qaeda’. (p.28)

This is not to suggest that the far right has the capacity or the will to carry out a major terrorist attack like al-Qaeda’s in New York and Washington DC on 9/11. But as terrorist threats in Europe increasingly revolve around low level conspiracies and the actions of ‘lone wolves’ it is prudent to reflect on what the far right and al-Qaeda have in common.

In 1981 Paul Wilkinson published The New Fascists, one of the first serious accounts of the violent far right threat in which he called on governments and policy makers in Europe to take the problem more seriously. He repeated that call for concerted action in 1995 when he published the article ‘Violence and terror and the extreme right’ in the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Suffice to say, it prompted no policy change whatsoever and I believe it is necessary to repeat Wilkinson’s call for action today - hopefully with more impact.

About the author

Robert Lambert is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, Hurst, London in September 2011. Previously a Metropolitan Police Special Branch detective, his final police role was head of the Muslim Contact Unit; other roles included undercover police officer.