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It is time that right-wing extremist acts are labelled as terrorist

'Lone-wolf attacks' by those inspired by the Far Right are driven by an ideology commited to violent individual acts. However, the UK cannot seem to decide whether to treat these acts as 'hate crime' or 'terrorism'.

Ghazal Tipu
27 November 2013

The quotations in this article are taken from activists who were interviewed. In one case a pseudonym has been used at the interviewee's request.

The acts of Ukrainian student Pavlo Lapshyn – recently sentenced to 40 years – indicate that right-wing extremism is a threat to public safety of minority groups. While Lapshyn operated as a ‘lone wolf’, his acts are part of a white supremacist ideology that encourages individuals to commit violent acts.

Lapshyn was sentenced to 40 years for the murder of Mohammed Saleem, and for plotting to cause explosions near mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton. The Tipton bomb was particularly vicious since it included shrapnel and nails, though no one was harmed. Mr Justice Sweeney described Lapshyn as holding ‘extremist right-wing, white supremacist views’. When asked about his campaign of violence, Lapshyn responded “I would like to increase racial conflict”. He had researched using a right-wing supremacist website, which was also used by people imprisoned for hate crimes. Right wing and Neo-Nazi literature and songs also influenced him.

With the conviction of Pavlo Lapshyn, individual attacks must also be seen as an expression of extreme right wing ideology that is prevalent throughout Europe. These attacks elicit public fear and are politically-motivated ingredients of terrorism. So it is time that the mainstream media broadens its definition and framing. The Telegraph and the Daily Mail called Lapshyn a ‘white supremacist’ while the Independent labelled him a ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘right-wing extremist’. The Guardian however went a step further with ‘white supremacist terrorist’. This latter definition is welcomed as a media shift. ‘Terrorism’ evokes the enormity of the act, and warrants a societal response.

 Yet terrorism has become synonymous with Islamic terrorism since 9/11, largely due to the pervasive War on Terror - both a military and ideological war. Mainstream media has been complicit in creating this association. The juxtaposition of Islamic symbols with terrorism, together with a historical narrative of Islam as barbaric, has resulted in an innocent-before-proven-guilty knee-jerk reaction. When 77 innocent people were murdered and 319 injured in Norway in 2011, 'Muslims' were quickly blamed. The perpetrator turned out to be right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik whose motive was media attention for his far-right manifesto.

As a result of the ‘War on Terror’ narrative, a lone Muslim perpetrator could be deemed a terrorist and ideologically linked, while others could be deemed mentally unstable. Take Time magazine’s choice of words. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot 13 army personnel in 2009, had the word ‘Terrorist’ positioned over his eyes, while Jared Lee Loughner accused of killing six people in Arizona in 2011 made it on the front cover with the headline ‘Guns. Speech. Madness’.

Just as Muslim lone perpetrators are deemed terrorist, then so too must lone right-wing perpetrators. The think tank RUSI suggests that individual action is precisely a characteristic of right-wing ideology. “The lone actor phenomenon is typical of the far right, where premium is placed ideologically on individuals gathering weaponry and preparing for a race war” said Rafaello Pantucci in RUSI’s recent analysis. He asserted that European authorities might better want to coordinate their activities in countering the right wing. Though terrorism is classically linked to a group or cell, particularly in ‘Islamic terrorism’, this suggests that right-wing terrorism needs to be differently conceptualised beyond the 9/11 era. Pantucci told me that the term right-wing terrorism is just as valid as ‘Islamic terrorism’ in a recent interview.

There is evidence to support the ‘lone actor phenomenon’. The last EU Terrorism Situation and Trend report tellingly highlighted, “2011 presented a highly diverse terrorism picture in which the most notable trend was the increasing prominence of lone and solo actor plots”. It counts that 484 individuals were arrested for terrorist-related offences, while there was not one religiously inspired terrorist attack reported by member states. Professor Matthew Goodwin, in a recent Guardian article, similarly draws attention to lone perpetrators “Between 1990 and 2010 the US saw almost 350 ideologically motivated by right-wing extremists, 37% of which were perpetrated by lone individuals”.

Is the government doing enough to counter this threat? Criticism was levelled at the British government when the Cobra team – a government crisis committee - was not convened after the Lapshyn’s bomb attacks, while Cameron tweeted three hours after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby that he would convene a Cobra meeting with the Home Secretary. The asymmetry of the government’s action or rather non-action suggests that the government does not take heed of the threat of the far right. Pantucci told me however that the British government is already on the ball. “The government focuses quite a bit on lone perpetrators. We have had good security measures already to break up people who act on their own.” Where Lapshyn’s case differs is that he meditated his attacks from across the border, said Pantucci.

Whether extreme right-wing crimes are labelled ‘hate-crime’ or ‘terrorism’, both terms reflect the seriousness of the charge. But definitions do matter in the context of public safety. There is a far right ideology prevalent in Europe that is uncomfortable with visible appearance of Islam and anything remotely ‘foreign’, and it is willing to commit violent acts for political motives. While the far right has always existed in Europe, recent attacks such as those of Lapyshyn and the arson attack on the Al-Rahma community centre, indicate a growing anti-Muslim trend and ought to be called terrorist acts. This situation warrants further attention of the British government.

 

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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