The Threat Of More Radical Right Terrorism Looms

After the DHS issued a terrorism alert claiming the Capitol insurrection may embolden other extremists, we look at the factors that trigger right-wing violence.
Proud boys marching in front of the US Supreme Court the day of the Capitol insurrection in Washington DC – 6 January 2021. (Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Proud boys marching in front of the US Supreme Court the day of the Capitol insurrection in Washington DC – 6 January 2021. (Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Cristina Ariza is a policy and practitioner fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and an analyst at the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. She is also the research lead for extreme right-wing terrorism at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies.

The insurrection at Capitol Hill has put a spotlight on the threat posed by the radical right. Many symbols from some of the most prevalent far-right strands could be seen in the streets of Washington DC, including conspiracy theories like QAnon, pro-Confederate, pro-Hitler, and militia groups.

Intelligence agencies, experts, and the DHS are already warning that this event could be spurring further acts of violence worldwide. In light of this warning, what are some of the events that mobilize the radical right?

Elections and other major political and social events

Elections have traditionally been flagged as major political events that carry some risk of violence, as well as a prime opportunity for radical right mobilization.

We have seen this clearly in the lead up to the Capitol Hill attack. Experts warned that the US 2020 presidential elections posed the most immediate risk of violence from the radical right, although it was harder to predict from which strand exactly could the violence come.

According to experts. conspiracies about election rigging were rife before the election date, apparently not only comprising the radical right but also regular voters fired up by partisan rhetoric. A CSIS report from October 2020 warned that in the event of  a Biden victory, “the threat could involve specific attacks by radicalized white supremacists, militias, and other related individuals.”

In this regard, a noteworthy study published on Vox Pol shows that posts on the biggest white supremacy forum, Stormfront, saw an increase in volume in spite of of the result of the election itself, regardless of whether the result could be seen as menacing towards the movement (Obama) or as somewhat sympathetic to their aims (Trump). This exemplifies the mobilizing effect of key political events like elections.

While hate crimes are not necessarily organized and directed by openly radical right groups – as they tend to constitute more ‘spontaneous’ violence – nonetheless they can sometimes be a manifestation of “low level” extremism and racist sentiment. The day after Trump was elected, there was a spike in hate crimes, which continued to grow in the first year of his presidency, following a downward trend until 2016. Certain events, like the Brexit referendum, also resulted in a spike in hate crimes.

However, while activity on the radical right might be very tied to certain political events due to their nature, we should not forget that the radical right is opportunistic and will try to clench to mainstream political and social events to promote their rhetoric. In the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, we have again witnessed how radical right strands have mobilized on the street, be that in response to what they perceive as a dictatorial push from the state in the form of national lockdowns or cultural influence from left-wing ideology.

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Other far-right radical right attacks or activity

One of the major inspirations of radical right terrorists are other terrorists. Not surprisingly, there is an increasing tendency within radical right forums to label perpetrators of past atrocities as “saints”.

Anders Breivik has notably inspired many terror attacks, including Christchurch in 2019 and the Munich shooting in 2016, which took place on the same day as Breivik’s attack did 5 years prior. This can find a parallel in other types of ideologically inspired terrorism; in the context of jihadism, 9/11 or 7/7 have become a referent for terror plots.

Breivik has also influenced plots that never got to fruition, such as the case of Christopher Hasson, a former US coast guard who was jailed for planning a terror attack. His list of targets, including liberal broadcasters, was modeled after Breivik’s list of traitors from his manifesto. On at least 3 occasions was Breivik a direct source of inspiration for terror plots in 2020.

The same thing is happening with the perpetrator of the Christchurch terror attack in 2019, who was referenced months later by the El Paso terrorist. Just the day after the Christchurch attack, the chairman of Finsbury Park mosque in London received death threats and there was a copycat attack in Surrey. This year, by my own analysis for the International Observatory for Studies on Terrorism, Tarrant was referenced at least 10 times as a source of inspiration.

This pattern of high-level incidents -not necessarily terrorist- inspiring further activity seems to not only replicate across geographies but also at the local level. An academic study found that after a series of racist riots in Australia in 2015, online communities espousing the same beliefs felt reinvigorated.

Jihadi terrorism

Jihadi terrorism is another of the factors that are said to have an undue influence on radical right activity.

A study published on LSE shows that levels of Islamophobic hate crime increased in Manchester in response to at least 10 international jihadi terrorist attacks across time and different geographies, ranging from the attack against soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 to the Sousse attack in Tunisia in 2015, as well after several of the high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and London. This correlates with other studies showing that the volume of online hate increased after the jihadi November 2015 attacks in Paris.

This reaction and targeting of Muslims in the wake of major jihadi terrorist attacks lines up with how the radical right views Muslims. In his manifesto, Anders Breivik portrayed Islam as a major danger to Western societies and defended that jihadi terrorist attacks were justified and directly driven by Islam, thus portraying Muslims as primary enemies to the “white race”. Newer conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement also carry a strong anti-Muslim sentiment, with warnings about the Islamization of the West.

So can we predict spikes of violence?

Given the wide variety of strands that comprise the radical right, from neo-Nazis and white supremacists to conspiracy movements, militias, and sometimes misogynist currents, it is not easy to find a pattern on which strands will resort to violence. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman puts it best when he argues that “we now face a cacophony of violence, growing louder and perpetrated by multiple collectives or groups of actors that are similar in their ideologies and strategies, but just distinct enough in their differing approaches and targeting to complicate counterterrorism efforts”.

Yet, as in explaining political violence, context is everything. Many voices are warning that the events of the Capitol are not the end of something but rather the beginning. The evidence is robust in showing that some of the triggers above – elections, major political events, jihadi activity, other far-right terror attacks (including the events of the Capitol)– are connected to a spike in radical right activity, both online, offline, and in its violent form. Whether these triggers can result in violence also depends on the potency of the underlying extremist ideas and how far they have managed to spread in the years leading up to it.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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