Right-wing radicalism: time for an EU strategy


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This week, the trial of five right-wing extremists is coming to a close in Washington, DC. The five are all members of the Proud Boys, a group that was centrally involved in the storming of the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021. On that infamous occasion, an angry and well-armed mob tried to disrupt Congress and prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s clear election victory over Donald Trump the previous November. The mob was fired up by false claims of electoral fraud, notably propagated by Trump himself and by his supporters in the media, including Fox News, and by friendly or complicit websites and social media platforms. Five people died in the attack, 140 policemen and women were injured and over 1,000 rioters that forced their way into the Capitol on that afternoon have been identified and charged by US law enforcement.

What the prosecution has made clear during the court proceedings is that the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremist groups, such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, who were also present in Washington on that day, did not act spontaneously or in the heat of the moment. Their communications prior to January 6th make clear that they were committed to the use of violence to reinstall the Trump presidency and had come to Washington well-armed and well-organised to cause havoc. They had undergone training, indoctrination and a specific recruitment programme. The time when they might have been willing to act within the US institutions and democratic system to promote their beliefs and worldview had long since passed. The Proud Boys might be angry and disgruntled, but they were motivated by a political agenda, which makes their actions akin to insurrection and even terrorism. As such, they epitomise the challenge of right-wing radicalism leading to domestic terrorism.

This phenomenon is not new in the US. Right-wing radicals have popped up regularly to cause trouble, whether motivated by distrust of the government and federal authorities or hatred of Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims or migrants in general that clash with their notion of white supremacy. The worst right-wing attack in modern times occurred in April 1995 in Oklahoma City when Timothy McVeigh launched his car bomb against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring 680. More recently individuals radicalised by right-wing ideology and propaganda have attacked Hispanics in a Walmart in El Paso, a synagogue in North Carolina and Blacks at a community centre in Buffalo. Having spent so much of their time since the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington on combatting Islamist extremism, especially directed from abroad, the FBI and US intelligence agencies are now realising that they need to turn their attention to home-grown political violence increasingly coming from the far right. Another toxic, polarising and contested presidential election next year may well add to the number of right-wing radicals who are ready to go from anger and letting off steam to action and causing more innocent casualties.

What we have seen across the Atlantic inevitably raises the question in Europe: could it happen here too? Certainly the radicalised extremists and the enabling groups exist in Europe, and our continent has seen an uptick in far-right inspired violence. The worst recent incident occurred in July 2011 when the Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, attacked government targets in Oslo and then young people participating in a Norwegian Labour Party youth summer camp on a nearby island. He killed 77 people, mainly teenagers. Since then, Europe has experienced a number of attacks, for instance, against a migrant centre in Halle, Germany, a gay nightclub in Norway and a gay pride parade in Slovakia. Jewish cemeteries have also been desecrated in France. The groups on the police radar screen are diverse and the individuals joining far-right groups have a number of motivations. Some are merely seeking thrills, but most are driven by cultural opinions; conservative or traditional norms and values; political ideology, namely the superiority of authoritarian systems over multi-party democracy; or racism, notably the need to re-establish the supremacy of white or once dominant ethnic groups over the multi-racial society.

[The internet and social media] have had a major impact on far-right radicalism

Yet despite the different push factors, there are elements of belief that are frequently common to far-right radicals. These include a fear of social change and loss of status, often expressed through the Great Replacement theory, which predicts that whites will soon become a minority and non-white groups will achieve majority status power. They have a deeply pessimistic outlook on the future and anticipate societal decline and chaos. Additionally, they advocate for ‘accelerationism’, using violence to hasten the collapse of society to bring about a new order. This belief is coupled with the idea that a unique and providential leader is necessary to solve society’s problems, as promoted by former US president Trump. Far-right members also readily embrace conspiracy theories, reject democracy as fundamentally corrupt and gridlocked, and reject the international liberal order and its principles of solidarity. They reject human equality and believe in fundamental differences between racial and ethnic groups, advocating for separate communities. Gun culture is also prevalent among the far right, with a masculine culture that is dismissive of women, often displaying open misogyny and sexism, and unsurprisingly few women involved are in far-right groups.

Other factors have also given a boost to far-right groups. One is the penetration of state institutions, such as the police or armed forces, which offers the hope of undermining or subverting the system from within. Examples can be found in the Bundeswehr in Germany but also in other armies in Europe, which have discovered neo-Nazi or alt- and far-right groups in their ranks led by disaffected officers. Veterans have also formed groups, such as the ‘Band of Fog’ in Belgium, which carried out shootings in supermarkets. They have threatened government ministers and hidden out in forests, evading the police for weeks at a time. Russian mercenary groups such as Wagner recruit in this particular pool. When they return from the Donbas, the Sahel or Sudan, having been frequently involved in human rights abuses, there is the risk that these veterans will hook up with other radicals and disappear into the far-right underground. The police and army are particularly useful for radicals as they are oftentimes isolated from the rest of society and follow an esprit de corps based on camaraderie and sticking together. They are also susceptible to a misogynist culture and follow a culture of secrecy with a familiarity with weapons and explosives. They put a premium on training, discipline and obedience to command.

The next factor is Putin’s Russia. Participants at Trump rallies often wave Russian flags. Putin is admired because of the image of the strong man and his ability to defy democracy and the liberal international order. Putin embodies the unadulterated pursuit of national interests, at least as the authoritarians define these. Putin wraps himself in language and symbols calculated to appeal to far-right mythology: riding motorbikes with Hell’s Angels type biker gangs, driving race cars, hunting bears or riding horses bare chested and never appearing in public with a female partner. He is seen as standing for traditional Christian values such as family and the woman as housekeeper and child bearer, and he is opposed to gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ rights. He constantly castigates the West as decadent and hypocritical, and offers a form of international order based on distinct civilisations like the Russian Mir and respect for great power spheres of influence. Russia in turn exploits far-right groups as relay stations for its conspiracy theories and disinformation designed to undermine and polarise Western democracy. It has instrumentalised separatist groups in Florida to interfere in the state elections. Moreover, a group of veterans in the US was used by the Kremlin to spread the leaked classified Pentagon documents, many of which were probably doctored by Russian intelligence services.

The next factor is unsurprisingly the internet and social media. These have had a major impact on far-right radicalism diminishing the role of leaders and organised structures, leading to the emergence of a ‘lone wolf’, self-radicalised, far-right extremist who is part of a leaderless, diffuse network. Previously, the hardliners gathered together in skinhead groups, in shooting clubs or on the terraces at football matches, with Lazio in Rome, Millwall in London and Dynamo Zagreb being notorious in this connection. This made it easier for the police to identify them and follow them. Civil society could also organise a systematic opposition to discredit and marginalise these hardliners as in campaigns to kick racism out of sport. The same monitoring applied to movements like Pegida, demonstrating against migrants in eastern Germany, or the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden. Yet the COVID-19 lockdowns and the extra time many young men have spent online absorbing alt-right and far-right propaganda have led to more teenagers and men in their 20s becoming radicalised and at faster speeds. The perpetrator of the attack in Bratislava was only 21. Communicating via encrypted messaging services in the virtual world and with no previous criminal records, these lone wolves are not on police radar screens and not detected before they have acted.

The EU has had to confront the fact that the enemies of the open society can come from within as well as from without

Finally, there is a massive amount of far-right ideology in circulation drawing on well over a century of far-right, hyper-nationalist and xenophobic movements that have marked the history of Europe. This tradition extends all the way back to the Russian anarchists in the mid-19th-century, then to the Action Française of Charles Maurras in early 20th-century France, to Mussolini’s Black Shirts, the French Ligues and organisations like the Cagoule trying to bring down the Third Republic, as well as obviously the Nazis in Germany. In the 1930s, nearly every European state had its fascist or ultra-right parties, such as the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Rexists in Belgium, the Parti Populaire Français under Jacques Doriot or the Iron Guard in Romania and the National Rally in Norway. Some far-right groups have aligned themselves with Hitler’s Nazis, while others strove to follow a more independent line. Yet, they all could turn to inspirational leaders and like-minded individuals spawning vast literature, which attempted to give a pseudo-scientific basis or intellectual respectability to a hodge podge of prejudices and popular resentments. This literature goes well beyond the classic texts like “Mein Kampf” or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; and in modern times, mystical thinkers like Alexander Dugin in Russia, who was a major influence on Putin, or Renaud Camus in France have added to it. The online universe has produced yet more right-wing tracts, manifestoes and materials. This means that there is much to inspire wannabe far-right extremists and allow them to mix and match various disparate elements of the ideology into what they would consider a coherent view of the world justifying violent action. Many actors, such as Breivik or the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant, left behind lengthy and confusing pseudo-intellectual testaments in attempts to explain to themselves and others why they felt they were on the right side of history. Extremists like to imitate each other and ideology is one area where it is easy to do so.

So, the EU has had to confront the fact that the enemies of the open society can come from within as well as from without. Right-wing radicalism has replaced the left-wing brand that blighted Europe in the 1970s and 1980s with groups such as Baader-Meinhof in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. In recent years, the focus has been overwhelmingly on Islamist and Jihadist terrorism and this of course continues to pose a serious threat to Europe even if we have seen mainly isolated lone wolf attacks and nothing close to the scale of 9/11 in the US or the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Yet the far-right variety is becoming a more serious threat not only in terms of the greater potential for radicalisation but also because the various European and North American groups are beginning to work across borders and help each other. So, it is time for the EU to step up its response.

There is already a good basis. In 2019, the Finnish Presidency of the EU organised a Council discussion on right-wing radicalism and the Council conclusions can be seen as the first draft of an EU action plan. They were fed into the revision of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2020. Now the Swedish Presidency of the EU has usefully gone back to the 2019 document and is carrying out a stocktake to see how much of it has been implemented and where gaps remain. In April, the Netherlands Mission to the EU organised an expert conference bringing together EU and member state officials, prosecutors, academics and practitioners to review the state of play and identify the priorities. What are these?

First, it is to agree on a common definition of right-wing radicalism as a security threat. It is not easy to distinguish those who are simply letting off steam online or spreading propaganda from those who should be monitored by the police and security agencies because they are preparing to commit violent acts. Is attending a training camp in a forest sufficient to be placed on a watch list? In the case of the foreign fighters who went off to Syria to join the ISIL caliphate, the act of travelling to a zone controlled by terrorists was considered to be a crime triggering arrest and prosecution or even the removal of citizenship. Yet there is no foreign terrorist entity of the far right for extremists to travel to. So, agreement on a scale or threshold of criminal activity for far-right extremists who often operate within their home country is not easy. Yet the EU needs to have the debate.

There is still a tendency within EU member states to see far-right radicals committing acts of terrorism as common criminals

Second is achieving within the EU agreement on a consolidated list of far-right groups and organisations to be placed on the EU terrorism watch list. This currently exists for the Islamist and Jihadist groups and for others such as the Kurdish PKK but not for far-right extremist groups. In the US, UK, Canada and Germany, far-right extremism has been defined and designated lists drawn up but not yet by the EU as a whole. This is important as there is still a tendency within EU member states to see far-right radicals committing acts of terrorism as common criminals, downplaying or even disregarding the poisonous ideology that drove them to commit their acts. Breivik was initially pronounced insane by the Norwegian psychiatrists who examined him, suggesting that his terrorist act was due to mental health issues. Only after a subsequent examination was the importance of ideology and political objectives identified as the trigger for his crimes. When it comes to Islamist terrorism, there is never any doubt regarding the central role of ideology and political beliefs even if mental health issues may come into the picture too in the case of some individuals. So, designating the far-right extreme groups is key to exposing and tackling the ideological dimension of the problem.

Third is the use of the courts to successfully prosecute far-right extremist groups that espouse violence and are a clear threat to democracy. A landmark case occurred in Rotterdam last week when a Dutch court condemned an international organisation called The Base for involvement in terrorist recruitment and planning. The Base is led by Rinaldo Nazzaro, who is currently hiding out in Saint Petersburg. The trial helped to expose the international links between various extremist groups and their sources of funding in terms of donations, sales of certain clothing and goods, and profits from illegal or criminal activities. It also helped to expose the slang language, imagery, codes and euphemisms that the radicals use to hide their intentions and make it harder for law enforcement to prove criminal intent. As we go forward, we will need consistency in sentencing so that far-right terrorists are not dealt with more leniently than the jihadist variety. In Germany in the 1920s, communist agitators received harsh prison sentences whereas right-wing rabble rousers like Adolf Hitler received light sentences in the comfortable accommodation of Landsberg prison in Bavaria, and notwithstanding the fact that Hitler had tried to carry out a putsch to depose the Bavarian government. We should not repeat that mistake.

Next will be devoting more resources of our intelligence agencies to tracking far-right extremism. The Counter-Terrorism Centre of Europol in the Hague is now sharing more information among the EU member states. In particular, it monitors extremist content online and works with the social media platforms and internet sites to take down that content quickly. Indeed, the EU directive regulating terrorist content online stipulates that extremist propaganda and messaging should be taken down within one hour of notification. The EU and member states need powers to deal with the non-cooperative platforms and to work with more cooperative ones on content moderation and algorithmic amplification. The Christchurch Call for Action, launched jointly by New Zealand and France in 2019 after the white supremacist attack against worshipping Muslims in New Zealand, is an effort to engage the social media companies and the technical community to seek practical solutions to online radicalisation. TikTok and Instagram are two platforms that have been widely used by far-right extremists. One particular challenge concerns content in foreign languages. Content moderation and regulation of algorithms mainly take place on English-language platforms. Other languages are far less supervised.

In this connection, gaming has come to be seen as a particular problem. There are three billion gamers worldwide and not all of them obviously can be suspected of violent or radical tendencies. Yet many recent far-right incidents have shown a link to violent video games such as Call of Duty that glorify violence and desensitise individual game players as to the real-life consequences of violence. The real and virtual worlds become confused. Games also come with their own language, codes and symbols for the insiders and initiated. There is a points and honours system associated with certain daring acts. The 21-year-old Bratislava shooter posted online to ask his peers how many honour points his real-world act had earned. The livestreaming of terrorist acts has become popular since used by Brenton Tarrant in the mosque in Christchurch. As in a game, it is a way of bragging or showing off to one’s peers in the gaming or extremist circle, earning the right to be seen as a leader. In the closed world of gaming, terrorists are known as ‘Saint Breivik’ or ‘Saint Tarrant’. Games can also be easily manipulated technically to feature real-world terrorist attack scenarios. So, gaming both inspires and reflects terrorist incidents in a poisonous feedback loop. How to better monitor and regulate the gaming world to make it harder for the extremists to recruit and plan in it calls for an EU strategy all by itself.

There is much that we still do not know and need to learn about right-wing radicalism

A culture of zero tolerance for far-right extremist messaging and conspiracy theories is equally important. If these are seen as acceptable, just moderately over the top or a needed antidote to leftist political correctness, these views will soon become mainstream. Fox News in the US has just paid nearly $800mn to settle a lawsuit in which it was accused of promoting falsehoods and wild conspiracy theories regarding electoral fraud in the US. We need a similar readiness to hold office holders, public servants, politicians and the media to account in Europe. Many will argue freedom of speech; but that does not extend to promoting obvious lies, spreading racial hatred or instigating violence. What is said anonymously online will no doubt continue to be extreme and outrageous; but we need to build a firewall between deliberate disinformation and conspiracy promotion and those whose duty it is to defend democracy, uphold the law and serve the public interest. When it comes to the police and armed forces, adequate protection must be given to whistle-blowers as these brave individuals are frequently the only way we learn about far-right or extremist penetration of these institutions.

Finally, there is much that we still do not know and need to learn about right-wing radicalism. What, for instance, is the connection between populist parties in Europe and the emergence and actions of far-right groups? Do right-wing populist parties encourage extremist groups or do they tamper them down by offering a different approach that works through elections, institutions and the normal democratic political process – at least for now? How successful can de-radicalisation processes be, particularly on the young converts? What is the role of prisons, which have been an incubator for Islamist and Jihadist radicalisation for many petty criminals? Is this also true of the far-right variety? Prevention is always better than cure, but what does an EU prevention strategy look like? It needs clearly to operate at the local level with families, teachers, community leaders and local authorities. Can these local networks be coordinated and incentivised to spot and respond to early signs of far-right extremism? The European Commission has usefully set up a Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) to stimulate the necessary research in universities and think tanks and to work with the local level. It has proved its value vis-à-vis Islamist radicalisation and recruitment. It needs to focus now equally on far-right ideologies and modus operandi.

One closing thought is the link between Islamist groups and far-right extremists. This may sound counterintuitive at first. Do these groups not hate each other? From an ideological perspective, most probably; but at the cultural level, they have a lot in common. Hatred of democracy and the liberal international order, a closed extremist value system that is black and white and allows for no compromise, a devaluation of women, an embrace of violent acts, links to crime and so on. So, it would be foolhardy to rule out any links or collusions between Islamists or the far-right, particularly when it comes to individual fighters moving in either direction.

Fortunately, far-right radicalism has not yet gained the status of a mass popular movement or party in Europe similar to the Black Shirts of Benito Mussolini or the SA and Brown Shirts of Ernst Roehm and Adolf Hitler. There is still time for the EU to prevent its growth. But it needs a clear strategy and a sustained focus from one presidency to the next. Bravo to Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands for their leadership and efforts thus far, but all 27 EU states need to get behind this effort and there is no time to spare.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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