By Tom Wilson
This week I published a major study on terrorist attacks in Western countries over the past two years. The study was particularly concerned with tracking the different forms of extremist ideology that gave rise to these acts of violence. Particularly noticeable, has been the significant rise in far right terrorism in 2017 that the study recorded. The release of this research comes at the same time that a number of public figures in the UK have made statements on the rise of the far right, while in the United States we have seen a series of devastating attacks and chilling attempted attacks by far right individuals.
The rise in right wing violent extremism in Western countries is real and is a challenge that should not be ignored. Very serious dangers are at hand if we allow this ideology to keep growing at the rate that it currently is. There are other pitfalls here too, some of which our politicians and press appear on the verge of walking into. One would be if we start pretending that there is an equivalence in the threat level from Islamist and far right terrorism. There very clearly isn’t. When it comes to lethal terrorism and mass casualty attacks in Western countries, Islamists are close to having a monopoly. Across 2016 and 2017, 92% of terrorism fatalities were caused by Islamist attacks. Worse still would be if policy makers and the authorities started focusing on the far right to such a degree as to draw attention away from the far more significant threat of Islamist terrorism. Nor can we allow a renewed focus on combatting the far right lead us to legitimise Islamist groups in the West who may come bearing promises of being able to assist with that fight. The genuine problem of the far right is no excuse for giving Islamist extremists a free pass, and certainly not for partnering with them.
Indeed, the enthusiasm with which some in public office have seized upon talking about the growth in the far right is rather noticeable. It is understandable in a way. All too often those who have sounded the alarm on the threat from Islamism have been met with disingenuous accusations of Islamophobia. It is as if our politicians are breathing a collective sigh of relief, that now they can go to town denouncing the far right so as to somehow excuse their past indiscretion of having ever talked about Islamic extremism. This is not a zero-sum game, and we should be careful to avoid a tone that suggests that the far right have supplanted the Jihadist threat. They haven’t, they have merely added to an increasingly complex terrorism threat.
If we are to counter this threat, we also have to do some difficult thinking about the relationship between different forms of extremism. Especially where far left and far right street movements are concerned, we may be beginning to see a particularly volatile atmosphere brewing. This may not only take the form of brawls on our streets, but in Europe we are now seeing the far left and far right increasingly target one another with the use of explosives. There is a very real danger that these ideologies are now beginning to feed off of one another and will soon enter into a reciprocal relationship, accompanied by escalating and spiralling violence.
There is no doubt that in its online propaganda, the far right has seized upon real world events such as the migrant crisis or stories of the authorities failing to get to grips with grooming gangs. It is increasingly savvy at using the imagery associated with these events to enhance its message. Yet it is also very noticeable that the significant rise in far right terrorism comes after an even greater rise in Islamist terrorism throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016. Far right assailants have not only explained their acts as a response to this wave of terrorism, they have even mimicked the low-tech tactics of lone actor Islamist terrorism; as with the vehicular attacks of Charlottesville and the Finsbury Park mosque. It appears that a growth in terrorism from one ideology may have triggered further violence on the part of another. As is often noted of the emergence of English Defence League in Luton; had the authorities curtailed Al Muhajiroun activities in that same city sooner, the EDL might never have happened.
The growth of far right terrorism is real and cannot be dismissed away. But the much greater threat of Islamist terrorism has not gone away either and none of us can afford to stop talking about Jihadism simply because we find it politically easier to condemn neo-Nazis than we do preachers in mosques. We also do the fight against terrorism no favours if we create the impression that all forms of violent extremism are equal, or that far right and Islamist extremism are “two sides of the same coin”. What we should do is better understand how these different ideologies interrelate, and how by failing stop the growth of one, we may be opening the way for spurring on the growth of another