January 4, 2022No Comments

The Far Right’s Threat On and Offline

By: Zachariah Parcels and Lucia Santabarbara.

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/efrRLPZukCQ?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=view-photo-on-unsplash&utm_campaign=unsplash-ios

A United Nations (UN) report in July 2020 by the Security Counterterrorism Committee (CTED) showed a 320 per cent increase over the past five years in attacks by individuals and groups holding right-wing (RW) extremist ideas. The phenomena known as right-wing or far-right extremism is evidently becoming ubiquitous in nature, accelerated by the ever-increasing exchange of online content on social media platforms and imageboards. This article, thus, intends to briefly explore far-right extremism, how it might be defined, the role of the Internet, and the so-called “Lone Wolf” factor. There are various international initiatives that will be touched on to combat this cancerous, heterogeneous movement.  

What is far-right extremism?

Scholars and policymakers amalgamate ethnically-, racially-, and gender-based political violence, and various anti-liberal ideologies to define right-wing extremism (RWE). RWE’s heterogeneity translates to problematic umbrella definitions that are not necessarily categorically helpful. Nevertheless, many have attempted to address these conceptual challenges. For example, it might be conceptually useful to frame transnational RWE networks as internal revisionist challengers to the Liberal International Order.

Right-wing extremism (RWE) includes a swath of actors with differentiating beliefs and subcultures; these actors do not necessarily agree with one another or converge. Brenton Tarrant, who carried out the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, exemplified the transnational nature of RWE. He wore a patch representing the Azov Brigade, a white supremacist paramilitary group fighting in Eastern Ukraine. He also supposedly interacted with and was evidently inspired by the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting on Utøya at a Labour Party youth camp.

RWE incorporates ideas such as ultra-nationalism, radical traditionalism, and neo-Nazism. In the United States (US), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) perceives RWE dichotomously: there is the white supremacist sphere (the “alt-right,”neo-Nazis, and “racist skinheads”) and the anti-government extremist sphere like the radical militias and the sovereign citizens. ADL also highlights various single-issue movements on the fringes of mainstream social conservative movements that adopt extreme stances, such as anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments. However, there is some intersectionality in the RWE phenomena that is helpful in conceptualising and addressing these ideologies.

Generally, RWE are anti-democratic and anti-liberal (hence, the revision challenger concept). Supremacy is an underlying foundation in RWE streams, which inherently opposes equality. RWE is associated with antisemitism (not necessarily anti-Israel stances; e.g.Anders Behring Breivik), racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, to name a few. 

There also appears to be shared catalysts in the rise of and a distinguished modi operandi among the various streams of the far right. The far right narratives share a collective memory of infamous events that justify their anti-government positions, namely the Ruby Ridge Standoff (1992), the Waco Seige (1993), the Brady Bill (1994) under former President Bill Clinton (perceived violation of their second amendments), and the Oklahoma City Bombing (1995) carried out by Timothy McVeigh. Two watershed moments further catalysed the rise and normalisation of various far-right notions, possibly unwittingly through political pandering. The election of President Barack Obama (2008-2016) created a nativist and white supremacist counter-reaction while the Presidency of Donald Trump (2016-2020) witnessed the normalisation of nativist, anti-government, anti-liberal, and antisemtic notions, individuals, and groups. For example, Trump infamously refused to denounce the far right and right-wing militia: “... Proud Boys, stand up and stand by…” The Proud Boys, one of many emerging organisations propagating far right notions, was founded by Gavin McInnes and have adopted various misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, anti-immigrant, and, recently, antisimitic stances. The far-right have seemingly embraced Louis Beam’s notion of the “leaderless resistance” - a modi operandi known as “Lone Wolf” terrorism today was discussed as an alternative to a centralised hierarchy at an notorious RWE meeting at Estes Park, Colorado in 1992. This meeting is also perceived as the birthplace of the modern American militia movement.

The Internet and the “Lone Wolf” Risk

Individuals and groups espousing RWE ideologies have an exponentially growing online presence. This growth is being catalysed by the dissemination of conspiracy theories and disinformation that form or galvanise “enemies” in the COVID era’s anti-government zeitgeist. As illustrated through Raffaello Pantucci’s study of Breivik, the internet plays a focal role in disseminating extremist ideologies. The internet actualised Beam’s dreams of a “leaderless resistance” by inciting or mobilising individuals to violence, specifically to act as “lone wolf” terrorists. This was exemplified by Breivik in Norway, Alek Minassian in Toronto (2018), and Brenton Tarrant in New Zealand (2019). Boaz Ganor defines the latter as when one perpetrates a terrorist attack on their own or with the assistance or involvement of others, but without operational ties to any terrorist organisation. Beyond the essentiality to impede online mobilisation to violence to curb this “leaderless resistance,” studies have found that the far right are more likely to learn and communicate online than Jihadist-inspired individuals. Thus, there is plenty of impetus to combat far-right extremism online. 

International Initiatives to Combat RWE Content Online

The events before, during, and after the storming of the US Capitol building on 06 January 2021 further illuminates the crucial role the cyber domain is playing in RWE recruitment and propaganda initiatives. The planning and logistical organisation behind the Capitol Hill violence were via social media platforms. They were supported by the spread of disinformation and nationalist propaganda, such as through Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook. Operational information - namely the best times and methods to conduct the attack - were shared on social media months before. Precise details about the streets to take and paths to tread to avoid police checks were disseminated beforehand.

Many governments, and public and private entities have undertaken initiatives and practices to counter RWE online extremism to avoid such expressions of far-right extremism. One such initiative to counter RWE online content followed the abhorrent events in Christchurch in March 2019. New Zeland Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government together with French President, Emmanuel Macron, launched the Christchurch Call with high-tech companies and social media platforms to eliminate terrorist and violent content from social media sites. This initiative was followed also by a severe condemnation by United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) towards acts of violence based on religion or belief,”alluding to Tarrant’s targeting of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch. On the 2 April 2019, the UNGA released the Resolution Combating terrorism and other acts of violence based on religion or belief, denouncing “the heinous, cowardly terrorist attack.” On 09 October of the same year, after the deadly attack on a synagogue and murder of a regional Christian Democrat (CDU) governor by far-right extremists, Germany approved the Network Enforcement Act. This act aims at preventing the dissemination of far-right online content and combating online hate speech and fake news. A provision also requests social media networks (with more than 100 complaints) to publish biannual reports to clarify how they dealt with complaints about illegal content. Lastly, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) - a partnership between the European Union (EU) Internet Forum, Meta, Microsoft, Twitter, YouTube, civil society and academia - was initiated in 2017. The GIFCT adopts a global synergic technological approach based on knowledge sharing and joint research to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.

However, recent studies consistently show the increasing ubiquity and mobilisation of right-wing extremism networks that make current measures less effective. Recent COVID-19 emergency measures have inaugurated changes entailing limitations on personal freedoms for collective public safety. These pandemic-induced changes have created an anxiety-rich online environment with an abundance of conspiracy theories, disinformation or “fake news,” and memes that normalise violence. 

​​In conclusion, it appears that these challenges to liberal values and public safety demand innovative and persistent approaches. The cyber domain is continuously being exploited to radicalise and propagate far-right, anti-government narratives. Therefore, effective governmental responses - especially in the form of counter-narrative and public resilience initiatives - need to continuously adjust to these dynamic and adaptive revisionist challengers. 

June 7, 202110 Comments

How lonely are the “Lone wolves”?

By: Adelaide Martelli, Francesco Bruno and Shahin Modarres.

Regardless of how violent, inhuman, and detestable terrorism is, it is a social phenomenon. Hence, like other social phenomena, it is a dynamic body that undergoes changes and transforms to adapt to the constantly changing socio-political sphere in different parts of the world. After the major paradigm shift of terrorist organizations from vertical structures to horizontal ones, the third wave of terror attacks was formed based on individuals carrying out terrorist attacks. These individuals are known by the colloquial "lone wolf" and they represent a growing concern due to the complexity of detecting them.

The term "lone wolf" has opened the stage for controversy in defining it. The basis of this controversy mostly manoeuvres on either if the individual radicalized and carried out the event like the famous case of Ted Kaczynski, or he/she has radicalized as the result of an agent-based mechanism of socialization. According to Prof. Mark Hamm, the distinction that differentiates the "lone wolf" phenomenon is based on the executive phase of a terrorist attack. "lone wolf" is the individual who might have been radicalized as the result of group socialization or self-indoctrination but acts alone. Prof. Peter Neumann adds: "a lone wolf is not necessarily a member of a terrorist organization but an individual who has an affinity with them".

In this article, we will discuss two cases of "lone wolf" terrorism to show both the executive phase of "lone actor" and pre-attack radicalization. It is important to recognize that even though the final act in lone wolf terrorism is performed as a solo, it is not an individual effort that has led to that moment. Many lone actors have received logistic and material support from terrorist cells, including explosives and instructions to build devices, safe passes, and even safe homes for the post-op phase (Schuurman, 2017).

Besides the operational level in the case of Younes Tsouli, we will see the importance of "lone actor" radicalization and recruitment on online platforms. And in the case of Mohammed Bouyeri, we will discuss how the term "Lone wolf" can overstate the degree of isolation these individuals go through.

Case of Younes Tsouli

It has sparked a controversial debate on the nature of the “Lone Wolf” as an individual with a focus on both psychological and personality factors, and external in terms of environment, friendships, and family ties. This part of the paper in relation to “Lone Wolves” will be using a different theoretical approach argued by Marc Sageman in Leaderless Jihad and characterized by the development of a new environment and processes of radicalization primarily based on the Internet. The importance here is the interaction between members on online portals and forums accessible exclusively by invitation, where complete anonymized strangers interact expressing their views on their hopes for Islam. What is interesting in this case is the fact that such forums provide a community for these individuals to interact with each other “this mutual sharing makes them feel even closer to each other in a virtual process similar to the one previously described as in-group love with face-to-face interactions. This provides them with a sense of belonging to a greater community on the basis of what they have in common, Islam” (Sageman, 2008). This perspective provides an alternative view on Lone Wolf, as this article argues, it is possible to define as “Lone Wolf” someone who acts are characterized by “lone” actions, but in reality, there is a variety of social interactions which made such cases less “lonely”.

The example that will be used to shed some light on the action of a Lone Wolf is the case of Younes Tsouli, also called Terrorist 007, and the “most wanted cyber-jihadist” according to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). He began by appearing on websites such as “Islamic Terrorists” where he came across as an agitator, following that in 2004, he began to reach popularity as an expert cyber-jihadists providing not only terrorist material to online forums where he could directly radicalize youths, but he also was able to provide inside of US military bases in Iraq. More importantly, Younes was able to become a pillar for Al-Qaeda’s propaganda in Britain, despite, as the judge at his trial pointed out that he never himself came close to a firearm or committed a crime physically according to ACPO. His role alone had indirectly created a space for jihadist propaganda gaining support by the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Musab Al-Zarqawi facilitating the contacts across thousands of “lone wolves” across the globe (Jacobson, 2010). Therefore, to answer the question, are “Lone” wolves really lonely? They are not as demonstrated by the case of Younis Tsouli.

Case of Mohammed Bouyeri

The case of Mohammed Bouyeri, the 2006 Amsterdam attacker who killed Theo Van Gogh, is peculiar to analyze lone wolves’ networks during their radicalization and plotting process. He is considered as the first European Islamic lone wolf (Zogno, 2018), and, contrarily to what is generally thought, he was not so detached from social interactions. Bouyeri was born in Holland to Moroccan parents, and reportedly both he and his family were well integrated into the Dutch Community (Nesser, 2005)

Thanks to the documents retrieved from his computer after his arrest we have information regarding his radicalization and indoctrination processes (Sageman, 2008). In 2001 he went to prison, and there he started reading the Quran, which may be suggested by other prisoners, faith became his light during this dark period (Peters, 2016). The second event that influenced him towards a stricter interpretation of Islam was the death of his sick mother, since then he appeared increasingly isolated from the larger society (Cottee, 2014).

However, the biggest turning point was in 2003 as a consequence of two major events: Firstly, Dutch authorities refused Bouyeri’s proposal to open a youth club for immigrants; secondly, he entrenched a tight relationship with the fundamentalist Imam Abou Khaled (Nesser, 2012). Bouyeri started attending the meeting held by Abou Khaled, where he learned how to conduct his life following Sharia law so that he completely changed his previous lifestyle (Peters, 2016). Not only, but he also met several like-minded people with whom he established the Dutch Islamist group called the Hofstadgroup (Adjiembaks, 2016). Except for the people inside his network, he was very isolated from the larger society and he used to spend his time writing and disseminating extremist beliefs online (Kaplan et al., 2017;De Koning, 2013). In this period, he changed his name to Abu Zubair, in memory of the homonymous Al-Qaeda commander. 

The triggering event before the attack was the documentary “Submission” produced by Theo Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali in 2004, perceived by him and many other Muslims as offensive to Islam (Peters, 2016). Simultaneously, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) promoted a campaign in favor of kidnapping and decapitation, that apparently influenced Bouyeri’s attack plan (Nesser, 2012) . In fact, on the 2nd of November 2004 Mohammed Bouyeri, alias Abu Zubair, shot Theo Van Gogh eight times, tried to behead him, and then pinned on him with a knife an Open letter against Hirsi Ali (Nesser, 2012; De Koning, 2013) . Shortly after the attack, Bouyeri was arrested and sentenced to life in prison (Finseraas et al., 2011)

Both mentioned cases show an inpatient process of labeling these terrorist actors as with the term "Lone wolf". Mostly these actors have interpersonal, ideological, and operational ties to larger groups. (Gartenstein-Ross, 2017) Thinking of them as isolated individuals can develop conceptual confusion. The reason behind their solo act in some cases usually roots from a sense of secrecy and fear of being trapped into leakage behavior. A considerable number of these actors have expressed violent intention across the border of human norms, long before executing their plans. Their posts and socialization have been a clear cry for attention months and even years before the planning phase. (Gill, Horgan, and Deckert, 2020) This behavior, known as the "leakage behavior" has been a tremendous help for intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism professionals to detect them and surveil their activities. (Meloy and O'Toole, 2011) In some cases, the main reason behind acting alone has been their incapability of recruiting other members to the potential terrorist cell that they had in mind.As the result of a cost-benefit estimation, certain actors during recent years showed more tendency to cut their ties and communication from their niche in order to secure the required secrecy needed for the optimization of their plans. These actors preferred to reduce their vulnerability towards detection and infiltration by cutting ties with other members and their cells before executing their plans. (Bakker and De Graaf, 2012) Both elements of detection and infiltration have successfully neutralized many terrorist plots in advance and this has become a warning for more skill-developed actors to isolate themselves from their peers while planning a terrorist plot and later during the execution phase. This of course does not mean that all these actors were originally isolated individuals with anti-social behavior by their choice of acting alone was indeed the result of a strategic decision-making process. 

This article has been rectified on June 9th, 2021. Younes Tsouli has already served his sentence.