Strengthening Democracy Is the Key to Preventing Far-Right Extremism

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Strengthening Democracy Is the Key to Preventing Far-Right Extremism

Commentary
Posted on: 30th April 2021
Cynthia Miller-Idriss
Lead Principal Investigator, Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at the American University

    The US Capitol insurrection on 6 January 2021 marked the emergence of a new degree of coalitional mobilisation across the American far-right spectrum. It brought scores of militant extremists from anti-government, neo-Nazi, white supremacist and QAnon conspiracy movements together with thousands of pro-Trump supporters in a violent siege. After years of fragmentation and infighting, this disparate spectrum was ultimately unified by a single goal: to interrupt the certification of the electoral college vote affirming Joe Biden as the incoming US president. It was a shocking attack but – based on intelligence reports and advanced threat assessments – not an entirely surprising one.

    On the organised and militant sides, the attack was the latest in a long line of global extremist and terrorist incidents by the extreme right. Over the past decade, mass shootings rooted in white supremacist ideologies have taken the lives of more than 100 individuals in Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and across the US. During this same timeframe, the anti-government extremist fringe has also been growing. The murder of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox in 2016, the assassination of pro-migrant German politician Walter Lübcke in 2019, an attack on Germany’s parliament in August 2020 and unlawful militia plots to kidnap and try the Michigan and Virginia governors for “treason” were all, in certain ways, precursors to the events of 6 January. On that day, the militant far-right fringe came equipped with tactical gear and communications strategies, fully prepared to storm the Capitol and potentially engage in serious harm to elected officials.

    That militant fringe is not likely to have succeeded in breaching the Capitol, however, were it not for the spontaneous mobilisation of thousands of pro-Trump voters – who turned flagpoles, fire extinguishers and baseball bats into weapons against the police – forming a rapidly radicalised mob. This impromptu and violent mobilisation was predictable in its own way, having followed months of ‘Stop the Steal’ disinformation and the calls to challenge an alleged illegitimate election. The date, 6 January, will go down in history as one of the clearest illustrations we have in the modern era of how mass disinformation can manipulate ordinary citizens and voters into violent engagement, even in a country that thinks of itself as a beacon of democracy.

    6 January will go down in history as one of the clearest illustrations we have in the modern era of how mass disinformation can manipulate ordinary citizens and voters into violent engagement.

    Prior to 6 January, there were plenty of warnings about the potential for violence in multiple intelligence reports that immediately preceded the attack and in long-term threat assessments. This included the US Department of Homeland Security’s own annual report in October 2020, which indicated that the primary terrorist threat to the US is from domestic violent extremists and, within this category, that white supremacist extremists “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”1 DHS October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment report available at: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf Just three months later, the attack on the US Capitol brought that warning to life.

    As we now reckon with the undeniable reality of rising far-right extremism globally, what does the threat landscape look like today? The trend lines show that what happened in the US on 6 January is just the latest iteration of a growing global surge in extremism and terrorism from the far right.

    A Growing Global Concern

    A Growing Global Concern

    Over the past half-century, political violence in the West has been dominated by a historical spate of far-left terrorist incidents, with 93 per cent of attacks between 1970 and 1980 attributed to primarily anarchist and revolutionary Marxist groups. In 1977 alone, there were 277 incidents of political terror in the West, the vast majority of which are classified as far-left terrorism. By the mid-1980s, political terrorism in the West (from the left and the right) had dropped considerably, characterised by fewer attacks that were relatively small and had low fatality rates. This has begun to change during the past decade as political violence has increased again – but this time, most attacks in the West have come from the far right. As the Global Terrorism Index 2020 reports, there have been “at least 35 far-right terrorist attacks every year for the past five years.”2 Global Terrorism Index 2020. Quoted text is from p. 62, and additional statistics draw from pp. 62-64. GTI 2020 is available at: https://visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf

    This trend holds true in the US, where two-thirds of terrorist attacks and plots in 2020 are attributed to the far right. Notably, there has also been a substantial increase in attacks and plots from the far left in the US during the same period, although it still represents the significant minority.3 Jones, Seth, Catrina Doxsee, and Grace Hwang. “The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Briefs, April 12, 2021. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/military-police-and-rise-terrorism-united-states Since 2015, far-right extremists have engaged in 267 plots or attacks leading to 91 fatalities in the US, while far-left extremists were involved in 66 incidents with 19 deaths.4 O’Harrow, Robert, Andrew Ba Tran and Derek Hawkins. “The rise of domestic extremism in America: data shows a surge in homegrown incidents not seen in a quarter-century.” The Washington Post, April 12, 2021, available at: Domestic terrorism data shows right-wing violence on the rise - Washington Post There has been a fair amount of politicisation and finger-pointing, suggesting that the “real threat” is coming from Antifa and the far left, including repeated so-called false flag accusations that Antifa was responsible for the 6 January attacks. But these accusations do not bear up in the data on political violence and terror in the US or in any evidence about the insurrection on the US Capitol.

    It is worth noting that there is no universally agreed-upon terminology in cross-national contexts – nor even within many individual national states – to capture the phenomenon of violent far-right extremism. Far right is what I often refer to as the “best bad” term we have for the phenomenon but it is far from ideal.5 See a longer discussion in Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. 2020. Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Far-right extremism is not a coherent belief system in and of itself but should rather be considered a spectrum of ideologies and beliefs. It includes white supremacist and anti-immigrant extremism, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic ideologies, as well as some forms of anti-government extremism, violent “incel” (involuntary celibate) and male supremacist ideologies, conspiracy theory cultures and vigilante-style, unlawful militias alongside single-issue extremist groups motivated by issues like abortion. This spectrum is typically characterised by infighting and fragmentation despite attempts to unify across differences through events such as the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.6 For an elaboration of the shift on January 6 to a more unified far right in the U.S., see Hughes, Brian and Cynthia Miller-Idriss. “Uniting for Total Collapse: The January 6 Boost to Accelerationism.” CTC Sentinel, forthcoming. In ordinary times, there is little agreement across the far-right spectrum about their primary vision, their goals or the means to obtain them, including the use of violence.

    Far-right extremist ideologies incorporate some combination of the following elements: anti-democratic beliefs, including the lack of protections for minorities and authoritarianism or refusal to support electoral processes; beliefs in hierarchies of superiority and inferiority across racial and ethnic groups, racism and xenophobia; conspiracies about the orchestration of multicultural communities (by Jews or Muslims) at the expense of white ones in ways that pose an imminent and dire threat; and accelerationist fantasies in the use of violence as the preferred means to bring about societal downfall and a rebirth into a new and restored civilisation. Not all white supremacist extremist or terrorist groups subscribe to all of these components. Some anti-government groups vocally deny white supremacist extremist beliefs, for example, while there is disagreement within the latter about various aspects of the ideology or the use of violence. But some combination of these beliefs exists for all groups and individuals within and across the far-right spectrum.

    The most significant threat within the far-right spectrum comes from white supremacist extremism, which itself often intersects in important ways, especially in early gateways and pathways with other forms of extremist mobilisation across the spectrum. Other terms that are in use to refer to the same phenomenon include white nationalism, right-wing extremism, right-wing radicalism, and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism. Any classification of far-right extremism also has to reckon with the fact that some elements that are characteristic features of far-right extremist ideologies – such as misogyny/male supremacism, anti-Asian hate and anti-Semitism – also exist outside the spectrum and in other ideologies, which sometimes confuses definitions further. The landscape of far-right extremism ultimately looks more like a messy Venn diagram than a neatly bounded set of ideologies.

    The landscape of far-right extremism ultimately looks more like a messy Venn diagram than a neatly bounded set of ideologies.

    The US is not alone in facing a rising threat from far-right extremism. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2020, there was an overall decline in terrorism deaths globally in 2019, for the fifth consecutive year, but far-right terrorism increased in North America, western Europe and Oceania by 250 per cent in the same period, with a 709 per cent increase in deaths.7 See 2020 GTI figures at https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf, especially p. 3; Also see Heidi Beirich testimony from February 2020, https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/110495/witnesses/HHRG-116-AS02-Wstate-BeirichH-20200211.pdf Across the globe, according to several available measures, including arrests made, convictions, increases in the number and severity of plots and the rise in terrorist attacks themselves, right-wing extremism has increased significantly, with a recent doubling in attacks in the US and a 43 per cent increase in Europe.8 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism.pdf, p. 4 By 2019, far-right terror represented 46 per cent of the total terror attacks in the West, responsible for 82 per cent of deaths.9 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf . Also see the Europol report on trends in terrorist violence at https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/european-union-terrorism-situation-and-trend-report-te-sat-2020; FBI Director Wray’s recent Congressional testimony at https://homeland.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Testimony%20-%20Wray.pdf and recent threat assessment and terrorism reporting by NJ Homeland Security Analysis at: https://www.njhomelandsecurity.gov/analysis/tag/White+Supremacist+Extremists

    Although the threat is decidedly global, the impact in the US is greater than average. Of the 332 far-right terror incidents that took place between 2002 and 2019 globally, 167 were in the US, accounting for 113 of the 286 global deaths.10 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf Online and offline engagement and violence across the far-right spectrum in the US, including from self-proclaimed “western chauvinists” the Proud Boys, unlawful anti-government militias and vigilante groups continue to escalate, driven in part by mass belief in disinformation and misinformation about the supposed “tyrannical” and “traitorous” behaviour of Democrats. This includes rapid growth in cross-ideological movements such as QAnon, which shares some far-right ideological features including a belief in the core anti-Semitic myth about a cabal of global elites who maintain power and vitality by harvesting a chemical through ritualistic torture and murder of children.

    The insurrection at the Capitol was of course the most prominent outcome of this type of radicalisation, but 2020 saw several other disrupted plots and violent extremist attacks from the US far right, including the anti-government plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.11 See media coverage of the Detroit shootout at https://www.detroitnews.com/in-depth/news/local/oakland-county/2020/10/07/ruby-ridge-madison-heights-fbi-shootout-eric-allport-boogaloo/3629352001/ Notably, the Covid-19 pandemic has created exceptional conditions for online radicalisation and extremist recruitment, resulting in an astronomical rise in anti-Asian hate and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.12 At the time of this writing, nearly 4,000 reported hate incidents have been documented against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community just since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. See www.stopaapihate.org. On the rise in anti-Semitism, see for example Woodyatt, Amy. “Coronavirus lockdowns are fueling an ‘explosion’ of anti-Semitism online.” Cnn.com. July 20, 2020. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/30/uk/online-anti-semitism-intl-scli-gbr/index.html  The alignment of such a disparate far-right spectrum during the 6 January attack is also a reflection of the growth in accelerationist strategies in which extremists from a variety of ideological orientations seek to destroy political, economic or social systems through the deliberate use of violence. Far-right accelerationists seek to undermine liberal democracy and its norms en route to an ‘end-times’ collapse and subsequent rebirth into a new and utopian civilisation.13 See Hughes, Brian and Cynthia Miller-Idriss. “Uniting for Total Collapse: The January 6 Boost to Accelerationism.” CTC Sentinel, forthcoming.

    There is also a growing concern about the role of military, armed forces and law enforcement in the extreme far right. The most recent data show that between 2019 and 2020, the percentage of domestic terror plots in the US committed by active duty and reserve military increased from 1.5 per cent to 6.4 per cent of all attacks and plots.14 Jones, Seth, Catrina Doxsee, and Grace Hwang. “The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Briefs, April 12, 2021. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/military-police-and-rise-terrorism-united-states Shortly after 6 January, the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin III ordered a military stand down across all agencies in order to discuss the problem of extremism in the ranks, extending to training within each unit.15 See discussion at https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2492530/austin-orders-military-stand-down-to-address-challenge-of-extremism-in-the-ranks/ Repeated scandals in other countries have also revealed the penetration of law enforcement, military and intelligence units.16 See discussion at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-12-15/when-far-right-penetrates-law-enforcement Ongoing investigations in Germany reflect a proactive approach that could be a model for how to assess the complicit participation of those who are charged with safeguarding and protecting citizens – and whose military or weapons training poses a particular threat when integrated with extremist ideologies.

    Most governments around the world have clearly put the majority of national terrorism-related resources into tracking and combatting Islamist extremists while significantly neglecting the threat of white supremacism. But nearly 20 years on from the 9/11 attacks that launched a two-decade-long focus on international and Islamist terrorism across the globe, policymakers around the world have now acknowledged that far too little attention was paid to a threat that today supersedes that focus: namely, far-right and white supremacist extremism. Two years after the Christchurch terror attacks that brought the nature of this threat into horrific global relief, we face a long-overdue reckoning about how that neglect has allowed significant extremist radicalisation to fester on the extreme right.

    Old Threat, New Aesthetic: Politically Motivated Terror

    Old Threat, New Aesthetic: Politically Motivated Terror

    Across the West, the most common form of terrorism historically has been politically motivated terrorism. But aside from a flurry of terrorist attacks from the political far left in the 1970s, most politically motivated terrorist violence has been small scale and without casualties. This has changed over the past decade, with steady increases in the scale and violence of politically motivated terrorist attacks coming from the far-right white supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and male supremacist fringe. These attacks have changed the landscape of the terrorist threat globally: by 2018, deaths from politically motivated terrorism were greater than any other form – a trend that continued into the 2019 data.17 See the Global Terrorism Index 2020, p. 62. Available at: https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf

    The Covid-19 pandemic has created conditions that have greatly exacerbated both the top-down, supply-side (recruitment and propaganda from organised groups) and bottom-up, demand-side (individual-level vulnerabilities and susceptibilities) aspects of far-right extremism. On the one hand, unprecedented increases in time spent online took place alongside increased circulation of propaganda and disinformation. On the other, individual vulnerabilities were significantly heightened both because of increasing anxiety, lack of control, isolation and stress, and because the loss of jobs and economic strains were easily converted into anger and a sense of betrayal at perceived government overreach. This was initially expressed through a backlash against shelter-in-place orders but eventually coalesced around broader ideas about an illegitimate election and so-called government tyranny.18 Stanton, Zack. “It’s Time to Talk about Violent Christian Extremism.” Politico. February 4, 2021. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/04/qanon-christian-extremism-nationalism-violence-466034 

    More time online appears to play a role, but so do other factors. For example, as the counter-radicalisation organisation Moonshot documented, through a review of searches related to extremist content in spring 2020, in those states with stay-at-home orders of ten days or more, the average increase in online searches for white supremacist content increased by 21 per cent. The nationwide increase in the US during the same period of time was 13 per cent.19 See the full report, “COVID-19: Searches for white supremacist content are increasing,” on Moonshot’s website at: https://moonshotcve.com/social-distancing-white-supremacy/ While it is not clear whether the shelter-in-place orders played a direct role in these increases, the data do show a correlation that suggests a potential relationship worthy of additional exploration.

    One key issue relates to how we understand the impact of economic stress. It is especially important to distinguish between a sense of precariousness and actual disenfranchisement. Research has shown that being unemployed is not a significant predictor of far-right engagement, and the data so far from the US Capitol attack bear this out: just 9 per cent of those arrested as of February 2021 were unemployed. However, there is research showing that growing up in a household with an unemployed parent does make people more likely to join the far right, suggesting that prior experiences of financial insecurity play a role.20 See Frankel, Todd. “A majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble.” The Washington Post. February 10, 2021. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/02/10/capitol-insurrectionists-jenna-ryan-financial-problems/ . Also see Siedler, Thomas. 2011. “Parental unemployment and young people’s extreme right-wing party affinity: evidence from panel data.” Royal Statistical Society. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-985X.2010.00683.x This is what I refer to as precariousness: the sense that something could be lost or taken away, or that one is vulnerable to loss of status, income or resources. Precariousness is best understood in the far-right context, however, as mixed with a sense of entitlement: namely, the key dynamic is the fear that something to which one is entitled could be taken away and given to people who don’t deserve it.

    Precariousness is best understood in the far-right context as mixed with a sense of entitlement: the key dynamic is the fear that something to which one is entitled could be taken away and given to people who don’t deserve it.

    This combination – precariousness plus entitlement – is present in white supremacist extremist groups who fear the loss of a white majority country and resent immigrants or ethnic minorities for the patterns of demographic change they deem a threat. It is also present in protests to support Second Amendment rights, where protesters fear that Democrats, Obama or other elites are “coming for our guns”. And it was reflected clearly in ‘Stop the Steal’ disinformation in which the US presidential election itself was said to have been stolen from Republicans and given to people who don’t deserve it – and who, therefore, are behaving tyrannically and traitorously. Taken to its extreme, people who fervently believe this conspiracy also conclude that they are the ones acting heroically to thwart the threat to democracy. For this reason, far-right extremists have celebrated the insurrection on 6 January as being the courageous revolutionary act of patriots.21 See Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. “Capitol attack was an epiphany for the far right. It better be one for the rest of us, too.” The Boston Globe. January 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/01/13/opinion/capitol-attack-was-an-epiphany-far-right-it-better-be-one-rest-us-too/

    This kind of rhetoric is echoed in growing anti-government movements that lean into language related to a coming civil war through coded terms like the “boogaloo”, which has become a type of hashtag that acts as a mobilising concept for the idea of violent insurrection or revolution. It’s present in the Three Percenters, a loose movement of individuals who use the concept to refer (erroneously) to the supposed percentage of people it took to rise up in revolutionary action against the British during the American Revolution.22 Beutel, Alejandro and Daryl Johnson. “The Three Percenters: A Look Inside an Anti-Government Militia.” Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy report, March 1, 2021. Available at: https://newlinesinstitute.org/far-right-extremism/the-three-percenters-a-look-inside-an-anti-government-militia/ And we see it in global coronavirus shutdown protests, where ordinary citizens have come together – sometimes mobilised by anti-elite ideas and conspiracy theories – to protest the loss of freedoms they feel they are entitled to, for example, not to wear a mask or to get a haircut.23 Abad-Santos, Alex. “How hair became a culture war in quarantine.” Vox, June 10, 2020. Available at: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/6/10/21285542/hair-cut-protest-lockdown-culture-war

    One key trend within this overall threat landscape is the significant role that conspiracy theories and disinformation are playing in far-right extremist radicalisation and mobilisation. White supremacist extremist ideology calls for lethal and mass violence as a solution to a supposed existential threat posed to whites from demographic change and immigration. Notably, that same threat is believed to be deliberately brought about by elites, Jews and Muslims as well as liberals who aim to bring about an end to white civilisations in favour of multiethnic states. The notion of orchestration is key to the conspirational nature of this threat, which manifests in a variety of specific forms including the idea that George Soros is funding migrant caravans to the US, or that Jewish volunteer groups in synagogues are helping refugees resettle in order to hasten the end of white Christian civilisations.

    This is not merely a national or domestic ideology: it is a global one. In the US, this conspiracy has been referred to as “white genocide”24 Michael 2009 while in Europe it takes the form of the concept of so-called EurAbia – the idea that Europe is turning into an Arab or Muslim majority continent. These two have been brought together by the unifying conspiracy known as “The Great Replacement”, which has become the overarching far-right theory about the death of white civilisations and their replacement with multicultural ones.25 See the thorough discussion of the Great Replacement theory, along with its precursors “white genocide” and “Eurabia,” in Davey, Jacob and Julia Ebner. 2019. “’The Great Replacement’: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Available at: https://www.isdglobal.org/isd-publications/the-great-replacement-the-violent-consequences-of-mainstreamed-extremism/ Regionally specific variants of the conspiracy, like the concept of “white genocide” in the US, suggest that whites are existentially threatened not only through demographic change and immigration but also through lethal violence against whites and abortion.26 Michael 2009 Or that Europe will turn into an Islamic civilisation in which white Christians will be in subservient roles, subject to sharia law, forced religious conversions and Islamic rule.27 See Ye’Or, Bat. 2010. EurAbia: Globalization and the Coming Universal Caliphate (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickenson). Also see review discussion of Ye’Or’s book in Rubenstein, “Bat Ye’or and the Coming Universal Caliphate.” New English Review, January 2013. https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage,cfm/frm/130221/sec_id/130221.

    The global nature of white supremacist extremism is not limited to grand conspiracies that transcend borders. Groups and individuals communicate globally, inspire terror attacks through the sharing of manifestos and livestreaming of attacks (often in English rather than in native languages, making it clear these are global performances), meet in person for training camps and combat sports tournaments, fundraise from global communities, and share tactics and strategies across borders.

    In addition to groups, much of modern white supremacist extremist radicalisation takes place through self-radicalising networks, primarily online. The vast majority of far-right terrorist attacks globally comes from individuals who are not part of groups – according to the Global Terrorism Index 2020 report, only 13 per cent of such incidents in North America, Oceania and western Europe are attributable to them. Groups are still important, especially for creating and sharing propaganda that individuals encounter online or in person in ways that lead them into radicalisation pathways. But, by all accounts, we have entered a post-group era of radicalisation that deserves more significant attention.

    Lessons From the Past 20 Years

    Lessons From the Past 20 Years

    As we turn our focus towards the pressing threat from the far right, what lessons can we apply from our collective, global history of research and counterextremism work? There are indeed different mistakes and lessons learned from 20 years of work to combat religious and Islamist extremism that should be considered as we enter a new global era of mobilisation.

    First and foremost, our understanding of the types of racial and religious profiling and civil-rights violations that happened when Muslims were targeted in the years following 9/11 should give countries and communities pause as they consider expanding surveillance and intelligence operations to newly recognised threats.28 See, e.g., Mishra, Sangay and Jinee Lokaneeta. 2021. “Combatting Suspicion, Creating Trust:The Interface of Muslim Communities and LawEnforcement in the United States after 9/11.” Polity. Published online March 8, 2021.  https://doi.org/10.1086/713704 Polity, volume 53, number 2 (April 2021), pp. 000–000 For example, new policies, laws or guidelines that censor, ban, deplatform or regulate social media accounts, individual expression or online and in-person engagements may well be a result of the 6 January attack in the wake of new recognition about the dangerous outcomes of unregulated, mass disinformation campaigns – and the rapid spread and adoption of conspiracy theories. But such policies and laws should only be developed in close consultation with a wide range of civil- and human-rights groups, and with serious analysis and attention paid to the effects of deplatforming or censorship both on extremist groups and the mainstream public.

    Second, we can also acknowledge that concentrating the majority of counterterrorism and counterextremism efforts on the security and law enforcement side of the equation has yielded far too little knowledge about what types of prevention and intervention efforts work best, under what circumstances and for which groups and individuals. We have had insufficient investment in research not only into prevention and intervention but also into what helps move individuals towards violent mobilisation. We know too little about possible predictors that might lead one person who is radicalised to become violent compared to another, or whether and how different interventions have a variable impact on different individuals. We also need improved standards for testing and evaluation, particularly for interventions such as counternarratives that can backfire.

    Finally, some of the terminology challenges that plagued efforts to address religious and Islamist extremism, especially in the early part of the 21st century, are echoed in today’s challenges to create classification systems for understanding far-right extremism. The plethora of terminology (racially and ethnically motivated extremism, white supremacist extremism, domestic violent extremism, right-wing extremism, right-wing radicalism, far-right extremism and so on) and the lack of agreement not only across countries but also within them create significant challenges for classification, data collection and reporting. This is also true of the need for more attention to rising far-right extremism in the military, law enforcement and veterans’ communities where individual agencies and units are ill-equipped to recognise and respond to the modern face of far-right extremism.

    The Call Is Coming From Inside the House

    The Call Is Coming From Inside the House

    Fortunately, the lessons we have learned are not only about what not to do – but also about what does work both in countries such as Germany where the fight against resurgent far-right extremism is already decades old, as well as in countries with fragile democracies that have recovered or healed from conflict, civil wars and genocides.

    One critical lesson from these places is the importance of positioning extremism as a threat to democracy itself. Disinformation, misinformation and propaganda all undermine key democratic practices in ways that should be fought not only by trying to shrink or contain the extremist fringe, but also by strengthening democratic values and practices within the mainstream. This is what the Germans call “defensive democracy” – namely, the post-second world war idea that one cannot only combat the outcomes of extremism through law enforcement or security approaches targeting the fringe, but that one must also build resilience through public education to prevent susceptibility to propaganda, disinformation and persuasive extremist techniques including scapegoating.29 See Schultheis, Emily. “Germany is treating a major party as a threat to its democracy.” The New York Times. February 19, 2021. Available at: Opinion | Germany Is Treating a Major Party as a Threat to Its Democracy - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

    Disinformation, misinformation and propaganda undermine democratic practices in ways that should be fought not only by trying to shrink or contain the extremist fringe, but also by strengthening democratic values and practices within the mainstream.

    After 9/11, the US created an entire agency – the Department of Homeland Security – to focus on security and risk and to ward off threats to the homeland. We now need the same scale of approach focused not only on risk but also resilience, in order to strengthen democracy and protect it from our own populational vulnerabilities. And such an effort must engage at a truly global and cross-national scale, not merely a national one. There is no need to constantly reinvent the (national) wheels. The past 20 years have seen significant investment in large-scale national efforts to address extremism, from the Prevent and Channel strategies in the UK to police-youth mentoring initiatives in Norway and pilot-project funding across Germany. What lessons can be shared and communicated across borders, both in terms of what worked and what did not?

    Understanding extremism as a threat to democracy helps show why it is so important to focus on prevention within the mainstream, or what we might think of as pre-prevention. The events of 6 January in the US clearly show what can happen when there is mass radicalisation and widespread belief in conspiracies and disinformation – lessons learned less than a century ago as the Weimar Republic collapsed into Nazi Germany. The German experience has shown that it is impossible to fully eradicate extremist tendencies from any society. There will always be a small fringe ready to bubble up and create a contagious effect through creation and dissemination of propaganda and persuasive extremist rhetoric. What is key is having strategies in place to create population immunity against that contagion, by giving people the tools to build their own counterarguments, recognise and reject misinformation, and steer clear of key propaganda techniques such as scapegoating and gaslighting.30 See especially Kurt Braddock’s work on inoculation as detailed in Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Also see Goldberg, Beth. “Can ‘Inoculation’ Build Broad-Based Resistance to Misinformation? Medium blog, Jigsaw. March 17, 2021.

    Addressing extremism by focusing not only on combatting the extremist fringe but also by equipping the mainstream to be more resilient against it requires taking a hard look at the foundational structures that may create enabling environments to thrive in any given society. This includes ensuring a full teaching of difficult histories related to imperialism, colonialism, slavery and genocide. It means understanding the ways in which white supremacist extremism rests on a historical foundation of white supremacy. And it requires acknowledging that to combat violent male supremacist extremism, we must recognise the embedded nature of misogyny and toxic masculinity throughout society. Tackling enabling environments at the same time as we combat the extremist fringe can be found in the very structure of Germany’s new approach – 89 measures in the fight against racism and right-wing extremism – which shows that addressing extremism has to go hand-in-hand with ensuring that democracy is truly equitable and inclusively diverse.31 For more on Germany’s 89 measures, see https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/cabinet-right-wing-extremism-1820094.

    Finally, we need to pursue accountability from those who participate in, incite or fan the flames of violence, including those involved in the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. But we also have to hold the very agencies charged with that process accountable of shining a light on extremism within their own ranks. We need clear processes for data collection and transparency to make clear among the public that military and law-enforcement agencies recognise the extent of the problem and have a plan for addressing it.

    What to Expect Next: Responding to the New Landscape

    What to Expect Next: Responding to the New Landscape

    There are several things happening at once that should raise concerns about the potential for extremist violence in the years to come. Pandemic conditions and the extraordinary amount of time that individuals have been spending online have created a high risk of online radicalisation. The circulation of white supremacist extremist propaganda has increased significantly, as evidenced in a near doubling of related flyers documented by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) between 2019 and 2020 in the US, with 5,125 cases reported in 2020 alone.32 See the ADL report, “White Supremacist Extremist Propaganda Spikes in 2020,” at https://www.adl.org/white-supremacist-propaganda-spikes-2020 High reports of child sexual-exploitation material circulating online during the pandemic raises additional concerns about extremist recruiters using the same kinds of vulnerabilities – distracted parents and caregivers, time spent online by youth – that are exploited by predators and groomers.33 See “Interpol report highlights impact of COVID-19 on child sexual abuse.” September 7, 2020, available at: https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/INTERPOL-report-highlights-impact-of-COVID-19-on-child-sexual-abuse. Also see PERIL and SPLC. 2021. “Building Resilience and Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents and Caregivers Guide to Radicalization.” Available at: https://www.american.edu/centers/university-excellence/upload/splc_peril_covid_parents_guide_jan_2021_1-2.pdf And record-breaking gun sales throughout 2020 and into 2021 in the US create extraordinary risk, as we have already seen in the spate of mass shootings so far this year. From mid-March to mid-April 2021 alone, the US reported at least 45 mass shootings and a total of 147 since the start of the year.34 As reported by CNN on April 18, 2021. Holcombe, Madeline. “The US has reported at least 45 mass shootings in the past month.” CNN.com, April 18, 2021, available at: https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/16/us/mass-shootings-45-one-month/index.html. These conditions all point to the importance of recognising warning signs and engaging in prevention and intervention work now, so we can avoid more extremist mobilisation as we return to greater in-person gatherings in 2021 and 2022.

    It is critical to engage proactively and consistently in order to prevent further escalations in far-right extremism and interrupt violent radicalisation at early stages.

    We also know that actors who have become deplatformed from mainstream sites such as Twitter or frequented social media like Parler, which shut down in the wake of 6 January, are experiencing outreach from extremists on other platforms as they aim to recruit them further to far-right and white supremacist extremist movements. There are plenty of potential new recruits. Shortly after the Capitol attack, Telegram – a cross-platform, instant-messaging service long favoured by extremists globally for its light moderation – became the fifth most downloaded app in the US.35 Collins, Ben. “Increasingly militant ‘Parler refugees’ and anxious QAnon adherents prep for doomsday.” NBC News. January 19, 2021, available at: Increasingly militant 'Parler refugees' and anxious QAnon adherents prep for doomsday (nbcnews.com); Schecter, Anna. “Extremists move to secret online channels to plan for Inauguration Day in D.C.” NBC News, January 12, 2021. Available at: Extremists move to secret online channels to plan for Inauguration Day in D.C. (nbcnews.com) ; De Vynck, Gerrit and Ellen Nakashima. “Far-right groups move online conversations from social media to chat apps — and out of view of law enforcement.” The Washington Post, January 18, 2021. Available at: Right-wing groups are moving to Telegram from Parler - The Washington Post. White supremacist extremist groups quickly strategised ways to infiltrate pro-Trump chats in order to recruit so-called Parler refugees. Such strategies suggested gradual ways to introduce white-supremacist propaganda and searching for new recruits within chats while aiming to weaponise emotions like anger and disappointment. There are even playbooks circulating online that include guides on how this can be done including by the use of scripted messages.36 Creizis, Meili. “Redpill the “Parler Refugees”: White Supremacist Strategies for Radicalising Trump Supporters on Telegram” Global Network on Extremism & Technology (GNET) Insights. January 18, 2021. Available at: Redpill the “Parler Refugees”: White Supremacist Strategies for Radicalising Trump Supporters on Telegram – GNET (gnet-research.org) . Also see a longer discussion in Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. “From White House to dark web.” Tortoise. January 22, 2021. Available at: From White House to dark web - Tortoise (tortoisemedia.com). These trends make it clear that it is critical to engage proactively and consistently in order to prevent further escalations in far-right extremism and interrupt violent radicalisation at early stages.

    Two years after the Christchurch shootings, we now find ourselves at a turning point globally in the discussion about how to combat rising far-right and white supremacist extremism. Much is still unknown about what can be expected in terms of a policy response from the Biden-Harris administration in the US or how these trends might play out in new initiatives being discussed in the UK and across Europe, including through increased interest in combatting misinformation and disinformation. The fact that the US administration now recognises the scope of the threat is cause for cautious optimism, at least compared to the years in which the extreme right was able to grow relatively unfettered.

    A response that focuses nearly exclusively on shoring up resources that tackle the end points of extremism – through enhanced tools for law enforcement, security services and surveillance approaches – will inevitably fail, however. Many countries continue to invest far too little in educational and preventative approaches that would address vulnerabilities to extremist propaganda in the mainstream and avert people from moving further towards violent outcomes. Advocates of these approaches have applauded the recent doubling of the US Department of Homeland Security’s funding for prevention, from $10 million to $20 million, to help communities, researchers and nonprofits build capacity to prevent targeted violence and terrorism.37 For more on the DHS funding opportunity, see information about the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program at Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program | Homeland Security (dhs.gov). But even that increase pales in comparison to the amount of funding – €150.5 million ($181.7 million) in 2021 alone – that Germany is spending on just one of its government-funded interventions known as “Demokratie leben”. The German approach notably situates extremism prevention firmly within a broader framework to strengthen and protect an inclusive, diverse democracy, insisting that such threats have to be understood and stopped through investments in education for everyone.

    It is clear that there is much to be gained from paying attention to approaches that are underway across the globe, not only in the case of Germany’s new efforts to integrate the combatting of racism with combatting right-wing extremism, but also in New Zealand’s emphasis on survivor and victim-centered engagement, and Norway’s approach to engaging deeply with families of at-risk youth by providing support. We have learned much from cross-national comparisons of counterterrorism via the security, law enforcement and intelligence space over the past 20 years. The time is far overdue to take the same approach with the prevention and intervention space as we turn towards a new threat landscape and consider how best to ensure inclusive, participatory democracies as we move forward.

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