The terrorist attack in New Zealand has focused attention once more on the acute threat posed by rightwing extremists.
Waves of terrorism follow a pattern: a long, unnoticed buildup followed by a massive and spectacular strike that often inflicts significant damage and casualties but focuses minds and eventually resources.
Counterterrorism agencies, driven by public outrage and concerned officials, struggle for a time to gain the upper hand until, with better funding and understanding, they begin to win the battle to keep us safe. The cycle can take many years, even decades.
Rightwing terrorism was building through the 2000s. The spectacular event came when the Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of violence: the killing of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, the murder of the British MP Jo Cox, attacks on mosques in London and Quebec and, barely reported, many more incidents motivated by hatred.
Although in Europe Islamist militant violence has been more common and more lethal, signs of the threat posed by rightwing violence have long existed. In the UK in 2017 there were five terrorist attacks attributed to rightwing extremists.
In the US, violent rightwing activity was linked to at least 50 deaths in 2018. Research by the Anti-Defamation League showed that over the last decade, 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributable to Islamist extremists.
So are we nearing the moment of turnaround, when counterterrorist agencies get the upper hand? Many specialists fear the answer is no, simply because the resources and attention focused on rightwing violence are insufficient.
Last year, the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counterterrorism unit said the UK had not “woken up” to the threat posed by the far right. In the US, experts at the Soufan Centre, founded by the former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, described a “long-running US double standard with concerns over crime and terrorism that are inspired by the narrative of Bin Ladenism versus crime and terrorism inspired by right-wing ideology”.
Though there are substantial differences, rightwing and Islamist extremism, and extremists, share a great deal. The basic mechanics of the process of radicalisation – by peers, through the internet or otherwise – are very similar. As is the way both forms of violent activism are on the fringe of a much broader movement, much of which has bled into the mainstream in different parts of the world. There are no “lone wolves”, at least not in the sense of a solitary actor without links, whether virtual or real, to others.
In a “manifesto” published online by the suspect in the Christchurch attack, for instance, he said he was not a “direct member” of any group or organisation but had interacted with, or donated to, many.
Another shared element is the belief that “resistance” to tyranny is not just acceptable but an obligation. Islamist militant thinkers say rulers or regimes should be overthrown if they stand in the way of the rule of the enlightened and faithful. Rightwing extremists also see the government as the oppressor of their imagined community, defined by “race” and sometimes faith, the authority of which should be rejected and sometimes fought.
Both Islamists and rightwing extremists believe their communities are facing an existential threat, placing an obligation on the individual to fight back. For the Islamists, the belief that a belligerent west has been set on the humiliation and exploitation of the world’s Muslims for the best part of 1,000 years is axiomatic.
Demography looms large for far-right nationalists. Protesters in the US have paraded beneath swastikas, shouting: “Jews will not replace us.”
The New Zealand suspect’s manifesto is titled “The great replacement”, a theory predicting the end of the European white race as it is displaced by immigrants from other races. It starts with the phrase “it’s the birthrates” repeated three times and predicts “the European people spiralling into decay and eventual death” if nothing is done. The atrocity, the manifesto says, was “a partisan action against an occupying force”.
Finally, there is the shared dependence on warped visions of history. Islamist militants invoke the battles of the earliest Muslim generations, the crusades and then the decline of great Islamic empires that for much of the past 1,300 years were infinitely richer, more powerful and more sophisticated than their western counterparts.
The Christchurch suspect invokes the battle of Tours, a defeat of a Muslim raiding army in 732, and the Siege of Vienna in 1683. According to the manifesto, the aim was “to take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history … the enslavement of millions of Europeans taken from their lands by the Islamic slavers and the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands”.
The bloodiest period for terrorism in Europe was in fact the 1970s and 1980s. According to the news and analysis website Quartz, one of the worst recent years was 2015, when the the number of casualties in a series of Islamist militant attacks was well above the average of the past 45 years. However, it still remains well below the levels of the 1970s and 1980s.