Click here to read GNET's latest report Artificial Intelligence and Countering Violent Extremism: A Primer

Striking Similarities Between Islamist Terrorism and Violent Right-Wing Extremism

Striking Similarities Between Islamist Terrorism and Violent Right-Wing Extremism
18th September 2020 Friederike Wegener
Friederike Wegener
In Insights

In his book Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (2018), Francis Fukuyama describes nationalism and Islamism as two sides of the same coin that arise under similar circumstances. The same holds for the violent extremist forms of the two ideologies, violent right-wing extremism and Islamist terrorism. Former FBI –agent Ali Soufan testified in front of the US House Committee on Homeland Security that there is a “striking resemblance” between the two phenomena. So far, however, security and law enforcement agencies as well as tech companies have treated both phenomena separately and by different standards. Similarities and emulations in propaganda strategies and modus operandi are rarely considered. The examination of similarities between the two phenomena could benefit the design of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism measures.

Ideological Structure

Right-wing extremism and Islamism are mutually exclusive and hostile ideologies which define themselves in unambiguous in- and out-group structures. Anti-Semitism is a core component in both worldviews, where people of different beliefs and ethnicities are dehumanised and often labelled as traitors. Both ideologies aim to restructure society according to their respective “utopia” for which violence is understood as a legitimate mean. Extremists derive their justification for the use of violence from perceived historical injustices and through the fabrication of victim-narratives. This includes conspiracy theories that predict the reputed apocalypse, the extinction of the ummah or the “great replacement” of the white race. The exploitation of grievances and dictation of unambiguous parameters are combined with a call to arms and excessive combat-training. This often motivates individuals to join movements and satisfies their desire of feeling empowered and pure in racial or religious terms. Resulting revenge-narratives and calls for self-defence are likely to lead to reciprocal radicalisation and spirals of violence.

A Transnational Phenomenon

Previously nationalism focused on the respective nation-state while the new far-right movement contextualises nationalism as broader trans-nationalism by identifying itself as the white race of Western states. Despite the lack of an equivalent, dominant organisation like the so-called Islamic State (IS), violent right-wing extremism has increasingly become a transnational phenomenon with global networks. Interaction ranges from the spread of ideological and tactical elements through the Internet to financial support, organised de-centralised cells and joint paramilitary training. International cooperation exists for instance between the Scandinavian Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) and US white supremacists as well as the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), while the perpetrator of the Christchurch attack (March 2019) had donated 1,500€ to the Austrian branch of the far-right movement Generation Identity prior to his attack. The right-wing terrorist organisation Combat 18 operates cells in different countries, including the UK, Belgium and the USA, and is outlawed in Germany and Canada. RIM has organised paramilitary trainings which were attended by extremists from various countries, including Germany, Sweden and Finland.

Foreign Terrorist Fighters

The phenomenon of returning jihadi foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) has become a significant problem for Western states in recent years. The phenomenon of extreme-right FTFs however receives considerably less attention. Around 17,000 individuals from over fifty countries, among them Germany, Sweden, the USA and the UK, have joined the conflict in Eastern Ukraine to fight alongside the Ukrainian right-wing organisation Azov Battalion or RIM. Some fighters have previously received weaponry and explosive and close combat training in the paramilitary Partizan training camp organised by the RIM. A small number of extremists from Greece, members of the right-wing network the European Solidarity Front for Syria and the German far-right party Der III. Weg joined the Syrian civil war to support the Assad-regime. Like jihadi FTFs, these returnees have made international connections and are equipped with battlefield experience.

Holy Heroes, Jihadist Language and Admiration of Violence

While some right-wing terrorists have been exalted after their attacks, the glorification of perpetrators is traditionally associated with jihadism. Since the copycat attacks of 2019 however, this phenomenon is increasingly observed in right-wing extremist circles. In online forums, the Christchurch shooter was globally bestowed with “sainthood” and portrayed with a halo in memes. An analysis from ISD found that out of 18 public right-wing extremist channels, 12 glorified terrorists. The language used by the far-right shows another emulation of jihadism. The outlawed British far-right organisation National Action published a recruitment video in February 2016 titled “Inside the white jihad”. Likewise in February 2020 the Moonkrieg Division shared a propaganda picture on its Telegram channel, calling for “white jihad now!”, featuring the Islamic creed shahada and calling to attack an airplane.

Violent right-wing extremists have openly admired jihadists’ behaviour. National Action named Islamist attacks a source of inspiration and the Atomwaffen Division called to follow the culture of martyrdom of the Taliban and IS in its post ‘The Islamic Example’. US right-wing terrorist Ethan Phelan Melzer even passed on sensitive information to an al-Qaeda member to facilitate an attack on the US military. It is likely that violent right-wing extremists aim for similarly high levels of violence by adapting proven jihadist practices. The development of emulating the jihadist tactics, language and phenomenon of glorification of perpetrators go hand-in-hand with a jump in far-right fatalities: between 2017 and 2019, casualties of far-right attacks have increased sevenfold.

Global Modus Operandi and Weaponisation of Social Media

The Internet and social media have intensified the reproduction of successful tactics around the globe. Previously jihadist copycat attacks on soft targets, such as in Nice (2016), on the Berlin Christmas market (2016) and in Barcelona (2017), have terrorised populations. In 2019, copycat attacks on soft targets hit Western societies again. This time perpetrated by the far-right. The attacks of Christchurch, El Paso, Poway, Baerum/Oslo and Halle showcase the danger of global imitation through online availability of examples, motivation and guidelines to terrorise.

The emergence of YouTube and social media platforms has served as catalyst for the diffusion of extremist propaganda and reinforcement of hate. During its high time, IS perfected its virtual propaganda apparatus. Additionally, coordinated efforts through so-called media “soldiers” (media mujahideen) extended the reach of propaganda, diffusing do-it-yourself manuals for attacks and personalised recruitment. Far-right extremists use similar techniques. The virtual Troll-army Reconquista Germanica constituted the largest media-army of the extreme right (10,845 members in 2018) until its dissolution in October 2019. Organised in military ranks, members received daily instructions to spread extremist content online. This included commenting on various posts and videos, as well as the creation of memes and other propaganda material to lure in young Internet users. A “manual for media guerrillas” circulated by far-right German activists outlined strategies for effective engagement in online activism.

These coordinated online measures play an important role in the drastically reduced timespan of radicalisation. Previously known as a phenomenon among jihadists, rapid radicalisation via chat groups and online recruitment now also constitutes a frequent phenomenon of violent right-wing extremists. The messaging-app Telegram, known since 2015 as a means of IS to recruit and share guidelines for attacks, has also gained popularity among right-wing extremists. Since April 2019 Telegram has recorded a migration of right-wing extremist channels to its platform. While Telegram took action to reduce the presence of jihadist content on its app, it so far continues to be a relatively safe haven for right-wing extremists. With extremists learning to use social media platforms and their algorithms for their purpose, the danger of the weaponisation of social media has risen drastically.

The similarities outlined above indicate that measures in place to fight Islamist terrorism could benefit the fight against violent right-wing extremism. These include the establishment of a globally valid definition of violent right-wing extremism, the (international) designation of groups and movements as (foreign) terrorist organisations and expanding capabilities of security services to exchange relevant information on violent right-wing extremists. Additionally, understanding the dynamics of cumulative extremism and similar radicalising mechanisms could help to prevent the spiral of violence. Lastly, applying the same standards for violent extremist content online is necessary to prevent the abuse of new technologies.