By Amarnath Amarasingam and Jacob Davey
June 21, 2017
Last Friday was the first anniversary of the assassination of Jo Cox, the British member of Parliament who was killed by Thomas Mair, now serving life in prison for her murder. “This is for Britain,” he shouted as he stabbed and shot to death Ms. Cox, a 41-year-old Labour Party politician and mother of two, a week before the Brexit referendum. As shocking as this attack was, it did not come without precedent. In recent years, there have been noticeable upticks in far-right violence, even if its frequency and deadliness have often been overshadowed by the more high-profile attacks claimed by the Islamic State.
The frequency of far-right attacks is particularly significant in the United States, where white supremacist, anti-government and neo-Nazi extremists have been responsible for 73 percent of deadly terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Government Accountability Office. Also notable is that in many cases, Muslims have become the target of violence.
In March James Harris Jackson, 28, travelled to Manhattan with the intention of killing black men. He fatally stabbed Timothy Caughman with a sword before turning himself in. Credit Pool photo by Steven Hirsch
In February 2015, three young Muslims were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., by a 46-year-old man named Craig Stephen Hicks (an F.B.I. report on whether this was a hate crime has not been released). In April 2015, Robert Doggart of Tennessee was arrested in connection with a plot to recruit a militia group and attack a Muslim community in New York State. In 2016, a Ku Klux Klan member, Glendon Scott Crawford, was convicted of plotting to kill a large number of Muslims with radiation. In May, prosecutors say, two men were stabbed to death on a train in Portland, Ore., by a white nationalist named Jeremy Joseph Christian after they intervened when he harassed two young women, one of whom was wearing a Hijab, with an anti-Muslim tirade.
After a series of terrorist incidents in Britain either claimed or inspired by the Islamic State, in the early hours of Monday the driver of a van hit a group of men who had just attended prayers at a mosque in Finsbury Park, North London. The suspect, who was quickly subdued and arrested, reportedly shouted that he wanted to “kill all Muslims.” His crude method of attack mimicked a terrorist technique recommended by the Islamic State.
While attacks by violent jihadists understandably command the most attention, we need to be wary of ignoring the threat from those radicalized by an increasingly well-connected and mobilized far right. The ideologies of these movements are symbiotic, with both sides playing off a fear of the other to tailor their messages and attract new audiences. Left unchecked, competing outrages and persecution narratives could lead to a cascade of radicalization, in which extremists on each side feed the other’s growth.
Seemingly isolated attacks like the one in Finsbury Park don’t always get the response from policy makers that they should, partly because the casualty count tends to be lower and because the lone attacker does not necessarily belong to any proscribed organization, so there appears to be less systemic risk. Other daily incidents, below the threshold of terrorist violence, like a Muslim woman getting her Hijab yanked on the street or being insulted on the subway, are not seen as related to this broader phenomenon of emboldened extremism.
Our research on far-right movements in Britain looked at people interacting with 162 British-based Facebook pages that show support for far-right ideologies. These included the Facebook pages of political parties, protest movements and news sources. Our analysis of about 7,000 users regularly engaging with these pages suggested that some 2,500 expressed support for extreme violence. (The suspect in the Finsbury Park attack did not show up in our study.) Violent sentiment was overwhelmingly aimed at Muslims, as well as immigrants and refugees. More than 70 percent of these users were over the age of 45. (This is in contrast to the online supporters of the Islamic State, who are overwhelmingly under the age of 30.) A majority of users appeared to be from economically deprived backgrounds; a few were either members of the British armed forces or veterans. All of them were white.
A vanishingly small number of those we surveyed expressed explicit support for white supremacy or neo-Nazi ideology. Instead, these Facebook users appeared mainly motivated by patriotism, grievances over immigration and integration, and the perceived threat of Islam.
Because of a high level of public vigilance about jihadist groups, Islamist extremists are increasingly cautious in their behaviour, particularly online. The intense focus on the propaganda they produce means that pages calling for violence against the West and expressing support for terrorism are swiftly taken down, and their users barred.
The increasing caution of jihadist activists is not matched by the far-right extremists we have studied. One reason could be that because most of these individuals are over the age of 40, they lack the web-savviness of their Islamist counterparts. It could also be the case that the current climate, with far-right political parties gaining traction in parts of Europe and alt-right groups gaining a higher profile in the United States, has reduced the sense that they are engaged in risky behaviour and should act in more clandestine ways. The Trump administration, for example, has begun to retool programs formerly aimed at violent extremism in general, including the far right, into operations directed solely against radical Islamism.
There has rightly been a great deal of effort put into countering jihadist groups and their supporters in the West. Now more than ever, though, there needs to be similar investment and planning to check far-right radicalization and understand the mechanisms that propel attacks like the one in Finsbury Park.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where Jacob Davey is a program associate focusing on research into far-right movements.