international analysis and commentary

The terrorist threat from the extreme right

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Predictably, the tragic events in Oslo and on the island of Utoya have led policymakers around Europe to call for measures to prevent such catastrophes from ever happening again. This is perfectly understandable, as Anders Breivik’s violent outburst easily ranks among the worst terrorist incidents in Europe’s post-war history. In the UK, the Labour Party successfully pressed for a reassessment of the right-wing extremist threat, and Zaheer Ahmad, the head of the British National Association of Muslim Police, said, “We’ve been too busy looking at the threat from Islamist extremists and taken our eye off the ball on tracking the extremist right.” The EU took the incidents as a cue to introduce an early-warning system to detect right-wing terrorist threats. EU officials are also considering measures to restrict the sale of the chemicals and firearms that Breivik used for his attack.

It is easy to see why the Norwegian tragedy has triggered a lot of talk about the resurgence of the far right, but we should be very clear about what we mean by that. If what is meant is an increasingly vocal opposition to the multicultural society, immigration and the EU, there is little to argue about. Reprehensible as such views are, it is a simple fact that they are gaining ground all over Europe. Also, they clearly fall within the parameters of free speech upon which democratic societies are based. If, on the other hand, the suggestion is that this opposition will take the form of violent actions similar to Breivik’s, we are on the wrong track.

Let’s get the analysis straight: there is currently no reason to assume that the European right-wing extremist movement – that is, the whole of extra-parliamentary fascist, racist, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups – carries the potential for more violence of the kind perpetrated by Breivik. The more politically articulate segments of the extreme right organize demonstrations, hand out flyers or try to change the system through participation in mainstream politics. Although their demeanor may be nasty, intimidating and far from pacifist, attacks like Breivik’s are not their style.

The attacks may even lead to some irritation among the extreme right, since Breivik’s acts may be perceived as further damaging the already quite unsavory reputation of the groups on this side of the political spectrum. For instance, the Nederlandse Volksunie (Dutch People’s Union), a right-wing extremist group from the Netherlands, issued a statement in which it distanced itself from the attacks and took Breivik to task for discrediting the extreme-right, averring that as a result of the attacks “the demonization and criminalization of the right and the radical right will be stepped up”. Perhaps surprisingly, many right-wing extremist groups are not necessarily anti-systemic and in fact crave a sense of respectability. Actions like Breivik’s are not the way to achieve that. The English Defence League (EDL) was quick to dissociate itself from Breivik’s methods as well. In a response to the news that Breivik had acted on right-wing extremist views, EDL leader Stephen Lennon said, “We stand against extremism and we condemn all acts of violence”.

As for the more radical elements, many of them lack a political agenda to act on. It should be noted that the political views of these groups are generally not well-articulated and that membership of a right-wing extremist movement is often as much a matter of identifying with a certain group of individuals as it is of assenting to a set of political views. Music is probably one of the most important means to tie members to the movement. The concerts and festivals where right-wing extremist bands play, create an atmosphere of camaraderie and offer members as well as potential recruits an identity and a sense of belonging. For many of the politically less articulate groups in the movement, this is much more important than undertaking politically meaningful action. In this regard, it is interesting to note that in some countries, such as the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland, these groups are unorganized, their violence lacks any clear sense of political direction and there is little to no long-term vision or planning.

Given this mindset, there is little chance that skinheads, neo-Nazis or other explicitly violent right-wing extremist elements will follow Breivik’s example. Committing an attack like Breivik’s takes preparation, some operational expertise, and agreement on target selection and methods. These are all things that are hard to come by in a scene characterized by infighting and fragmentation.. Not that Breivik’s action was operationally highly sophisticated, but it was still beyond both the ambitions and capabilities of groups that are more interested in simply rioting.

In sum, the right-wing extremist movement is not inclined to terrorism, either because it is not the preferred means to achieve political goals or because there hardly are any political goals at all. Any claim to the contrary should be backed up by hard evidence about plots, not by mere speculation about how it might be possible that these methods may be copied by people with similar views.

Having established this, what should we do? It’s very simple. We should follow the admirable calm and dignity of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Instead of calling for a war on the extreme right or on lone wolves, he vowed to fight terrorism with “more democracy”. Stoltenberg is absolutely right in committing to the openness of Norwegian society, and not to drastic measures. It is logical and sometimes even commendable that security incidents are perceived as manifestations of a bigger problem that needs to be tackled. This time, however, we need to be open to the possibility that what happened in Norway is not a manifestation of a deeply engrained phenomenon that will have similar manifestations if unchecked. We should see it as just the opposite: an aberration. In almost every respect, whether it’s healthcare, prosperity or political stability, Norway is one of the most pleasant places on earth. Breivik’s extreme violence should be no reason either to doubt or to change this. In fact, the country should heed the words of the British poet George Herbert, who once wrote “Living well is the best revenge.” Norway seems like the perfect place to implement such a strategy.