Right-Wing Extremism Not a Serious Threat, for Now

Commentary by Phil Gurski

I have just returned from Oslo where I was thrilled to catch up with one of my favourite terrorist experts, Thomas Hegghammer. Hegghammer and his colleagues at the FFI – Norway’s Defence Research Establishment – have published some amazing work over the last decade or so and I have personally learned much from them.

In the course of a discussion about resource allocation to confront terrorism and terrorists, he made an interesting comment. He noted the fact that all over the world law enforcement and security services have redeployed resources away from some files (organized crime, drugs, etc.) to terrorism. 

More importantly, within the terrorism sphere, money and people have been concentrated in one direction – Islamist extremism – thus leaving other kinds of terrorism – right wing extremism, for example – relatively unwatched.  In this light, Hegghammer noted that we should be surprised that there has not been more right-wing terrorism, especially attacks that kill many.

Undetected plots

Think about this.  The fact that we have overloaded men, women and energy on Islamist extremist files has allowed us to stop so many plots.

The more people you have watching something, the more intelligence and evidence you can gather. The more you know, greater the chances of disruption.

The other side of that coin is that fewer resources devoted to right-wing extremism could imply that more plots go undetected and hence are more successful.  And, yet, that is precisely what is NOT happening. A good question at this point would be: why?

Mass casualties

First, we have to, of course, acknowledge that there have been right-wing attacks in the recent past and some mass casualty ones: Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. in 1995 are two good examples.  Aside from these, we might want to throw in the attack on a church in South Carolina in the summer of 2015, but truth is there are not very many.

When you compare right-wing and Islamist extremism, you immediately see that the latter has carried out mass casualty attacks (9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, the list goes on and on) at rates which are very much higher.

There are a few suggestive ways of looking at why.  Maybe, the right-wing world does not embrace mass casualty attacks as much as jihadis do. 

There are all too many e-zines and social media propaganda that cajole and encourage these operations within Islamist extremism, but perhaps not as many in right-wing circles. Maybe, there is an inherent difficulty among right-wing extremists in justifying such attacks. 

Perhaps, the leadership is just not there. To be honest, I simply do not know, in large part because I don’t follow these kinds of terrorists so closely. 

Whatever the reason, you cannot escape the fact that we have not seen mass casualty attacks and having our attention tied to the jihadis has not opened the door for the far right.

Of course, things can change and we may see such strategies develop.

There certainly is justifiable concern over the rise of the violent right in parts of Europe (and in President-elect DonaldTrump’s America?) and we will have to turn our gaze in that direction (or hire more people to do so). 

Nevertheless, it is important not to use past events as predictors of future ones. We may never see waves of 9/11s carried out by the far right.

Let’s hope so.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Website | + posts

Phil Gurski is a former terrorism analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism and has published several books, including the forthcoming When Religions Kill: how extremists justify  violence through faith.” He is a member of New Canadian Media’s board of directors.