The Tit-for-Tat Dynamics of 21st Century Extremism

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the later rise of ISIS and its declared caliphate in 2014, fueled the overwhelming focus of the 21st century on military and law enforcement efforts to counter militant jihadist terrorism. Since a 2015 White House Summit, that reaction-driven and hard-security approach has been supplemented to a certain extent by enhanced efforts to prevent and counter the deeper drivers of that type of violent radicalization. Even more importantly, there are signs of a broader understanding of another form of extremism – that of the violent far-right or ultra-nationalist variety. As leaders and experts begin to grapple with this phenomenon, the experience of the Western Balkans can offer some pointers, including on one particularly pernicious angle – the tendency of one type of extremism to fuel another.

The wars of the disintegrating Yugoslavia in the early 1990s that killed some 150,000 people and displaced millions were often viewed at the time as an unfortunate exception to the ideological Cold War “victory” thought to have been secured by the West. But the recent global mushrooming of strongmen, the co-optation of certain media to distort and blur the truth, the demonization of the other in public rhetoric, and the rejection of pluralism in the name of regressive, tribal essentialism suggests that this regional conflagration may not have been the last gasps of a bloody 20th century, but the first winds of a new 21st. century.

That destructive Balkan playbook illustrates tools and methods typically used by capricious ethno-nationalist influencers as they promote their agendas, and indicates what can make societies more or less resilient to these threats. Paradoxically, some of the same projects, activities and approaches supported by the United States and others in the post-war reconstruction of the Balkans might now provide pointers for preventing and countering violent extremism in these “donor” countries themselves. While they are not dealing with the total upheaval of war, the internal battles playing out over values and ideas is in many ways similarly poisonous and polarizing.

Reciprocal Radicalization and Conflict Spirals

Polarization by definition cannot happen in a unipolar environment; social extremes cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be measured against other baseline or extreme social forces. The two extremisms posing the greatest threat in the West at the moment are violent/militant jihadism and ultra-rightwing nationalism/white supremacist/identitarian movements.

The first seems “extreme” more often to many American or Western European observers due to both the unfamiliar, “exotic” ideological basis, as well as the associated high-profile terrorist attacks. The combination, trumpeted in news media and social media, effectively multiplies the fear. Throughout the West, this manifestation of violent extremism has received the lion’s share of research attention since 9/11, and media coverage has been extensive, and often more sensational than analytical.

Far-right violence is more difficult for American or Western European observers and particularly policymakers to conceptualize, pinpoint, and effectively counter. While an act by violent jihadists perpetrated in New York City or London provides a convenient external “other” as a unique and distinctly different enemy, an act of violence by a radicalized white supremacist, for example, can be framed by the perpetrator and by sympathetic media or politicians, as an act in “defense” of an imagined domestic homeland. (Which is, of course, what violent “jihadis” also claim they are doing.)

In the U.S. or European context, it can be easier to try to justify or rationalize that kind of ideology. Exhortations by U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) bemoaning a dying civilization (read: white, Christian) in the United States, for example, can be viewed as quirky outliers, and framed as simple rhetoric. Yet it is difficult to imagine tolerance for similar words coming from a representative of the Islamic community in the United States. This perspective shift explains the virulent reactions to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who, regardless of one’s opinions of her statements, represents by her mere presence in Congress a threat to those opposed to greater diversity and pluralism in American social and political life.

The increasing occurrence of far-right and “jihad”-inspired violence illustrates an important yet often neglected dynamic: each can benefit from the existence and strengthening (perceived or real) of the other as proof of their own ideological tenets.

Austrian researcher Julia Ebner described such “tit-for-tat” extremism, or reciprocal radicalization, in her 2017 book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism, in which she also references British historian Roger Eatwell’s 2006 work on the phenomenon of cumulative extremism. The direct or indirect interactions between extremisms that exist in opposition to the other can reinforce beliefs and be an effective recruitment tool, as terror does its job in spreading fear. Ebner details a number of action-reaction-action examples in her book, ultimately pondering whether the only way to genuinely fight Islamic extremism is by fighting far-right extremism.

While acts of extremist violence are the most visible negative manifestation of this reciprocity, the links between hate crimes and reciprocal radicalization also have begun to attract study. Experts researching conflict in general – not focusing on terror or extremism – have long noted the need to understand conflict structures and dynamics that foment escalatory spirals. However, the single-minded counter-terror approach grounded in the military and law enforcement that has dominated policy over the past two decades allows little space for discussion of these complexities.

A History of Spirals in the Western Balkans

In the Western Balkans, these dynamics have been evident for decades. In the earliest weeks of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1992, Serb paramilitaries claimed they were not killing civilians, but fighting Islamic terrorists. As the number of Muslim victims of murder and displacement rose, international jihadists, for their part, sought to make Bosnia the next ideological battlefield, following Afghanistan — action, reaction. The only question is how far back an individual or group might look to find an “initial” historical starting point for their own self-justification — 1992? 1943? 1389?

More recently, three selected (and by no means only) examples of parallels between the Western Balkans and other contexts provide some food for thought.

First, the global implications of these reciprocal dynamics became increasingly clear as the world learned about the Christchurch terrorist’s ideological motivation (including explicit Balkan links), often shared and spread online. Dangerous rhetoric often grounded in extreme manifestos that are now beginning to take on a warped, canonical status links and bonds key influencers with searching individuals in a way that could bury the notion of a “lone wolf.”

In a recent book on extremism edited by this author, contributor Davor Marko of Serbia provides an analysis of extreme speech online by two such influencers: an exiled Serbian ultra-nationalist and a controversial Salafist imam in Serbia, identifying many similarities in theme and method despite their different ideological perspectives. In fact, throughout the book, the authors identify many characteristics suggesting that, in the Balkan context, these extremisms are two sides of the same coin, especially in their similar opposition to women’s rights, LGBT rights, separation of church and state, social or political pluralism, etc.

In a second parallel to the Balkans, information overload combined with organic or constructed conspiracy theories can lead a news-weary population to tune-out and throw up their hands at their inability to effect change. Around the same time that the conspiracy-manufacturing machine jumped on reports about sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide, renewed reports of a CIA plot to bring down the government spread in the Serbian media. Abundant conspiracies can cripple civic agency, destroy the institutional trust needed to ensure a healthy relationships between those who govern and the governed, and tear the social fabric by eroding social trust at community levels and higher.

Third, and perhaps of greatest concern, is the parallel in leadership style and aims, or more precisely in the lack of sufficient leadership truly committed to creating the conditions needed to prevent both kinds of extremism. While this has been evident in the Balkans for more than two decades, the new wild card is the erratic foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Early in Trump’s presidential campaign bid, Sarajevo-born and U.S.-based writer Aleksandar Hemon recognized the similarities between Trump and the violent Balkan ideologues who turned hate and related hate-inspired actions into political strategy and a recipe for sustained political control. (Kurt Bassuener, an expert on the Western Balkans and democracy development, has referred to Donald Trump as America’s first Balkan president.) For example, in a United States that has always had a high degree of respect for the media, Trump’s consistent labelling of reporting he does not like as “fake” is music to the ears of Balkan politicians – past and present —  who have long utilized media as propaganda. In such an intentionally polarized socio-political environment, individual voters in the Balkans or the United States who come to incorporate their party affiliation into their own identity can be expected to continue voting against their own long-term interest, as identity politics becomes ever more firmly entrenched in yet another tit-for-tat downward spiral.

New Structural Drivers

Many of the relevant structural drivers and dynamics of violent extremism are not new: economic insecurity and related status anxiety; a broad sense of being unmoored at times of social and cultural change; the rise of ideological alternatives to the status quo by charismatic influencers; a strongly held send of grievance and victimhood and a search for scapegoats. But two phenomena are new, and both have global impact.

The first is the internet and the unforeseen ways in which, rather than expanding horizons and access to knowledge, it has created distinct information and cultural bubbles, often with little to no Venn-diagram overlap. Political theorist Benjamin Barber’s fears even in 1996 of the nefarious role of media conglomerates in stoking such tribalism in a rapidly changing post-Cold War space remain valid, yet has been magnified even more by the highly devolved, fragmented, and anarchic yet easily manipulated online environment.

The second new structural driver of violent extremism is the complicity of the West, and in particular the United States, in not only enabling such trends but in modelling them. Again, President Donald Trump’s affinity towards illiberal leaders, and visible disdain for traditional democratic allies, not only gives a free pass to hate speech and the politics of essential tribalism, but also provides newly open ground for political actors harboring grievances and agendas for decades to now actively and openly pursue them. While admittedly imperfect, the post-World War II transatlantic consensus provided a certain train of stability and steady progress. The train has now veered off the tracks.

What to Do About It?

The question remains – what to do about it, at home or abroad?

As always, there is no easy answer.

In terms of counterterrorism, law enforcement agencies can, in theory, bring to bear the same material resources and skills they have brought to the fight against militant jihadism. This will be neither politically palatable nor, in the case of the United States, constitutionally simple. However, it is possible to monitor, infiltrate and interrupt conspiracies intent on violent action without violating human rights, and law enforcement agencies know from past experience which tools they can use.

In terms of preventing or countering violent extremism (CVE) and tackling reciprocal radicalization, the challenge is even more complex and wide-ranging, and is grounded in ensuring that societies are able to provide their citizens with a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. The generational shakedown following the ascendency of global capitalism, absent the accompanying entrenchment of rights-based accountable democracy, has paved the path for the easy answers provided by religious puritanism and/or nationalism or masquerading as populism. In the absence of civic, communal alternatives, people are finding that meaning, purpose, and belonging in essentialist ideologies.

In this sense, the programs needed in the United States are no different than those that have been exported to parts of the world such as the Balkans. For example:

  • Media literacy: Because efforts to take down or regulate online forums for hate speech such as 8chan will never be fully successful due to the ease of creating new sites, education is needed to ensure critical thinking that can transcend the black-and-white rationales that extremists offer for grooming and recruiting new adherents. Media literacy also is needed to ensure that demand for news is driven by a thirst for reporting rather than rumor, facts rather than fantasy, and considered analysis rather than concocted conspiracy.
  • Dangerous rhetoric: Hate speech needs to become undesirable so a new generation of citizens finds such behavior to be reprehensible and as much of a public-health crisis as drug abuse. And while this is important at the community level, it must be accompanied by model behavior among the ranks of national leaders. However, while New Zealand’s government has taken quick steps after the Christchurch attacks to try to prevent violence borne of online hate, the challenges are immediate, as evident when the White House declined to participate in those initiatives.
  • Whole of society resilience: Social welfare professionals – psychologists, case workers, and teachers – need to understand the signs of radicalization and have access to educational, psychological, and other resources for at-risk individuals before they move from being “behaviorally radicalized” to being ready to act. Officials in the United Kingdom increasingly admit their own extremism-prevention efforts, previously focused on militant jihad but now grappling with the violent far-right, require recalibration.

As a cross-cutting issue, government and elected leaders need to be accountable and effective, so that citizens in any country will feel they receive appropriate services and have access to the kind of justice and shared meaning they need, so they don’t feel the drive to seek it elsewhere.

However, while the litany of approaches required to support resilient communities is lengthy – education access and improved content, civic engagement, human rights promotion, and cultures of tolerance and reconciliation — why are we categorizing this basket of programming aimed at preventing a future El Paso or a future Dayton with the term CVE? El Paso was an act of violence undergirded by a coherent ideology in which the perpetrator targeted his victims, while Dayton was an act of violence by a troubled individual but not demonstrating a strong element of political violence or targeted ideological selection of victims. They are fundamentally different from one another, only bound by proximity in timing.

Before funding for CVE began to proliferate, such programming was considered a normal part of development and democracy promotion. It was grounded in democratic peace theory and the notion that the United States would be more secure if more countries enjoyed similar rights and freedoms. This has been clearly evident in the Balkans, where over two decades of peace and democracy promotion are now increasingly being framed as preventing or countering violent extremism.

in the long-term, domestic security in the United States as well as global security require policies based on rights and opportunities rather than blood and soil.

A key hurdle is that political expediency and a failure by officials and experts to craft and explain to the public the foundational nature of the threats have made it easier for lawmakers to allot funding for “hard” security such as military intervention or law enforcement operations than for decidedly non-sexy, long-term “soft” prevention. While one might argue that it doesn’t matter whether citizen-engagement project support comes from a budget line titled “CVE” or “Democracy,” once the money is implemented on the ground, it does made a difference. In comments on CVE programming in the United States, an expert recently pointed out that, while young Muslims may want after-school tutoring programs, knowing that they are getting this assistance only because of fears that they might otherwise become terrorists could be stigmatizing or humiliating. By framing whole-of-society development as a security intervention, we may be increasing the potential for atomization and othering.

It is difficult to think of a more difficult time to make this argument. Yet in the long-term, domestic security in the United States as well as global security require policies based on rights and opportunities rather than blood and soil. And whether in the Balkans, the United States, other parts of Europe, or elsewhere, we need bottom-up pressure to hold governments at all levels accountable for their failure to deliver. Only with that can a reinvigorated civic and centrist consensus re-take the advantage now seemingly held by extremist voices who feed off of polarization.

IMAGE: A protester holds a portrait Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic during a demonstration in front of Serbian Parliament on May 29, 2011 in Belgrade, called by ultra-nationalists against Mladic’s arrest days earlier. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) held Mladic responsible for a number of atrocities during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, including the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed, and the 44-month siege of the city of Sarajevo, during which 10,000 were killed. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Valery Perry

Senior Associate at Democratization Policy Council, and editor of the book "Extremism and Violent Extremism in Serbia: 21st Century Manifestations of an Historical Challenge."