Days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Department of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin that stated,
Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.
This came as little surprise as warnings about the rise of right-wing extremism were growing in the lead up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. According to the Anti-Defamation League , which closely tracks right-wing, terrorist-related attacks, 75 percent of the approximately 435 violent terrorist attacks in the United States between 2010 and 2019 were committed by right-wing domestic extremists, and 2019 was the deadliest year for right-wing extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
The European Connection
While right-wing extremism is rightly viewed as a domestic problem, it is also an international challenge. For example, last August, extremists made an effort to take over the German parliament, although they were not nearly as successful as the insurrectionists that attacked the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6. The primary connection between U.S. extremist groups and their European counterparts, however, is through the internet. QAnon, a bizarre, conspiracy-driven, cult-like group that seeks violence against political leaders in the United States, also has an active following in Germany. For example, after the U.S. presidential election, a German QAnon group spread false rumors about a CIA-Germany connection and interference in the U.S. election. These rumors were later spread by the right-wing German Party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and picked up by U.S. politicians, Rudy Giuliani, and others. In addition, the U.S.-based Proud Boys, which has just been designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government, discussed on the social media platform Telegram how their videos are being more widely shared in Germany.
What makes the popularity of QAnon in Germany so peculiar is the unique nature of QAnon, with its largely U.S. focus on conspiracies driven by U.S. politics, persons, and events. One reason for this connection is the sense of community the internet facilitates between U.S.-based extremists and their European counterparts. As a New York Times article on the “Global Far Right” points out,
The transnational links are inspirational rather than organizational, said Miro Dittrich, an expert on far-right extremist networks. “It’s not so much forging a concrete plan as creating a violent potential.”
Both China and Russia “have seemingly become safe (internet) harbors for extremist Western content,” Fergus Ryan points out in Foreign Policy. Still, the decision by Twitter, Facebook and Google to de-platform extremists, and also to cut off other platforms like Parler, has complicated the transnational social media connection for right-wing extremists. But, as Ryan writes, “The founder of neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer had some advice for the people who ran Parler, after the app was purged from the internet last week: Ask China or Russia for help.” This China-Russia internet connection has, therefore, allowed right-wing extremists to continue to operate and avoid some restrictions put on them by more mainstream U.S. platforms.
A CSIS report on right-wing extremist groups discussed the breadth of platforms these groups are using,
Right-wing terrorists have used various combinations of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gab, Reddit, 4Chan, 8kun (formerly 8Chan), Endchan, Telegram, Vkontakte, MeWe, Discord, Wire, Twitch, and other online communication platforms.
ISIS and AQ have also used the internet as a tool to further their agendas. ISIS established a real caliphate, but as intelligence expert Rebecca Ulam Weiner wrote in Foreign Affairs, “for white supremacists the internet is the caliphate…”
The connection between U.S. and European right-wing extremist groups is not limited to the virtual world. In particular, Ukraine and Russia are centers of activity for these groups. Ukraine is a place where these groups can congregate to train and plan for operations at home. In its comprehensive report on white supremacy extremism, the Soufan Center notes that,
In Spring 2018, for example, members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM) travelled to Ukraine to celebrate Hitler’s birthday and train with the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary unit of the Ukrainian National Guard, which the FBI says is associated with neo-Nazi ideology.
The Azov Battalion’s Western Outreach Office sees its role as promoting the right-wing extremist cause, globally, and, in that regard, has established relationships with groups like RAM and the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), a U.S.-based neo-Nazi group with affiliates in the United Kingdom, the Baltics, and Germany.
There is also Russian support for U.S. and other right-wing extremist groups. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) and its para-military affiliate, the Imperial Legion, established training camps for right-wing extremists , and, in 2016, trained two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement who carried out terrorist attacks in Sweden. While there are reports of RIM contact with U.S. based groups, there is no public indication that RIM has trained U.S. right-wing extremists. Nonetheless, RIM and some of its leaders were made part of the U.S. State Department’s Specially Designated Terrorist List, the first white supremacist group to be added to the list. As long as RIM does not challenge the Russian government, its activities are tolerated within Russia.
The other dimension to the relationship between U.S. and European extremist groups is a common ideological thread exemplified by their martyrs. For example, Brenton Tarrant, the right-wing extremist who attacked mosques in New Zealand, killing 51 people, was inspired by extremist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. They both served as models for Dylann Roof, who brutally killed nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church. These murderers are revered by other white supremacists. Their shared ideological perspective and writings serve as a common foundation for right-wing extremist thinking.
Right-Wing Extremists and AQ and ISIS
It is not only notorious white supremacists who offer inspiration for right-wing extremist groups in the United States and Europe; al-Qaeda (AQ) and ISIS also occupy that role. While right-wing terrorists do not share the same ultimate goals of AQ and ISIS, they do have common interests, as CSIS notes, “In a June 2019 online post, a member of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) stated, ‘the culture of martyrdom and insurgency within groups like the Taliban and ISIS is something to admire and reproduce in the neo-Nazi terror movement.’” In addition, the Base (the English translation for AQ), which has neo-Nazi connections, uses a vigorous vetting approach for recruiting new members that is similar to that of AQ. Neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists also use online magazines and other writings by Islamist terrorists as how-to guides for tactics such as building bombs.
The Soufan Center points out fundamental connections between Islamist terrorists and their right-wing counterparts,
While there are crucial differences between jihadis and white supremacy extremists, there are also important similarities and particular ways these groups feed off of each other, including: the utility and cycle of violence; use of the internet; propaganda; recruitment; financing; and the transnational nature of the networks.
What Is To Be Done
Responses to U.S. right-wing extremist groups need to take into account the international relationships these groups have: virtual, operational, and inspirational. A report from the Center for American Progress recommends a number of substantive steps that can be taken to help law enforcement and others fight against right-wing extremists in the United States. Among other things, the report mentions working with allies, improving data collection, and passing comprehensive legislation that was introduced in the last Congress. It also recommends passing the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act, which would require the State Department to develop a strategy to deal with the global threat of right-wing extremism.
A more fundamental question is whether law enforcement needs new legal tools to confront the growing right-wing extremist threat. Finding ways to lessen, if not largely eliminate, social media as an important tool for right-wing extremists — both in the United States and internationally — is essential. This could also include such measures as designating these groups as terrorist organizations and allowing law enforcement authorities to take the same intrusive measures it does against foreign terrorists. Such action raises the question of whether this would be a slippery slope toward undermining civil liberties. U.S. policymakers could look into the impact on civil liberties that Canada’s recent designation of Proud Boys, as well as its designations of AWD, the Base and other terrorist organizations, will have in that country.
The G7 is a venue for better coordination of responses among the United States and its allies, particularly the groups’ use of social media. It played a useful role in responding to the post-9/11 terrorist threat, such as its 2016 Action Plan on Combatting the Financing of Terrorism and its 2003 (then G8) “Building International Political Will and Capacity to Combat Terrorism” action plan. Similarly, the G7 could develop an action plan aimed at the growing challenge of right-wing extremist groups. In addition, the United States and its partners should work with the Ukrainian government regarding the use of Ukraine as a safe haven and training ground for these groups. Finally, U.S. officials should raise with Russia and China the roles they play in support of right-wing extremism.
The Intelligence Community (IC), particularly the Department of Homeland Security, must be given the resources it needs, financial and otherwise, to protect the United States from terrorist threats, domestically and internationally. Under Biden, it has new, dynamic leadership that will hopefully restore the IC to its rightful place as the tip of the spear of U.S. national security policy. One direct way to ensure the IC can play that role in the battle against domestic terrorism is for the president to continue to emphasize that this is a priority for him and that a focused and sustained fight is what he wants and expects.
The Biden administration has already begun to assess how best to respond to right-wing extremists. An examination of the international connection to the domestic problem is a necessary piece of ensuring the challenge of combating these groups is successfully met.