The danger of violent jihadism persists, but the growing menace is from racist extremists – even if some in the UK government can’t admit it
Fri 9 Dec 2022
Perhaps it was the tweed jacket and cravat. Or maybe the medieval title: Heinrich XIII, Prince of Reuß. Either way, the man at the head of a suspected plot to overthrow the German government, exposed in a series of raids on Wednesday, was easy to dismiss as a joke. The country’s late night TV talkshows went right ahead, mocking the 71-year-old aristocrat and his deluded dreams, along with his wardrobe.
A week earlier, the sartorial derision was aimed at Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, his face entirely obscured by a ski mask, praising Hitler and the Nazis on the set of Infowars as a guest of the bankrupted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Some of Ye’s rantings were too much even for Jones’s stomach, prompting an online chuckle – not least because a few days earlier Ye had dined with Donald Trump, along with the Holocaust-denying white supremacist Nick Fuentes. What crosses the line for Jones was apparently just fine for Trump.
But none of this is a joke. Instead, both events – a disrupted terror plot by armed would-be “citizens of the Reich” and the legitimising of extreme racism by the de-facto leader of one of the US’s two governing parties – point to a rising global threat, one that is too often regarded as either too ridiculous or too marginal to be menacing. That threat lives almost entirely on the internet, its regular foot soldiers neither European nobility nor rap superstars but, says one who monitors it closely, “young, white, anti-immigrant neo-Nazis, networked in an online subculture that glorifies and generates terror”.
The danger may incubate on screens, but it doesn’t stay there. That much has been clear for a while. Recall the massacre of 92 mostly young Norwegians in 2011. Or the slaughter of 49 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. Or the mass killing at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh six months earlier. Or the gunning down of 10 Black shoppers and workers in a supermarket in Buffalo by a white teenagerMay this year.
These horrors follow a pattern in which the killer seeks not only to murder but to livestream his butchery, accompanying it with the release of a supposed manifesto, a long screed identifying all the same enemies: Black people, LGBT people, Jewish people.
In October, a Slovakian teenager followed the familiar template when he opened fire on a gay bar in Bratislava, killing two. Hours before, he had posted a 65-page text setting out, yet again, the case that there is a worldwide conspiracy to degenerate and destroy the white race, with racial diversity and gay rights the conspirators’ chosen weapons. And who might be behind this wickedness? The document opens: “It’s the Jews. It’s the Jews. It’s the Jews.”
For two decades after 9/11, any talk of global extremism or a “war on terror” meant only one thing: confronting violent jihadism. Make no mistake, that threat has not gone away, even if analysts believe it has receded in the UK in the past two or three years. But when it comes to international terror, jihadism no longer has the stage to itself.
That requires a shift. This week, Australia’s home affairs minister warned that counter-terror laws would have to change if the country was to tackle the surging threat of far-right violence. In Germany, after the identification of some 52 suspected coup plotters, the governing party declared, “Rightwing terrorism is still the biggest threat to German democracy.”
In Britain, those operationally involved in fighting this danger have got the message. Where once MI5 brass were privately liable to dismiss the far right as no more than a bunch of “football hooligans, louts and drunks”, they now pay them serious time and attention. A turning point was the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, and the attack on Finsbury Park mosque the following year.
Police now describe the extremist right as the fastest growing terror threat in the UK, with 41% of counter-terrorism arrests in 2021 involving far-right suspects. Three in four advanced plots disrupted by police involved extremists of the far right.
This shift demands a change in policing but also in our thinking. For one thing, while jihadists dreamed of establishing their own government somewhere – the Islamic State vision of a new caliphate – those arrested in Germany this week, like the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021, aim to topple existing governments in the west and install themselves. (And they are encouraged when Trump calls for the suspension of the US constitution to restore him to power, as he did this week.)
The content is different, but so too is the form. Yes, jihadism was always a broad category, but there was at least an organisational infrastructure that could be proscribed and targeted: IS even published a magazine out of Raqqa, offering tips on how best to stab someone. The far right is much looser and entirely leaderless, radicalising its followers chiefly by means of memes and online content. Its home comprises platforms such as 4chan or the “Terrorgram” network of channels on Telegram, where recent mass murderers are venerated – the killers of Christchurch and Pittsburgh are depicted as “saints”, complete with haloes – and where footage of their acts of slaughter is presented in the manner of a first-person shooter game, complete with scores awarded for each “kill”.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen stuff like this,” Nick Lowles, who runs the anti-racist campaign group Hope Not Hate, tells me. In these forums they egg each other on, sinking to ever more nihilistic depths: fantasising about rape and the sexual abuse of children and more. Those seeing this material are getting ever younger. The Metropolitan police reports that of the 20 people under 18 arrested last year for terrorism offences, all but one were linked to the ideology of the extreme right. The youngest arrested was 13.
Action is possible, starting with the companies who provide web-support services for the likes of 4chan. “They’re the security guards on the door while the terrorists are inside,” says Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, which monitors and combats antisemitism.
But that takes political will. And while the counter-terrorism agencies seem to be in the right place, the same cannot be said of their political masters. Lowles detects an “ideological backlash” in the Home Office and in Michael Gove’s levelling-up department, “actively pushing for a change in strategy away from the far right”.
Note the leaked extracts of William Shawcross’s review into the Prevent counter-terrorism programme, complaining that there’s been too much focus on the racist right and not enough on jihadism. It seems a corner of the political right was jolted when last year, for the first time, the number of referrals to Prevent relating to the far right outstripped those for Islamist extremism.
You can see why some are more comfortable chasing Muslim extremists than extreme haters of Muslims (and of every other minority), perhaps fearing a definition that might encompass anti-Muslim rhetoric found on the mainstream right. But ideology cannot be allowed to intrude here, not when the danger is so grave. Our protectors have to fight those bent on wreaking deadly havoc wherever they appear – and whoever they are.
- Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist