The threat of terrorism — particularly from the far right — should be a major concern for governments on both sides of the Atlantic as coronavirus restrictions continue to ease, according to multiple experts and former law enforcement officials who have experience monitoring violent extremist activity.
High unemployment levels due to the pandemic, poor economic prospects and the spread of disinformation through the internet and social media could accelerate radicalization, they said.
And after a major drive by law enforcement agencies to disrupt the organizing potential of violent Islamist movements in the United States and in Europe, where hundreds of people have returned from the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, recent analysis suggests far-right groups now pose the most significant threat to public safety.
“We see an increasing percentage of plots and attacks in the United States shifting over the past couple of years from jihadist motivations, increasingly, to far-right activity,” said Seth Jones, who directs the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Jones defined right-wing extremists as “sub-national or non-state entities” with goals that could include ethnic or racial supremacy. They can also be marked by anger against specific policies like abortion rights and government authority, as well as hatred toward women, or they may be members of the “involuntary celibate,” or “incel,” movement.
A report he co-authored recorded 14 terrorist incidents, including attacks and disrupted plots, from Jan. 1 to May 8. Thirteen of them were classified as right-wing, and the other was recorded as being religiously motivated in the context of jihadism.
The report found that the comparable figure for right-wing attacks and plots in 2019 was a little more than 60 percent, which itself was the highest level of such activity since 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, which killed 168 people. And in both 2018 and 2019, right-wing attackers caused more than 90 percent of the terrorism-related deaths in the United States.
Jones said the threat of terrorism had probably increased in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the combined activities of those opposed to lockdowns and other restrictions, anti-federal militia members and their backers, and far-right activists energized by the country’s polarized politics or angered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The highest-profile recent attacks came in late May and early June, when California police officers and security personnel were ambushed in separate attacks, leaving two people dead and three others injured. The FBI said one of the suspects who was arrested was associated with a loosely organized far-right “Boogaloo” movement.
“There is a growing trend of right-wing extremism in the U.K., but it is not as significant as the rising right-wing extremism in America,” said retired Maj. Gen. Clive Chapman, the former head of counterterrorism for Britain’s Defense Ministry.
He said that, in the almost two decades since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., more Americans — 335, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — have been killed by adherents of a form of right-wing extremism than any other terrorist ideology.
He said terrorists need more than just an ideology to act — they often nurse grievances of some kind and typically have encountered what he termed a “recruitment environment.” That could be a social activity in a real-life community, he said, or it could be online.
But Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, said that while the recent shift to far-right terrorist activity has not passed unnoticed by law enforcement internationally, the kind of websites that might radicalize right-wing actors have been subject to far less scrutiny than has been accorded to the equivalent jihadist literature.
“The threat hasn’t been perceived as sufficiently severe,” he said. “To put it bluntly, there hasn’t been enough mass casualty terrorism from the far right for Western governments to put the full weight of their intelligence apparatus into this.”
The limited censorship and law enforcement surveillance of “hard-core far-right extremist propaganda” on the internet has made it easier for users to access such material without inviting attention from government intelligence agencies, Hegghammer said — at least for now.
Meanwhile, the clampdown on online jihadist activity has significantly affected the ability of organizations like the Islamic State militant group to reach new audiences online and to recruit adherents, he said. After a spate of high-profile attacks in Brussels, Paris and London several years ago, the frequency of such incidents has fallen recently.
“In a sense, we’ve kind of taken away their communication platform. And now the coronavirus is taking away the analogue ‘in real life’ platform,” together with the media attention that Hegghammer described as the “lifeblood” of modern jihadist terrorist attacks.
“The net effect of the corona crisis is negative for the militants, for the radicals,” he said. “I would be kind of frustrated if I were a jihadi strategist in this time. And I would be looking forward to the post-corona era.”
Internet activity may have spiked during the lockdowns among would-be jihadists who are no longer interacting with people in person and who may have struggled to get involved in Islamic extremist networks in the past. But that now comes with clear pitfalls because of the heightened surveillance, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think thank.
In a video call from Singapore, he pointed to a Moroccan man who was arrested in Spain last month after authorities observed what they described as his constant activity on social media and his anonymized access to radical jihadist content.
He was suspected of disseminating “jihadist terrorist propaganda” through the internet, according to a Europol notice published shortly after his arrest, “and demonstrated a full adherence to the postulates of terrorist groups, fully justifying their violent actions.”
Pantucci said of the man’s self-radicalization: “It seemed to be very linked to the fact that he was locked in because of coronavirus. Those kinds of cases, I think, are going to be ones that we’re going to see more problems with going forward.”