Far right vs Islamist terrorists: who is more dangerous? This is the wrong question


Another day another mass shooting in the US. Except that this time there were two mass shootings, back to back. On August 3 in El Paso, Texas a man opened fire in a Walmart, killing 20 and wounding 26 and a day later in Dayton, Ohio a gunman killed nine people. More needless deaths and more needless mourning. I have no intention of weighing in – again – on the gun debate although I did see that The Onion, a US satirical Web site, did put out a great piece entitled “No way to prevent this says only nation where this regularly happens”.

Of course not all mass shootings are related to terrorism. In fact, percentage wise, they are most probably a small minority (if I am wrong I hope someone will tell me). Nevertheless, the El Paso one has the hallmarks of terrorism – the gunman referred to a ‘Hispanic invasion’ and drew inspiration from last March’s massacre at two mosques in New Zealand – or at least a hate crime, which is kinda close. And the Dayton one may have some nexus as well in light of some info I saw on Twitter that points to the incel ideology, although I must stress this has not been definitively established.

These attacks have brought to the fore, once again, the growing concern over the rise of the far right and the danger this movement (movements? trend? scourge?) pose to US and, by extension, Western societies. It may be of import elsewhere as well although I don’t see a lot of news on neo-Nazi attacks in Burundi or Nepal.

In parallel, the attacks have spurred the debate, once again, on why we are not doing enough to stop these incidents. Many have taken to Twitter and other social media to proclaim that in the US at least we are spending far too much money and effort on Islamist extremism and ignoring the far greater threat. One analyst has gone as far to write in Foreign Policy “Jihadis Go to Jail, White Supremacists Go Free“.

So which one is it? Are governments missing the blindingly obvious? Should they massively re-align resources from jihadis to neo-Nazis? Is THAT the solution?

I would argue that we are seeing this problem wrongly. This is NOT an either-or issue: it is both-and. In other words, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies have to figure out a way to monitor both threats simultaneously. And yes this is a dollars and cents matter since resources are neither free nor infinite.

Furthermore it is crucial to remember that while far right attacks may indeed be responsible for more deaths than Islamist extremist ones in the US over the past so many years, that is NOT the case in Afghanistan..or Somalia…or Nigeria….or even France, Belgium, the UK, or Spain. All the latter are Western nations of course.

There are two things that worry me in the debate over terrorism and what to do about it. The first is the overbearing US filter. The US counts for a lot and gets a lot of attention in the world’s media and therefore has a disproportionate effect on how we see and respond to things. Nevertheless, what happens in the US must NOT define our analysis and response. The second is the recency phenomenon. We seem to have very short memories and react to what just happened, ignoring the larger context. Does no one care to point out that jihadis have been behind the vast number of deaths from terrorism since 9/11 in the vast number of countries? Furthermore, most specialists I follow have been sounding the alarm that Al Qaeda and Islamic State, among other jihadi groups, are on the ascendant, not the descendant, and still pose a significant danger. So yes, jihadis still matter and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Can we please get away from this call for 180-degree turnarounds in how we see terrorism and get down to strategies to deal with ALL of it? All terrorism should be prevented if possible, regardless of its ideological stripe.

My heart goes out to the families of the dead and wounded in El Paso and Dayton.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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