As many of you know I have a lot of experience in one particular brand of terrorism, i.e. Islamist or jihadi terrorism. I worked on countering this form of violent extremism at CSIS for almost 15 years, I have published four books on the phenomenon and I continue to read a lot about the groups responsible for this form of terrorism as well as the acts they carry out. As much as I hate the word ‘expert’ I think I know a lot about Islamist terrorism.
A consequence of this specialisation is that I know a lot less about other forms of terrorism. I am not as well-versed in far right extremism, for example, even as many worry that this manifestation of violence will soon outweigh what the jihadis do, if it has not done so already. As a result I am trying to learn more about it, and rely on Canadian scholars such as Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens to become informed.
When it comes to still other types of terrorism I am even further behind. This came to me – again! – when a follower on Twitter asked me whether I thought that the movement known as ‘Antifa’ (NB does ANYONE know how to pronounce this acronym? Where is the primary stress, on syllable #1, #2 or #3?) is in fact a terrorist one. I had no immediate answer but promised to get back to him. Here is my attempt at an answer. Full disclosure: I have had to research this online and attempted to use what I believe to be reliable sources.
My first stop was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the US. This oddly-named organisation is normally my go-to for anything associated with the far right or neo-Nazis but I found little there on Antifa. Then I found that Ottawa, yes the Ottawa I live in, has an Antifa FaceBook page, but there was little to go on there either, except for posts from people criticising them as “a self-proclaimed anarcho-communist organization, (and) domestic terrorists.” I could have gone to the Wikipedia page I suppose but I tend not to see that platform as definitive.
I did, however, find a useful BBC summary, and if you can’t trust the BBC who can you trust? It listed the following as ‘7 things you need to know about Antifa’ (here are a few):
- Some Antifa groups date the origins of their movement to fights against European fascists in the 1920s and 1930s while the modern American Antifa movement began in the 1980s with a group called Anti-Racist Action;
- Antifa ‘members’ are opposed to ‘Neo-Nazis, Neo-fascism, white supremacists and racism, and the alt-right’;
- Some have an ‘anti-government’ streak and see ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in the Trump Administration;
- Their willingness to use violence marks out Antifa from many other left-wing activists, although they say that if violence does occur, it’s as a form of self-defence;
- Oh, and I still don’t know which syllable to put the stress on!
Where does this leave us? From my perspective, and I have tried to be consistent, terrorism is defined as the use of serious violence based on a political, religious or ideological rational. So, firstly, Antifa is definitely a political/ideological movement. Secondly, it has used serious violence in the past. The fact that it says it is employing violent methods to counter other politically-motivated extremist groups (which, if they use violence, would themselves qualify as terrorist groups) strikes me as disingenuous. Violence is violence. We have tended to limit any use of force to the State, be that the military or law enforcement under strict rules and we label any other use outside of these parametres as illegal. Ergo, when Antifa members lash out violently against their ‘opponents’ they are in fact committing a terrorist act.
I cannot imagine that the Canadian government, or any other Western government for that matter, will try to list Antifa as a terrorist entity any time soon.
The bigger question remains: is Antifa itself a terrorist organisation? That is trickier. Is Antifa a consistent, unified movement and does it have a hierarchical structure? That I do not know. Does it have a manifesto or declaration that defines what it is and what it stands for? I do not know that either. Can an organisation be held accountable or is it defined by the actions of its members? I think so but we all know of cases of ‘rogue’ members who do things not sanctioned by higher ups.
For this reason at least I cannot imagine that the Canadian government, or any other Western government for that matter, will try to list Antifa as a terrorist entity any time soon. That should not be taken as proof it is NOT a terrorist entity as other groups most would see as qualifying as such are not there either. My advice is to keep an eye on developments: if members continue to use violence against anyone – and yes this includes neo-Nazi skinheads – this would add to our collective understanding and could lead us to conclude that Antifa is indeed a terrorist group.
Sorry I could not be more concrete. There is just so much about Antifa I don’t know.
Now could someone PLEASE tell me how to pronounce Antifa?