Where are all the RW terrorism mass casualty attacks?

I have just returned from Oslo where I was thrilled to catch up with one of my favourite terrorist experts, Thomas Hegghammer.  Thomas and his colleagues at the FFI – Norway’s Defence Research Establishment – have published some amazing work over the last decade or so and I have personally learned much from them.

When Thomas and I were chatting he made an interesting remark.  In the course of a discussion about resource allocation to confront terrorism and terrorists, we noted the fact that all over the world law enforcement and security services have redeployed resources away from some files (organised crime, drugs, etc.) to terrorism.  More importantly, within the terrorism sphere money and people have been concentrated in one direction – Islamist extremism – thus leaving other kinds of terrorism – right wing extremism, say – relatively unwatched.  In this light, Thomas noted that we should be surprised that there has not been more RW terrorism, especially attacks that kill many.

Think about this.  The fact that we have overloaded men, women and energy on Islamist extremist files has allowed us to stop so many plots.  The more people you have watching something the more intelligence/evidence you can gather and the more you know, leading to greater chances of disruption.  The other side of that coin is that fewer resources devoted to RW extremism should imply that more plots go undetected and more are successful.  And yet that is precisely what is NOT happening.  A good question at this point would be: why?

First we have of course to acknowledge that there have been RW attacks in the recent past and some mass casualty ones: Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Timothy McVeigh in the US in 1995 are two good examples.  Aside from these – we might want to throw in the attack on a church in South Carolina in the summer of 2015 – there are not very many. When you compare RW and Islamist extremism you immediately see the latter have carried out mass casualty attacks (9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, the list goes on and on) at rates which are very much higher.

There are a few suggestive ways of looking at why.  Maybe the RW world does not embrace mass casualty attacks as much as jihadis do.  There are all too many e-zines and social media propaganda that cajole and encourage these operations within Islamist extremism but perhaps not as many in RW milieus.  Maybe there is an inherent difficulty among RW extremists in justifying such attacks.  Perhaps the leadership is not there.  To be honest I simply do not know, in large part because I don’t follow these kinds of terrorists so closely.  Hegghammer has suggested that two more possible reasons might be the lack of “afterlife rewards” (jihadis certainly believe in those) and the lack of safe havens abroad to which they can retreat when the heat in Western societies rises too much.  Whatever the reason (s), you cannot escape the fact that we have not seen mass casualty attacks, and having our attention tied to the jihadis has not opened the door for the far right.

Of course things can change and we may see such strategies develop.  There certainly is justified concern over the rise of the violent right in parts of Europe (and in Trump’s America?) and we will have to turn out gaze in that direction (or hire more people to do so).  Nevertheless, it is important not to use past events as predictors of future ones.  We may never see waves of 9/11s carried out by the far right. Let’s hope so.

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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