The Terrorism Dog That Didn’t Bite: A Look Back at Violent Extremism in 2023

Predictions of a ‘rise’ in far right terrorism have been making the rounds for several years and been found wanting: is it time to admit that jihadis still rule the terrorism roost?

This piece first appeared in The Epoch Times Canada on December 26, 2023.

Yes, I know this is the Christmas season and that we are all expecting happy stories full of cheer and God bless and goodwill to all, but it is also the time of year where just about every news source comes up with retrospectives, summarizing the last 365 days before we begin the calendar again. This piece is in that vein, or at least a part of it.

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells us how the reticent local hound was the clue the famous detective needed to solve a horse theft and murder. In other words, it was a non-event, and not an actual happening, that ended up being the most important element in the story.

It turns out that when it came to terrorism in 2023, while recognizing that a few days are left in the year, a similar phenomenon has occurred. The absence of a widely predicted threat failed to manifest itself, while a long-understood but dismissed one (by some) continued to pose a much greater danger worldwide.

The “widely predicted” one refers to what is called “right-wing extremism” (which the Canadian government unhelpfully calls ideologically motivated violent extremism, as if other forms of terrorism are not ideological). This scourge takes many forms—neo-Nazi, white supremacist, fascist, etc.—and has been described by many as THE number one threat we all face, especially in the West, insofar as terrorism is concerned. This “analysis” is usually accompanied by confident statements that the previous overarching menace, Islamist/jihadist terrorism (which, again, the Canadian government inaccurately calls religiously motivated violent extremism, suggesting we should worry about Mennonite suicide bombers!) is passé. Al-Qaeda is allegedly dead. So is ISIS. Somalia is on the brink of eliminating Al Shabaab. Three cheers. Hip, hip… wait a minute.

When you look at actual data for 2023 a very different story presents itself. Yesterday’s jihadis, who were supposed to be all but defunct, have again dominated terrorism over the past 12 months. Whether we are talking about Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7 (1,200 dead), ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq, the (re) rise of Islamist groups in the Philippines, weekly Al Shabaab operations in Somalia and Kenya, attacks by the ISIS-linked ADF in Uganda, the 10,000+ killed in the Sahel region of Africa, or lone-actor killings in Belgium and France, Islamist terrorists again ruled the roost. Some European nations are raising their terrorist threat level as a consequence of what their intelligence agencies are telling them.

Do you want more bad news? The Hamas atrocity and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza has led to a rise in Palestinian West Bank support for Hamas and fears that the group may target Jews outside its traditional territory (i.e., Israel: Germany and the Netherlands made arrests of Hamas terrorists last week suspected of planning to hit Jewish institutions). Others are talking of a “resurgence” of AQ and ISIS; this is inaccurate as neither group had gone away. This means that the jihadi threat is still significant.

And what of the far right? Crickets. I cannot name a significant attack on any scale in 2023 (I may have forgotten one or two) and, in any event, deaths and injuries at the hands of jihadis are several orders of magnitude larger. But no one wants to say so. Why?

I can offer several possible reasons. Some governments, Canada’s included, seem to think that calling jihadi terrorism what it is reeks of “Islamophobia” (it does nothing of the sort: the term “Islamist terrorism” is widely accepted amongst professionals and academics). The inclusion of “violent incels” as terrorists is nothing but an unfortunate muddying of the terrorism waters. Others are concerned over the growing popularity of far-right political parties (the election of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, gains by the AdF in Germany, just about everything Hungary’s President Viktor Orban does) and surmise this will lead inevitably to a rise in far-right violence.

Except that there is no evidence for this. Many wrung their hands over the election of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and predicted that violence would ensue. But it did not. The worst nightmare never came to pass.

That our security forces need to monitor the far right for signs of extremism is a given and the fact that they are doing so demonstrates they may be ahead of the curve (CSIS now devotes half its counter-terrorism resources to this kind of violent extremism; it did not when I worked there from 2001–2015 because we were too busy on jihadi cases). At the same time, these agencies cannot pretend that the globe’s premier terrorism threat—that emanating from jihadis—is no longer important. Both must be monitored, and government interference in intelligence and law enforcement ops for political reasons must be rejected.

I hate making “predictions” as my crystal ball is out for repairs. Nevertheless, I will be very surprised if 2024 turns out any different in a year’s time. Jihadis will continue to carry out the lion’s share of terrorist attacks around the world. Some will be stopped because of good work by our protectors; others will not. Wishing things were different is not helpful. Maybe we will see more far right attacks, maybe we won’t. And then there’s the far left… But that is for another column!

Terrorism notwithstanding, it is important to end on a high note. Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

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.