If you have been following the news/analysis cycle over the past few years with respect to terrorism you will already know that there is a massive debate going, especially in the West, on which bunch of terrorists poses a greater public safety threat to our societies: Islamist extremists or far right ones. There are proponents on both sides who muster data and arguments in an effort to show that the other side is wrong. I have always found it disconcerting that some need to frame the problem as ‘either-or’, but I will get back to that later.
Regardless of where you stand on this dichotomy, there is one unfortunate fact: terrorism is decidedly NOT on the wane. Even when we are told that things may be getting better – Islamic State has been defeated; Usama bin Laden is dead; Boko Haram in Nigeria is on the verge of defeat… – it is clear from recent attacks that it is not (this still does not make terrorism an existential threat but that is another issue). And, in the context of the far right/Islamist extremist competition, when the terrorist massacre at mosques in Christchurch happened many said “I told you the far right was being ignored”, only to be one-upped by the Sri Lanka church/hotel Islamist extremist massacres a month later.
I’d like to weigh in on this. As my readers already know, I am an Islamist extremist specialist, having worked that scourge at CSIS and written four books to date on the topic. So no, I am not a completely neutral and unbiased observer. But I still think that jihadis pose a greater terrorist threat at the international level for reasons that relate to messaging and interconnectedness, although as in just about everything in life this can change and must therefore be monitored.
Here is why I maintain this position. Islamist extremists have a very unified goal across groups all around the world. Working this threat both as a counter terrorist analyst and a post-career commentator has led me to realise that what we used to call the ‘Single Narrative’ really does exist. This narrative seeks to explain and encourage, and does both very effectively. The narrative says, simplistically, that the West both hates and is at war with Islam and that a small coterie of ‘true’ Muslims has a divine mandate to use violence to stop this and create an Islamic utopia. Yes there are regional groups that have regional beefs and focuses but their over-arching rationales are derived from this Single Narrative. This shared outlook allows groups to feed off each other, to ally with each other (up to and including pledging allegiance to larger groups), and to seek to emulate the attacks of others.
Frankly I do not see the same degree of commonality within the so-called far right (although I have to remind my readers that I am NOT a specialist in this regard and thus may be missing something). As I understand it, far right groups are disparate in which populations they target (Muslims, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ, etc., although some are ‘equal opportunity’ extremists), often have significant national agendas, do not share generalised narratives, and do not seem to have the international linkages that the jihadis do. Ergo, Islamist extremists collectively are more dangerous.
All of this can, of course, change. The recent European Parliament elections demonstrated that there are alliances among right wing populist parties (but we must stress that there is not a one-to-one mapping between populism and violent extremism) across different national movements (thanks to a great piece by Cas Mudde on this). And as my friend Yannick Veilleux-Lepage recently showed, some far right groups (he studied the Soldiers of Odin in Canada, Finland and Sweden) are engaging in more online exchanges. This could be an incipient phenomenon.
I suppose the bottom line is that we do not need to resolve which threat is more dangerous, although there are implications for resource allocation. Why can’t we just acknowledge that there are all kinds of terrorist threats and that all need to be addressed? In other words it really is an ‘all of the above’ challenge. We would be better placed to call on our governments to ensure that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies have enough money and people to monitor all these violent actors instead of arguing over relative levels of threat.
In closing, this piece came out of a conversation I had with an old colleague from CSE I ran into outside a shop in a local mall the other day. We had not seen each other in 20 years, underscoring once again that reconnecting with intelligence community friends is never a bad idea. Thanks for spurring the idea Nick!