Extremism Assessment Series: Far-Right Extremism

  • Far-right extremism describes ideologies and movements that are more radical than traditional conservatism, and often promote xenophobia, racism, white nationalism, Neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, and related ideologies
  • Modern far-right extremism began in the 1860s, and was met by efforts to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan’s presence after the Civil War.
  • From 2009 through 2018, 73% of terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by far-right extremists
  • Far-right extremist ideology is largely enacted by lone actors rather than groups
  • The primary method of recruitment for far-right extremism is through online platforms including social media sites, chat rooms, and other websites
  • Increasing anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment has given rise to far-right extremism in places such as the United States, Australia, and Europe

A collection of flags representing different streams of the far-right movement available in the open source.

Summary of Extremist Narrative

Far-right extremism describes ideologies and movements that are considered more radical than those associated with traditional conservatism, and is often linked to ideologies that promote xenophobic and racist views such as white nationalism, anti-Semitism, Neo-Nazism, authoritarianism, and others.

Far-right extremism often takes inspiration from regimes of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

 History of Far-Right Extremism in the United States

 Modern far-wing extremism in the US was first recognized by scholars during the 1950s, as a way to understand and explain McCarthyism and its break from political norms of the time. However, it is understood that far-right sentiments, groups, and actions began to form long before they were labeled by social scientists, around the 1860s and 1870s in the Reconstruction era. During that time, President Ulysses S. Grant took legal and legislative acts to eradicate the Ku Klux Klan and its offshoots following the civil war.

From then on, far-right extremism reappeared in many forms, and to varying degrees of success, from the formation of the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 to a politically-motivated resurgence in the 1990s in response to prominent issues of the time, including abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 led to new arrests of far-right organizational leaders, but such ideology continued to be prevalent and inspire violence throughout the next two decades and beyond. Subsequent instances of far-right extremist violence in the US include the shooting at Emanuel Africa Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which resulted in the death of nine people, as well as the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 which resulted in 11 deaths. From 2009 through 2018, 73% of terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by far-right extremists, and between 2016 and 2017, right-wing inspired violence quadrupled in the US.

Today, some government officials across multiple branches and agencies have expressed concern over far-right extremism. However, the movement to properly address far-right extremism is hindered by multiple factors, including the absence of a formal domestic terror law in the United States, lack of grant funding to research right-wing extremism, and a general difficulty in studying such ideology due to its lack of cohesion.

 Current State of Far-Right Extremism

 Far-right extremism is currently largely based in hate rhetoric. Topics of focus for far-right extremist rhetoric include anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiments, and appeals to those affected by real or perceived economic instability and social isolation. Such rhetoric has given rise to disorganized bouts of low-level violence, as well as violence that results in mass causalities around the globe.

In the United States, most far-right extremists engage in low-level violence, with only one percent of attacks by people unaffiliated with an established far-right group involving firearms or explosives. Far-right extremist groups are largely instable and notwithstanding, and most far-right extremists are lone actors.

However, there are a couple of prominent, long-standing groups associated with far-right ideology that contribute to the spread of the ideology and violence, and potential recruitment agencies to followers of far-right extremism. Such groups include the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), skinheads, neo-Nazi groups, and other militias. In the United States, alt-right groups Identity Evropa and Patriot Front constitute some of the largest and most pervasive organizations of their kind. While these groups represent the more formalized, structured end of far-right extremism, they are still mainly fragmented and unsophisticated themselves.

 Prominent Sites of Operation

Far-right extremism operates around the globe, but is especially concentrated in areas in which populist and nationalist political movements have recently become popularized in mainstream political and social thought. The majority of far-right extremist individuals and groups operate out of the United States of America, in Europe, and in Australia.

In the United States of America, the combination of a history of far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, renewed anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the growth of alt-right, populist politics has resulted in some of the most prominent examples of far-right extremism around the world. After the 2016 election, far-right violence grew, including nine deadly incidents in 2017.

In Europe, increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa has spurred an increase in xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment, which evolved into far-right ideology for some members and groups in society. Attacks against Muslims and refugees in Europe have increased significantly beginning in 2015. Some far-right attacks in Europe have been coined as retribution attacks, as they occur after instances of Islamic extremism.

Far-right operations in Australia are less active, but still existent. From 2011 to 2017, there were five far-right extremist attacks in the country.

While these are the prominent countries in which far-right extremism operates, the ideology does not act as a country-specific, individual entity. There is a growing, global network of far-right extremists fueled by increasing interactions between likeminded individuals and groups around the world. This is demonstrated through instances such as the American far-right group Rise Above Movement (RAM) meeting with European white supremacist groups in Germany, Ukraine, and Italy.

Recruitment Methods

 Social media and other forms of online news consumption are the primary methods of recruitment utilized by far-right extremist groups. Recruitment is achieved on popular platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as well as sites such as Gab and Reddit. Through online interaction with followers, the far-right have been able to recruit new followers and members, coordinate travel to protests, rallies, and conferences, organize trainings, fundraise, and foster communication across individuals and groups that share similar ideologies.

Prominent websites associated with far-right ideology include 8chan and the Daily Stormer, but recruitment is also achieved on more mainstream, popular platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit. The radicalization of multiple far-right extremists who have been responsible for recent terrorist attacks around the globe has been linked to such websites. For example, the far-right extremist responsible for the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 was a user of Gab, a site frequented by far-right extremists and associated messaging.

The cycle of recruitment and radicalization is perpetuated as far-right extremists not only draw inspiration from online communities, but then project their activities out into those communities as well. In 2018, the far-right extremist that attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand announced the attack on Twitter and 8chan and broadcasted it live on Facebook, which quickly spread and was replayed countless times on other platforms. This paves the way for media consumers to become encouraged and recruited into far-right extremist ideology or actual groups by watching this extremist act, or even to commit copycat attacks.

In addition to far-right extremists utilizing a heavy online presence to enact recruitment efforts, there has been an increased effort to protect anonymity while increasing recruitment through distribution of propaganda. This propaganda often in the form hard-copy materials such as flyers, posters, stickers, and more. From 2017 to 2018, the amount of hard-copy propaganda materials increased by 182% overall, with a jump from 421 to 1,187 reported sightings of far-right materials. These materials are not only found in large cities and public spaces, but are also often concentrated on and around college campuses. This allows right-wing groups and individuals to tap into vulnerable members of the age group afflicted by feelings of a lack of belonging, and yearning for community.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Strategies for Countering Neo-Nazi Radicalization

American members of the National Socialist Movement. Source: Southern Poverty Law Center.

Decades after the end of World War II, Nazism continues to incite hatred and divide the globe. Thousands have been radicalized into what is now deemed neo-Nazi ideology from dozens of countries across the world. Although the phenomenon of neo-Nazism is well documented, research has yet to establish a common profile of those deemed vulnerable to its recruitment. Several have attempted to establish a potential profile; however, the American cases that have been studied stem from vastly different backgrounds, and their diversity is too difficult to account for with any one theory.

Though the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks stemming solely from neo-Nazi groups is relatively low, such groups present a unique threat. Neo-Nazi groups tend to be embedded with other racist extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and other anti-Semitic groups. Fringe members of these groups present an often-undetectable lone wolf threat which is extremely difficult for law enforcement to counter. Neo-Nazi groups are also often associated with the trafficking of narcotics and prostitution, potentially leading to a large indirect cost on society.

In discussing neo-Nazi radicalization, former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini has a unique take on the process. Picciolini, who become radicalized into neo-Nazi ideology after attending a gathering of a skinhead group at 14 years old, has since deradicalized and now works to help others do the same. But Picciolini does not attribute neo-Nazi radicalization to an ideology at all. In an informative interview, Picciolini stated that “I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology”. The vulnerabilities mentioned in the interview stem from both real and perceived grievances, felt by some youths as they grow and learn about the world and their place in it. Like so many youths searching for answers to their anger and frustrations, Picciolini found answers amongst neo-Nazi propaganda. Unfortunately there was not a counter narrative strategy in place to address the statements presented to him.

Exploiting vulnerabilities is a normal gang recruitment strategy. Many neo-Nazis are recruited while in prison, and the process is similar to other gang recruitment methodologies. However, neo-Nazi gangs are distinct in their provision of a more thorough ideological base for those who they radicalize. Further, the agenda of neo-Nazism is the creation of a Fourth Reich, which obviously goes far beyond the belief system associated with a typical street gang. Because of the hybrid nature of the radicalization process between extremist group and street gang that is observed within neo-Nazism, a hybrid approach to deradicalization and a hybrid counter-narrative strategy is needed.

Law enforcement’s response to neo-Nazi groups has begun to change in recent years. Whereas for a long time neo-Nazi groups and skin heads were often associated with the punk rock scene and were considered kids acting out their frustrations, now they are being considered legitimate concerns for homeland security.

Though they may pose a significant security concern, simply addressing neo-Nazi radicalization as a law enforcement matter does not properly address the underlying issues that cause some to become radicalized. In discussion about freedom of speech when it comes to hate speech and propaganda, experts suggest that education is the likely best route for countering extremism. An effective solution will couple education with a strategy in which local governments and communities adapt partnerships with organizations who have experience in deradicalization. One such organization and program is the Anti-Defamation League’s “A World of Difference” campaign, which uses mass media and education in schools to address bias, racism, anti-Semitism, and a variety of radicalization and extremist behaviors. Policy encouraging local communities to embrace programs mentioned above could potentially hold the key to severely disrupting recruitment efforts of the dozens of neo-Nazi groups operating in the United States.

 

John Patrick Wilson is an Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

Lessons from the KKK

KKK recruitment propaganda. Source: Link

Upstate New York experienced a unique threat to the safety of their community this year: attempted Ku Klux Klan (KKK) recruitment of their school children. Specifically, the United Northern & Southern Knights of the KKK, two specific sects of the Klan, printed propaganda and placed it into bags accompanying candy. These bags were then placed onto driveways of school children in the early morning hours in an effort to ensure that the children got the packages while exiting their homes for school.

Oneida County Sheriff Robert Maciol was careful to note that the recruitment effort was a form of protected free speech; however, any attempt to solicit acts of violence would be prosecuted. Upstate New York is not alone in experiencing Klan activity, despite the fact that many perceive the KKK as essentially defunct. As of 2017, 42 known Klan groups were active across almost two dozen states. Current estimates place the number of Klan members, or those sympathetic or open to their ideology, at around 3,000 people. However, blanket recruitment efforts such as those used in upstate New York are distinctly unsophisticated and rely on chance, because the propaganda will only work if it lands in the hands of a child vulnerable to the beliefs presented.

Interestingly, many members of the modern Klan have a mixed ideology of traditional Klan beliefs and neo-Nazi beliefs. In some cases, these mixed ideologies can weaken extremist groups as it makes their members’ loyalties much more complicated.

However, Ken Parker, a former leader in the Ku Klux Klan, is an example proving that full-fledged members of the Klan can change their ideological loyalties. Parker was recruited into the Klan after spending 11 years in the United States Navy, leaving the service during a terrible economic downturn. Parker was first driven to contact a local chapter of the Klan by programs on Netflix that looked at the history of the Klan and neo-Nazism. At first, according to Parker, he was uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic rhetoric of his newfound friends; even so, he fully radicalized within 6 months. Though he met his fiancée at a cross burning, Klansmen close to Parker disapproved of the relationship, leading Parker to renounce his position in the Klan and commit to being a neo-Nazi. After some time with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, Parker became friends with a Muslim filmmaker and renounced neo-Nazism altogether. Parker now spends his social time as an active member of a local church group.

What does Parker’s case tell us about those vulnerable to recruitment by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups? Their belief system is not as strong, nor is it as deeply rooted as other extremist ideologies. The identity associated with being a Klansman has perhaps become diluted, making for weaker loyalties. If Parker’s case is representative of even a moderate percentage of Klan recruitment, then the Klan is relying on recruiting individuals who are susceptible to recruitment from a wide variety of groups. Many of these individuals are high-risk to be recruited by a wide variety of organizations, whether they be extremist groups, cults, or street gangs. These high-risk individuals often are looking to belong, to be meaningful members of a group, and to find an ideology which explains their real or perceived problems. While this may be seen as beneficial for the Klan, in reality it fails to produce long-term members for the group.

Lack of sophisticated recruitment capability likely is representative of a disorganized organization. While it is repulsive to experience Klan recruitment efforts at all, attempts like the candy drive in upstate New York are an indicator that the Klan is not in a position of returning to the strength it once held. Local law enforcement should monitor such cases to look for solicitation of specific acts of violence or changes in sophistication of targeted recruitment efforts. A change in recruitment operations for the Klan likely will signal a change in the organization, towards a more decentralized structure or to a more rigid structure depending upon the direction the Klan attempts to take going forward.

 

John Patrick Wilson is a Law Enforcement Professional and a Research Fellow with Rise to Peace.

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