Armed police patrol at a passage near the opera in central Vienna on November 2, 2020, following a shooting near a synagogue. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The myth of overwhelming right-wing terrorism

Myth-makers are following fashion not evidence

Here we go again: another claim that right-wingers are responsible for two-thirds of American terrorism.

It started with the Southern Poverty Law Centre making claims for 2017. The Henry Jackson Society found, for the same year, that left-wing and right-wing terrorism accounted for exactly the same proportion of Western terrorism (less than 21 per cent), while religious terrorism outweighed both. My own research proved that religious terrorism ran ahead of secular political terrorism since at least 2001, in terms of both events and deaths.

The latest claim comes out of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., one of the older and more respected think-tanks. The new dataset was led by Seth Jones, with whom I worked at RAND. I am confused why his team doesn’t show the same conceptual reliability he showed at RAND. His new dataset categorizes religious terrorism, but does not make the other categories secular. Thence, religious terrorism gets conflated in the other categories, such as Christian right-wing terrorism.

The CSIS categorizes “ethnonationalist” terrorism but separates “racial or ethnic supremacy.” How is “ethnonationalism” different from “racial or ethnic supremacy”? The report’s explanation is weak: ethnonationalism “often include[s] struggles of self-determination and separatism along ethnic or nationalist lines.” Often? This means that sometimes it doesn’t. So, what would ethnonationalism look like when not separatist? The CSIS doesn’t tell. I can’t help but think that ethnonationalism, without separatism, must overlap the category for “racial or ethnic supremacy.”

Instead, the CSIS places “racial or ethnic supremacy” under “far-right terrorism.” But “far-right” lies on a political dimension, not a racial or ethnic dimension. Then the CSIS makes clear that far-right doesn’t include all “racial or ethnic supremacy,” only white supremacists. The CSIS places black supremacists under “far-left terrorism.”

So now we know that the CSIS distributes racial or ethnic terrorism across at least three categories: ethnonationalism; far-right; far-left. And by separating white and black ethnonationalism, the category that the CSIS refers to as “ethnonationalism” ends up with no cases at all.

Western elites have bent the knee to social justice warriors that see right-wing violence everywhere

Thence, the CSIS carries forward only four categories: religious; far-right; far-left; and “other.” The “other” category supposedly includes anything that “do[es] not neatly fit into any of the above categories.” The CSIS gives the example of the anti-government “Boogaloo” movement. But the CSIS previously placed any “opposition to government authority” under the “far-right” category. And the CSIS specifies anarchism in the far-left category (as epitomized by attacks on federal buildings this summer by co-travellers of Black Lives Matter). In other words, the CSIS distributes anti-government motivations across all four categories. Ethnonationalism is distributed across three categories.

Now, having exposed the chaos of the CSIS typology, we must focus on the two categories on which the CSIS bases its headline claim (that two-third of terrorism is far-right).

The far-right and far-left categories conflate politics with ethnicity and race. They conflate black with left-wing, and white with right-wing. Therefore, these categories cannot accommodate left-wing white supremacists, such as Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019. Tarrant left behind a manifesto, in which he identified with Chinese Communism, more than anything. He identified also with anti-imperialism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and anarchism. He specifically rejected Nazism, conservatism, Christianity, Donald Trump, and corporatism.

The media quickly deleted Tarrant’s manifesto, while misrepresenting it. The BBC described the manifesto as “right-wing,” without quoting from it. The Guardian newspaper described him as “neofascist” just because he targeted Muslims (at most, this targeting proves Islamophobia).

Seeing right-wing terrorism everywhere is a left-wing problem. This gets us back to the claim that two-thirds of American terrorism in 2017 was right-wing. The Southern Poverty Law Centre had already strayed beyond its founding mission, in order to troll anybody outside the far-left as far-right – and Islamophobic to boot. For instance, it labelled the neuroscientist Sam Harris as Islamophobic, just because he said he understood European frustrations with immigration.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre has slippery categories of its own making, such as “alt-light,” as a gateway to “alt-right.” By such conflations, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, in partnership with a rarefied left-wing news-site (Quartz, then under the same owner as The Atlantic magazine), claimed that two-thirds of American terrorism in 2017 was right-wing.

Lockdown provides fewer opportunities for mass casualty terrorism, which Jihadis favour

For 2018, the Anti-Defamation League jumped in, claiming that right-wingers predominated in global terrorism. But the ADL conflated terrorism with “extremist violence,” within which it included any hate crime. By conventional definitions (including the CSIS definition), terrorism is violence with political motivations and intent to terrorise. The ADL conflated hate crimes that were neither political nor meant to terrorize. And the ADL casually talked about terrorism and “violent extremism” as one and the same.

The ADL got to its claim of right-wing predominance by categorizing both anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism as right-wing. Imagine extremist Muslims and Jews fighting each other, given opposing ethno-religious prejudices. Yet the Anti-Defamation League would lump them together as right-wing, as well as white supremacists.

Thus, I am confused why the CSIS methodology lists the Anti-Defamation League as a source.

I am confused also why the CSIS did not compare its short-term analysis with longer-term trends. The CSIS collected data for only the first eight months of 2020. It has collected data in previous years but did not publish any trends, which suggests a lack of confidence in reliability year on year.

The CSIS could have compared longer term trends from the Global Terrorism Dataset, which covers the years 1970 through 2018. Seth Jones previously used the GTD at RAND, as did I.

In my latest use of the GTD, I added variables to categorize the perpetrators as either religious or secular political. The CSIS could have made use of my extension of the GTD in order to sub-categorize the secular terrorists as left-wing or right-wing. Thence, the CSIS could have separated the political poles over 48 years. Instead, the CSIS chose to report an eight-month period in isolation, from dubious sources.

The CSIS does not admit that its short-term claim (most terrorism was right-wing in the first eight months of 2020) is anomalous with my long-term finding (most terrorism, since 1970, is religious). Moreover, the religious proportion accelerated in recent decades. As measured by deaths rather than just events, religious terrorism looks even riskier (religious terrorists kill more people per attack).

Almost all deadly terrorism in the West in the last two decades was perpetrated by religious extremists. Almost all Western religious terrorists are Jihadi terrorists. All the religious terrorism that the CSIS could find in America in the first eight months of 2020 is Jihadi terrorism. (Jihadi terrorism is even riskier in Muslim-majority countries.)

The dispute here isn’t just academic. False claims of overwhelming right-wing terrorism are fashionable in these woke times. They attract attention from the mainstream media, social media, and corporations that need to justify their lavishly resourced but under-qualified offices of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice.

Dishonesty about terrorism confuses the people we rely on to conduct counterterrorism. For instance, in 2017, just before Salman Abedi blew up 22 other people exiting a concert at the Manchester Arena, a security guard was suspicious of the fidgety, sweaty man with a bulky rucksack sitting on the steps, but chose not to approach, in case he would be accused of racial profiling.

The myth of overwhelming right-wing terrorism is politically diverting too. By 2018, the British government was quietly training politicians in right-wing terrorism but not Jihadi terrorism.

This was before two American mass shootings that were applied retrospectively to the myth of overwhelming right-wing terrorism. Both are officially categorized as white supremacist: in October 2018, an anti-Hispanic white male shot to death 22 in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; and in August 2019, a white male shot to death 11 at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because a Jewish charity had assisted refugees. In September 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security’s released a new strategy that prioritized white supremacists, to the delight of the media.

Jihadi terrorism is still the riskiest terrorism

Since then we have not seen any mass-casualty attacks by white supremacists. Yet the myth of overwhelming right-wing terrorism still has commercial imperatives. For instance, in May 2020, Jane’s released a podcast in which its Terrorism and Insurgency Team sounded like a bunch of teenagers who have just discovered a microphone and a prejudice. They spent an hour telling each other how worried they are about “white supremacism” (interchangeable with “right-wing”). They had no evidence except their own impressions of social media accounts. Contradicting themselves, they comforted each other that these accounts are quickly banned or are platitudinous for fear of being discovered. Their academic guest similarly cried alarm about the growth of white supremacism but contradicted himself by drawing comfort that almost all far-right groups have been dispersed by infiltrators and prosecutions. Jane’s released this podcast 20 days before the Black Lives Matter violence exploded. I am still waiting for Jane’s to release a podcast on Black Lives Matter violence.

During the first weekend of protests against the death of George Floyd in police custody, at least nine people were killed. About 28 were killed by the end of August. But the CSIS counts only two of them. The CSIS doesn’t make clear why these two were terrorist, while the other 26 or so are not. The CSIS reports only one of the five murders in its dataset as far-right (20 per cent), even though its reports 67 per cent of the plots as far-right. (The CSIS coded the other murder at a protest as far left. The other three of the five terrorist murders, according to CSIS, were public officials in their homes or offices.)

The CSIS report takes comfort that no mass casualty terrorism occurred in those eight months. Strangely, the CSIS does not directly ponder this finding. Instead, it hypothesizes, without any basis, “that extremists in 2020 prioritized sending messages through intimidation and threats rather than killing.” The CSIS ignores the fact that for most of the eight months America was subsumed by lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests. Lockdown provides fewer opportunities for mass casualty terrorism, which Jihadis favour. Meanwhile, the protests provide plenty of opportunities for left-right and white-black confrontations.

Perversely, the overwhelmingly anti-white, left-wing violence in the West since May has been used to reinforce the myth of overwhelming white-racist, right-wing violence. Western elites bent the knee to Marxist social justice warriors that see white-racist, right-wing violence everywhere (even in “silence is violence”). The same methodological tricks and political biases used to pretend that terrorism is overwhelmingly right-wing are used to claim that Black Lives Matter protests are “overwhelmingly peaceful.”

In October 2020, the DHS released a threat assessment prioritizing white supremacism, citing data from 2018 to 2019, without evaluating any data for 2020.

The British government has said nothing about terrorism this year. Nevertheless, most Anglophone media and governments condemn the French government’s stance against resurgent Jihadism since the summer.

The West’s neglect of Jihadi risks has been exposed by the Jihadi beheadings of three church-goers in Nice, France, at the end of October, and the Jihadi shootings of four café-patrons near a synagogue in Vienna, Austria, during the first days of November. Why then? In both countries, the attacks occurred between lockdowns.

Jihadi terrorism is still the riskiest terrorism. The myth of overwhelmingly right-wing terrorism is a deadly diversion, by left-wing pseudo-empiricists, and formerly non-partisan scholars who would rather follow fashion than evidence.

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