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Islamists are presumed to be behind… no, wait; This just in: a Right Wing Extremist…

A fortnight ago when I compiled a literature review over the latest and greatest work on terrorism financing, I was baffled by how much of the work  drew on studies of Islamist terrorism. Only a handful of the literature I came across examined separatist, left-wing/anarchist, right wing, or eco-terrorism. This is odd as there are no signs that other types of terrorism have declined with the ascent of Islamist terrorism. This indicates that the disparity in literature must only be fictional.

Some right wing extremists perceive themselves as Templar Knights leading a Crusade against multiculturalism and the "Islamisation" of Europe. Photo: flickr/Creativity+Timothy K Hamilton

Indeed, what has happened since 2001 is that our narrative on terrorism has become dangerously monotone. Discursive boundaries on terrorism have been slow in transgressing or fusing knowledge between the many different sorts of terrorism. This is despite the general agreement that terrorists’ hatred may be different, but it has similar roots. Yet when we speak about terrorism today we refer to, or think of, Islamist extremism. As a couple of researchers with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs pointed out:

“Because the designation of the signified depends upon the speaker, the concept of terrorism seems to be subjective and fluid. The signified switches radically both by context and over time, while the only aspect that is stable is the signifier, ‘terrorism.’ ”

The paper goes on to argue that although figures of speech contribute to the cognitive dimension of meaning by helping us to recognize the equivalence to which we are committed, cognitive shortcuts, or ‘heuristics’, raise problems and do little to increase our understanding of terrorism as a phenomenon. In fact, cognitive shortcuts are counterproductive for why we study terrorism, namely to enhance security. 

Why is this? First of all, considering different cultural codes and world views, employing heuristics hampers communication at the global level.  Secondly, when we squeeze the discourse on terrorism into a narrative straitjacket we run the risk of failing to connect knowledge of one type of terrorism with another. Finally, we open the floodgates for prejudices.

What is remarkable, in my view, is that the bad habit to let Islamism monopolise academic literature also appears to be the case in intelligence communities.  Of course, politics plays a role here. Resources put to Islamism is disproportionate because global jihad is understood by the public as the most pressing terror threat. Right wing, anarchist, or eco-terrorism are typically second tier concerns. But in the same way employing heuristics undercuts academic progression, the same deficit undermines counter-terrorism efforts.

The newest data from the Europol’s annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report suggests that there is a vast crevasse in resources put to right wing extremism compared to Islamism, even though the number of terror attacks is relatively similar.

The fissure can, of course, be vindicated by the fact that the number of threats received from Islamist groups was substantially larger than from right wing groups. However, this explanation is insufficient because right wing groups and Islamists have different ‘advertising cultures’, for lack of a better word. Right wing extremists demonstrate, walk parades, and arrange concerts where they play white power music. Islamists, on the other hand, broadcast their threat assertions directly on social media.

The point is that both types of manifestations have increased the last couple of years, particularly in Europe. In fact, many scholars believe that the two forms of extremism operate in tandem. As Islamism increases so does right wing ‘populism’. In other words, both types of extremism conform to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” logic as they both seek to reverse the multicultural society by resorting to violence.

When institutes like the Centre for European Studies thus establishes that multiculturalism is proliferating in Europe, we should expect, like the International Peace Institute suggests, that tension, more movement in extremist groups, and terrorism will increase as well. This is particularly so in times of economic recession that traditionally threatens social cohesion and is conducive to political tension.

Many people were astonished by the tragic events in Norway this week-end. But if one looks at what is happening in Europe, there is no reason to be shocked by what happened. Sweden’s leading morning-news magazine Dagens Nyheter got it right when they reported that the rhetoric used by this deeply disturbed individual is similar to right wing extremists all across Sweden, Scandinavia and continental Europe. The bi-annual Euro-barometer takes the public temper on issues like immigration and integration and suggests that far right sympathies in Europe have enjoyed a renaissance over the past 30 years, driven by resentment of the growing powers of the European Union and by rejection of the multiculturalism that has accompanied rapid immigration from the developing world. Similarly, most xenophobic political parties that trumpet closed borders rolled forward their frontiers in previous national elections, even in historically tolerant societies like Sweden (Sverige Demokraterna) and Finland (SannFinländarna). In a way, the political doctrines of these parties are only dressed up language or, if you like, a politically correct vehicle for far right sympathies (click here for bizarre blog-posts by one of the neophyte Swedish Democrats).

So, when experts in the moments following the events in Oslo jump to conclusions and ascertain that the deeds carried the “fingerprints” of al-Qaida and “global jihad”, think again – and this time outside the box.

Besides the obvious repugnance of the act, the reason we were shocked by the tragedy in Norway is that there was a chasm between intelligence on the one hand, and what was happening on the ground across Europe on the other. Why? Well, this is the point I want to make. As as James Brandon, research head at London’s Quilliam think-tank, said, we stare us blind on Islamism as the primary enemy to the values we believe in and forget about other brewing threats.

If OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) is best understood as the systematic collection, processing, analysis, production and dissemination of information derived from sources openly available to the public as a means to enhance national security, then what happened in Norway was proof of an OSINT washout.

Norwegian police have not been overly concerned with right wing extremism in recent years. It is plainly not very visible if one doesn’t look for it. Yet, only in Norway an estimated 40 people currently belong to self-proclaimed extreme right wing groups. Anyone familiar with the darker waters of the blogosphere would for years have been aware of the existence of a vibrant cyber-scene characterised by unmitigated hatred of the new Europe, aggressive denunciations of the “corrupted, multiculturalist power elites” and pejorative generalisations about immigrants, targeting Muslims in particular.  Reportedly, the perpetrator responsible for the atrocities in Norway had posted suspicious material several times on his social media sites, yet he escaped the loop of the Norwegian intelligence services.

To conclude I’d like to echo the tenor of Lilit Gevorgyan at the IHS Global Insight and contend that if the twin attacks in Norway fail to trigger an honest rethink for a new grand narrative on how we think on political extremism, the lives of the victims were taken in vain. The same argument resonates all across the western world in different forms, I carry it to OSINT. Let us absorb the full extent of this Zeitgeist, and let it not be temporary.

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