On June 27th, Europol released its annual E.U. Terrorism Situation and Trend Report examining recent trends in terrorist attacks. The report, published just days before the fatal shooting of German politician Walter Lübcke by a far-right terrorist, concluded that one of the most prominent threats is the rise of the far-right across Europe. In Europe and the United States, non-Islamic attacks are becoming increasingly common and concerning.
Defining Far Left and Right Extremism
The greatest non-Islamic threat in the West is left- and right-wing extremism, which can lead to terrorism. Left-wing groups are often rooted in Marxist or Leninist ideologies that promote revolutionary, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian agendas. Far right-wing groups violently pursue supremacism―the “idea that a certain group of people sharing a common element (nation, race, culture, etc.) is superior to all other people.” Right-wing extremists aim to overthrow liberal governments, replacing them with nationalist and fascist agendas.
Left-wing and anarchist terrorism used to be a more significant threat in Europe, but it continues to persist today. In 2017, there were 24 attacks―three fewer than the year prior. The attacks occurred almost exclusively in Greece, Italy, and Spain. E.U. countries arrested 36 people on left-wing and anarchist terrorism charges, a noticeable drop from the 67 arrested in 2015. As of 2019, Europol insists that “Greece is the only E.U. member state that faces an actual threat from left-wing terrorism.”
Right-wing extremist groups have risen due to a “fear of an assumed Islamisation of the Western world” and refugee flows from Syria and Libya. Far-right attacks in Europe increased from 0 to 30 between 2012 and 2017.
Germany has seen a considerable uptick of right-wing extremism after the 2015 migration crisis. Germany’s intelligence agency estimates that today there are “24,100 known far-right extremists in Germany, 12,700 of them potentially violent.” Yet the United Kingdom faces the highest threat of right-wing extremism in Europe. In 2018, all five of the E.U.’s known “right-wing terror plots” (a subsect of extremist incidents) were in the U.K. British counter-terrorism experts agree that far-right extremism is the greatest “emerging security threat.”
Although many Americans view Islamic terrorists as the greatest threat to the country, U.S.-born far-right extremists have been responsible for three times more attacks. Between 2009 and early 2019, 73.3% of fatalities resulting from a terrorist attack were from right-wing extremists, compared to only 23.4% by Islamic extremists. In 2018, right-wing extremism was linked to 50 extremist-related murders in the U.S., the highest number since 1995.
Several recent examples of far-right extremism in the U.S. include the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 individuals, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 59 people and wounded over 500, and the 2017 Charlottesville car-ramming that killed one and injured 30.
Left-wing attacks are currently much rarer in the U.S. and are therefore less of a concern. Between 2010 and 2017, they were responsible for 34 attacks (13% of overall attacks). There was only one fatal left-wing attack in 2018, when an ex-Marine sympathetic to the Black Nationalist movement killed a police officer.
The Bottom Line
U.S. and European governments are concerned about the rising threat of extremism and non-Islamic terrorism. The current focus of most policies is to prevent the “further rise” of right-wing extremism, but the challenge is identifying an individual who is going through the radicalization process. Extremists, particularly those on the far right, have attempted to shed stereotypical appearances and look less conspicuous to avoid detection from law enforcement officials.
A second challenge is charging extremists as terrorists, particularly within the U.S. Since 9/11, only 34 right-wing extremists have been charged under U.S. terrorism laws, but 268 have been prosecuted. It is difficult to charge people with domestic terrorism charges due to First Amendment rights, which permit free speech and the freedom to engage with others who have radical views.
It is necessary for local and federal law enforcement agencies to identify extremists on social media and dismantle threats before they become violent. Although this will be immensely challenging as these individuals often work alone and have a limited criminal record, governments need to work together and share information and policy suggestions. There is no indication that violent extremism will cease in the near future, and we must be prepared to counter this rising threat―no matter its origins.