By Inés Bolaños Somoano
Old threats, new threats
Has the European Union “won” the fight against terrorism? Yes and no. Australia’s Institute for Economic & Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2020 highlights how global deaths from terrorism have fallen for a fifth consecutive year, but also warns of a new terrorism “wave”: far-right attacks have increased globally by 250%, to a level not seen in the last 50 years. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to contribute, exacerbating existing trends of online political polarisation, with more people feeling discriminated against, a circumstance that far-right groups knowingly exploit for online recruitment. “People are confined and are a lot more online. It’s an ideal opportunity to reach those who spend all day on their computers” said the European Union’s (EU) top official on the fight against terrorism, Gilles De Kerchove, in April 2020.
In this context of increased policy attention and possible change, it’s useful to critically assess current EU prevention efforts, which have shown “a cross-the-board bias on so-called Islamism” to the neglect of right-wing terrorism. What principles are prevention programmes based on? And, can we improve prevention practices with regards to the far-right, especially and the online radicalisation challenges posed by them?
Prevention of Jihadist terrorism
In the last two years, and accelerated by the pandemic, EU institutions have started to frame online radicalisation, hate crimes, and far-right violence as a relevant internal security threat, with initial proposals for a coherent EU policy framework on “Violent Right Wing Extremism” under-way with the support of the Commission and Member States.
Well before the rise in right-wing terrorist attacks, and for the last fifteen years, the EU has held a leading role in prevention of Jihadist terrorism in Europe, firstly via its policy initiatives and secondly via funding of local prevention programmes. Such programmes have increasingly focused on resilience building, and are addressed to “vulnerable” (for example, economically or socially marginalised) communities and individuals. Increased resilience is achieved via the development of positive cognitive traits (empathy, critical thinking, and solidarity), which protects individuals and communities from the lure of violence as an outlet for their grievances, and improves community-state relations and social cohesion.
Another cornerstone of EU action on prevention is the removal of terrorist content online, mainly propaganda materials or instructions. The new EU Regulation on online terrorist content will allow Member States to solicit the removal of terrorist content, as well as increase tech companies’ responsibilities in this regard. This new measure, already approved by the Parliament with amendments, has been nonetheless criticised by the Fundamental Rights Agency and civil rights actors, who worry about the lack of conceptual clarity around and potential abuse of the label “terrorist content”.
The conceptual dimension of prevention
Conceptually speaking, national prevention programmes in the EU basically aim to reduce social polarisation and citizens’ susceptibility to extremist content. It is here, however, where the main obstacle arises, as the link between exposure to terrorist material and engagement in violent action remains obscure and contested, with varied approaches among researchers and few empirically significant studies.
To be clear, a connection between Point A, terrorist material, and Point B, engagement in terrorist acts, most definitely exists. However, we ignore the magnitude and conditionality of this link: when and with whom is terrorist content most successful? What, exactly, is the connection between online engagement with extremist groups and materials, such as QAnon or the Boogaloo Bois, and engaging in acts of far-right violence?
In legal and political terms, punishing dissenting opinions is a dangerous precept to build policy on, and a profoundly undemocratic one at that. Moreover, recent experiences with far-right terrorism in Europe have shown that the perpetrators considered themselves to be persecuted because of their ideologies, expressing similar grievances of social marginalisation as some Jihadist terrorists. In contrast to the latter however, far-right terrorists continue to leave behind manifestos and social media posts that point to violent action as the only way to fight state-imposed “political correctness”.
This echoes existing research, which identifies social marginalisation and pent-up political grievances as drivers of radicalisation. It also calls into question the sufficiency of prevention programmes based on resilience building. Whilst diminishing social polarisation overall is an important policy goal in terrorism prevention, it seems hardly effective for already mobilised extremists, and does little to address the eminently online dimension of contemporary far-right terrorism, which relies on the internet for funding, recruitment, and socialisation.
These questions are tremendously important, and should be occupying front-stage in prevention policy and practice circles; their absence up until now needs to be addressed if the EU wishes to continue its work on Jihadist terrorism whilst also widening its scope to the–intensely Internet centric–fight against far-right terrorism.
Lessons Learnt and Challenges Ahead
Some positive notes can be drawn from the European experience. Most importantly, current prevention projects constitute an improvement over past security efforts, as they move away from surveillance and repression, and focus on promoting social cohesion and improving citizens’ abilities to cope with emerging socio-political challenges. The EU’s attention to the micro level has also successfully responded to global challenges in urban security and development. Finally, the integration of local non-state actors is a very promising step, as it increases community acceptance of social projects in marginalised communities, a common challenge for state actors such as police or the judiciary.
Nevertheless, even the framing of these activities as “prevention of terrorism” can end up being counter-productive, and increase alienation across the extremist spectrum. The EU should learn from previous experiences and reflect on the difficulty of simply “producing” legislation on terrorism issues, given the intrinsic conceptual complexity and ideological variations in this phenomenon. Indeed, such difficulties should be highlighted and brought to the forefront of discussions and best practices. At the same time, non-state actors such as human rights watchdogs should be given more of a voice in policy discussions, so as to define far-right, hate crimes and terrorism in a socially mindful and conceptually clear way.
Inés Bolaños Somoano is working on a PhD on the EU Prevention of Terrorism policy instruments and governing bodies, focusing on radicalisation, online terrorist activity and resilience building. On Twitter @Inessomoano.
Image credit: Pixabay.