European Eye on Radicalization
European Eye on Radicalization (EER) was pleased to host a joint event with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) recently about how Western states have handled domestic extremists and terrorists, the far-Right and Islamists.
Alexander Ritzmann, a Senior Advisor to CEP and the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), as well as an Associate Fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), spoke first about the financing of far-Right extremists, particularly in Germany.
Ritzmann began by noting that CEP has been working to map the far-Right networks, beginning with a November 2020 report commissioned by the German Federal Foreign Office, “Violent Right-Wing Extremism: Transnational Connectivity, Definitions, Incidents, Structures, and Countermeasures,” and this has led on to further studies of the financial and online infrastructure of these extremists.
A “follow the money” approach is difficult with far-Right extremists, says Ritzmann, unlike with Islamists, because of the way they are structured, and this has led to a narrative that suggests the far-Right does not have sophisticated finances. Instead, many believe, the far-Right uses very individuated financial revenues. This is not so, says Ritzmann. When examined, the far-Right milieu proves to have a rather integrated financial system.
Ritzmann documents that far-Right fund-raising fits into six broad categories:
- Self-financing from members and donors, through fees for membership, inheritance, cryptocurrencies, and the like—the strategy that everyone understands;
- Concerts and music festivals;
- Companies, usually legally registered, and online shops;
- Combat sports events;
- Real estate, often purchased with the proceeds of the other methods; and
- Organised crime.
The music concerts and festivals form different functions for the far-Right. One purpose is to connect groups through spreading common narratives and the events themselves foster camaraderie. The other major purpose is to raise funds: some events in Germany host as many as 6,000 people and can take in 150,000 euros.
In terms of companies, far-Right extremists tend to lead security companies, where they can act as enforcers—sometimes for the above-mentioned concerts—but they also have merchandise stores, some of them mainstream like fashion and restaurants, some of them more niche catering to “survivalists” with machetes, crossbows, and so on (which obviously have the dual-use of being capable of enabling terrorist attacks), and some overtly hateful, such as the company that sells “white hand-made” soap.
The combat sports events, particularly mixed martial arts (MMA), include people from all over the world, a significant number from Russia, but when—as in these cases—all the participants are white, this is “probably a white supremacist event”, says Ritzmann, “because the combat sports scene is diverse”. Entry tickets provide significant funds.
Real estate is not just a money-making or money-laundering activity, but has an ideological role for far-Right extremists who feel themselves at war with the German state and society: purchasing property provides them “fortresses in enemy territory”, Ritzmann explains.
Far-Right involvement in organised crime is extensive, Ritzmann documents. The activities—drugs, illegal arms dealing, prostitution, and racketeering—are familiar, but the participants are various, from outlaw motorcycle gangs like the “Hell’s Angels” to more “traditional” mafia syndicates, specifically Italian and Armenian. The money made from these operations is often funnelled into real estate—or restaurants or gyms—and laundered this way it (theoretically) becomes “clean”. The crime-terror nexus is well-known in Islamist circles; the far-Right is following this pattern.
Ritzmann turned to the online space, where it is popular belief that the major tech platforms have taken down the far-Right accounts. But the far-Right has adapted to this by ceasing, in general, to post overtly hateful content, and, since most of the groups they are members of are not proscribed, there is not much basis in the terms of service to deactivate their accounts. What the far-Right actors do instead is to post “normal” things—about mundane things like their lunch—and include links to their merchandise sites, where they sell machetes and hateful t-shirts.
Ritzmann concludes by noting there is a systemic problem of a lack of data, and issues about state practice and coordination. The “single-case” police approach, i.e. looking for sufficient legal basis to imprison the arrested person in front of them with no concern for the broader network, has been one issue. Another is that illegal activity coded as organised crime, say, is dealt with by departments that have no understanding of (or interest in) the political-extremist dimension of the activities they have uncovered, and the wider milieu in which this took place.
There are signs of improvement in these areas, especially in Germany, but more needs to be done, and some way to tackle the use of legal enterprises by far-Right extremists engaged in illegal activity—namely trying to undermine the constitutional order—needs to be found.
Kyle Orton, a national security and terrorism analyst based in Britain, an English editor for EER, spoke about the British state’s evolving approach to Islamists.
The Islamist current emerges in the 1920s, after the Ottoman caliphate was swept away, as one answer to the question of where legitimate authority could come from. The mothership of this trend was the Muslim Brotherhood, formed in Egypt in 1928. The current would develop over the next few decades, drawing on Nazi sponsorship for a time, and later finding rather ironic support in places from the virulently anti-religious Communist Soviet Union.
The Brotherhood’s most developed branches in Egypt and Syria were cracked down on by secular-inclined republican governments in the 1960s and 1970s. Egypt’s ruler had nearly been assassinated by a Brotherhood agent, triggering the initial crackdown, but Egypt went through several further rounds with the Brotherhood, including one in the late 1970s when the government tried to align with the Islamists. It ended with Islamists murdering Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.
The crackdowns in the Middle East forced some Brothers to flee abroad. Initially the Brotherhood operatives in Europe mostly settled in places like Germany. At this stage, the primary Islamist presence in Britain had its origins in the Subcontinent, unsurprisingly since Britain had ruled India and there were all kinds of connections between the two. The Subcontinental Brotherhood equivalent was Jama’at-i Islami under the ideologue Abu Ala al-Mawdudi. The Brotherhood “proper” would only come to Britain in serious numbers in the latter part of the twentieth century.
The two events that really empowered the Islamists took place in 1979: first, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, deposing the West’s most powerful and loyal ally, the Shah, encouraging the Islamists to think that if they could take power in Iran, they could take power anywhere, and then the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan a few months later.
It was in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan that the jihadi-Salafist movement evolved and Al-Qaeda came together. The financing of Al-Qaeda in this period was mostly from Usama bin Laden’s personal fortune, but more donors joined the cause after the Battle of Jaji in the spring of 1987. In reality, Jaji was more like a skirmish with the Red Army, but it was cast by jihadist propaganda as a heroic victory and it brought many more donors and recruits to the ”Arab-Afghans”.
With the Soviets winding down the war, Al-Qaeda began to look globally in 1991-2, carrying out its first attack on the U.S.—against troops in Yemen preparing to deploy to Somalia to alleviate the famine—and Bin Laden moved to Sudan, where Al-Qaeda began its relationship with the Islamic Revolution that rules Iran, sending Al-Qaeda jihadists to Lebanon for training by Iran’s local Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) unit, known as Hizballah
Al-Qaeda was often described after 9/11 as dividing the world between the “far enemy” (the West) and the “near enemy” (local regimes), with a strategy to focus on the former, to drive the U.S. out of the region and, as Al-Qaeda saw it, leave the American puppet governments undefended, allowing Islamist revolutions to take place. This was true—up to a point. But Al-Qaeda’s vision always included the local dimension. By the 9/11 Commission’s estimate, the camps in Afghanistan—where Bin Laden would return in 1996—trained up to 20,000 jihadists to fight in various theatres around the world, including Chechnya, Egypt, Bosnia (which was very important in how Al-Qaeda developed), and, most relevant to how Islamism evolved in Britain, Algeria.
With the Soviet Union’s collapse imminent, the Soviet-model and Soviet-aligned government in Algeria tried to chart a different course in 1991 by holding elections, which were swiftly cancelled when it became clear an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), would win them. The attempt to suppress the FIS spiralled into a civil war and the Islamist insurgency was quickly captured by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a group with an ideology very similar to the Islamic State (ISIS).
The GIA began wholesale massacres of villages declared to be “infidels” and in 1995 there were GIA bombings in Paris. There are a lot of questions about exactly what the GIA was and why it acted so self-destructively because the Algerian intelligence service, the DRS, had so deeply infiltrated the group. Regardless, this behaviour spooked France sufficiently that they put their weight behind the Algerian junta and became indirectly involved in the war. On the diplomatic front, the French government worked to end the diplomacy that would have forced Algiers to negotiate with the insurgents, and gave the Algerian Generals space to finish with the rebellion.
It was while French intelligence was involved in Algeria that they discovered the networks within France that had been helping the Algerian insurgency with propaganda and financing, and had (at least ostensibly) been mixed up in the bombings. The French began shrinking the space for jihadists within the country, and it was as the jihadists moved out that Paris noticed many of them ending up in London. The French officials tracking this began referring to “Londonistan”, and trying to get the British to move against these people, which the British never did.
The jihadists arriving in London found already entrenched jihadist networks supporting the GIA, notably around Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), a leading Al-Qaeda cleric and ideologue to the present day, and at the time Bin Laden’s most senior lieutenant in Europe.
Othman was at the time was an obscure figure in Britain, but some of his associates, notably Mustafa Kamel Mustafa (Abu Hamza) sought attention and got it. Mustafa’s fiery sermons becoming a regular feature in the tabloid press, where he was given the name “Captain Hook” because he had lost his hands mishandling explosives in Afghanistan in the 1980s and replaced them with hooks.
Despite regularly straying into territory that could be considered incitement, Mustafa was never arrested, nor was he arrested when he went to Bosnia to fight with the jihadist contingent and returned to Britain.
So why was this?
For his book, The Virtual Caliphate, Yaakov Lappin spoke to Baroness Caroline Cox, the former speaker of the British House of Lords, who had been involved in looking into everything after 7/7. Lappin reports that she said in 2007: “[T]here are signs that the UK government allowed jihadis into Britain and gave them a free hand to set up base, on the understanding that Britain itself would not be harmed.”
There is every indication this was the state of play up to 2001. Fundraising, propaganda, logistical support, even fighters going abroad—the British state basically left the jihadists alone so long as the impacts of their activities were abroad.
There were some efforts around the margins by the intelligence services to surveil and infiltrate the jihadist networks, but it was never serious or systematic. The jihadists just were not taken seriously even after the East Africa Embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000
What forced the reassessment obviously was 9/11. On the first Friday after 9/11, three days after the atrocities, with the bodies still under the rubble, Othman gave a sermon saying this was part of the eternal war between Christendom and Islam. Subsequent statements made clear his support for murdering non-Muslims.
In December 2001, Britain finally passed laws against this sort of thing and Othman went into hiding, finally being arrested in October 2002, beginning a thirteen-year saga to deport him to his home country, Jordan. Mustafa was not arrested until August 2004. After much legal complication, Mustafa was extradited to the U.S. in 2012 and convicted in 2014.
In the 2000s, the jihadists were a central concern of the security services and their room for manoeuvre was certainly curbed, but the old pattern of a narrow focus on domestic terrorism persisted—with terrible consequences.
The British government’s policy after 9/11 was to promote moderation, which is reasonable, but in practice this ended up meaning engagement with so-called “non-violent” Islamists or “participationists”. The idea was that if Islamists were given legal pathways to achieving some of their goals, it would make the violent revolutionaries less attractive.
The immediate problem was in conception: the British state was treating its Muslim population as a bloc. The next problem is in practice: to deal with this bloc, the government needed representatives to engage, and the best-organised people were groups like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain, both created in 1997 as Muslim Brotherhood-derived organisations when the Brothers started realising that their stay in Europe would not be temporary, as detailed in the 2015 report on the Brotherhood.
It is difficult to quantify the harm this did. It is clear it did not help social cohesion to treat Muslims as an undifferentiated bloc and it was poisonous to grant legitimacy to extremists like the Brotherhood and their narratives, such as that Islam was under a relentless attack from the British state. It created terrible incentives: activists and others wanting to influence public policy effectively had to go through Brotherhood gatekeepers. And state funds designed for counter-extremism and counter-terrorism ended up in the hands of groups that were plainly opposed to the values of the state.
What can be said with certainty is that this strategy did no good: the 7/7 attacks took place in 2005. Nonetheless, the strategy mostly continued, with the only serious change being the introduction of the CONTEST policy in 2006, whose most well-known element is PREVENT. The policy has the problem inherent to most anti-radicalisation efforts, namely a great difficulty in quantifying its success. That PREVENT has become a focus for Islamist agitation is perhaps the major suggestion that it is doing some good.
Britain finally changed course in 2010 under the new Conservative government, at least to the extent that state funds ceased going to Islamist organisations. The debates over how to develop this were somewhat cut-short by the eruption of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.
In the ISIS phase, British policy was, understandably, very much more focused on counter-terrorism than counter-extremism because there was an immediate threat. Terrorism financing was less of an issue with ISIS because it raised its own funds from “taxes” on populations it ruled over, and was able to direct foreign attacks effectively for free by guiding people within Britain and other Western countries on encrypted apps.
About 900 British citizens joined ISIS and unknown numbers joined Al-Qaeda and similar groups to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime. By 2019, when the caliphate collapsed, 400 had returned and only 40 have been prosecuted—one-tenth. Not all of these ended in conviction and the short sentences mean that nearly everybody imprisoned has either been released or is about to be.
In sum, the legal problems that were visible in the 1990s and 2000s with cases like Mustafa have persisted. The legal system has struggled to enforce the distinction between free expression and subversion, and the nature of the crimes committed by ISIS operatives—in places where witnesses are difficult to access, for example—has left the default charge as membership of a terrorist organisation, which carries a minimal sentence.
The intelligence side has looked better in Britain: jihadist networks are now systematically surveilled and if possible infiltrated, leading to most attacks being stopped before execution and in those cases where people slip through the net the security forces are often close by.
The major backsliding has been—as last week’s review of PREVENT documented extensively—on the counter-extremism side. There have been some recent public contacts between Ministers and Brotherhood-derived groups; this led to some public backlash, but it is worrying that it happened at all. And there are once again issues about where state funds are going. Terrorism finance in general remains an area of concern in Britain: a lot of it is done under the guise of charities, and the Charities Commission that regulates this sphere is deficient in authorities and practice.
Beyond official policy, there is a problem with how the media and civil society is dealing with ISIS operatives like Shamima Begum, turning them into “celebrities” with platforms that could be used for negative purposes.