Phil Gurski, President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a Distinguished Fellow in National Security at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). A senior strategic analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalization, he has written six books, including most recently ‘The Peaceable Kingdom? A History of Terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the Present’.
In November 2022, the United Kingdom announced a “wholesale refresh” of its counter-terrorism (CT) strategy, known as CONTEST. That program has four pillars, the so-called four ‘p’s’: Prevent (stopping people from becoming terrorists in the first place), Pursue (what we would see as classic CT investigations by security intelligence and law enforcement agencies), Protect (putting things in place to make the terrorists’ goals harder to achieve—e.g. concrete bollards at key public places), and Prepare (ending attacks quickly with as little loss of life and property possible and building “resilience”). CONTEST came out in the wake of 9/11 but took a unique UK turn after the Al-Qaeda attacks in London in July 2005.
One of the elements of Prevent often goes by the designation CVE: countering violent extremism. This approach aims at developing ways to lessen the chances any given person will adopt ideas that could lead to acts we would consider terrorist in nature—the difficulty of defining “terrorism” notwithstanding—or dealing with those who have already embraced such ideas (often called “de-radicalization”).
Over the past two decades the focus of all these efforts has been squarely against Islamist extremism, as that particular form of terrorism has dominated worldwide (and still does). Statistics presented by bodies such as the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in its annual Global Terrorism Index show definitively that the vast majority of deaths and injuries in terrorist incidents come at the hands of jihadis. Facts are facts, after all.
What, then, to make of all these calls for a re-focus of attention and resources increasingly to what has been variously called the far-Right, Right-wing terrorism or, at least in Canada and quite erroneously, “ideologically-motivated violent extremism” (IMVE)? Many commentators seem to believe that our security intelligence and law enforcement officials have put far too many eggs in the jihadi basket and ignored the alleged growing threat from the aforementioned actors. Is this accurate? Is a re-examination of UK CT strategy necessary?
To my mind, it is not.
There is no question that there is such a phenomenon as Right-wing extremism (RWE) manifest in a variety of forms: white nationalism, white supremacism, neo-Nazism, neo-fascism, etc. (some also include QAnon, conspiracy theorists and even violent incels—involuntary celibates—in this mix: I disagree with that analysis). There have been a handful of large-scale attacks in recent years—Quebec City, Canada (2017); Christchurch, New Zealand (2019); and Buffalo, United States (2022)—but even when we include these death tolls into our calculation of violent extremism, and even when we factor in the drop in fatalities as claimed by the IEP, we have to concede that Islamist terrorists are still behind 99% of all deaths and injuries worldwide. Furthermore, in most of the world’s nations, the term RWE has no meaning (we could see Hindu extremism in India as a form thereof but that is an exception). Jihadis still rule the terrorism roost.
In the West, however, there seems to be a building consensus that Islamist terrorism is on the wane and some go as far as suggesting a continued focus on it is motivated by prejudice, despite the fact there has been an equal number of serious attacks over the past decade by jihadis in Europe: Paris (2015), Brussels (2016), London (2017), Barcelona (2017), etc. Security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies still announce on a regular basis the thwarting of planned attacks and the arrest of wannabe jihadis in the West. Why, then, are some claiming this is ‘yesterday’s’ threat?
One could propose that some of this movement stems from the ill-defined woke and cancel culture parts of Western societies: I will leave that debate to others more qualified in that regard. Nevertheless, we are led to believe that those in whom we place our protection from terrorism are getting it wrong and, worst of all, are somehow systemically racist or biased themselves (again, the ‘Islamophobia’ label is thrown around frequently). But, to reiterate, the facts speak for themselves.
To this we have to add the growing tendency to accuse anyone who protests government (in)action as having a link to RWE. We in Canada saw this last year during the so-called Freedom Convoy, the anti-COVID vaccination protests in Ottawa and elsewhere. While there were a handful of actors who may—and I stress may—have had some ties to groups which could be described as far-Right, the vast majority do not appear to have had any. In any event, the three-week blockade near the Canadian Parliament was non-violent and there was never any serious threat of violent extremist action.
As we see jihadist movements around the world continue to dominate the terrorist landscape—the entire African continent is of particular concern—we would be wise to let corroborated data, and not opinion, direct our analysis. Al-Qaeda could see a resurgence thanks to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan—here it should be remembered that the Taliban is a listed terrorist entity in many countries—and the Islamic State (ISIS) and its many branches around the world are far from dead. Dozens of nations still face real challenges in confronting Islamist terrorist groups.
The West may be an exception in that the levels of attacks and deaths is vastly lower than those in Asia and Africa, but anyone who thinks jihadi terrorism is yesterday’s problem is in error. The New Year’s Eve machete attack in New York is a good reminder of this.
All of the above applies to CVE more narrowly. Governments need to allocate resources where they are most needed: publics do not welcome failure on their part. In an ideal world there would be enough funds to meet all challenges: alas, we do not live in that world. Each nation has to analyze its own reality before making these decisions. Pound for pound, though, Islamist extremism will most likely continue to dominate the world of terrorism for some years to come. It will therefore need to be confronted, and that includes CVE efforts.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.