Dr. Miroslav Mareš and Jakub Petlák, Masaryk University, Brno
The Czech Republic has long traditions of right-wing and left-wing extremist movements. They initiated several serious tragic events in the history of the country, including the Sudeten-German Nazi uprising in 1938 and the subsequent Nazi occupation of the country, the communist seizure of power after the war and the following reign of terror, and a wave of right-wing extremist violence in the 1990s that claimed several dozen victims.
In our times, the country faces a number of important challenges in the field of extremism and counter-extremism. The trend in recent years has been a decline of traditional forms of right and left-wing extremism, in contrast with the radicalization of broader parts of society and the first manifestations of violent religious Islamist extremism.
It is still true that right-wing extremism has driven the highest number of violent incidents in the post-communist period. However, the level of direct physical violence significantly declined in the 2010s in comparison with the situation in the 1990s and the 2000s. During those two decades, gangs of racist skinheads attacked political and racial enemies and killed approximately 30 people, mostly Roma and migrants.
A wave of anti-Roma riots organized by the neo-Nazi scene hit the country in 2009-2013. The police protected Roma settlements against violent crowds in which many local “ordinary citizens” participated. Several arson attacks against Roma houses occurred at that time.
For example, in April 2009, a group of four perpetrators from the neo-Nazi scene in Silesia attacked a house inhabited by a Roma family in the town of Vítkov with Molotov cocktails. A two-year old Roma girl suffered burns on 80% of her body.
This case in particular prompted a strong governmental counter reaction. Important neo-Nazi structures were destroyed around the turn of the decade, including the group Blood & Honor Combat 18 Bohemia/Sudetenland, which attacked a Roma dormitory in the town of Aš in 2011.
A new spur to right-wing extremist mobilization arose with the migration crisis in 2015. Violent right-wing extremist acts against migrants and their supporters have been relatively limited. Several paramilitary and vigilante groups were established with the goal to protect the border and homeland security, but their organizational structures are unstable and they do not use violence.
However, a massive growth of hate speech and threats to political opponents on the internet aroused concern from the point of view of protection of democracy. Manifestation of anti-Islamic attitudes is widespread, despite the fact that the Czech Republic is home to only around 20,000 Muslims. There is a spectrum of protest activism without deeper ideological background, very often with pro-Kremlin sympathies.
In the summer of 2017 there was an alarming incident. A 70 year-old activist of the anti-Islamic scene twice put logs on railroad tracks in a bid to derail trains. He only slightly damaged two sets of carriages and no one was injured. He left several notes with incorrect Arabic inscriptions at the incident sites, aiming to incite hatred against Muslims. He was charged with a terrorist attack. The trial had not started as this report went to press.
There is also a real Islamist extremist threat in the Czech Republic. In 2017, a young Slovak convert was charged with preparing a terrorist attack in Prague, but this case has not yet been adjudicated in court.
According to the Security Information Service, around ten foreign fighters from Czech territory are fighting for so called Islamic State, al-Nusra and its successor organizations, or other groups in Syria and Iraq.
Cases have reached the courts. Former imam Samer Shehadeh from Prague was convicted for helping his brother and a Czech woman to join the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group in Syria. In 2017, a young Czech convert was sentenced for his attempt to join Islamic State. He was first detained in Turkey.
The Czech Republic is also an important territory from the point of view of travel of foreign fighters between Western Europe and the Middle East and as a stage of the migration routes from the Balkans and Eastern Europe to Western Europe.
Other forms of extremism do not seem to be very important sources of violence at present. Around 15 foreign fighters of ex-communist and pan-Slavic background were or still are active in the separatist groups in Donbas. In 2014-2016, several arson attacks against property, mostly police cars, were committed by the anarchist group Network of Revolutionary Cells (SRB). Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and anarchist structures have the capability to confront right-wing extremist rallies. Several individual or small cell hate crimes were committed by Roma people against ethnic Czechs.
Polarization of society and strong anti-EU attitudes among the wider population, mostly due to European migration policy, and disputes about relations with Russia and China could cause violent incidents in the future.
In addition, parts of the traditional right-wing extremist scene remain possible sources of militancy, especially among football hooligans and right-wing activists in martial arts clubs.
Non-governmental home guards and vigilante patrols, sometimes with links to the army, the police or various security agencies, represent a latent challenge to the state violence on monopoly.
Furthermore, individual cases of violence can be connected with the left-wing extremist, eco-extremist or ethnic-extremist scenes. The violent impact of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict does not exclude Czech territory.
Recently, the government has paid most attention to the possible radicalization of members of the Muslim community. Prison communities and petty crime gangs from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the MENA region in the Czech Republic merit concern due to possible connections with Islamic extremism. A specific threat is connected with the traditionally strong pro-Israel policy of the Czech Republic and important Jewish and Western tourism to the country. Tourists and Czech citizens alike may be targeted by international terrorist groups.
In sum, the situation in the Czech Republic is generally “quiet” in comparison with the levels of violence in some countries in the Central European region, such as Germany, Austria, and Poland. However, tensions in society, risk developments in several groups, and the interests of global terrorists could lead to more serious violent extremism in the future, with a wider scope. For this reason, the Czech Republic permanently improves its counter-extremist capabilities and in 2018 the national Czech Radicalisation Awareness Network was established by the Ministry of Interior.
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.