As Right-Wing Extremism Rises, Jihadism Still Persists

World Politics Review, 19.02.2021
Colin P. Clarke, director de investigación (The Soufan Group, consulora de inteligencia y 
seguridad en NY)

Police respond at the scene of a shooting attack in Vienna, Nov. 3, 2020 (AP photo by Ronald Zak).

Six separate terrorist attacks took place in Europe between late September and late November of last year—three in France, and one each in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All six attacks were inspired by Salafi-jihadist ideology, which is, and will remain, a persistent terrorism threat to Europe and elsewhere in the West for the foreseeable future.

Among the incidents in France was a stabbing attack outside the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which has published caricatures of religious figures, including the prophet Muhammad, and where al-Qaida-affiliated gunmen killed 12 staff members in 2015. Weeks later, a middle school teacher named Samuel Paty was beheaded after he showed his students caricatures of Muhammad as part of a classroom presentation on freedom of speech. And in early November, three people were fatally stabbed at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. None of the perpetrators of these attacks were known to law enforcement or had connections to foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaida or the Islamic State.

The suspects acted on their own volition, but they seemed to connect local events with the global ideology of Salafi-jihadists, which advocates for violence against non-Muslims or so-called “apostates” wherever they are found. Yet the common label “lone wolf” also seems disingenuous, since the alleged assailants exist in part of a broader extremist ecosystem. What is clear is that the rise of attacks perpetrated by individuals with no prior criminal record or documented links to known terrorist groups presents a significant challenge for law enforcement and intelligence services. This is especially true in a country like France, which has a watch list for individuals suspected of radicalization that already includes as many as 25,000 names.

Other recent attacks in Europe involved more likely suspects. In early October, a Syrian asylum-seeker known to authorities as an extremist allegedly stabbed two tourists in Dresden, Germany. Known only as “Abdullah Al H.H.,” he had previously spent time in jail for trying to recruit individuals to join the Islamic State. In another incident, a Swiss woman is in custody for allegedly injuring two women during an attack in a department store in the southern city of Lugano. The suspect was known to federal police in Switzerland due to a 2017 investigation into her ties to jihadist networks.

On Nov. 2, in Vienna, a gunman opened fire on people in the city center, killing four and injuring 22, before being shot and killed by police. Authorities identified him as Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian nationality who had previously been imprisoned for attempting to join the Islamic State. Fejzulai was part of a network of jihadists with connections throughout Europe, including in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Balkans. The Islamic State claimed credit for the attack, although it seems that Fejzulai was inspired, rather than directed, by the organization. His profile fits those of other “frustrated foreign fighters”—individuals who launch terrorist attacks at home after being prevented from traveling to Iraq, Syria or other active combat zones where they seek to join terrorist groups like the Islamic State.

All three of the attacks in France involved suspects from abroad—namely Pakistan, Chechnya and Tunisia. Given the recent growth of far-right extremist groups worldwide, especially in Europe, these attacks could engender a response from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or other racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists. Reciprocal radicalization—the process by which different strains of extremists fuel one another’s rhetoric and actions, including violence—could lead to a cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals.

That prospect is even more worrying given the Islamic State’s recent resurgence in parts of Iraq and Syria. If the group continues to mount a comeback this year, European jihadists could make renewed efforts to travel to battlegrounds in the Middle East. But with more stringent measures now in place throughout Europe that criminalize traveling abroad to fight with the Islamic State, the result could be more “frustrated foreign fighters,” raising the prospect of further terrorist attacks on European soil.

To make matters worse, many Western countries have refused to repatriate their citizens languishing in detention centers in Syria, providing groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida with ample fodder for propaganda to recruit new members and encourage jihadist sympathizer to launch attacks in their home countries. In one refugee camp at al-Hol, in northeastern Syria, 27,000 children—many of them sons and daughters of Islamic State fighters—are stranded in limbo and vulnerable to radicalization. The United Nations counterterrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, recently called the situation in al-Hol “one of the most pressing issues in the world today.”

After nearly two decades of the so-called global war on terror, a somewhat understandable fatigue has set in among analysts and policymakers when it comes to the challenge of Salafi-jihadist terrorism in the West. It is crucial to prevent this fatigue from morphing into complacency, or to allow Western intelligence agencies and security services to “move on,” as it were, from jihadist threats and shift resources and focus too narrowly on right-wing extremism. Jihadist-inspired terrorism and right-wing extremism are both potent threats that will continue to plague the West, in addition to other forms of terrorism percolating just beneath the surface, including technophobia, incel-related violence, and a potential uptick in leftist-inspired violence related to environmental causes.

Globally, the political violence ecosystem is more diverse than at any time in recent memory, with threats emanating from across the board. This danger is heightened by the current counterterrorism zeitgeist in the West, which is now focusing intensely on the threat from far-right extremism, potentially allowing some jihadist supporters and sympathizers to fly under the radar. Canada, for example, recently designated 13 separate groups as terrorist organizations, but the media largely focused on the Proud Boys, perhaps due to its connections to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Too often, threat assessments fall victim to an either/or framing, influenced in part by politics. But threats can, and indeed do, overlap, converge and, at times, cascade. The onus is on law enforcement and intelligence services to remain agnostic to the ideology motivating acts of political violence, while simultaneously doing everything possible to identify and understand these ideologies.

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