One month from now, the trial of Anders Behring Breivik will begin. Aside from sparking a vigorous debate in Norway over the mental state of Breivik, the case has also prompted an upsurge of interest in the underlying causes and perpetrators of right-wing extremist violence. In the UK, the events on July 22 2011 prompted a Home Affairs Committee on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation to devote greater attention to a form of extremism that, as the Committee noted, has often only been paid ‘lip service’ . Elsewhere in Europe, commentators and policy makers have paused to ask whether governments have established the right balance in their approach to tackling violent extremisms.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I contributed to various debates and workshops about the current ‘threat’ from right-wing extremist violence and terrorism. In fact, only one month prior to the attacks I had pointed to the growing significance of lone-wolf activism within the European extreme right, and warned of the potential for violence from within this movement (later elaborating on these thoughts in an interview with the Economist).
So, since Norway what have we learned about this particular form of violent extremism, and the accompanying evidence base? There are three pieces of work that I have been involved in since the attacks, and each speaks to this question.
First, as I explained to the Home Affairs Committee, for much of the past ten years we have focused mainly on addressing the challenge from al-Qaeda or ‘AQ’-inspired terrorism. This has spawned a rapidly expanding academic literature that has mainly sought to identify the factors that ‘push and pull’ some citizens (though mainly those within settled Muslim communities) into a spiral of violent radicalization. Yet in stark contrast, while our own studies have shed light on electoral support for right-wing extremist political parties, such as the British National Party (BNP), there remains a distinct lack of systematic, comparative and longitudinal research on the causes and perpetrators of right-wing extremist violence and/or terrorism.
Second, the inadequacy of this evidence base became further apparent when I was asked by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) to write a report on the state of knowledge across Europe more widely. The findings were later presented to an audience of policy makers and academics. As I concluded, while any form of clandestine activity is notoriously difficult to study with any degree of accuracy, we know relatively little about the causes and drivers of this form of violent extremism. While the evidence points toward some tentative conclusions (for example that most perpetrators tend to be young men with low education levels and who often lack a broader ideological worldview), much of this work has largely failed to provide a convincing account as to why some citizens engage in this form of exclusionary behaviour (or why other citizens with a similar profile and set of grievances do not).
Furthermore, beyond speculation and popular debate, the reality is that we actually know very little about the relationship (if one even exists) between violent and non-violent forms of right-wing extremism. Several important questions remain unanswered: is there a continuous spectrum from one to the other? Do violent movements rely on nonviolent groups to ‘set the scene’ for their actions? Or, does the presence of radical right political parties in power divert support from violent movements? Are there practical connections between them? And how do new technologies impact on the operations of both?
Third, against this backdrop and in collaboration with Professor Jocelyn Evans at the University of Salford, we launched an exploratory study into the views of far right supporters toward violence and armed conflict. In essence, this marks the ‘first step’ into a corner of right-wing extremism that has remained in the dark for too long. Drawing on a survey of over 2,000 citizens, we were able for the first time to probe the views of a large sample of far right supporters toward the perceived necessity and inevitability of violence. We found significant numbers of self-identified BNP supporters in our sample considered preparing for conflict and engaging in armed conflict to be justifiable courses of action. Moreover, significant numbers appeared committed to the view that violence will be needed to defend their wider group from threats, and that violence between different ethnic, racial or religious groups in Britain is largely inevitable. The results received widespread attention, appearing in the Guardian, Spectator, Channel 4 and New Statesman.
Clearly, in research terms we have only begun to shed light on this oft-neglected challenge. Comparing these responses to a wider nationally representative sample is the next step, while further quantitative and qualitative work will explore these attitudes more closely. Moreover, the factors that might ‘trip’ some of these supporters into actual violence are yet to be investigated.
Nonetheless, since the attacks in Norway last July, there appears to have emerged a consensus that more needs to be known about right-wing extremist violence and terrorism, and so there have emerged important questions. Over the next six months, and as the actions and trial of Anders Breivik begin to slip from public memory, it will be up to social scientists to begin providing answers to these questions.