Existing work on the development of responses to extremist violence notes a widespread international turn towards favouring Prevention/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) initiatives over police-based counter-terrorism (Tsui, 2020). But in 2022, Prevention is phasing out of its decade-long obsession with ISIS. Indeed, new primary and tertiary prevention programmes are increasingly focused on an emerging contender: right-wing terrorism and political violence – with a sprinkle of male supremacism, conspiracy theorists and other growing violent groups.
But how can Jihadism-centred prevention policies apply to the emerging right-wing challenge?
Our European understanding of radicalisation and radicalisation prevention emerged in the aftermath of the 2004 Atocha and 2005 London terrorist attacks. In contrast with the inherited 9/11 status quo, terrorists were no longer considered an exterior phenomenon, but rather an inside threat to Western societies. Prevention Policy, as introduced by the EU and the key Member States, was meant to target Jihadism, a perceived new flavour of terrorists and blind-spot of European security. The identity of the terrorists, non-Caucasian and Muslim, would go on to heavily influence the perceived need for increased political action, at the national and EU level alike. Although originally conceived as an ideology-free approach to terrorism, the EU prevention model was developed in response to a security threat often framed in terms of Islam and religiosity, rather than political struggle. The theological justifications for the attack, combined with widespread mistrust of Islam in Europe, further contributed to the creation of an involuntary “Islamism bias” in the EU’s understanding of the threat.
The Islamist Bias in Global Prevention Regimes
Biases in counter-terrorism are not unique to the European Union; there are substantial claims of “Islamist biases” existing in other Prevention regimes: the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and others (Kundnani & Hayes, 2018). Scholarship on the development of Prevention has linked these biases to “the central position acquired by the concept of radicalisation in policy, law enforcement and academia” (Coolsaet, 2016, p. 2). In the current historical context, radicalisation and Western public concerns over migration, integration and Islam have become mixed. Indeed, some authors argue that radicalisation has come to be seen as a unique contemporary process linked almost exclusively to Muslims and Muslim/immigrant-related underlying causes (Coolsaet, 2016, pp. 27–28).
Right-wing violence, the Current Challenge
Fifteen years after the attacks in Atocha, the security landscape has changed considerably. The Jihadist threat has dwindled in size and political attention. Since 2019, the EU has picked up Germany’s and other Member State’s calls to explicitly address right-wing terrorism within the EU Prevention agenda. This development is a result of increased right-wing attacks on EU soil, starting with Halle and Hanau in Germany, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The latest EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report report points to right-wing activities as a pressing area for internal security, with increasing numbers of attacks and (thankfully) failed plots in various EU MS (Europol, 2021, p. 20). With the strong support of Germany and Denmark, the European Commission, as well as the Council of Europe, have begun to pay attention to right-wing Prevention initiatives: fostering best practice exchanges among practitioners, providing personnel training as well as policy-discussion forums, and funding new research projects oriented to right-wing ideology specifically.
And this brings us right back to the original question: how can a system develop to cure illness “A” treat illness “B”? In the case of Prevention, so much of our underlying understanding of radicalisation is laden with meaning: from the identification of vulnerable communities, often Muslim, to the indicators for radicalisation developed in many countries, which often include items of religiosity and non-Western clothing. Such markers are lost on a white supremacist, or an incel (involuntary celibate). Moreover, we should not ignore the significant critiques already levelled against Jihadist Prevention; white and non-Muslim communities are just as likely to feel persecuted and alienated by stereotyping policy initiatives.
No Prevention without Representation?
The simple answer is that we do not know. There are two questions we must answer first. First, what is Prevention without (Muslim) religiosity? Second, can we adapt this concept to make it truly ideology-free? Such endeavour is already underway, in part thanks to the attention of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), and in part thanks to European research projects such as DRIVE. More research needs to be directed to the specific translation of Prevention policy and theory to the right-wing extremist sphere. One important area to be explored, for example, is how the religiosity/ideology dimension travels over to very different contexts, such as online communities, in-person white supremacy groups or even anti-vaxers. But everything, from radicalisation markers to the very theoretical foundations of radicalisation theory, must be revamped and refitted for the new neighbours. This will be no insignificant task and is likely to be a few years before the relevant comparative studies on Prevention can be produced.
The second question is whether the resulting framework can still be useful to prevent violent acts. As with most things in life, the Devil is in the Details. The previous tendency on parts of academics and politicians alike to hyper-focus on the Muslim and individual-level elements of the terrorist threat yielded a biased and sometimes counter-productive model. However, a model that is far removed from the specificities of every group, or an individual trait, or even geographical spread, runs the risk of being irrelevant. In the pursuit of a more universal approach to Terrorism Prevention, attention to universal/common trends cannot eclipse the insights from the specific and the micro-level, least we risk trading a bad tool for a worse one.
Coolsaet, R. (2016). ‘All radicalisation is local’: The genesis and drawbacks of an elusive concept. Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations, 84. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1854/LU-7243264
Europol. (2021). European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend report 2021 (TESAT) | Europol. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Kundnani, A., & Hayes, B. (2018). The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies. Undermining Human Rights, Instrumentalising Civil Society. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
Tsui, C.-K. (2020). Interrogating the concept of (violent) extremism: A genealogical study of terrorism and counter-terrorism discourses. In Encountering extremism. Manchester University Press.
Weilnböck, H., & Kossack, O. (2019, November 26). The EU’s “Islamism” bias and its “added damage” in Central and Eastern Europe. OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/global-extremes/the-eus-islamism-bias-and-its-added-damage-in-central-and-eastern-europe/
Written by: Inés Bolaños Somoano
Ines Bolaños Somoano is a PhD Researcher at the Social and Political Sciences Department, European University Institute, Florence (Italy). Her research areas cover EU counter terrorism policy analysis, the securitisation of Islam in the public and policy spheres, and the use of interdisciplinary, mixed method approaches.