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Counter-Terrorism: We Need To Talk About The Far-Right

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Counter-Terrorism: We Need To Talk About The Far-Right

Western countries must start taking the threat from far-right terrorism as seriously as they do that of Islamist terrorism

Source: Pixabay

Defining terrorism is, perhaps surprisingly, complex and fraught with disagreements. We could assume we know terrorism when we see it, and so, it appears clear that the recent gun attacks in New Zealand, the USA, and Norway were terrorist attacks.  The Global Terrorism Database defines a terrorist act as an intentional act or threat of violence by a non-state actor, as well as two out of three of the following criteria: the act aimed to further a political, economic, social or religious goal, there was evidence of intent to coerce, intimidate or spread some other message to an audience beyond the immediate victims, and the act was outside of International Humanitarian Law.

Clearly, the recent attacks fit with this definition. These kinds of attackers have often been classed as ‘lone wolves’: as self-radicalised criminals who do not form part of a wider movement. Classifying them in such a way risks underestimating the threat. For example, in 2017 Europol figures, only 3% of failed, foiled, or successful terrorist attacks are attributed to the extreme right.  It is not the biggest threat to European security: the 2019 edition of the same Europol report confirms that ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism continues to be the most common source of attack attempts. However, the way it is recorded likely underestimates the prevalence of far-right terrorism. In some Western countries, it is easier to prosecute under criminal law than terrorism law – particularly hate crime legislation – and so far-right violence which would otherwise qualify as terrorism is not always reported as such. This can also have the impact of making its victims feel as if they are not taken as seriously as other terror victims.

It is understandable that they could feel that way. Technical measures, such as those used to near-eradicate Daesh propaganda from mainstream social media, have unintended consequences as a result of the limitations of artificial intelligence and machine learning and so need human oversight to correct false positives.

 

There has not been the same action against white nationalist propaganda online – even though the above-mentioned attacks stem from this ideological background. Its use of memes and misdirection alongside extremist rhetoric makes it hard for digital tools to detect, and the similarity of Trump’s rhetoric to that of white supremacists (particularly when discussing migrant ‘invasions’) means that the false positives may affect alt-right media personalities and conservative American politicians.

That, in itself, is a sign of a wider ideological current underlying these attacks. Apportioning direct blame for a particular violent act may be impossible and unwise, but the wider political discourse can and does contribute to radicalisation. It is not limited to the United States, either. The key theory which links these attackers is that of the ‘Great Replacement’, which initially came from a French author and is predominantly discussed online in French. It argues that there is a concerted effort on the part of elites – often linked by the far-right to the common anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that a Jewish elite controls the world – to replace white people through immigration and abortion policies. This often involves a ‘crisis narrative’ in which migration is described as a threat to the very existence of white people. It is an abhorrent theory in itself, but it is that rhetoric in particular which lends itself to radicalisation and terrorist acts in the name of a ‘race war’. In this regard, Islamist and far-right terrorism lend succour to each other.

What, then, can be done about it? Although alt-right activists like to hide behind a free speech defence (and would do so loudly if they became collateral damage of a social network crackdown on white supremacist ideology), there are indeed civil liberties concerns bound up in the use of AI and machine learning in content removal. As the CEO of Cloudflare signalled in his statement about ending their services to 8chan, being the arbiter of social boundaries is an uncomfortable role for technology companies and is also not sufficient to stop radicalisation and terror attacks. That requires the political will to investigate and to combat far-right terrorism with the same vigour as Islamist terrorism, both through law enforcement and through strong opposition to its ideas.

Donald Trump is a particular obstacle in this regard. He is content to permit white supremacists to operate at arms-length as part of his base, and continues to use language that incites racism and violence while failing to effectively tackle the threat with counter-terror policies. Europe fares somewhat better, with raids against a Generation Identity group which took a donation from the Christchurch attacker and the UK’s criminalisation of membership and support of a neo-Nazi group.

 

However, leaders who have deployed far-right rhetoric must consider their responsibilities as public figures. They should be wary of reinforcing theories, such as the ‘Great Replacement’, which have the potential to inspire copycat terrorist attacks. They should also fully participate in the battle of ideas against extremism, making it very clear to their supporters that battles must be won at the ballot box and not with weapons.

 

Countering Violent Extremism policies should not be perceived to focus solely on Islamism but provide for deradicalising people from various ideological backgrounds. Taking far-right terror as seriously as Islamist terror requires difficult discussions about the role of anti-immigration rhetoric in radicalisation pathways. If political expediency is used to maintain the status quo, as Bellingcat’s Robert Evans states,”[t]here will be more killers, more gleeful celebration of body counts[…], and more bloody attempts to beat the last killer’s “high score”.

Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire?

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire?

 

Independence is not a panacea, and its supporters must tread carefully to avoid replicating the mistakes of Brexit

 

Source: Pixabay

 

Last week, a Lord Ashcroft poll showed that Scottish voters would back independence from the rest of the United Kingdom by 52% to 48%: strangely enough, the exact same split as in the 2016 EU referendum. The two situations have more in common than most people think. If Scotland did leave the UK in favour of the EU, it would also be a bitterly divided nation.

Conventional wisdom sees independence as a Brexit emergency escape, but it is important to look back at 2014’s Scottish referendum. In many ways, this was a warning about what was to come. Nigel Farage and the Brexit campaign did not invent the populist ‘Project Fear’ slogan. It was originally an in-joke by pro-UK campaigner Rob Shorthouse in response to the pro-independence campaign’s tactic of writing criticisms off as scaremongering. The phrase was later taken up by ex-First Minister Alex Salmond to assist him in deflecting tricky questions for the rest of the campaign.

Many Scots found the debate to be divisive, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. 39% of Scots – a sizeable minority – agreed that the independence vote had ’caused harmful and lasting divisions in Scottish society’. It was also a precursor to today’s fake news problems: the official Yes campaign had to intervene after pro-independence conspiracy theorists proclaimed the referendum was rigged on the basis of online videos. A new referendum on essentially the same issue, then, would reopen those old wounds on top of the pre-existing Brexit related divisions. The same Ashcroft poll mentioned above found that support for a second independence referendum runs at 47% in favour, and 45% against. This reflects a divided Scotland, hardly amounting to a mass national clamour to leave the UK.

Any debate would risk falling into the old trap of ‘heart versus head’ rhetoric, where Yes campaigners are ambitious freedom-fighters and No campaigners are cautious calculators. Having seen the Brexit debate, everyone in Europe now knows where the former can lead. Rather than pushing for a referendum on a supposed groundswell of righteous anger, Scotland should stop to think about what kind of nation it would be.  The Growth Commission has attempted to seek a way forward, in order to deal with some of the weaknesses of the previous Yes campaign. It noticeably floundered on currency and on its economic projections’ over-reliance on oil and gas, both of which the Growth Commission has tried to rectify.

Whether it successfully does so is a different matter. Scots, although generally pro-EU, are not willing to rush headlong into a more federalist relationship with their European partners. It is hard to find Scotland-specific polling on European issues, but when asked in April 2019 whether they wished to keep using the pound, have a new Scottish currency instead, or join the Euro instead, only 7% of Scots chose the Euro. An independent Scotland could gamble on the Commission’s unwillingness to enforce a Scottish commitment to moving towards the Euro and would likely get a Schengen opt-out to remain in the Common Travel area. However, it would not inherit the British rebate or opt-in status on Justice and Home Affairs.

Not all Scots are as pro-EU as would be expected: indeed, Scottish fishermen demand that the UK ‘take back control’ of its fishing waters and a study found that 93% of Scottish fishermen intended to vote Leave. Although a small community, fishing is a culturally important traditional industry in particular areas of Scotland and its representatives actively lobby for their interests in Scotland, the UK and EU. The SNP would rapidly find that, if it were the governing party of an independent state, it could not please all of the people all of the time. The case of Moray, a coastal council area in North East Scotland, served as a cautionary tale to Bute House: not only did it narrowly vote Remain (by 122 votes), it ended the 16-year tenure of its SNP MP in favour of a Scottish Conservative.

Brexit, as ever, also complicates matters. While trying to unpick a 300-year-old Union,  which could easily become an acrimonious process considering Scotland once also threatened not to pay its divorce bill, it would simultaneously face negotiations with the European Union. The previous dispute about whether Scotland would become a third country and have to accede through the standard procedure no longer matters. Original predictions that Scotland could conclude its accession within 18 months were ambitious, and it now may take almost 10 years to reach that point depending on which disputes arise.

In combination with the Growth Commission plans to draw down the deficit over ten years, there is no foreseeable situation where Scotland does not face pressure on public services. Keeping to the Commission’s proposal that total public spending should increase by less than 1% a year for the first decade of independence would result in a decrease of around 4% of GDP in spending on public services and benefits over that decade, according to the IFS. Scottish local government is already concerned about its ability to provide essential services. The Scottish Government has cut their budgets by 7.5% since 2013: over twice as large a cut as the 2.8% reduction in the Scottish budget (made up of UK Treasury grant funds and devolved taxation/borrowing).

Overall, for Scotland, although it may seem tempting, rushing out of the UK exit door would not be the quick fix it has been portrayed as. Anti-Brexit sentiment will only get the nation so far, and it lacks a full European strategy going beyond Brexit. EU Member States would welcome it in, but cautiously – they do not want a mini version of the UK demanding optouts and blocking progress. The Scottish Government would do well to think about what they can do for Europe (and what it would do in the rotating Council Presidency), rather than thinking of what Europe can do to get them closer to independence.

 

After the Caliphate: Kosovar and British Policy towards Foreign Terrorist Fighters

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

After the Caliphate: Kosovar and British Policy towards Foreign Terrorist Fighters

 

Western Europe should learn from the Western Balkans on reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters

 

Surrendered Islamic State fighters in DarzabSource: Mirwais Bezhan (Voice Of America) [Public domain]

In June, a Brussels event by the Egmont Institute assessed the state of Daesh (ISIS) after the fall of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, having lost its final territory in Baghuz Fawquani on the 23 March 2019. The discussion took place the day after a man was detained on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack on the US Embassy Brussels. Despite the successes of the Global Coalition, several challenges remain. Daesh, for example, has active splinter groups in a number of areas: not only in the Sinai, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, Turkey, Yemen, South East Asia, Russia and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Europe. Particularly, it has become displaced to non-traditional areas of activity, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another major issue relates to the returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Terrorism expert Colin P. Clarke used the aforementioned event to explain that the international community has had years to prepare for the return of those who left to join Daesh and has nonetheless put together a patchwork response.

Different states have dealt with the issue in different ways. The Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, in developing a Kosovar approach to FTFs, examined three different cases: Germany, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia. Germany has a deradicalisation program aimed at countering the jihadist narrative, helping FTFs find employment/education and housing, and alternative emotional support from their families as well as a different reference group. This was adapted from Germany’s experience in deradicalising Neo-Nazis, and so is a secular program with an emphasis on family support. Denmark’s ‘Aarhus model’ chooses not to challenge FTF beliefs, but to direct them away from criminal methods. It assists returnees to get home via their families and has a social and psychological support program. Saudi Arabia, finally, is the country with the second highest number of FTFs. It has a systematic re-education program centred around a legal, non-violent interpretation of Islam alongside psychological support.

Kosovo itself has combined several of these strands. In its Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism 2015-2020, its FTF response involves assistance to ‘abandon radical/extremist ideology and renounce from violence’, alongside risk assessment, psychological support, social support for families, employment programs, and awareness-raising of the potential for detained FTFs to spread radical views in prisons. Justice Minister Abelard Tahiri has also signed a deal to work with the Kosovo Islamic Community’s imams on deradicalising prisoners who have been charged with or convicted of terror-related offences.

On paper, the United Kingdom has a similar policy. The UK CONTEST strategy uses an illustrative example of how its deradicalisation policy would be applied to a British woman and baby returning from Syria. The UK authorities would use a Temporary Exclusion Order (TEO) to manage her deportation from Turkey to the UK and impose obligations on her (such as to report regularly to a police station). If there was no evidence of crimes committed abroad, the mother and child would be given specific reintegration support through the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which can be mandated for individuals subject to TEOs. It involves mentoring, psychological support, and theological and ideological advice. UK counter-terror mentors can play a similar role to the Kosovo imams. The Home Office’s PREVENT training offers an example of referring a young woman at risk of absconding to Syria to discuss and debate UK foreign policy and Muslims’ rights worldwide with a female counsellor.

Both Kosovo and the UK have a similar political context which complicates the reintegration of returnees. In Kosovo,  53% of respondents to the Kosovo Security Barometer (February 2019) stated that they would not accept returned male FTFs in their communities, and 30% would not accept returned women and minors. Also in February 2019, 76% of respondents to a YouGov (UK) poll supported removing British citizenship from Shamima Begum,a British teenager who joined Daesh in 2015.
Both countries share a similar threat assessment. Kosovo’s Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism 2015-2020 states that “the main risk that Kosovo faces is the return of such fighters with radical beliefs and with an interest to harm Kosovo as a state with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society and with a secular government.” The UK CONTEST strategy states “Many of the most dangerous individuals remain overseas. They may have received training, indoctrination, and expanded their network of terrorist contacts, and therefore pose significant challenges for the security and intelligence agencies and for law enforcement. These individuals remain a significant threat to the UK and our interests overseas.”

Where the two countries diverge is in how they respond to the challenge in reality. Kosovo Justice Minister Abelard Tahiri stated in April that “We couldn’t return all those who are in the conflict zones… but we will not stop working until each Kosovo citizen is back home[.]” In February, then UK Home Secretary (and recently appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer) Sajid Javid stated “No British citizen should be travelling to Syria. If a British citizen has ignored that advice, they will know that there is no consular support there and that we have no diplomatic relations with Syria. If the individual concerned is a foreign fighter who went to join a terrorist organisation to kill, rape and cause enormous damage, there is no way that this Government will risk the lives of British personnel […] to go and rescue such a person. No way.” This is a microcosm of a wider divergence between the Western Balkans and Western Europe. As the Western European states, with extensive resources, attempt to avoid responsibility for reintegrating their nationals, underresourced Western Balkan states have taken the challenge head on through their criminal justice and social support systems.

States that get their reintegration policies right will have the ability to monitor and rehabilitate their citizens, and a pool of deradicalised individuals who can contribute to preventing radicalisation in the same way former white supremacists have done. States that prioritise electoral calculus over strategy risk losing the war in the long run. The physical caliphate has been defeated, but as Colin P. Clarke stated in Brussels, a kind of ‘Caliphate nostalgia’ exists in the minds of people who never went. Kosovo and other involved  Western Balkan states have effectively positioned themselves to tactically use deradicalised fighters, while Western Europe reinforces the Daesh narrative that there is no ‘grey zone’.

 

To truly defeat the remnants of Daesh, Western Europe could stand to learn from the Western Balkan example.

 

Disunited Kingdom

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Disunited Kingdom

Boris Johnson in the face of Brexit

 

Source: Pixabay

 

Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for just over a week. Westminster insiders, and the public alike, are not particularly convinced that he will make a success of it. Johnson himself, however, has steamrolled forward, applying his traditional bluster to UK-EU relations.

The Conservative Party line is a ‘do or die’ Brexit: that come hell or high water, the UK will leave on the 31st of October even if that means a No Deal. The continuing stumbling block is the backstop: an agreement between the UK and EU that there would never be any physical checks between the Northern Ireland – Republic of Ireland border. Any re-establishment of checks would risk the peace settlement. If the backstop came into force, it would mean that there would be a UK-EU customs territory and Northern Ireland would have to remain in alignment with certain EU rules. Brexiteers disagree with remaining in an EU customs territory, as they wish to repatriate trade powers to the UK. Johnson has also referred to the Withdrawal Agreement as making the UK a ‘vassal state’, likely on the grounds that neither party can unilaterally put an end to the backstop.

Johnson has, therefore, asserted that ‘the backstop is dead’. As one of the Westminster insiders stated: “At some point his government is going to have to stop promising stuff and actually start doing stuff.” Many Brexiteer ministers have found their ideas to conflict sharply with reality once entering power: indeed, Johnson has already resigned from Cabinet once already. His insistence on removing the backstop will lead to his government falling foul of the same trilemma which May faced. The UK government – regardless of who leads it – can only have two of the following: leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, avoiding a hard border with Ireland, and the same approach to Brexit throughout the UK.

Johnson knows this. His aim is not actually to get a better deal, but instead to engineer a position where he can claim to have been rebuffed in his negotiation attempts by the EU and then push for a general election, where he can campaign for No Deal. The result of such an election would be unclear. One of Johnson’s three headline priorities for his premiership is to Defeat Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. Corbyn is also deeply unpopular among the British public.

The problem both parties face is that UK politics is no longer split down left and right wing lines, but by Leave and Remain lines. Regardless of whether Johnson successfully acts on the economic imbalances in the UK that contributed to the Brexit vote, he still seeks to fight a culture war. As things stand, the two opposing camps are roughly the same size and just as powerful as the other, and have entirely different worldviews. Brexit no longer just means Brexit. It is a deeply personal response to the question of how society and politics should work in the modern era. Leave and Remain identities transcend the Brexit debate, and permeate the entirety of British politics and policy. Neither of the traditional two large parties can rely on winning a majority.

Johnson’s plan was always to be in the Prime Ministerial position, but not in this political position. In 2016, he likely believed the country would reject Brexit and he would be able to ride a wave of Leaver discontent into power. A similar phenomenon took place among disillusioned Scottish nationalists in 2015, as short-lived as it was. Assuming the country supports his No Deal plan, which is a big assumption considering that it is less popular among the public than remaining in the EU, he will have no time or resources to spare on any non-Brexit related policy. His legacy will be struggling to manage the shocks of No Deal. Nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps, then, as in 2016, he wants to lose: either for Brexit to be cancelled, or to be soft enough that he has enough material to retain power by whipping up populist sentiment among the Leaver segment of the population.

Johnson’s games lead to a serious risk of sleepwalking into a No Deal, with the accompanying serious impact for businesses and citizens. Even if that risk is avoided, Britain remains a bitterly divided country – almost to the point of becoming ungovernable.

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