Extreme Right in the West: In a Transition?
The violent edge of the extreme right in the West, in attack terms, has continued to be on a downward trend as in the past few years. There were no large-scale extreme right-wing attacks in Europe, North America or Australasia in 2022 – with isolated lone actors being the only ones responsible for casualties in advance of the ideology. At the same time, there were numerous arrests in a growing range of locations, and the underlying mobilising narratives of anti-establishmentarianism, anti-immigration, anti-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer + (LGBTQ+), racist and white supremacist sentiment continuing to galvanise groups and individuals across the West.
Notwithstanding the continued reduction in violence in the West observed in 2022, three elements of the extreme right remain of concern. First is the ongoing mainstreaming of far right political movements in various Western countries. The extent of mainstreaming varies considerably from country to country. In the United States (US), France and Italy, the far right has made notable inroads into the body politic. In others, such as Australia and New Zealand, far right politicians and parties continue to remain on the political fringes. While the increase in mainstreaming of the far right could explain lowered extreme right violence overall (though it is far from clear that the violent edges actually see themselves as part of the far right mainstream), it certainly implies greater social and security challenges down the road.
The second development of concern is the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has affected the extreme right globally in unexpected ways. Contrary to preliminary expectations, there have been very few known direct mobilisations by the extreme right to travel to and participate in the Ukraine conflict. As observed, the conflict in Ukraine has not so far evolved to be the extreme right’s equivalent of the Islamic State’s (IS) campaign in Iraq and Syria between 2014-2019 – acting as a magnet for the extreme right to fight, train and gain experience which they could then translate into terrorist attacks back home.
The groups that used to be of major concern – most notably the Azov Battalion militia outfit – are now part of the force that the West is supporting against the Russian invasion. In fact, the more prominent narratives amongst extreme right groups in Western states are that Russia and President Vladimir Putin are the true defenders of Western culture and have a common enemy – namely, the Western liberals. Whatever the case, the actual nature of the extreme right terrorist threat that might surface from Ukraine has yet to emerge.
The final major trend is the continuing diffusion of the extreme right threat, both in narrative and physical terms. The US continued to see large-scale mass shootings, some inspired by extreme right-wing narratives. The high-profile October attack on Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at home in San Francisco also involved an individual motivated by a complex mix of conspiracy-fuelled ideas. In Europe, the profile and locations of plots and attacks broadened. An attack outside an LGBTQ+ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia on October 12, 2022 by a teenager who subsequently killed himself, was linked by inspiration to numerous earlier extreme right-wing attacks. In Germany, authorities arrested a 74-year-old woman who was accused of being the instigator behind a plot disrupted earlier in the year to murder the country’s health minister. In Iceland, police arrested four individuals in what they described as a far right-wing attack plot on the authorities. In the United Kingdom (UK), a 66-year-old, anti-immigration activist launched a firebomb attack on a migration centre before killing himself. There was little evidence that any of these incidents came from a centrally controlled and directed network.
At the same time, the malleability of extreme right narratives continues to allow it to expand its narrative footprint by absorbing a variety of ideologies into its fold. This flexibility in turn allows for an ever-expanding range of adherents to be categorised as being of the extreme right (even though they may be ideologically inconsistent), and continues to make classifying and defining the extreme right a highly challenging task.
Extreme Right in the Late-COVID World
2022 saw a sharp loosening of restrictive COVID-19-related mandates around the world. The preceding two years had seen unprecedented lockdowns and vaccination-differentiated measures, which were unpopular with large parts of the general public in the West and provided fodder for extreme right ideologies. From their perspective, the aggressive pandemic-related measures were seen as authoritarian and intrusive, highlighting the overbearing state which they sought to fight back against. At the same time, lockdowns provided individuals on the extreme right (as well as other ideologies) with more time on the internet to propagate COVID-19-related conspiratorial narratives. While such themes are still prevalent in extreme right channels, a few conspiratorial narratives suggest that Western governments have given up on using COVID-19 to control them, interpreting the relaxed COVID-19 mandates as a victory for their movements.
A broad scan of social media channels on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram and Gab, suggested that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a focus of most messages and posts. Instead, there was a mix of socio-political issues specific to the societies that the extreme right groups are based in, along with commentaries on international issues and topics such as the Ukraine war, climate change and China’s growing geopolitical assertiveness. In other words, it is not clear that COVID-19 has left a lasting imprint on the extreme right-wing in narrative terms.
There continued, however, to be some interest in the topic on some parts of the violent edge. In April, authorities in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate arrested a group of four which they claimed had been planning a widespread campaign that included abducting the health minister. The group called itself the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) and was linked to the Reichsbürger movement in Germany, which follows the same ideology as the Sovereign Citizen movement in other parts of the West. They were also identified as prominent anti-COVID-19 activists.
On the less violent edge, a protest by Canadian truckers at the beginning of 2022 about COVID-19 restrictions escalated into a wider protest, and led to imitators in Australia, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands. These protests became entrepôts of disaffection with some clear extreme right-wing ideas being brought into the mix. However, it is important to note that the extreme right – while it may have sought to take advantage of the protests – did not appear to be the instigator. These convoys did not lead to any terrorist violence, but they highlighted the depth of anger and frustration that was generated during the pandemic, suggesting a wellspring of anger which may re-emerge. The concern is this might find a home amongst the extreme right-wing groups that also gathered around the protests.
Decline in Violence but Mainstreaming of the Far and Extreme Right in the West
Of continuing concern is the persistent mainstreaming of the far right in major western democracies. Though related, this is of course different from the violent extreme right that forms the focus of the other parts of this assessment. It is worth observing, however, as it creates an environment in which intolerant ideas can be misinterpreted and hostility towards minority communities can be encouraged. The electoral victory in Italy of the hard-right candidate Giorgia Meloni, Sweden’s minority government’s dependence on the Swedish Democrats (a far right party) to back the government, and the growing normalisation of former President Donald Trump’s wing of the Republican Party as the mainstream in the US, all show how political parties which use narratives that appeal to the far right can gain power.
The exact link between these parties and the violent extreme right is not clear; in fact, some online discussions appear to broadly frame these parties as not being truly committed to the cause of the extreme right. Yet the climate of perceived intolerance and social tension that such mainstream parties foster creates an environment conducive to violent interpretation and a polarised discourse where people can believe violence is the only option left to them.
For example, violent opposition to anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter continued in 2022. In February 2022, white supremacist Benjamin Smith shot at protesters for racial justice. His internet activity suggested he was anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic. In addition to racism and anti-immigration sentiments, some extreme right attacks have also been partly motivated by eco-fascism – a narrative which is a combination of the extreme right trying to tap into the wider conversation about environmentalism and also an appeal to the ‘blood and soil’ narratives which have long motivated extreme right-wing groups. In the May 2022 mass shooting incident in Buffalo, New York which claimed the lives of 10 black people, in addition to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, eco-fascist sentiments also appeared to have been one of the key motivating factors for the shooter.
This broad diffusion of the far right and extreme violent right, and the confusion to some degree of the line between them, has continued to spill over into the threat picture in other ways. The Mixed Unstable or Unclear (MUU) category of the threat continues to grow – in some cases showing suggestion of some link to the extreme right (often adjacent to other ideologies). Data gathered by the UK’s Prevent programme from recent years (as recent as 2021) suggest the MUU account for around half of all reported cases.
It is notable that MUU referred cases are also amongst the smallest number to subsequently get adopted as Channel (a UK programme which seeks to engage individual cases to help steer them off radicalisation) interventions. This suggests a level of over-referring that highlights how unclear and confusing the terrorist threat is perceived to have become. In the same basket of concerns, the continuing growth in numbers of the very young, those on the autism spectrum, and the mentally ill appearing amongst the case load on the extreme right (as well as other ideologies) also highlights how the highly malleable, intensively online and angry extreme right-wing narratives are able to stir up an ever more confusing mix of potential threats.
Ukraine War Not a Major Turning Point for the Extreme Right
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an important event in international politics in 2022, which had a direct relevance to the extreme right in the West. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the local extreme right of Ukraine – primarily the Azov Regiment (pro-Ukrainian ultranationalists) – had attracted a number of extreme right-wing activists from across the West to join it. There were also some who had gone to fight on the Russian side (with some countries, like Italy, finding people fighting on both sides). After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the conflict drew some extreme right fighters, especially from neighbouring countries, to join hands with the Ukrainian side. The number of fighters making their way to Ukraine to fight has been small due to the Ukrainian government’s vetting processes. While exact numbers are not available, the Counter Extremism Project puts the number of foreign fighters who joined both sides to range between “several hundreds to a few thousands”. The number of fighters who travelled to fight for Russia is estimated to be less than those who went to fight on the side of Ukraine.
Among those attracted to fight for Ukraine, it is unclear how many actually hold extreme right-wing ideas or are linked to such groups. While some cases do exist, the high mainstream support of the conflict by the West has inspired people to travel to Ukraine to simply fight the Russian “aggression”. This kind of narrative has meant the lens through which the conflict is seen is much wider than the extreme right-wing connection prevalent prior to the Russian invasion.
Overall, the current sense is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not mobilised the extreme right to the extent expected, though it has influenced Western extreme right narratives. As the war progressed, it increasingly became apparent from extreme right platforms’ discourse that they were leaning in support of Russia and Putin. This posture stemmed from seeing Putin as the champion for the rights of the Christian, non-LGBTQ+ and non-minority people; unlike the democratically elected governments of the West, which, in the eyes of the extreme right, are corrupt and actively support the growth of communities undermining the white, Christian populace. This has created an interesting rift between the extreme right and the mainstream party-political far right in a number of contexts. While Russia and Putin are still generally viewed favourably by the extreme right in the West, recent Pew polls suggest marked drops in support for Russia and its leader from among European right-wing populists.
Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine is worth continuing to observe for a number of reasons. The fact that some individuals associated with the extreme right have gone to fight there is of high concern – their training, experience and access to weapons will make them potentially far more lethal should they return home with dangerous intent. At the same time, the vast volumes of weapons flowing into Ukraine present a huge opportunity for criminal and terrorist networks. Prior to the Russian invasion, in 2016, Ukrainian authorities detained a Frenchman at their border with Poland with a truckload of weapons he had purchased and was reportedly planning on using as part of a terror campaign in France.
So far, weapons associated with the conflict have not appeared in any plots, but Europol leaders have highlighted it as a potential concern. At the same time, Russian authorities have also been keen to highlight the problem, illustrating another way in which the conflict in Ukraine might become intertwined with Europe’s terrorist threat – through Russian disinformation or active support for extreme right-wing groups in Europe as part of an effort to destabilise the continent.
Diffused Nature of Threat in Europe
A final point concerns the continuing diffusion of the threat in Europe. While the volume of attacks is down, the variety of disruptions (both in terms of offender profiles and locations), their growing cellular organisation and the increasing appearance of new technologies like 3D printers amongst their belongings, highlight a problem which is going to be ever harder to manage. 3D printers have now become so common in terror arrests that Europol has held conferences to explore learning from different cases on how to manage the threat. Cases of 3D printers being used by extreme right-wing networks in 2022 were found in places as diverse as Slovakia and Iceland. In the UK, two separate trials linked to the extreme right involving 3D printers concluded in 2022.
Slovakia also saw a teenager launch an extreme right-wing attack, while an inquest in the UK revealed the death earlier in the year of a teenage girl who had been radicalised and groomed into extreme right-wing ideas. In both cases, the teenagers killed themselves, highlighting both the threat and the extreme vulnerability of some youth being drawn towards extreme right-wing ideologies. At the other end of the scale, a cell of middle-aged men disrupted in Germany was reportedly being directed by a 75-year-old teacher; a 66-year-old pensioner was responsible for an attack on a migration centre in the UK; while French authorities arrested a group of four aged between 45-53 in Mulhouse near Strasbourg with an “alarming” volume of weaponry and reported plans to ‘hunt Jews’. A July report by the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (which provides oversight of the intelligence community) on the extreme right-wing threat in the country observed that while there seemed to be a growing radicalisation amongst youth on the extreme right, the previous three attacks on record had been done by older men (a roster now increased to four with the Dover migrant centre attacker). The point is that the extreme right threat in the European context, in particular, has become increasingly diffused in both profile, targeting and nature.
The outlook for the extreme right-wing in the West remains unclear, though the underlying trends point to lurking dangers with a possible transition to a late COVID-19-phase in which the war in Ukraine and the further mainstreaming of the far right in Western democracies play more important roles as narrative generators. While violence is down, it remains hazy as to the exact reasons for this trend. The downward trend suggests a pattern that appears in some temporary abeyance, but the continuing arrests, the vast array of perpetrator profiles and the unceasing inspiration that attackers appear to draw from one another, also suggest that the problem will persist. The interplay between mainstream parties and this extreme edge remains unclear; doubtless, the increasingly polarised public space is continuing to play a significant role in exacerbating problems.
About the Authors
Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow and Kalicharan Veera Singam is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.
Thumbnail photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash
 Ishaan Tharoor, “The Mainstreaming of the West’s Far Right Is Complete,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/27/mainstreaming-wests-far-right-is-complete/.
 This point was conveyed in discussions with experts on the Australian and New Zealand far right.
 Will Carless and Jessica Guynn, “Republicans Are Backing Ukraine in the War. So Why Is There Support for Russia on America’s Far Right?” USA Today, March 28, 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/03/26/ukraine-russia-war-qanon-trump-far-right/7142413001/?gnt-cfr=1.
 Casey Tolan et al., “Alleged Paul Pelosi Attacker Posted Multiple Conspiracy Theories,” CNN, October 28, 2022 https://edition.cnn.com/2022/10/28/politics/pelosi-attack-suspect-conspiracy-theories-invs/index.html.
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 Daniel Boffey, “Icelandic Police Arrest Four People over Alleged Terror Attack Plans,” The Guardian, September 22, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/22/icelandic-police-arrest-four-people-over-alleged-terror-attack-plans.
 Neil Johnston et al., “Migrant Centre Attacker Warned It Was ‘Time for Payback’ After Amess Murder,” The Times, November 2, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dover-migrant-centre-attack-investigated-by-terror-police-zm5t90k2g.
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 This observation was picked up from our monitoring of various right-wing conspiratorial online groups and reiterated in discussions with experts on the Australian and New Zealand far right.
 “Germany: Far-Right Group Planned Attacks, Abductions,” Deutsche Welle News, April 14, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/german-police-arrest-far-right-extremists-over-plans-to-topple-democracy/a-61468227.
 Mr Pelosi’s attacker in the United States had similarly shown an active interest in anti-vaxx narratives.
 Rob Gillies and Wilson Ring, “Trudeau Says Protests Must End, Truckers Brace for Crackdown,” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), February 17, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/trudeau-says-protests-must-end-truckers-brace-for-crackdown.
 Michael E. Miller and Frances Vinall, “Australian Lawmakers Fear Escalation of Canberra Protests Influenced by Canadian Truckers,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/08/australia-trucker-protest-canberra/.
 Lucy Cramer and Praveen Craymer, “New Zealand’s Parliament Protest Ends with Clashes, Arrests,” Reuters, March 2, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-zealand-police-dismantle-tents-tow-vehicles-clear-anti-vaccine-protests-2022-03-01/.
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 “Canada-Style Convoy Blocks Netherlands’ The Hague.” France 24, February 12, 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220212-canada-style-convoy-blocks-netherlands-the-hague.
 Paul Kirby, “Giorgia Meloni: Italy’s Far-Right Wins Election and Vows to Govern for All,” BBC News, September 26, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63029909.
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 This observation was picked up from social media monitoring of right-wing groups, primarily in the Australian and New Zealand contexts. Discussions with observers in European contexts drew similar conclusions.
 “Portland Shooter Had Online History of Antisemitism, Racism, Misogyny; Advocated for Violence,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL), February 23, 2022, https://www.adl.org/blog/portland-shooter-had-online-history-of-antisemitism-racism-misogyny-advocated-for-violence.
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 “Individuals Referred To and Supported Through the Prevent Programme, England and Wales, April 2020 to March 2021,” GOV.UK, 18 November, 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/individuals-referred-to-and-supported-through-the-prevent-programme-april-2020-to-march-2021/individuals-referred-to-and-supported-through-the-prevent-programme-england-and-wales-april-2020-to-march-2021.
 Educate Against Hate, “What is Channel?” 2022, https://educateagainsthate.com/what-is-channel/.
 Jamie Grierson, “’Staggeringly High’ Number of Autistic People on UK Prevent Scheme,” The Guardian, July 7, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jul/07/staggeringly-high-number-of-people-with-autism-on-uk-prevent-scheme. While the UK is the only country to openly register such data, researcher interactions with Australian and New Zealand experts and officials suggest similar patterns there.
 Cora Engelbrecht, “Far-Right Militias in Europe Plan to Confront Russian Forces, a Research Group Says,” The New York Times, February 25, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/world/europe/militias-russia-ukraine.html.
 Isaac Stanley-Becker and Souad Mekhennet, “Russia’s War in Ukraine Galvanizes Extremists Globally,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/25/germany-far-right-ukraine-russia/.
 Jeff Seldin, “Anticipated Foreign Fighter Flow to Ukraine Likely Just a Trickle,” VoA, May 28, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/anticipated-foreign-fighter-flow-to-ukraine-likely-just-a-trickle-/6593263.html.
 Kacper Rekawek, Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022: All Talk, But Not a Lot of Walk (New York: Counter Extremism Project, 2022), https://www.counterextremism.com/sites/default/files/2022-05/Western%20Extremists%20and%20the%20Russian%20Invasion%20of%20Ukraine%20in%202022_May%202022.pdf.
 The former British Foreign Secretary (and briefly Prime Minister) Liz Truss went so far as to say she actively supported people who wanted to go and fight alongside the Ukrainians.
 “Far Right Groups ‘Using Russian Invasion of Ukraine to Push Anti-West Narratives’,” King’s College London, April 25, 2022, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/far-right-groups-using-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-to-push-anti-west-narratives.
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 Kim Willsher, “Euro 2016 ‘Ultra-Nationalist’ Attacks Thwarted, Ukraine Says,” The Guardian, June 6, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/06/ukraine-detained-french-citizen-plotting-euro-2016-attacks.
 “Russia Says West’s Ukraine Weapons Are Going onto the Black Market,” Reuters, October 20, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-says-eu-party-conflict-ukraine-2022-10-20/.
 Earlier examples of this include the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which offered training grounds for European XRW, the leadership of The Base being based in St Petersburg, and links between Russia’s Wagner group and parts of the European XRW.
 “Far-Right Terror: Group Used 3D Printer to Make Pistol Parts, Court Told,” BBC News, January 20, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leeds-60071389.
 “Printing Insecurity: Tackling the Threat of 3D Printed Guns in Europe,” Europol, October 27, 2022, https://www.europol.europa.eu/media-press/newsroom/news/printing-insecurity-tackling-threat-of-3d-printed-guns-in-europe.
 “Slovak and Czech Authorities Take Action Against Right-Wing Terrorism,” Eurojust, June 8, 2022, https://www.eurojust.europa.eu/news/slovak-and-czech-authorities-take-action-against-right-wing-terrorism.
 “Icelandic Police Arrest Four People Over Alleged Terror Attack Plans,” The Guardian, September 22, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/22/icelandic-police-arrest-four-people-over-alleged-terror-attack-plans.
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 “Youngest Girl Charged with Terrorism Offences Killed Herself After Being Groomed by US Neo Nazis,” MSN.com, October 23, 2022, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/youngest-girl-charged-with-terrorism-offences-killed-herself-after-being-groomed-by-us-neo-nazis/ar-AA13gBTZ.
 “French Police Find Weapons Arsenal after Arresting Neo-Nazi Suspects in Alsace,” The Guardian, June 3, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/03/french-police-find-machine-gun-arsenal-after-arresting-neo-nazi-suspects-in-alsace.
 Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism, July 13, 2022 https://isc.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/E02710035-HCP-Extreme-Right-Wing-Terrorism_Accessible.pdf.