August 30, 2011

Networks, Riots and 'The Sickest of the Sick'

Hello friends.

So I really haven't got the hang of this blogging business, because, as I understand it, a blog is supposed to be like a diary that is written week in, week out. I can assure you that the lack of blogging is not indicative of a lack of work - to the contrary, the work has been intensive, making for the busiest summer I've ever had!

The last few weeks have been spent researching and compiling articles written by academics working on the GR:EEN project for a new database that we're hoping to create on the website, which will allow those involved with GR:EEN to share and learn from each other's work. This task has been fairly lengthy, considering there are 15 partner institutions and over 50 academics involved, and it makes you appreciate the exceptional nature of multi-institutional projects such as this one. It has also been rewarding to once again use my rusty language skills to research some of the articles from European academics (although Swedish and Mandarin has been more of a challenge - thank goodness for Google Translate!). Hopefully when the database is up, it will demonstrate the true scope of GR:EEN and the huge amount of talent and experience of it's participants.

The other half of the project that I have been focusing on in the last few weeks has been my study of mainly American and European Far-right extremist groups. This part of the project has utilised a different set of skills and has been correspondingly difficult in differing manners. At this point, I am reminded how much the nature and focus of this part of my project has changed since applying for URSS back in March. This is mainly because I now know more than I did back then (good thing too!), but it has also emphasised the fact that a research project is not something that can be strictly planned in advance - it is an organic process, constantly changing and evolving; sometimes because some things become newly apparent that were previously elusive, and sometimes because of current affairs. For example in March, I could not possibly have forseen the occurence of the Norway massacre back in July by Anders Behring Breivik (about which, more later), nor did I forsee the recent riots which dominated the August news cycles, but then who did?

The Breivik Attacks - One Month On

As significant as these events have been, it is difficult to know how much attention to devote to them when conducting a project of this kind. For example, it is, prima facie, very tempting to devote a great deal of time to them - the Breivik attack in particular, for obvious reasons. These events are new, and they are now, which means that few academic analyses have been made of them - I say few, for several have, including by my supervisor for this project, Stuart Croft(Well worth a read, and far more interesting and relevant than anything you are likely to read in the mainstream media about the attacks).

One of the reasons why reaction to recent events is important is that it can offer a unique opportunity to construct and exploit a fresh gap in the literature, which is especially useful when you consider how much excellent research has been conducted on the far-right in recent years - trust me, there is a lot of it, and it can be daunting to a newcomer like me! It is also important because of the objective of GR:EEN - to report to the European commission on policy - and the coincidence of the Norway attack means that the European policy community is now more receptive than at practically any time in the last few decades to policy advice on the nature of far-right extremism and the threat it poses to security. If the EU is going to agressively tackle far-right extremism, as it purports to do, it will require up-to-date knowledge to acheive its ends.

In terms of the Norway attack itself, there is perhaps little more to be gleaned from research, for the facts are known, and were known just days after the event. What is altogether less known is the context in which those attacks were planned and carried out, and this makes the context significantly more interesting from an academic perspective. Breivik was not acting in the name of any single far-right group prior to and during the attack (although he demonstrated affiliation with the Knights Templar movement), which is more difficult to analyse than it would have been had he been found to be a member of a recognised group. Instead, if his testimony is to be trusted, he was but one cell in a larger, transnational network - neither a 'lone-wolf' nor an integrated group member. The trustworthiness of his testimony is, of course, vigourously contested, and the global reaction to the attack has reflected this, but despite the possibility that Breivik's contacts and place within the European far-right context may have been exaggerated, we should not ignore the changing nature of how the far-right works.

The reaction of many has been that the actions of Breivik can be explained away as the result of a delusional mind - that, as even his defence lawyer posited, he lost his tenuous grip on sanity. Yet as an expert in this article suggests, the patterns of behaviour exhibited by Breivik were not erratic as they would be in someone suffering psychosis, but painstakingly planned and ruthlessly administered. An interesting question to ask is, why was the default reaction of the general public to attempt to explain away these actions as crazed?

Perhaps the immediate answer that springs to mind is that actions such as these defy conventional belief - we cannot identify with them and cannot even begin to understand the thought processes that could lead to such actions. Yet, the reaction of the same public to attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists is telling, and leads in a different direction. The problem is neatly summarised in this video by 'The Young Turks' - when the media talks about Islamist terrorism, it does so in terms of ideological entrenchment, or for anyone familiar with the work of Samuel Huntington, a 'Clash of Civilizations'. Importantly, this is despite the fact that some of these attacks have been undertaken by home-grown terrorists.

The most interesting question is, why such a disparity in the reactions? It would be unwise to claim that there is a single, definitive answer to this question, but it seems likely that identity has a large part to play. To accept that someone like Breivik, whose views diverge so markedly from the norms of society (and his actions even more so) is to face up to a most uncomfortable truth; one which many do not wish to face up to.

The Changing Internet Presence of the Far-Right

What has become abundantly clear throughout this project is that the groups that I am studying are not collective perpetrators of political violence, but that they act as incitement to political violence - that is their defining feature and main security implication. The other fact that has become obvious is that far-right groups that exist in complete isolation to other groups are increasingly the exception. Indeed I intially attempted to select several distinct groups to study, but I quickly discovered multiple links between these seemingly separate groups, despite ideological differences - In short, everyone seems to know (of) everyone else, and it is increasingly difficult to see where one group ends and another begins. The European and American far-right scene is therefore not so much a collection of disorganised groups, but a complex and sophisticated network of ideological groupings and radicalised individuals. That is not to say that the Far-Right is ideologically coherent - there are mutliple ideologies, some which are incompatible with each other, but increasingly there is the opportunity for overlap between relatively similar ideologies - i.e Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists.

As I noted before, these networks are altogether more difficult to react to and to study for a number of reasons. Firstly, literally thousands of individuals are involved in these networks from all over the world, and so studying a representative sample is difficult, to say the least. Secondly, the use by these individuals of far-right forums such as Stormfront and Hammerskin Nation which are protected by a certain amount of privacy means that more immersive study is required than I am actually allowed to carry out, without going before an ethics committee.

It is in this sense that I have come to realise the limitations imposed by my methodology of mainly using internet resources, and it has increased the possibility of reaching dead-ends (or at least closed roads). However, the alternative to this approach is to conduct lengthy, costly, and morally problematic fieldwork, that I do not have time for right now. To exemplify the problem a little, some of the more extreme groups have taken to requiring what is called 'face-time' - usually a meeting with an existing member to confirm that the potential member is suitable for membership, which in turn is necessary for access into the central apparatus and functions of the group. In the words of one of the groups, they have changed their tactics from 'looking for quantity to looking for quality', with betrayal and leadership struggles being a fairly routine feature of far-right groups.

The implication of the rise of networks and their corresponding intermediary forum websites seems to be that once people are radicalised into far-right extremist views, it is impossible to monitor all of them - some are going to slip through the net. One of the logical reactions to this would be to try to close the gaps in the security net, however, it would be impossible to close them all. This makes a focus on radicalisation imperative - why do people join these communities, and is it possible to stop them doing so? If so, how do we go about this?

Certainly, one answer may be law, and the increase in hate crime laws in Europe has been exponential since September 11th 2001, yet conviction rates have remained low - only 1 person has been prosecuted under section 11 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (UK), which states that people can be prosecuted for belonging to 'proscribed organisations'. So far, there are around 47 designated terrorist organisations in Britain, and not one of them is a right-wing organisation. Yet proscribing an organisation a terrorist organisation is not necessarily an effective measure - it should be noted that Islam4UK, the recently banned islamist group, was but the latest incarnation in a long line of groups, and had existed under six different names previously. Therefore, what is to stop proscribed groups from reappearing?

In fact, such options are not available to legislators in the United States, where the 1st amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of speech, and thus, there is little to stop the incitement of racial hatred. For this reason, many of the more extreme websites of far-right groups based in Europe, where laws are more prohibitive, are registered in the US. Thus far-right radicalisation is not only an international phenomenon, but a transnational one, requiring greater cooperation between nations and international institutions to make legislation more streamlined and effective. There are, however, alternative methods to curtailing radicalisation, and one which has been used with reasonable success (particularly in the United States, with its uniquely litigious society) is civil litigation. Such litigation is usually in response to attacks by members affiliated with organisations, and such actions can be effective at draining the financial assets which are pivotal to far-right success particularly in America, where money is the message.

Lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC)are amongst some of the most effective in this respect, helping to drain the funds of several apparently fledgling groups, resulting in subsequent leadership struggles and losses of prominence and cohesion. It is far from clear whether targeting financial assets would work in other countries, where groups are far less reliant on financial resources. The EDL for example, makes a point of its low-budget rise to prominence, and it is certainly safe to say that the contributions of the the internet, and social networking sites such as facebook and twitter more recently, have had the effect of reducing the costs of group administration, and the production of literature to virtually zero.

One of the reasons the SPLC has been so effective has been the dedication and experience of its staff, who are experts on far-right extremism and provide impartial advice to the highest levels of US law enforcement. The existence of non-governmental think tanks and organisations is itself a notable factor in the study of the far-right today. Other prominent organisations monitoring the far-right today include the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Searchlight, EXPO (A Swedish organisation founded by the novellist Stieg Larsson), Hatewatch, The Hate List, and the Quiliam Foundation. Clearly, this is a growing area of think tank research, and governments would do well to pay attention to some of the high-quality advice that these organisations give, especially at a time when their own budgets are stretched to the limit.

The EDL and the London Riots

The other main event that has dominated the news in Britain in the last month has been the occurence of riots in various cities, originating in London. Although the unrest largely comprised of looting and criminal damage, the fast-paced nature of the event provided an interesting opportunity to study how groups such as the EDL react to violence in the streets.

On one of the first nights of the unrest, the EDL trending topic on Twitter was alive with communication, which was so intense that it was impossible to keep up with all of the posts - some condemning the violence and proposing harsh penalties for the perpetrators, and others suggesting that the unrest might be an opportunity to settle old scores and pursue ideological convictions.

One example was someone trying to rally EDL members to attack a left-wing cafe/bookshop in Brighton. As it happened, police promptly ejected the man from the area before he could cause any trouble, but this example demonstrates the sheer variation in the attitudes held by members of a supposedly specifically anti-Islamic extremism group. There were other more overt signs of an EDL presence on the streets of Elthamand other areas of the capital, apparently to help coordinate members of the public looking to defend their property - presumably a response to a message posted on the EDL website on the Monday of the riots, asking members to help 'defend their communities' by using 'a strong physical presence'.

Whilst it must be noted that the EDL makes a point of claiming not to be a racist organisation, and denouncing violence in its various posts, it should also be noted that the EDL leadership seemed to have very little control over its members during the following days, and indeed the decentralised nature of the organisation meant that the dissemination of the EDL message was very different in each EDL 'brigade' - there is a different brigade for each region or locality. Clearly, the riots presented an important opportunity for the EDL to reshape public opinion of its organisation following the immensely negative publicity it received in the wake of the Norway attacks, amid allegations that Breivik had made contact with several EDL members and had posted on its forum.

However, its part in the riots did not go unnoticed by government and due to fears of further unrest in the capital, the EDL march through Towler Hamlets planned for September 3rd was banned, along with all other planned marches through the area by any group. More overtly, in a House of Commons debate about the recent public unrest, David Cameron labelled the EDL the 'sickest of the sick' in the broken society, responding to the vigilante EDL groups roaming London during the riots. Whilst many may agree with the sentiment of Cameron's statement, the precise wording of it is unhelpful in solving the problem of radicalisation. Simply put, his language has served to further alienate those who feel alienated from mainsteam politics. The other problem of branding something 'sick' is that it suggests that there is a cure. If there is a cure, it is unlikely to be found in the kind of loaded rhetoric that we have heard from politicians since the riots.

I leave you with this link to one of the best documentaries available on the EDL, which really highlights how dysfunctional the organisation is in terms of its members, its beliefs and its actions.


July 26, 2011

Day 1, Week 1 – Is anybody (else) out there?

Welcome to this series of posts related to my URSS research project which will be the focus of my attention for the next several months. I will be working as part of the 'Global Reordering: Evolution through European Networks' (GREEN)project within th Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at Warwick, which is an assessment of the state of the European Union in an ever-changing world. The project is divided into several workpackages, with different emphases on Economic, Cultural, and Security challenges. With the economic turmoil that has faced Europe in recent weeks, this is clearly a timely study. My part in this will be twofold: I will be performing administrative tasks to gain an insight into what goes into a large multi-institutional project like this (There are 16 insitutions involved worldwide), and I will also be conducting my own research as part of the Security workpackage. The aim of this research is to conduct a comparative study of far-right extremism across the world using several case studies and to explore trends in radicalisation.

The first question to answer is, why is it a global study, and not a purely European one? The answer to this lies in the overarching purpose of GREEN - to assess the global context in which Europe finds itself. It is important to find out not only what is going on within Europe, but in other countries as well, so trends in extremism can be seen and different anti-extremist/counterterrorist policies and tactics can be compared to provide substantive conclusions and policy advice. The second question for this project was going to be, why study the far-right as a security issue at all? Just last week, the answer to this would have been less evident, prima facie at least, and I was going to start by giving some kind of rationale for studying these groups, who often appear non-existent/dormant in the absence of significant media attention.

Particularly in European societies, far-right groups have become increasingly politically mainstream in recent years, with parties such as the BNP in Britain and the Front Nationale in France both making noticable electoral advances. However, when it comes to judging the likelihood of these groups committing acts of political violence or 'terrorism', governments, the media, and the intelligence services have all been complicit in ignoring these groups and their potential. In the style of Douglas Adams' 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy', it is fair to say that in the highest European political circles far-right extremist groups have been designated 'almost harmless'; they may be comprised of some fairly unsavoury individuals who may occasionally say or do some rather unpleasant things, but in the world of Al-Qaeda and WMDs', they don't register as notable threats. A report published on July 13th, 2011 by the British Intelligence and Security Committee testifies to this very fact. In it's 98 pages, it outlines the threats posed by Al-Qaeda, Nuclear Proliferation, Cyber Terrorism, and remnants of the IRA amongst others, but has virtually no comment to make about the far-right, and accordingly offers no strategy for combatting the threat.

What a difference a week can make. Following the dual attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on Friday 22nd July which targeted government buildings and a Labour party youth camp, killing 86 people and wounding numerous others, politicians and media outlets across the world have been coming to terms with the reality that whilst the world had been worrying about Al-Qaeda, a threat had been stirring much closer to home. British PM, David Cameron, held a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday to discuss the developments, and the domestic branch of the intelligence services, MI5, has been instructed to start investigating the possibility that Anders Behring Breivik may have met British far-right extremists prior to the attacks. In addition, it seems likely that in the short term at least, there may be a new role to be played by MI5 in monitoring far-right extremists - a role that was once the preserve of the police. The question on the minds of many now is likely to be is there anybody else out there who is preparing to commit similar acts? If we are to believe Breivik's court statement, the answer appears to be, 'yes' - he has indicated that he may have been assisted by at least two others.

Perhaps the reason that far-right extremism, when it does occur, so quickly disappears from news cycles is because there is a tendency for acts to be committed by lone agents, rather than by a sophisticated network, or rather because there is a perception that this is so. Yet this event demonstrates that such thinking is naive and that just as the internet has been used by Al-Qaeda to unify many individuals in different parts of the world, the tool is being utilised in same way by the far-right. It is no longer possible to attribute attacks to either lone individuals with only a tenuous grip on sanity, or to close-knit cohesive groups who may meet on a regular basis. The modern reality is that far-extremist movements like many other things in this world are becoming globalised.

This is not to suggest that all far-right extremists are the same; indeed the plethora of different group ideologies and motivations are something that will be a particular focus of this project, and serve to undermine the utility of sweeping labels such as 'far-right' and 'far-left'. A more accurate description of Anders Behring Breivik would be 'Christian fundamentalist', yet even this is possibly an oversimplification, for he is a self-defining follower of the Knight's Templar - a medieval Christian order who attempted, with little to success, to reclaim the land of Jerusalem in the name of Christianity from Saladin's Muslims (Sadly, little has changed in modernity). The film 'Kingdom of Heaven' is based on the crusades of this order and is well worth a look.

So we may interpret this attack as symptomatic of the kind of islamaphobia that has become widespread in Europe in recent years, and one of the notable trends of the past few days, as Charlie Brooker has noted, has been the alarming frequency with which many people have said that 'the attacks were awful, but...'. The EDL clearly feels that this is an opportunity to make their greivances known and to display what it feels is widespread public unease with the 'project' of multiculturalism. Just how widespread this sentiment is remains to be seen, as does the effect that this attack has had on public attitudes, but it is fair to say that one does not have to travel too far to find such sentiments.

One of the key questions for this research project therefore is, what drives someone to commit acts such as those in Norway? Many people may feel uneasy about immigration and multiculturalism, but most do not feel the need to turn to criminality to make their voices heard. Just what is it that leads to someone becoming radicalised? Poverty? A lack of education? Extreme education? Certainly, these are the answers that have been supplied as conventional wisdom, yet the most famous examples of terrorism cast considerable doubt on these explanations. The 9/11 hijackers were wealthy, well-educated (and western educated) and still felt the need to turn to extremism. Similarly, Anders Behring Breivik is the son of a former diplomat, relatively wealthy, and well spoken - not even the image of a stereotypical white supremacist. This question, like the others that are the focus of this research, then, appears far more difficult to answer than conventional wisdom suggests.

I hope you will find this blog thought provoking and engaging, and please feel free to make comments and suggestions. Check out the GREEN website for more information on the project, research papers, comment articles and much more.


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  • This looks to be a very interesting project Joe! I look forward to reading future postings. Good luc… by Sacha Hepburn on this entry

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