All entries for July 2011

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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