Explainer: Far-right terrorism in the West

What we know about the surge in far-right terror attacks in the west over the last ten years.

The 2019 Global Terrorism Index has found a 320 per cent increase in far-right Terrorism in the West over the past five years. Nineteen countries across North America, Western Europe and Oceania have been affected and the worrying trend has continued into 2019, with 77 deaths caused by far-right terrorism since the beginning of this year. The rise in far-right attacks has led some observers to state that far-right domestic terrorism has not been taken seriously enough in the West, and that security and intelligence services should be paying closer attention to this threat.

What is the definition of the ‘far-right’?

The term, ‘far-right’, refers to any political ideology that is centred on one or more of the following elements: strident nationalism that is usually racial or exclusivist in some fashion, fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, chauvinism, nativism and xenophobia.

Far-right groups tend to be strongly authoritarian, but often with populist elements, and have historically been anti-communist, although this characteristic has become less prominent since the end of the Cold War. Groups that are strongly anti-government are not necessarily far-right, although there is a subset of anti-government groups in the United States (US) that have been classified as far-right. Not every group or organisation with any of these characteristics can be considered far-right, and not every far-right group is automatically violent or terroristic. However, terrorist groups with these characteristics and individuals sympathetic to these ideals have been classified as ‘far-right terrorism’ in the 2019 Global Terrorism Index.

Who is behind far-right terrorism?

In general, far-right terrorists are less likely to be formally affiliated with a group than other terrorists.

Terrorist attacks in the Global Terrorism Database can be attributed to specific groups, for example, ISIL, or they can be attributed to broader identity groups or ideologies, such as white nationalist extremists, anti-Muslim extremists, and so on.

For attacks attributed to far-right and Islamist groups or individuals, just under 60 per cent were carried out by unaffiliated individuals. By contrast, separatist, far-left, and environmental terrorists were much more likely to be affiliated with a specific group, with just nine, ten, and 15 per cent of attacks respectively carried out by unaffiliated individuals.

There have been changes in the nature of far-right terrorism over the past fifty years. In the past decade, the people responsible for the attacks have been even less likely to be formally affiliated with a terrorist group.

The proportion of unaffiliated attacks has risen from under five per cent in the mid-1970s, to over 70 per cent for the period 2014-2018. This rise is a reflection of two distinct trends: the fall in organised far-left political terrorism, and the increase in far-right mass or spree shootings, usually carried out by an individual who was self-radicalised or radicalised primarily via the Internet, rather than by in-person contact with other far-right individuals or groups.

How does far-right terrorism compare to other forms of terrorism?

In 2018, far-right terrorist attacks accounted for 17.2 per cent of terrorist incidents in the West. By contrast, attacks by Islamist groups accounted for 6.8 per cent of attacks, and attacks not attributed to any group accounted for 62.8 per cent of incidents in the West. From 1970 to 2018, 5.2 per cent of all terrorist attacks in the West were classified as far-right, which account for 7.6 per cent of deaths from terrorism in the region.

There has been a significant increase in far-right terrorism over the past decade. The total number of far-right incidents has risen 320 per cent in the past five years, with 38 attacks recorded in 2018, compared to nine in 2013.

Although there has been a surge in far-right terrorism over the past decade, the level of politically related terrorism overall in the West is much lower than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. In the past ten years, there have been 322 politically motivated terrorist attacks in the West. By contrast, between 1970 and 1980 there were 1677 terrorist incidents recorded, 93 per cent of which were carried out by terrorist groups classified as far-left. There were 295 incidents of political terrorism recorded in 1977 alone.

Far-right terrorism is more than five times deadlier on average than far-left terrorism, with an average of 0.92 deaths per attack, compared to 0.17 deaths per attack since 1970. However, of the ideologies with over 100 attributed terrorist attacks, Islamist terrorism is much deadlier than far-right terrorism, with 3.6 deaths per attack if the September 11th attacks are excluded.

Far-right terrorism remains a tiny fraction of total terrorism worldwide. Even in the West, historically nationalist or separatist, Islamist, and far-left terrorism has been much more common.