A woman walks past flowers and tributes displayed in memory of those who died in a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month. (Sanka Vidanagama/AFP)

The March 15 terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, triggered a debate about the terrorist threat from the far right in Western democracies. Two competing narratives leave the public with mixed signals.

On the one hand, right-wing terrorism is often portrayed as marginal compared to Islamist terrorism. This is also reflected in terrorism research, which, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has mainly been preoccupied with Islamist terrorism. This one-sided focus on Islamist terrorism may have kept the public unaware of the fact that in most Western democracies, the number of deadly attacks motivated by far-right beliefs is considerably higher than those motivated by Islamism, including in the United States.

On the other hand, when the media do report about right-wing terrorism, typically in the aftermath of an attack, there is a tendency to always portray it as “on the rise.” However, if that were true, today’s levels of violence would be unprecedented, which is not necessarily the case. In fact, right-wing violence has by some measures declined from its peaks several years ago — although this trajectory may be changing.

How do we measure right-wing violence?

One reason behind the conflicting narratives of right-wing violence may be that displays of the threat level by leading mainstream media outlets rely on incomplete data drawn from data sets that suffer from critical shortcomings. Several issues must be resolved to present a reliable and valid assessment of the scale and development of right-wing terrorism and violence. First, we need to agree about how to distinguish right — wing attacks from other types of violence, such as apolitical crimes (e.g. armed robbery) committed by members of far right groups. Second, we need some kind of systematic measurement displaying reliable patterns of change over time.

Media reporting often resorts to two of the most well-known terrorism databases — the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and Europol’s annual Terrorism Situation & Trend Report (TE-SAT) — both of which are poorly equipped to capture right-wing terrorism and violence. GTD does not code for the perpetrator’s ideological motivation. Therefore, reports on right-wing attacks based on GTD data, such as the Global Terrorist Index, have to manually browse the data to identify relevant events. In addition, GTD only includes a fraction of right-wing attacks registered in other data sets.

Europol’s data are even more problematic because they rely on European Union member states’ own reporting of terrorist events, based on different legal definitions of terrorism. The results are deflated numbers and a portrayal of right-wing terrorism as marginal compared to other types.

Alternative ways of measuring

A useful definition of right-wing violence should include all violent attacks whose target selection — minorities, political enemies or the government — is premised on far-right ideology, that is, a combination of nativism, authoritarianism and the belief that social inequality is natural, inevitable or even desirable. If the attack was premeditated and intended to instill fear in a wider population to affect a political outcome, it also qualifies as terrorism. Due to its clandestine nature and vulnerable victims, the number of violent attacks motivated by right-wing ideology is likely much larger than those reported in the media or by the police.

One way of overcoming problems of limited and unsystematic data is by solely counting the number of deadly attacks motivated by far-right ideology. These attacks rarely go unnoticed, and, with some time and dedication, one may account for nearly all of them. Such deadly attacks arguably constitute a reasonably good indicator of right-wing terrorism and violence more generally. Political and racist murders rarely occur in complete isolation from less severe forms of right-wing violence.

Two alternative data sets contain reliable and valid information on the number of deadly attacks motivated by far-right ideology in Western democracies: the United States Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) and the Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe (RTV) data set. The figure below shows the number of deadly attacks between 1990 and 2018 in the United States, and between 1990 and 2016 for Western Europe (this is the first time the 2016 figures are publicly released from the RTV data set; further updates are in the making).

Number of deadly attacks motivated by far-right beliefs. (wapo/Wapo)

What explains these trends?

The decline in deadly right-wing violence, which reached a historic low in Western Europe in 2014, is puzzling because it occurred under conditions commonly assumed to stimulate right-wing terrorism and violence, such as increased immigration, growing support for anti-immigrant parties, persistent Islamist terrorism and booming youth unemployment rates.

Previously, I’ve proposed six hypotheses that may help explain this conundrum, including a change in subcultural trends and more favorable political opportunities for anti-immigrant parties. Many of the attacks during the 1990s and early 2000s were carried out by neo-Nazi skinheads, an inherently violent subculture that considered violence an end in and of itself. Today, violent skinheads have been replaced by bookish Identitarians using so-called metapolitical activism to generate societal change. While keeping a safe distance from openly racist language, identitarians do believe that some people should have precedence over others in certain territories, only because of their ethnic descent. To promote this view, their metapolitical strategy is aimed at influencing cultural, intellectual and public domains to change how people think about such contested issues. This is done through a variety of mostly nonviolent means, such as writing books, hosting seminars or arranging shocking public stunts aimed at generating massive media attention, sometimes referred to as guerrilla media tactics.

At the same time, anti-immigrant parties have increasingly gained electoral support in many Western democracies, thereby offering political opportunities to people who otherwise could have ended up in more extreme forms of activism. The relative success of these parties also negates the claim made by most violent extremists that promoting anti-immigrant views via democratic channels is futile. My research shows that in Western Europe between 1990 and 2015, there is a negative relationship between electoral support to anti-immigrant parties and right-wing terrorism and violence. That said, such parties do in some cases represent a threat to liberal democratic values and minority rights, which affects more people and may have more dire consequences in the long run than their violent counterparts.

In some ways, the Christchurch attack seems to represent a new trend of mass-casualty attacks carried out by individuals who self-radicalized online with limited interaction with organized extreme-right actors. Standard explanations of right-wing terrorism and violence, such as limited political opportunities, interaction with political enemies and how immigration is discussed in the public sphere, may be less relevant for explaining lone actors groomed in transnational online extremist networks. Perhaps the answer is to be found in other domains of research, in particular those looking into how social relations and emotions shape violent behavior. In other words, there is much to gain from widening the scope and looking beyond the political and ideological arenas for answers.

The author would like to thank the creators of the ECDB data set for sharing updated data.

Jacob Aasland Ravndal is a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo.