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Extremist Attacks Rise as Polarization Increases

As tragedies go, the 15 March terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, seemed particularly concerning for several reasons.

The country had experienced political bombings and other violent protest acts, but never anything to the extent of a mass shooting with 51 fatalities. “I’m 66. I never thought in my life I would live to see something like this—not in New Zealand,” a local woman told news outlets near the scene of the attacks. 

The suspect’s attempts to draw attention to the deadly acts also seemed unprecedented: he live-streamed the shootings via a head-mounted camera. Hours after the suspect’s arrest, some Internet users continued uploading the video to YouTube and other online services. “The rapid and wide-scale dissemination of this hateful content—live-streamed on Facebook, uploaded on YouTube, and amplified on Reddit—shows how easily the largest platforms can still be misused,” U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a statement.

The suspect also self-identified as a white supremacist in a lengthy manifesto he posted on Twitter before the attack. In the manifesto, the suspect railed against cultural dilution, described nonwhite people as invaders, and advocated for the superiority of his race. Experts said he had clearly spent time scouring the Internet for sites where extremists from around the world vent their anger and discuss white nationalist concepts, such as replacement theory.

This too is troubling, experts say, because this type of activity, and its potential for violence, seems to be on the upswing. Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent who is a counterterrorism expert and homeland security scholar at the University of Southern California, recently said that white supremacy is no longer a movement on the fringes but “is being globalized at a very rapid pace.”

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a nonpartisan research center at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), has found that the current atmosphere of worldwide political polarization and upheaval offers extremists an opportunity to present their views as an alternative to those who have soured on mainstream political choices. This can also lead to more violence. 

For example, the United Kingdom’s Home Office reported that hate crimes surged following the Brexit vote in 2016. Not long before the vote, a member of Parliament who opposed the referendum, Jo Cox, was murdered. Similarly, a recent analysis of FBI data conducted by the CSUSB center found that in the United States, the election period of November 2016 was the worst month for hate crimes since September 2002.

Earlier this year, a new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that the number of white nationalist groups surged by almost 50 percent from 100 groups in 2017 to 148 groups in 2018. The vast majority of U.S. hate groups, including neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, racist skinheads, neo-Confederates, and white nationalists, adhere to some form of white supremacist ideology, according to the SPLC. Also in 2018, right-wing terrorists killed at least 40 people in the United States and Canada, up from 17 in 2017. 

The extent of the violent far-right terror problem can differ from country to country, according to Chris Hawkins, senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

 “In the United States, far-right extremism is emerging as a significant terrorism threat, with attack incident rates and casualty numbers likely to rise more quickly than those of Islamist terrorism,” Hawkins says. As evidence, he cites FBI data which indicates that in 2017 and 2018 there were higher arrest rates of domestic terrorism suspects, including white supremacists and other far-right extremists, than those linked to international terror groups, such as jihadists.

In Western Europe, the threat posed by far-right extremism has also risen sharply in recent years, but it remains significantly smaller than the Islamist terrorism threat. For example, 64 counterterrorism operations against right-wing extremists in Western Europe were recorded in the two-year period between 2017 and 2018, almost triple the 22 operations in 2015–16, according to IHS Markit, an information and intelligence company. In comparison, 275 Islamist-related counterterrorism operations were recorded in 2017 and 2018.

Although right-wing extremism does not exceed Islamic extremism in Europe, it is becoming a key secondary consideration for security forces’ resources, given the rising number of right-wing incidents, according to Hawkins.

“The absence of an organized structure, or parent group, comparable with the Islamic State also makes far-right extremism more difficult for security services—which are mostly focused on the larger threat of Islamist terrorism—to detect and disrupt,” Hawkins explains. 

Another troubling factor about far-right inspired attacks, he adds, is that they are more likely to be lone wolf operations, which are harder to detect. “Far-right-inspired attacks are less predictable because perpetrators are unlikely to be affiliated with an organization with a persistent ideology and support network,” Hawkins explains.

However, it is still possible to detect a potential far-right attack before it happens, as one recent U.S. incident illustrated.

In February, U.S. authorities arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant who had been stockpiling weapons since 2017 and cultivating plans to attack prominent U.S. Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and several high-profile television journalists from left-leaning outlets like MSNBC.

Court documents indicated that Hasson espoused extremist and white supremacist views online, including advocating for the establishment of a white homeland. He also studied a 1,500-page manifesto written by the Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik. Hasson had worked at the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., since 2016, and was an active duty member when he was arrested. In the charges, authorities alleged he was a drug addict who unlawfully possessed controlled substances, firearms, and an illegal gun silencer.

Josh Schubring, CPP, chair of ASIS International's Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council, says that from a security perspective, the type of insider threat that Hasson represented is “definitely a concern.”

Hasson used his office computer to conduct many suspicious Internet searches, such as, “do senators have Secret Service protection?” This set off red flags with the agency. “I think the Coast Guard saw a good return on its investment in the cyber tools that it utilized,” says Schubring, who is principal of security solutions at Schubring Global Solutions.

However, in some ways the suspect’s operation did not seem well thought-out, Schubring adds. Anyone who has received security training should be aware of the risk of conducting such searches. “He should have known he would be monitored,” Schubring explains.

And although Hasson allegedly stockpiled weapons and narcotics and did “a lot of internal ranting,” he never directly threatened anyone or took clear operational steps. “If he had started to surveil people or make statements in public, then that’s kind of moving it up on the next rung of the ladder, from thoughts to action,” Schubring explains. Overall, Hasson seemed to have an obsession “which he may or may not have acted on,” Schubring adds.

In the end, the Coast Guard succeeded in stopping this insider threat before he could act. “They did a great job on that,” Schubring says.