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There can be little doubt that there is a correlation of some sort between the spate of mail bombs dispatched around the US last week, the murderous shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue and next week’s mid-term elections. The poisonous rhetoric deployed in political discourse will rile people up and stir anger, which a few individuals will take to its natural extreme conclusion. This in turn is exacerbating a growing shift towards lone actor terrorism as the principal expression of extremist violence in Europe and North America, something that we see acknowledged in the spate of incidents in the US and the news that MI5 is to take on a greater leadership role in fighting the extreme right wing (XRW) in the UK.
The sorts of attacks seen in the US over the past week can, on the surface, appear to be the sort that are almost impossible to prevent. An isolated individual who decides to take matters into his own hands, using objects which are relatively accessible to the general public might set off very few tripwires for authorities. In fact, what is usually discovered in the wake of such incidents is that the individuals involved were in fact quite indiscrete in their behaviour. In the case of both Cesar Sayoc (the mail pipe bomber) and Robert Bowers (the Pittsburgh shooter), there was ample evidence of their vile views in their online activity. In Sayoc’s case, he was also vocal about his extreme views among people he knew and in public. Bowers was quieter in person, but foreshadowed his intent on a social media platform called Gab prior to launching his attack.
None of this behaviour is surprising for lone actor terrorists. In a study undertaken by a RUSI-led research consortium in 2016 focused on lone actor terrorism in Europe, from a pool of 120 cases between 2000 and 2014 across the ideological spectrum, perpetrators exhibited ‘leakage’ of some sort in at least 46% of cases. This ‘leakage’ took various forms, with some individuals changing behaviour in front of their families, while others made far clearer statements of intent which almost exactly described the acts they later committed. While there were considerable similarities among the various ideological groups in the dataset, there was a noticeable difference between the XRW and religiously inspired terrorists (the two biggest groups in the dataset), with XRW terrorists being far more likely to post telling indicators online. One perpetrator identified by researchers posted on an XRW website, ‘watch television on Sunday, I will be a the star … Death to zog [Zionist Occupation Government], 88!’. ‘88’ represents ‘Heil Hitler’, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. There is some similarity between this commentary and Bowers’s final post on Gab, ‘I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in’. Given the data for the study was largely drawn from what was available in the public domain, and with some cases being drawing on sparse information, researchers suspected that the actual number might be higher than 46%.
From current understanding, Sayoc does not appear to have signalled his intent as explicitly, but he seems to have had a deep appreciation for US President Donald Trump’s more extreme narratives and this appears to have shaped his choice of targets. Aiming at a wide range of prominent figures and institutions which have arrayed themselves against Trump politically, in public reporting Sayoc appears to have expressed his extreme pro-Trump views to several people in his immediate surroundings, having driven a van emblazoned with his support.
This appears to be in stark contrast to Bowers, who seemingly moved through his immediate community ‘like a ghost’. His in-person behaviour was apparently different from his crude, violently anti-Semitic and anti-Trump online persona.
While divergent in outward appearance, neither of these patterns are atypical to XRW lone attackers, where socially awkward individuals will externalise their behaviour abruptly and dramatically, often with some clear indicators beforehand that are unfortunately often only comprehensible in the aftermath of an attack. Even Bowers’s apparently obvious online vitriol is depressingly indistinguishable from the torrent of hatred that can be found on some XRW websites.
What is clear, however, is that the increasingly poisonous political rhetoric seen around the world is in part to blame for such incidents. In much the same way that the anger stirred up around the 2016 EU referendum was likely, in part, to blame for the murder of MP Jo Cox, it seems likely that the political winds stirring in the US in part compelled these two men to act. The sense of great political confrontation at hand and the language used in the mainstream likely accelerated the behaviour of already undoubtedly troubled individuals.
But what is most worrying is the fact that aside from the violence that is visible through these individual acts, there is a growing organisation and structure to the XRW in the UK. While the US scene has long been populated by a mix of groups and isolated individuals, the UK scene was, until relatively recently, largely the domain of isolated individuals, with organised violent groups a limited part of the XRW picture. This has been changing of late, with the emergence of groups like National Action, whose intent on murdering politicians and organising attacks in the UK has led to them becoming a growing focus to the UK’s intelligence services.
It is still difficult to make absolute comparisons between the XRW and violent Islamist terrorism in the UK. While there is a growing organisational structure and menace in the XRW in the UK, the shadow of violent Islamists’ aspirations remains far more dangerous. But the XRW draws from more mainstream political narratives, meaning the damage to society’s fabric can be more substantial. There have also been catastrophic XRW attacks in Europe in recent memory – specifically, Anders Behring Breivik’s 2010 massacre in Norway. The XRW has the potential to cause mass innocent death, and feeds off a broader political discourse which is already deeply troubled. There is a link between what is happening in the world more generally, and society’s violent political edge. And unless attention is paid, one will make the other worse.
BANNER IMAGE: Smoke rises over Oslo following the detonation of a car bomb near the executive government quarter of Norway, 22 July 2011. Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik's attack remains one of the most catastrophic extreme right wing attacks in Europe in recent memory. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.