Authorities must act on growing far-right terror threat
The third far-right atrocity in Germany since last June may finally shake the German and other governments out of their misguided lethargy. As with so many European states, the focus remains locked on Islamist extremist terror, while its far-right equivalent sails under the radar.
The killing of nine Germans of foreign background in the small town of Hanau, about 25 kilometers from Frankfurt, last week might start to challenge this. Hanau is in a highly cosmopolitan mixed area of Germany, where many from immigrant backgrounds reside. The killer unleashed his racist fury at two shisha bars frequented by Turks and Kurds. It appears he then returned home, killed his mother and then committed suicide. His name is immaterial. He is no martyr, no hero. Those who commit atrocities deserve no special status.
Be in no doubt that this man was extreme and his killings were both politically and racially motivated. Chancellor Angela Merkel was clear about the Hanau attacks: “Racism is a poison, hatred is a poison... and it is to blame for far too many crimes.”
This does not happen in a vacuum. A far-right extremist attacked a synagogue in Halle last October, with his actions also live-streamed on the internet. And, back in June, Walter Luebcke, a politician from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, was murdered at his home near Kassel, apparently for his pro-refugee views. The mayor of Cologne was stabbed for similar reasons in 2015.
The extremist ecosystem has preserved the killers’ efforts. The Hanau attacker published a letter and a 24-page manifesto online. The authorities quickly took this down, but on social media his fellow haters ensured it spread far and wide. Just as with Islamist extremists, these tech platforms remain a thorn in the side of all efforts to stymie the publicity and attention these extremists crave. Increasingly, right-wing extremists and white supremacists travel across continents to network and share plans and ideas.
Why does Germany have such an issue with far-right terrorism? Is the government turning a blind eye to right-wing extremism? The far right has grown in strength and number in a country that remains largely traumatized by its Nazi past. German security services believe that, as of last year, there were 32,200 far-right extremists in the country. The question many ask, however, is how many sympathizers are embedded in German institutions such as the army and the police? How was the killer able to get his gun — a Glock — legally?
Another key question is how much of a role did the far-right Alternative for Germany have in promoting this? It is the official opposition in the Bundestag and might even take first place in several East German states. A significant wing of the party under Bjoern Hoecke explicitly calls for the “de-Islamization” of the country.
This is why immigrant communities have little trust in the government. Many openly say that government action is too limited and that they feel isolated. They point to a notorious scandal in German politics, namely the National Socialist Underground (NSU) killings. How did the NSU survive underground for so long? Its killing spree accounted for 10 people, in addition to three bomb attacks. How did it get away with so many racially motivated murders between 2000 and 2007? Many ask how the authorities failed to realize until so late that this was an orchestrated campaign of right-wing extremism.
There is a serious risk that many politicians will once again attempt to brush the Hanau attack under a large carpet, pushing the cliches and well-worn line that these were the actions of a mad, lone attacker.
There is a serious risk that many politicians will once again attempt to brush the Hanau attack under a large carpet
Most European states have seen surges in attacks by right-wing extremists, but Germany has the most terrifying record. Many plots have been stifled, including suspected attempts to kill President Emmanuel Macron of France and Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish prime minister, both in 2018. Norway has yet to recover from the 2011 killing spree of Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people. The far right remains strong there, with groups like the Soldiers of Odin, whose members openly carry Nazi flags in the streets.
The counterterrorism struggle is far too weighted in favor of Islamist terrorism. Although that remains a huge threat, this imbalance has to be redressed. Take the US. Between 2010 and 2017, of the 263 domestic terrorist incidents, 92 were by far-right attackers and 38 by Islamist extremists. In Europe, the Islamist threat is still the most significant, but the number of far-right attacks is consistently escalating. One study found that the number of terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators in the US doubled between 2016 and 2017. At the same time, it rose by 43 percent in Europe.
Some of these right-wing attacks are filed as hate crimes rather than terrorism. The latter is often a problematic label as it evokes a more powerful response for what is often a similar action. Hate crimes are typically seen as more spontaneous; terrorism more planned. The reality is that the two overlap, as acts deemed to be terrorist in nature are usually hate crimes too. Authorities must accept that there is a close linkage between them.
Internationally, the Hanau killing spree did not elicit the same print space or attention as similar Islamist attacks. Many papers, such as The Times of London, did not cover it on the front page. A former senior Times journalist tweeted that the “current editor and some of his execs do not place equal value on the lives of Muslims.”
Official responses must avoid any sign of double standards. Islamist and far-right extremist activity has to be treated the same. This means stepping up the efforts to an equivalent scale in terms of resources, judicial actions and also research.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech