What we learnt: ‘New Risks, Old Threat’: Right-Wing Extremism Conference

Author: Jacob Davey
Research Manager, Far-Right and Hate Crime Lead

Right-wing extremist groups and ideologies are rising across the global north. Climbing hate crime statistics highlight the increased violence and harassment which minority communities are under, whilst recent terror attacks in New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom throw this threat into the fore.

However, the question remains, how should local authorities respond to the current manifestation of right-wing extremism? This was the central question and motivation behind the Strong Cities Network (SCN) and London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) recent conference on Right-Wing Extremism.

This conference explored:

  • The distinct characteristics of right-wing extremism in London
  • International experiences and good practices in countering right-wing extremism from the City of Dusseldorf and the Violence Prevention Network in Germany
  • Challenges and importance of engaging with communities potentially ‘at risk’ of being targeted by right-wing extremists
  • The overarching challenge of online promotion of right-wing extremism and the relationship between online and offline extremist activity

In particular, this event highlighted several important points about the evolving threat of right-wing extremism, and pointed towards a number of key lessons for cities and practitioners working to counter the extreme-right.

Increasingly, right-wing extremism is being marked out as a counter-cultural youth movement which attracts a range of individuals

Key Lessons

The Changing Spectrum of the extreme-right

There is a clear absence of a universal definition of right-wing extremism, notably one that can be adopted internationally.  Extreme right-wing groups operate on a continuum, including those who prioritise violent, non-violent, democratic and anti-democratic means. Within this complex and evolving situation front-line practitioners need to feel comfortable recognising signs of right-wing radicalisation.

Speakers on the day stressed that the current understanding of right-wing extremism is too often myopic. The continuum of groups and movements on the extreme-right is broad. These movements operate under different ideological lenses including white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazis, and mobilise to target a range of communities with their actions including migrants, Jewish people, and Muslims. This spectrum bleeds into the mainstream as well, meaning that the lines between legitimate political discussion around key issues such as migration, and extremists discussion are blurred. Furthermore, although traditional extreme-right street movements are still present, the profile of extreme-right actors is changing. Empowered by alt-right and identitarian mobilisation, younger people are being drawn to these movements.  The stereotype of shaven headed, tattooed middle aged white males no longer epitomises the diversity of right wing extremist followers. Increasingly, right-wing extremism is being marked out as a counter-cultural youth movement which attracts a range of individuals.

It is essential for practitioners to decipher the local typology of any right-wing extremist activity as a first step to forming a clear understanding of their operations.  Furthermore, this information needs to be better disseminated to frontline practitioners. Tanja Schwarzer, Managing Director for the Crime Prevention Board in the SCN member city of Dusseldorf highlighted the importance of upskilling a range of frontline practitioners to identify signs of radicalisation from the extreme-right. Similarly, Ariane Wolf of the Violence Prevention Network in Berlin stressed how it was essential that practitioners such as teachers were equipped to engage with contentious discussions around issues like migration, as they provided an opportunity to limit the spread of potentially harmful stereotypes.

Recognising the dynamics of extreme-right mobilisation

It is not enough to build a profile of local movements. Throughout the conference, practitioners pointed towards a number of additional dynamics in extreme-right mobilisation, which are exploited to reach new audiences. Crucially groups are adept at exploiting local level issues to harm a city’s reputation and radicalise new individuals.

In her keynote presentation ISD’s Senior Research Fellow Julia Ebner highlighted the increasingly transnational nature of the extreme-right. Groups such as Generation Identity are building ties across the global north, creating an international infrastructure to effectively radicalise a global audience. This international nature of the extreme-right can make cities the target of a global extreme-right movement. In his opening session Dr. Gareth Harris highlighted how as a bastion of multiculturalism, London plays a crucial role in the extreme-right, with crime statistics from the city being used in propaganda globally to demonstrate the supposed risks of diverse communities. This can make elected officials the target of online trolls, but also risks cities becoming the subject of propaganda which can damage their reputation internationally.

It is important that a range of sectors and community groups keep their ear to the ground to understand the local and international dynamics which might be leveraged by extremist movements

Conversely, however, although the extreme-right is increasingly international in their outlook, they are also highly adept at driving discourse around hyper-localised ‘wedge issues’. Nigel Bromage spoke about his recent work engaging communities who are vulnerable to right-wing radicalisation, highlighting how a number of local issues such as waste management and public service cuts are blamed on minority communities, and leveraged by extremist groups in their online communications. Similarly, Dr. Gareth Harris discussed how campaigns around issues such as road safety have been high-jacked by extremist elements.

It is important that a range of sectors and community groups keep their ear to the ground to understand the local and international dynamics which might be leveraged by extremist movements. Providing practitioners with an awareness of the transnational nature of the extreme-right, including groups and movements in other countries, can help them spot mobilisation at a local level. Similarly, by understanding how the extreme-right hijacks local issues in its propaganda cities can protect their reputation abroad, and also identify domestic grievances which are being leveraged to radicalise citizens.

By understanding how the extreme-right hijacks local issues in its propaganda, cities can protect their reputation abroad, and also identify domestic grievances which are being leveraged to radicalise citizens

The Challenge of reaching vulnerable communities

A number of barriers exist to reaching individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment and radicalisation by the extreme right-wing. Several speakers flagged the challenges to effectively reaching key communities for preventative work.

The extreme-right have become increasingly adept at reaching a wide audience, through the mobilisation of mainstreamed concerns around areas such as migration, the leveraging of localised grievances, and the creation of a compelling counter-culture which attracts younger individuals. In the context of London, speakers drew attention to the way in which working class communities feel left behind by government policy and angry that their concerns aren’t given their due attention. However, key barriers still exist to reaching the individuals who are being targeted by the extreme-right for radicalisation and recruitment.

Above: the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan launched his Countering Violent Extremism Report in June 2019

This in part relates to a number of challenges around reaching these communities through pre-existing channels. The potential audience for extreme-right radicalisation is vast, as people from a range of educational, social and professional backgrounds are targeted by these groups. However, the number of avenues available to reach these constituents is limited.

Nigel Bromage of Small Steps Consultants described a consultancy approach whereby his team approached people on the streets, parks and in public transport to engage them with conversation around their grievances, and found this was effective at identifying concerns which were at risk of leverage by the extreme-right. Ariane Wolf highlighted how prisons have enabled her team to reach the most radicalised individuals, and Tanja Schwarzer pointed to the need for further engagement through schools.

Catriona Scholes of Moonshot CVE also discussed how online engagement presents an opportunity to reach people who would not otherwise come into contact with frontline services.  However, the number of such initiatives is small, and a number of speakers drew attention to the limited opportunities to engage older individuals.

These findings highlight perhaps the most important challenge to effectively countering right-wing extremism at a city level – actually reaching communities who are at risk of radicalisation in the first place. Nigel Bromage advocated the need to think outside the box, and how a creative twist will be needed to reach people who are not in frequent contact with frontline services. However, a number of more simple recommendations came out of the conference for cities who are concerned with tacking right-wing extremism, including the need to proactively engage with citizens when possible, listen to their concerns and build these into public education initiatives which can cut off the spread of extreme-right talking points.

The SCN wishes to offer our sincerest thanks to MOPAC for co-hosting the event with us. As one of the founding members of the SCN and a member of its International Steering Committee, London has been a long-standing supporter of the SCN’s aim to counter violent extremism. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan launched his Countering Violent Extremism Report ‘A Shared Endeavour’ in June 2019 – you can find the report here.

We are also grateful to our speakers who travelled so far to be with us on the day and who generously offered their time and expertise. Finally, we wish to thank all the participants for taking part in the day’s events.

The full list of speakers are as follows:

  • Olly Levinson, Head of the London Countering Violent Extremism Programme at MOPAC
  • Gareth Harris, chair of the Special Interest Group to Counter Extremism, and affiliate researcher with Coventry University
  • Julia Ebner, Resident Research Fellow, specialising in far-right extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue
  • Jacob Davey, Research Manager, Far-Right and Hate Crime Lead at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue
  • Tanja Schwarzer, Managing Director for the Crime Prevention Board in Dusseldorf
  • Ariane Wolf, Head of International Affairs at the Violence Prevention Network
  • Nigel Bromage, Small Steps Consultants
  • Catriona Scholes, Manager at Moonshot CVE
  • Athina Tzemprin, Analyst at Moonshot CVE
  • Dr Ajmal Hussain, Research Fellow, University of Manchester

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