Commentary: Why Asia may not be immune to far-right terrorism
White supremacist groups are organising themselves more effectively and seek to forge links with other violent movements elsewhere, including in Asia, say Amresh Gunasingham and Kyler Ong.
SINGAPORE: Eleven people were killed in shooting incidents on February 18 in the German town of Hanau near Frankfurt, in what local reports have characterized as a right-wing extremist attack.
The incident, coupled with earlier arrests of several far-right extremists in Germany and the United States has refocused attention on far-right violent extremism.
On Feb 14, 12 members of an extremist group known as Der harte Kern (The Hard Core), were detained for plotting mass-casualty attacks, including massacres at mosques in Germany, akin in scale to the March 2019 Christchurch shootings.
In January, several members of a US far-right group known as The Base, were also hauled up on myriad charges, including firearm offences and conspiracy to commit murder. Authorities said they had uncovered and foiled plans for several attacks across the country.
EVOLVING TRANSNATIONAL THREAT
These developments underscore a dangerous new phase of militancy in the far-right, which until recently has mostly been linked to sporadic acts of violence involving lone actors self-radicalised online.
The 2019 Christchurch attacks, the worst mass shootings in New Zealand’s history, further revealed how the internet and social media has facilitated the porosity of far-right extremism - an umbrella term encompassing white nationalist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi, xenophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic ideologies - and violence.
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Prominent far-right groups such as the Base and Atomwaffen Division (AWD), another US based group, seek to accelerate the collapse of Western governments through violence and establish white ethno-states, and have moved beyond merely spreading propaganda online to incorporate a kinetic phase in their activities.
Their leaders actively encourage physical gatherings, with members cajoled into attending training sessions to pick up combat skills and then initiate acts of violence in support of the group’s cause.
Their tactics increasingly come straight out of the playbook used by many Islamic extremist groups.
These range from disseminating propaganda videos featuring fighters participating in training camps, to maintaining virtual communities as well as using encrypted platforms such as Telegram to communicate, plot attacks and incite followers to violence.
More militant factions also attempt to to radicalise independent cell clusters or even lone wolves to violence, in a manner which mimics the decentralised model of Islamist violent extremists such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
As western far-right groups become better organised and more sophisticated, much of the current analysis on the movement’s largely decentralised chapters spanning North America, Europe and Australasia, neglect its transnational ambitions, amidst the growing traction of right-wing ideologies globally.
The rise of a white-supremacist, ultra-nationalist brand of right-wing politics across Europe and the US in recent years served to embolden violent elements of the far-right. It has also contributed to a surge in racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks there.
At the same time, right-wing extremist ideas, characterised by anti-globalism, ethno- religious nationalism and the pervasion of conspiracy theories that articulate grave threats to national sovereignty and individual liberty, have become more mainstream, including in parts of Asia.
To be sure, many of the popular anti-government protests in places such as Hong Kong and India, in their current iterations, largely articulate anti-establishment sentiments.
But their exploitation by various local right-wing forces and extremists to incite violence against minorities (in the case of India) as well as state targets, demonstrates how seemingly peaceful demonstrations, can pivot to violent extremism, if simmering public anxieties about economic uncertainties, perceived government corruption and eroding national identities, are not effectively addressed.
These developments are a heightened cause for concern, given some international far-right terror networks appear to be exploiting historical transnational links and the global spread of key extreme-right narratives to collaborate with right-wing nationalist and protest movements elsewhere.
Prominent western far-right extremists such as Anders Breivik, the attacker involved in a mass casualty attack in Oslo, Norway in 2011 that led to 77 deaths, have called for closer cooperation between white supremacist groups and Hindu right-wing nationalists in India, links which can be traced back several decades.
Both movements are bound by a mutual hostility towards immigrants and Muslims and have similar overarching nationalistic visions. While so far limited to openly supporting the other in their respective activities, collaborations could take an operational direction in the future.
Last December, white supremacists affiliated with a Ukrainian far-right group were also pictured in Hong Kong, likely to learn from the anti-government protests, riots and resistance movements there to further their agenda back home.
At the time, many local protestors in Hong Kong publicly rejected associating with the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, for fear of tainting the political legitimacy of their protests.
It remains an open question whether ultra-nationalistic elements, which are a fixture of such protests, may seek to organise themselves by learning from right-wing extremists elsewhere to further their interests.
In Asia, organised violence arising out of a virulent right-wing nationalism is already evident in Mongolia, where neo-Nazi groups such as the Tsagaan Khas, fueled by a desire to preserve racial purity, amidst other social, economic and political grievances, have targeted immigrants.
KEEPING AN EYE ON VARIOUS EXTREMISMS
It is unclear at this stage how far-right extremism will evolve beyond the West, although low-end tactical alliances between western far-right groups or individuals and various ethno-nationalist and secessionist movements or even criminal syndicates, including in Asia, should not be discounted.
In the near-term, there will likely be further arrests of white supremacist networks and possibly more high-profile attacks, mostly in the West.
Depending on the extent that far-right groups get involved in Asia-based groups as well as the framing of their narrative discourse, extremist-driven violence in the wider region could proliferate if Islamophobia, for example, is used to stoke social tensions.
For policymakers, the vicious cycle of reciprocal violence between white supremacist far-right and jihadist networks, a feature of the terrorism landscape in recent years, serves as a reminder that counter-radicalisation policies must take into consideration the mutually reinforcing nature of various violent extremisms to ensure more effective outcomes.
Amresh Gunasingham is an Associate Editor and Kyler Ong an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.