27 February 2020

Salafi-Jihadi vs. Far-Right Terrorism: strategical enemies, rhetorical allies

Andreea Stoian Karadeli

A right-wing extremist shot nine people dead in two shisha bars in an overnight rampage through the German city of Hanau. Unfortunately, although drawing back to a different - if not opposite - ideology, the “Daesh style” attacks perpetrated by right-wing extremists have been witnessed more often in the past years bringing fear among Muslim and Jewish communities in the West.

Image source: ProfiMedia

Although very different in their core values and beliefs, the two ideologies that have been behind this type of attacks in the past years have proved more elements in common than anyone could have actually expected. Apparently strategical enemies, the two sides become rhetorical allies through a mutually reinforcing hate speech that uses fear in order to divide communities. This peace of research aims to provide a comparative analysis of the salafi-jihadi and right-wing terrorism that underlines and explains the similarities found especially in the two ideologies’ digital strategies and the evolution of their symbiotic relation.

A twisted game of concepts and definitions?!

In order to provide a foundation for analysis, let us look into the two ideologies and try to understand their rhetoric. The salafi-jihadi ideology has become popular after 9/11 and the Western media has (in)voluntarily played a role in spreading its message and conducting its propaganda. Since the fatidic attacks of September 2001, the salafi-jihadi ideology has developed and took various forms through separate groups, although al-Qaeda has maintained, to a certain degree, its predominance on the world scene. However, 2014 brought a new level to the salafi-jihadi game – the promulgation of a fake, still very attractive, ‘Caliphate’. In this way, Daesh set a new standard for any salafi-jihadi group and, above everything, challenged the legitimacy of its former parent – al-Qaeda.

Before we continue with the analysis, out of respect to the large Muslim population that has no relation to the extremist views discussed in those lines, it is extremely important to underline the difference between the Islam that they practice, and the twisted rhetoric promoted by the extremists. The salafi-jihadi ideology is built upon Islamic religious principles, which it distorts to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad. While the main elements of the salafi-jihadi ideology are highly interconnected, it is helpful to think of it as a ‘system of beliefs’ or ‘system of ideas’ such as conduct, group identity, values or objectives. Therefore, these beliefs address different areas that the ideology can be applied to, and as a whole come together to form the essence of Salafi-jihadi ideology.

Today, Daesh and al-Qaeda are active in their own ways, both online and physical in groups and underground cells worldwide. Some experts rushed into categorizing the current phenomenon under names such as ISIS 2.0, al-Qaeda 3.0 or Terrorism 3.0. None of these names can actually reflect the high level of danger faced by our societies at this stage. This is because the threat does not necessarily come from one group alone, but rather from the way they relate to each other and copy to some degree each other’s means and actions, while using each other’s rhetoric as an argument to construct their own narrative. Also, it is more than just strategy, means and measures, together with technology and millions of online platforms that serve the purpose of these groups all together. More than everything mentioned so far, it is the symbiotic relation that has been developing between these “enemies”, that should worry the counter-terrorism community the most.

Further on, trying to define and explain the actor standing at the other side of the table, the terms left and right stem from the French revolution and are closely associated to the idea of egalitarianism: whereas leftists generally support policies designed to reduce social inequality, rightists regard social inequality—and corresponding social hierarchies—as inevitable, natural, or even desirable (Bobbio, 1996). We can also distinguish between radical and extreme versions of both the far left and far right, where radical movements work for change within the framework of democracy whereas extremists reject democracy and are willing to use violence or other nonconventional means to achieve their goals (Ravndal, 2017; Schmid, 2013). Although a specific group or organization may be placed with one of these main families within the far-right, there might be wings or individuals that lean towards one of the other types. There are also links and collaboration between groups and activists from different ideological camps and the conflict in Syria represented a fertile environment for this phenomenon to be observed. Strange enough, factors like the permission to smoke have represented a motivation good enough for members to switch from one organization to the other.

Right-wing extremism has been witnessed intensively after 2006, but, as a result of the international and scholarly focus on salafi-jihadist terrorism, there is a gap in research regarding the topic of violence and extremism from the extreme right — in particular, on target selection, perpetrators, patterns of action, and facilitating conditions. The current trend provided a sufficient motivation for this gap to be filled, but there is still much work to be done and many elements of this phenomenon are to be understood as the events are developing. As a counter-terrorism researcher, I strongly believe that the key to better understand the current terrorist phenomenon exemplified by both right-wing extremists / white supremacists and salafi-jihadi extremists / Muslim supremacists, is to begin from their symbiotic relation and to focus on their common elements and on the means that help them feed from each other’s actions.

In the following lines, I will develop further based on three main elements of the terrorist strategy for the two ideologies: propaganda / communication, radicalization and financing.

Propaganda and Communication

While the propaganda material is aimed especially for an external audience, the communication means are developed for the interaction among the members of the group. Nevertheless, propaganda is indeed a means of communication for the terrorist organization and also an opportunity to spread its message worldwide, trying to attract members or, at least sympathizers, but also to gain legitimacy.

The propaganda of both salafi-jihadist and right-wing extremist groups resemble in its forms, reach and goals. At the core of its strategy, the extremist propaganda for both ideologies aims to create intolerance, to exploit existing grievances and to generate distrust of state institutions and authorities. It is only the context – social, politic, geographic, cultural, economic, etc – that influences the way this strategy develops. In fact, the groups use a mimicking language of the propaganda that proves the widest reach and bring in symbols, signs and numerical codes that are supposed to give the feeling of a closed circle or community. Also common for the groups from both ideologies is the use of both common social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and also alternative social media, via encrypted platforms, well protected by the Dark Web. Music, online games, online activism and trolling communities are all common elements of the propaganda strategy for both ideologies’ groups. Also, all of them face social filtering and banishment, especially when the platform used is public and easy to reach.

All these common elements can be exemplified for the case of each ideology. For instance, the propaganda strategy of the salafi-jihadi ideology has evolved with Daesh, through the formation of a Ministry of Media that brought together the new technology, the human infrastructure and the audience-oriented focus to provide a deformed form of Jihad as the central theme. In this way, Daesh has been publishing magazines in various languages, has been using music and poetry to reach the souls and minds of future recruits and has also developed TV channels and news broadcasting possibilities to keep their audience updated with their struggle and success. Long after the “Caliphate” is lost in Syria and Iraq, the group still provide fancy publications and updates regarding their activities worldwide, trying to prove their resilience. Moreover, Daesh has also developed propaganda material for children in the form of magazines, books, music and games. Symbols like the flag of the group, signs like the pointing finger raised up, and numerical codes such as the use of the old calendar to issue their magazines are also exemplifications of the common elements found in their strategy.

Just like Daesh, although they did not have a centralized media structure, the right-wing extremist groups also promoted their material via various platforms such as 4chan.org, 8ch.net (offline, tries to return as 8kun), ZeroNet (P2P, decentralized domains), EndChan (Dark Web imageboard), Archiving Websites and Fascist Forge. The central theme of their messages is also mirroring the one promoted by salafi-jihadi propaganda - “White Jihad”, also known as “White genocide”. According to their rhetoric, the “white race” is directly endangered by the increasing diversity of society. Music is also released, especially in the form of rap or rock songs that promote the message of the groups. Symbols such as the Odal rune, the Black Sun or the Wolfsangel exemplify the common elements just like in the case of Daesh.

Recruitment

There are striking resemblances between the Azov Battalion’s Western Outreach Office and al-Qaeda’s Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), which was responsible for promoting the cause and helping recruits reach the battlefield.  Just as Afghanistan served as a sanctuary for jihadist organizations like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1980s, so too are parts of Ukraine becoming a safe heaven for an array of white supremacy extremist groups to congregate, train, and radicalize. Also, as the EU countries are concerned regarding the consequences of the foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon and prove reluctant to accept and manage their returnees, little is known about the FTFs of Ukraine. Syria and Iraq attracted around 40.000 terrorist fighters, among which 5.000 were from EU countries. In almost the same period of time, Ukraine gathered around 15.000 terrorist fighters, and around 2.000 of them are from EU countries and strong supporters of the extremist right-wing ideology.

The online radicalization strategies of both salafi-jihadi and right-wing extremist groups promise togetherness, comradeship, brotherhood and belonging. It aims directly at the individuals that have been feeling rejected by their groups and communities, providing them with a platform where they can develop relationships and find a common purpose. Also, the radicalization process includes the designation of the common enemy – the one to be blamed for everything that went wrong in their lives. In the context of Daesh, the propaganda arouses interest and curiosity, exploiting religion and making good use of the context (local, social, political etc.), while for right-wing groups, the radicalization narrative is developed along the following lines:  national white resistance, environmental protection, animal welfare etc.

Financing

Both salafi-jihadi and right-wing groups have been using the digital space for financing their illicit activities. The most common examples in this regard are the use of cryptocurrency and donations / crowdfunding platforms.

In order to increase their income, Daesh, al- Qaeda, al-Qassam Brigades, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) released infographics to educate their supporters about Bitcoin, or ‘How to buy Bitcoin’ videos that details how to buy Bitcoin from a cryptocurrency exchange website. Also, Daesh is known for the use of crowdfunding platforms such as SadaqaCoins (2018), while the transfers to both legal and illegal accounts have been a business on a daily basis.

Right-wing extremist groups have been using cryptocurrency and crowdfuding platforms as well, with the first example of such a platform being the one called ArtistShare, which started as a website where musicians could receive donations, enabling them to record music. This platform is still accessible today. Furthermore, examples of current widely used crowdfunding platform include KickStarterPatreonIndieGoGo, and GoFundMe. For the right-wing extremist groups, white power music has also been a source of funding through recording sales, concerts and clandestine meetings. Also, far-right fashion is a trend and, consequently, a source of income for the groups, alike the mixed martial arts events (such as White Rex, Der Kampf der Nibelungen).

Conclusion and recommendations

Both salafi-jihadi and right-wing terrorism are equally dangerous and mutually reinforce the use of hate speech to divide communities through fear. Many elements of their media strategy mirror each other and contextualize according to the ideology and target. Although an efficient counterterrorism strategy should provide measures against both, more attention has been given so far to salafi-jihadi terrorism and the media has also played a role in this situation.

Therefore, an efficient counterterrorism strategy should ensure equal treatment of various types of terrorism and extremist ideologies, should develop an in-depth data collection on domestic terrorism and hate crimes, should promote targeted guidance for financial and nonbank financial institutions to better identify suspicious financial activity. Also, as part of the fight against terrorism, more pressure should be exercised over the technology to implement its community use of guidelines and develop innovative solutions to curbing the spread of speech that encourages imminent and targeted violence. Nevertheless, acknowledging the role of local communities, they should be involved in more collaboration and should be empowered to fight against hate speech and radicalization, while encouraging more civil society solutions. There is a long and difficult fight in front of us, but unless we are willing to correctly understand the phenomenon and act accordingly, we might not stand a chance.

 

Bibliography:

Norberto Bobbio, trans. Allan Cameron, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996

Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis”. PhD diss., University of Oslo, 2017.

Alex Schmid, “Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation and Literature Review: A Conceptual Discussion,” ICCT Research Paper, Vol. 4, No. 2 (March 2013).

Rękawek, Kacper. “Not Only Syria? The Phenomenon of Foreign Fighter in Comparative Perspective”. Vol. 134. 2 Nato Science for Peace and Security Series, 2017. https://www.iospress.nl/book/44928/.