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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/11/22

Preventing the spread of violent extremism

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The storming of the US Capitol Building in January 2021 exposed the growing challenge to Western democracies from political extremism. Conspiracy theories and organized violence rocked American democracy - a 300-year-old system that boasts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was a wake-up call for political leaders and security institutions focused on Islamic extremism since 9/11.

While jihadists remain a danger, ignoring the potency of home-grown extremist movements is no longer an option for governments. More and more, political extremists represent a lethal multi-spectrum global threat to democratic institutions and national security. And they are not afraid to use vigilante violence, as the events in Washington showed. There is an urgent need for states to act in unison to nip extremism in the bud before it turns to violence.

Meantime, far-right and neo-fascist groups thrive in an enabling environment, drawing recruits by tapping alienation and grievances. It has led to an exponential increase in militia-type groups who espouse anti-government and anti-law enforcement views. Extremists peddle fascist and racist ideologies and promote and engage in political violence. Some groups pursue the unrealistic dream of the white ethnostate, cleansed of non-whites, ethnic minorities, and immigrants.

As political scientist Eqbal Ahmad aptly put it: "We are living in modern times throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds."

The problem is that political extremists can organize and radicalize fearful, disaffected, disenchanted people with few consequences. They can take advantage of the freedom of expression and openness of democratic societies. Especially concerning is the spread online of white supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynist propaganda.

Another serious concern is that the globalization of extremism seems underway. A 2021 Investigative Report by the Combat Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point concluded that right-wing extremists have moved from the narrow concept of nationalism to a global struggle against a global enemy. A common enemy requires extremists to network and cooperate across borders. Other intelligence assessments show an alarming level of extremist infiltration of the state security apparatus, such as the police and the armed forces.

Recognition of the extremist threat is slow. Six months after the assault on the Capitol, the White House issued a report admitting that domestic terrorism posed a danger to Americans, a democratic society, and national security. It said that extremists - galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States to carry out violent attacks - would be countered aggressively, comprehensively, and responsibly.

But partisan political divides hamper unified action against the domestic extremist threat in the US. For example, a large majority of the US public supports the prosecution of capital rioters, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. Yet there are sizable partisan differences as Democrats want severe penalties for convicted rioters and Republicans less so. There is a similar divide as more Democrats view right-wing extremism as a serious problem. But more Republicans see left-wing extremism as a significant problem in the US.

In the past half-century, political violence in the West has made a distinct shift from left to right. Left-wing groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades carried out many deadly attacks in Europe, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Increased jihadist violence like the horrific 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda followed in the early part of the 21st century. But in the last decade, the step-up in political violence has come from the far-right. The Global Terrorism Index 2020 reports that there have been "at least 35 far-right terrorist attacks every year for the past five years."

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Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator.

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