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Center for Research on Extremism, University of Oslo

Five Myths of Far-Right Violence

Improved systematic data on severe far-right violence in Western Europe debunks five common myths in the field.

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Image by Pietro Jeng, via Unsplash.

Since a few high-profile terrorist attacks in 2019 in Europe and the US, as well as the growing online presence of the extreme right, governments, security services, think tanks and academics have warned about the threat of violent terrorism from the far right. A recent survey of terrorism experts suggested that “Far-right terror in Europe […] and the proliferation of far-right propaganda is [currently] generally deemed to pose a bigger threat than Islamist extremism”. The problem is that most of these assessments, if not all, rely on incomplete and inconsistent data. As far as we know, the Right-Wing Terrorism and Violence (RTV) dataset, developed by the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo, is the only dataset systematically covering the development of far-right violence in Western Europe since 1990. A recent report, the RTV Trend Report 2022, which provides an analysis of key trends in the dataset, debunks at least five common myths regarding far-right violence.

Far-right violence is not on the rise

Most importantly, the dataset, which allows us to systematically compare 2021 with short-term trends in fatal and non-fatal from the 2015–2020 period, as well as longer-term trends of fatal attacks between 1990 and 2021, shows that 2021 did not see more right-wing terrorism and violence in Western Europe than in previous years. In fact, despite unsettling events, such as the January 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill in the United States, COVID-19 related lockdowns, and anti-vaccine protests, 2021 was the third least violent year since 2015 when counting all attacks (fatal and non-fatal); it was among the three least violent years since 1990 when counting fatal attacks only; and it was among the two least deadly years since 1990 in terms of fatalities. These findings contradict common media reports portraying right-wing terrorism and violence as being on the rise.

Lone actor terrorism is not the most common threat

Although there have been a few terrorist attacks in recent years, including the July 22 attacks in Norway, the attacks in Munich, Halle, and Hanau in Germany, as well as a wave of premeditated violence during the so-called “refugee crisis” (mainly in Germany, but also in Greece), spontaneous forms of far-right violence continue to dominate, particularly in 2020 and 2021. By scrutinizing these attacks since 2015 further, we see that most of them are carried out by gangs, informal groups, and unorganized constellations of people. Some spontaneous attacks are also perpetrated by lone actors. Furthermore, among the spontaneous attacks carried out by these unorganized perpetrators, a large majority (88%) targeted ethnic minorities (including immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees) or religious minorities (mostly Muslims). In 2021, some of the most brutal racist attacks by gangs and unorganized groups took place in Denmark and Greece. This clearly shows that the most common threat of far-right violence does not come from mass-casualty attacks carried out by lone actors, but from frequent ‘small-scale’ spontaneous, often racist attacks committed by a group of perpetrators with no association to a specific far-right group and gangs targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

Perpetrators of fatal violence are not primarily young men

While some lone actors are young men, radicalized online, who planned their attacks beforehand, most perpetrators of fatal violence in recent years are old(er) men with access to firearms and who are triggered by hostile encounter with their targets. This includes last year’s fatal attack in Puerto de Mazarrón, Spain, where a 52-year-old man, a former paratrooper, shot and killed a man of Moroccan origin in a bar, and the attack in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, where a 49-year-old man shot and killed a gas station employee after having been requested to wear a face mask as mandated by the government’s COVID-19 regulations. It also includes the 2020 assassination of a black actor born in Lisbon with parents from Guinea-Bissau, in broad daylight on a busy street in the Lisbon suburb of Moscavide, by a 76-year-old retired white nursing assistant and colonial war veteran.

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