On Monday, Jan. 24, German authorities announced the detention of five people suspected of planning to kidnap the health minister and start a civil war that would lead to the establishment of a far-right government. This is already the third similar case in just a few months, having occurred last April and again last December, when 25 citizens were arrested for planning a coup d’etat.
A few days before the last episode on Dec. 3, 45,000 residents of Monroe County, in North Carolina, lost power after two electricity substations were attacked by gunfire. The government declared a state of emergency, closed schools and stores for days, and hospitals had to rely on generators to continue functioning. In the first eight months of last year, the United States witnessed more than 100 such incidents, the largest number in 10 years.
These cases represent a growth in political violence committed by extremist groups throughout the West. Experts say this situation will likely become worse in the future. According to Cátia Moreira Carvalho, an expert on radicalism at the University of Porto, “far-right movements have developed more violent and international characteristics in recent years.”
No Shortage of Warnings
Authorities in the United States have long known about this threat. In 2020, a 14-page manual on how to attack critical infrastructures appeared in white supremacist channels on Telegram. Its authors promised that “when the lights go out … chaos will be let loose, creating the conditions for our race to take back what is ours.”** A few days before Duke University went dark, the Department of Homeland Security warned about the possibility of imminent attacks by far-right groups that were involved in the assault on the Capitol in 2021. The warning declared that potential targets included public spaces, churches, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, religious and ethnic minorities, government buildings and critical infrastructure.
Carvalho highlighted two factors that explain the growth of political violence by the right: the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the influence of social media channels. In addition, Maximilian Ruf, a member of the Radicalisation Awareness Network, a group of European experts, emphasized the role of COVID-19 conspiracy theories — which provided these movements with a “sense of urgency” — as well as a perception of popular support that did not exist before 2020.
In the United States, far-right groups have used Telegram channels to persuade people with COVID-19 to infect law enforcement agents, Blacks and Jews. How? By “spreading their saliva on the doorknobs of FBI offices and synagogues.”**
According to the latest data from Europol, the number of people detained in Europe on suspicion of engaging in terrorist activities related to far-right movements has increased for three consecutive years. In 2021, 64 people were detained. In Germany during that same year, the number of politically motivated crimes was the highest ever recorded, 23% higher than the previous year. Ruf emphasized that “although these numbers are quite high, official statistics tend to underestimate the actual number of crimes connected to the far-right.”
War has also contributed to this problem. Christina Schori Liang, from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, pointed out that “the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is helping these groups establish transnational links and develop strategic and military capabilities.”
Jacob Ware, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written that “the Biden administration may have a more serious counterterrorism program than his predecessor, but the violence continues unabated.”** Ware believes that European countries have developed better prevention strategies, but reminded us that the narratives influencing these attacks, such as the “Great Replacement Theory” that claims there is a conspiracy to replace white people with ethnic minorities, easily travel across continents.
“Regardless of whether the attack is in Buffalo or Bratislava, the ideology is the same,” Ware said, referring to a hate crime that took place in the Slovak capital last October in which a man murdered two LGBTQI+ persons after he had posted racist and antisemitic comments online just hours before.** Noting the attacks on presidential and other government buildings in Brazil in January, Ware added that “the history of anti-government movements in the United States makes incidents such as the Capitol attacks more likely, and that these anti-system dynamics are being exported to allies like Germany and Brazil.”** After losing the election, Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign received advice from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon encouraging him to pursue a narrative of election fraud just as Bannon did when Joe Biden was elected, and described the attackers of the Brazilian capital as “freedom warriors.”
A report published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences in May analyzed thousands of politically radical actions in recent decades in the United States as well as Europe, sorting them by ideology. Its main conclusion was that far-right individuals are 68% more likely to engage in violent political activity than far-left adherents (a group that includes anarchist movements). Furthermore, it found that the degree of violence perpetrated by radical far-right groups in the United States is equivalent to that of radical Islamic groups.
Despite these conclusions, Ware didn’t dismiss the possibility of an increase in political violence by the far left in the near future. In June 2017, a far-left activist shot and wounded six people during an annual congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. Among the victims was Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican House whip at the time. Last year, conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the target of an assassination attempt. Ware warned that “the danger exists, and we need to be prepared.”**
Notwithstanding these concerns, Anders Ravik Jupskås, deputy director at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, noted that “there have been positive steps in the fight to prevent this violence, although he also warned that this work has just begun. Jupskås said that “while European governments appear to have become far more conscious of the threat in recent years, the main challenge for democracies continues to be finding ways of dealing with far-right parties and the politicians who are attempting to dismantle democracy, bit by bit.”
*Editor’s note: The original article in Portuguese is available with a paid subscription.
**Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, these quoted remarks could not be independently verified.