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Countering right-wing terrorism and violent extremism: is there a role for the UN?

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File picture: Jorge Silva/Reuters – People visit a memorial site for victims of shooting in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch.

By Naureen Chowdhury Fink and Michaela Millender

United Nations member states have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to combating terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations.”

Set in motion twenty years ago in the wake of the deadly attacks in the United States (US) on September 11, 2001, these efforts largely focused on threats posed by al-Qaeda.

A decade later, international counter-terrorism action has expanded to include the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIL or Daesh). Both were deemed a new kind of threat to international peace and security, and the UN Security Council imposed unprecedented legal obligations and norms on states.

However, as these groups evolved into more diffuse and localised threats, another form of terrorism began to concern many states, largely in the West. This one draws on old histories and foundations bu­t combines new ideas and tools: right-wing terrorism and violent extremism, or, in US government parlance, “racially and ethnically motivated terrorism or violent extremism.”

Right-wing terrorism and violent extremism are motivated by a plethora of overlapping and sometimes inconsistent ideologies, ranging from Neo-Nazism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious nationalism, eco-fascism, misogyny, and anti-government sentiment.

FBI Director Christopher Wray called it a “salad bar” of ideologies. Although the phenomenon is hardly new, recent events, such as the insurrection at the US Capitol Building on January 6th; the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pennsylvania, US; and the mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, have heightened the urgency of the threat for many states.

Further, the electoral success of European nationalist and far-right populist parties and leaders and US politicians, who promote far-right narratives, has served to bring ideas and policies once considered fringe into the mainstream.

As with the pre-9/11 terrorist threats, this iteration has largely been considered by member states to be a national problem requiring domestic security attention.

Yet, as money, ideas, and people travel, there are growing transnational dimensions of this threat, most notably with the proliferation of online platforms and resources which have accelerated connections and the spread of right-wing ideas connected to terrorism.

In addition, the rhetoric of politicians has highlighted the potential for international linkages, as seen in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas, where he called for national movements to “take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels” and “coordinate the movement of (their) troops because (they) face the same challenge.”

Transnational dimensions can be seen in groups similar to the US group Proud Boys that have taken root in several countries; US-based Atomwaffen Division has been proscribed by the United Kingdom, and the Russian Imperial Movement was named a “specially designated terrorist group” by the US for its training and activities in Europe.

Such realities prompt the question of whether there is a role for international organisations like the UN.

Both the most recent review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) and the new mandate for the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) highlighted this emerging threat and its subsequent dynamics.

The latest GCTS review called on member states to take appropriate measures to address this “new” and emerging threat, as well as request that the UN Secretary-General develop a report to enhance understanding of the motivations, objectives, organisation, and, ultimately, the threat these groups pose in the global terrorist landscape.

However, the inability of states to agree on consistent terminology across the Security Council and General Assembly highlights several tensions.

For some states, the references to race and ethnicity are challenging; others contest the description as one of political ideology or note that what constitutes “right-wing” differs, particularly in non-Western contexts, such divergences, however, are not insurmountable and are not new in the realm of a global counter-terrorism law, which evolved despite the absence of a universally agreed upon, all-encompassing definition of terrorism among UN member states, who ultimately, accepted the associated risks that come with such a fluid definition.

Moreover, the nineteen international conventions and treaties that address various terrorist acts and offences make no mention of the ideological motivation for those acts.

While not all multilateral tools developed to address al-Qaeda and ISIL/Daesh can be easily applied to extreme right-wing groups, there are three ways in which the UN can play an important role.

Normative: UN counter-terrorism resolutions already stress that terrorism should not be linked to a single religion or civilisation and purport to address all forms of terrorism.

Indeed, it is the very boundless nature of UNSCR 1373 and subsequent related resolutions that has elicited concerns from many practitioners, human rights advocates, and civil society organisations.

However, these resolutions set an important normative standard that terrorism exists in multiple forms and, in combination with 19 international treaties defining terrorist acts, create a basis for regional and international cooperation. Several states have already deemed far-right terrorism to be among their key security challenges, and while many groups have developed in national contexts, as international networks are both utilised and strengthened, the threat is unlikely to remain solely a domestic concern.

Countering narratives and incitement: UN member states have already deemed it necessary to counter incitement to terrorism and terrorist narratives (resolutions 1624 and 2354, including its attached compendium).

In recent years, online activities and communications have had an outsized role in connecting extreme right-wing groups in several countries, perhaps intensified by Covid-19 restrictions.

Moreover, recent analysis indicated that the increasingly young age of some individuals suspected of terrorist-related activity, especially when combined with the proliferation of internet-based tools and the specific targeting of youth for radicalisation, highlights the need for more regulation and education to mitigate the risks posed to young people.

The existing resolutions provide some agreed-upon framing and, crucially, stress the importance of protecting civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Where such frameworks are applied, it is incumbent on states —particularly Council members — to ensure they are not subverted to legitimise or enable, either directly or indirectly, human rights violations.

Countering financing and resourcing: In the wake of the East Africa bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the UN imposed sanctions on the Taliban and then al-Qaeda, expanding the regime to include ISIL/Daesh.

While the regime evolved to reflect the fundraising and resource mobilisation strategies of these groups, a recent project undertaken by The Soufan Centre highlighted some of the challenges of applying such a sanctions regime to extreme right-wing terrorist (ERWT) groups which are smaller in scale and fund-raise through several licit means, including events, merchandise, and other streams which may be legally protected in some countries.

Moreover, a number of the dynamics of the right-wing movement — including the diffused and decentralised nature of the groups, the increased prominence of youth, online communications, and the range of variable and sometimes overlapping ideologies that are identified as part of the movement— make it unlikely a 1267-like sanctions regime would be created, as it was designed to target two large, centralised groups.

However, several states and interlocutors noted that despite the dearth of data, sanctions had important normative, operational, and political impacts and that these led a number of “The Five Eyes” alliance states (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US) and like-minded others to list several groups as terrorists; given the transnational aspects, international cooperation — or even a creative regime enabling sanctions — may be needed.

Beyond sanctions, the work of CTED provides an opportunity for the UN to work with individual states to develop responses and work with suitable UN partners such as the UN Office of Counter-terrorism and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime to help states develop their own — and collaborative — responses.

CTED works under the aegis of resolution 1373 and subsequent relevant resolutions, including 2462 and 2482 (on terrorism financing and organised crime, respectively), and is mandated to conduct country-specific assessments of terrorism threats and counter-terrorism capacities; monitor implementation of key Council frameworks; and identify emerging trends and dynamics.

CTED could therefore support individual states in ensuring their domestic counter-terrorism frameworks can address the challenges posed by far-right groups as they monitor the implementation of the Council’s resolutions, particularly in areas like countering the financing of terrorism and countering violent extremism.

CTED’s findings could help other UN partners identify appropriate engagement and support. Aggregate information from the assessments could be used to help identify and map the threat and different regional or national iterations, ensuring that multilateral actions are responsive to the current threat and more tailored to needs and challenges in different contexts.

Although some have voiced the need for new Council resolutions on this topic, others have noted there are sufficient resolutions and frameworks that allow for such work.

Rather than adopt new laws and measures, they argue, the UN should focus on implementation, with responses tailored to the threat and changing dynamics, needs, and lessons learned, particularly in terms of mitigating the negative impacts of some counter-terrorism measures.

It may therefore be helpful for the Council to encourage states to develop their own measures, whether sanctions, laws, or other policies, and foster increased exchange of good practices, lessons learned, and capacity-development assistance — not in a separate resolution, but through statements reaffirming the ideological agnosticism of its resolutions and bilateral dialogues with states on counter-terrorism.

This may be especially helpful in alerting states that may not have this threat on their radar, especially if there are more tailored iterations of the risks or vulnerabilities for the private sector.

As in 2001, it will be important not to overstate the role of the UN in countering the threat; however, careful consideration of its comparative advantages and capacities and leveraging them effectively will be key to ensuring a strong and coordinated international response.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is Executive Director of the Soufan Center and Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. Michaela Millender is Programs & Communications Officer at the Soufan Center.

*This article was first published in the The Global Observatory.