December 13, 2022

IntelBrief: UN Secretary-General Issues First Report Highlighting Threat of International Far-right Terrorism

AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

Bottom Line Up Front

  • On November 30, the UN Secretary-General presented his first report on terrorist attacks based on xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion and belief (XRIRB), also referred to as far-right terrorism, at a High-Level meeting at the UN.
  • The landmark report recognizes the rising international threat of far-right terrorism – a threat that, until recently, was considered only of national consequence in certain domestic contexts – and reflects the growing concern of member states about this emerging form of terrorism.
  • The SG’s report highlights the use of online platforms and their transnational linkages and the litany of practical and human rights challenges to addressing this emerging threat.
  • The High-Level event also noted fissures in the international perspectives on the terrorist threat, with disagreement over which narratives are most promulgated or groups impacted, as well as a continued perception of far-right terrorism as mostly a “Western” problem.

On November 30, the United Nations Secretary-General presented his first report on terrorist attacks based on xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance or in the name of religion and belief (XRIRB) – the UN terminology for far-right violent extremism or terrorism – at a High-Level meeting at the UN. The landmark report recognized the rising international threat of far-right terrorism – a threat that, until recently, was considered only of national consequence in certain domestic contexts – and reveals the growing concern of member states about this emerging form of terrorism. The report is also the first acknowledgment from senior UN levels that this form of terrorism is a concern. For the past two decades, while several UN resolutions and states have discussed addressing “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” the focus has largely been on Islamist terrorism and on al-Qaida and ISIL, the only two UN-designated terrorist groups which were deemed a threat to international peace and security. According to the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), some states consider far-right terrorism the fastest-growing and most prominent domestic security threat, and the report highlighted the increasing attention and body of research by international bodies, civil society, academia, and other experts on the issue. The UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), noted a 320 percent rise in attacks committed by individuals affiliated with “right-wing terrorism” between 2014 and 2018. Moreover, attacks such as the mass killings in Utøya, Norway, in 2011 and the attacks against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 demonstrate the lethality of far-right terrorism. The recent shootings at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as the shooting outside an LGBTQ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia display the growing frequency of far-right attacks.

The SG’s report echoes current research on the far-right threat, yet it is notable for being requested by member states and the first time that the UN system has formally addressed or recognized the far-right threat. Far-right groups and individuals utilize online platforms for radicalization, recruitment, financing, dissemination of information, and planning attacks, often targeting children and youth. Often skilled in misusing social media platforms or circumventing terms of service, these groups and individuals prove a persistent challenge to those trying to counter or disrupt far-right extremism online. Recognizing the varied, sometimes overlapping and even contradictory, ideologies that motivate individuals in the far-right movement to violence, the report noted the role of narratives – often xenophobic or misogynistic – to motivate these groups, including the use of disinformation, conspiracy theories, hateful rhetoric, and the exploitation of stereotypes, among others.

The report also noted there is “sporadic” evidence that far-right terrorism has the potential to become transnational in nature, as the use of the internet enables once mostly domestic actors to develop transnational connections and influence one another. Yet, research has demonstrated the international linkages of the far-right movement and its noted increase over recent years, as far-right actors across borders have coalesced in online spaces, exchanged information, and sought to inspire or replicate attacks. According to the report, many member states have pointed to the phenomenon of “lone actor” terrorism as the most pressing threat in their countries, a phenomenon that is increasingly transnational in nature. The manifesto of the far-right individual who perpetrated the terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019 directly referenced his support for the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. Moreover, some far-right individuals have even participated in attacks in other countries, as demonstrated by the presence of a known far-right South African national at the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, and experts have pointed out several iterations of far-right violence in non-Western contexts, particularly where there are instances of “majoritarian” violence against minority communities.

There are several challenges in effectively countering the global threat, which are highlighted in the report, such as the varied terminology used to categorize this type of terrorism or balancing the need to limit hateful content online while protecting human rights and civil liberties. The expansive and varied terminology to categorize XRIRB, including “far-right terrorism or violent extremism,” “right-wing terrorism,” “racially and ethnically motivated right-wing extremism” (REMVE), among others, can vary widely among jurisdictions and hinder cooperation across borders, also reflects different ways of understanding and addressing the threat among states. While there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism, several states and international treaties have defined terrorist acts, which can provide some common basis for categorizing and responding to these threats. According to the report, however, differences in the way terrorism is categorized can inhibit mutual legal assistance, third-party requests for asset freezing, and potential multilateral listing practices and information sharing. Moreover, under- or overinclusive definitions can potentially criminalize behaviors that are protected by international human rights law, a reality that has been highlighted in research on counterterrorism more broadly. Many of these issues are also apparent when different countries take different approaches to designating transnational terrorist groups, criminalizing some but not other offenses relating to terrorism, or transposing international legal obligations into domestic frameworks. The potential for bias in monitoring – such as less systematic action against far-right terrorism than content by groups such as al-Qaida or ISIS/Da’esh – can also negatively impact human rights. Many states have long stressed that the UN must consider all forms of terrorism and not just ones perceived as threats by western states.

Additionally, the report highlighted several areas for international cooperation in countering the far-right threat, including whole-of-society approaches for prevention, public-private partnerships to counter the financing of terrorism, inter-faith dialogue to defuse sectarian tensions, and education and training to prevent infiltration of violent elements into military and law enforcement bodies. The Soufan Center has also identified a number of ways that existing UN Security Council resolutions and tools – including ones designed to counter terrorist narratives and financing  – can be applied to far-right threats without requiring the adoption of new instruments. Listings, designations, and proscription practices were also noted as a major disruption tool used by some member states to counter the far-right threat, a pre-existing tool that can continue to be developed and utilized. Earlier this year, TSC examined the impacts and outcomes of measures taken by some states – in particular “Five Eyes” (FVEY) countries – to use sanctions and proscriptions against far-right actors.

During the report launch at the High-Level event, numerous states commented on the report and shared their perspectives on the threat of XRIRB, highlighting fissures in the international perspectives on ideology and the threat. Many states, UN entities, and civil society actors noted the importance of countering terrorism in all its forms, including far-right terrorism, and recognized the rising far-right threat, a traditional formulation that has been reflected in numerous resolutions and statements over many years. Yet, some member states disagreed on the which narratives are most promulgated or groups impacted by this emerging form of terrorism, and on the principle of identifying groups through their underlying ideologies. Australia and the U.S. affirmed the importance of addressing the threat, while others highlighted what their governments viewed as deficiencies. Pakistan, for example, stated Islamophobia was under-recognized, while Hungary underlined the priority of countering Christian-o-phobia. Others countered the international nature of the threat, with India stating that far-right terrorism is a domestic threat limited to Western and Eastern Europe, North America, and Oceania, despite documented far-right attacks in the Global South. Fissures aside, the UN Secretary-General’s report is an important recognition of the increasing transnational threat of far-right terrorism, and provides a basis for further international cooperation in countering the threat.