Since Donald Trump entered office in January 2017 the rhetoric of terrorism has revolved around ‘radical Islamist terrorism.’ Indeed the president promised to ‘eradicate’ this type of violence ‘from the face of the earth.’ He has very much attempted to put this into practice, with his first initial travel ban against seven majority Muslim countries (Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Iraq) and now with a ban against laptop and large electronic items (also initiated by the UK in altered form). The issue with his discourse (aside from it seeming targeting and discriminatory) is that it is misguided. Indeed, some argue that right-wing terrorism, overall, presents a greater threat to the West than terrorism guided by the Islamic religion in any form or sect.

One of the deadliest terrorist attacks on US soil remains the Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing terrorist and Gulf War veteran, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on 19 April 1995, killing 168 people of which 19 were children. Indeed, he currently remains the only terrorist to be executed by the US, killed by lethal injection in 2001. More recently, the case of the South Carolina shooter, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who murdered nine black worshippers, has been convicted on charges of federal hate crime and recommended for the death penalty. Indeed, these cases are not rare; over half of terror attacks on US soil since 9/11 have been perpetrated by far right groups or individuals. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, produced in conjunction with the FBI, documented 24 violent, right-wing domestic attacks that took place between 2010-2014, whilst a report by the New America Foundation found that of the 28 deadly home-grown terror attacks since 9/11, 18 incidents were inspired by right-wing terrorism and 10 by radical Islamic fundamentalism. The FBI is specifically tasked to investigate and prevent incidents of home-grown terrorism, the ‘domestic’ threat. In a testimony not long after 9/11, Dale L Watson, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence division gave evidence before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In this he stated that ‘at the national level, formal right-wing hate groups such as the National Alliance, the World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) and the Aryan Nations, represent a continuing terrorist threat.’ He also stated that ‘right-wing groups continue to represent a serious terrorist threat. Two of the seven planned acts of terrorism prevented in 1999 were potentially large-scale, high-casualty attacks being planned by organised right-wing extremist groups.’

Stephen Melkisethian

Image courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian, © 2015, some rights reserved.

The situation is no different in Europe. Two weeks ago, on 23 March, EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned of the ‘growing menace’ of violent, right-wing extremism. Interestingly, he characterised this as a backlash against on-going attacks by jihadists. King is the only British member of President Juncker’s, head of the European Commission, cabinet and mentioned that no EU member state is safe from the threat. Europe has witnessed some brutal right-wing attacks in recent years. It is hard to forget the terrorist attack perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway. He killed 77 people in a gun and bomb massacre, focusing upon a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya and also detonated a bomb in the capital, Oslo. Describing himself as a Christian, and anti-Muslim, he wrote a 1,500 page manifesto entitled ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence,’ which was critical of Muslim immigration and European liberalism. Indeed, he has boasted of links to the far right in the UK and Europe, claiming to have had correspondence with the English Defence League (EDL) and Stop the Islamification of Europe (SIOE), advising them to change their strategies. Crucially, as Britain mourns the loss of four citizens and an American national at the hands of Khalid Masood, another terrorist attack centred upon government springs to mind. In 2016 Jo Cox was killed in a terrorist attack, shot and stabbed by Thomas Mair in a premeditated attack. Prosecutor Richard Whittam called the murder ‘politically motivated.’ Thomas Mair is alleged to have accessed a number of right-wing sites including that of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and information regarding the Nazis. This demonstrates that right-wing terrorism remains a pervasive threat to the West.

Perhaps the reason why there are claims that right-wing terrorism is under-reported is due to the inherently contested and vague nature of the definition of terrorism. Ultimately, there is no one overarching definition that has consensus behind it. Most, however, define terrorism as having political motives and aims, targeting non-combatants and often perpetrated by sub state groups. Further complicating the matter is the question of whether terrorism constitutes a criminal offence or whether it should be treated as something different entirely. It seems that we characterise those we find ourselves broadly (very broadly) similar to (those more likely to perpetrate right-wing terrorism) as criminals and those we see as fundamentally different (those more likely to perpetrate Islamic inspired terrorism) as terrorists.

Therefore, the term terrorism is a rhetorical result of the process of ‘othering’ and ‘neo-orientalism,’ viewing or treating someone as intrinsically different to oneself and an alien and in the latter case, presenting the West as fundamentally superior. In a piece for The Independent, Robert Fisk echoes this troubling narrative, stating that ‘ordinary’ crime – the mass killing of Westerners by Westerners for money, greed, personal revenge or a drug-related desire to kill fellow humans – is treated as somehow normal. But ‘terrorist’ crime almost always indicates that Muslims are held responsible. ‘In other words, criminals are our chaps, while terrorists are dark-skinned Muslims who hate our values, want to chop off our heads and are obviously crazy.’ Indeed, at a talk in front of graduate students, the former FBI Assistant Director of the Counter Terrorism division labelled domestic terrorism groups, like the KKK, as ‘distasteful’ and those that cross into criminal activity. Whilst Steinbach clearly labelled this as domestic terrorism it seems highly unlikely an Islamist inspired attack would ever simply be labelled ‘distasteful.’

Clearly, right-wing terror attacks are a prominent threat across the western hemisphere. Western society, especially governments and the media, has a responsibility to characterise and define these incidents as what they are: terrorist attacks. They are not a crime; they are terrorism. If we have more responsible reporting and political acknowledgement of this fact, this may begin to dispel and erode the inherently anti- Islamic and racist connotations that lie behind the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism.’