By Jakob Guhl, Moustafa Ayad and Julia Ebner
How Islamist extremists and the violent right wing interact and influence each other
The interplay between Islamist extremists and the violent right wing has raised fears among policy makers and practitioners about a vicious cycle of escalating tensions between extremist movements. These dynamics do not merely present a security threat, but also risks polarising societies. But this cumulative dynamic is just one piece of the pie: increasingly, reciprocal radicalisation coexists with a trend of digital violent right wing and Islamist extremist communities not just feeding off and inspiring each other, but converging into ideologically elastic online subcultures.
This article looks at four distinct, if at times interrelated, ways in which the violent right wing and Islamist extremist movements interact with and influence each other: 1) Reciprocal Radicalisation 2) Inspiration 3) Convergence 4) Conversion.
As our colleague Julia Ebner argued in her 2017 book ‘The Rage’, Islamist extremists and the violent right wing rely upon each other to reinforce their shared belief that a peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western societies is not just undesirable, but that violent conflict between the two is inevitable. While Islamist extremists and the violent right wing represent of course distinct movements and ideologies, they both seek to polarise societies into antagonistic, homogenous camps.
To achieve this, they aim to portray extremists as representative of wider communities that supposedly present an existential threat to the in-group. Islamist extremist groups argue that there is a ‘war on Islam’, in which Muslims are forced to take sides, while violent right wing extremist groups are spreading dystopian conspiracy theories about the ‘Islamisation’, ‘great replacement’ or ‘white genocide.’ Our research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has found that despite not talking much to each other, far-right and Islamists extremists talk about each other quite a lot, especially in their online-communication.
There are several prominent examples of extreme right communities and violent perpetrators taking inspiration from and expressing admiration for Islamist extremist movements. The 2011 Oslo attacker cited al-Qaeda as an inspiration, and praised the group’s readiness to fight and even die to achieve its goals. Accelerationist online communities supportive of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) similarly glorified Salafi-jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden. Others among the ranks of the violent right wing even started dreaming of a ‘white sharia’ in which women, LGBT communities and Jews would be subordinated.
Until recently, this phenomenon seemed to be a one-way street, with the extreme right admiring Islamist extremists without the favour being returned. But this may be changing, with violent right wing or alt-right subcultures increasingly influencing Gen-Z Islamist audiences both producing and consuming content online. While the 9/11 attacks may be a distant memory rather than a defining moment for Gen-Z Islamist extremists, they came of age during the Global War on Terror and the rise of the Islamic State. Now, a new generation of internet-savvy Gen-Z Islamists self describing as the ‘Akh-Right’ (a play on akhi, or brother in English, and alt- in the alt-right) are witnessing and celebrating the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The ‘Akh-Right’ speak in memes, drawing on alt-right favourites such as the Wojak, Pepe and Gigachad which are now a common feature in digital Islamist subcultures. They participate in producing hazy purple video edits of the Taliban, which they dub ‘mujahidwave’ an homage itself to ‘fashwave,’ a video aesthetic pioneered by far-right circles online. They use synthpop graphic design to celebrate the Islamic State, but they also use anime to deride it.
Some violent right wing activists appeared jubilant about recent developments in Afghanistan as well. While the fond sentiments towards the Taliban are of course not universally shared within the far-right, it should not have come as major surprise that some of the most extreme voices on the right would express joy over the retreat of U.S. forces and the victory of illiberal Islamist movements.
This convergence between Islamist and violent right wing audiences online hints at the ideological elasticity of a burgeoning, and current generation of Islamist supporters online. This will only become more pronounced with time, proving more difficult to understand the allegiances and enemies of these younger movements.
Going beyond mere reciprocal appraisal, some violent extremists have even transitioned between the supposedly hostile movements. Even though conversions are not a common occurrence, there have been a number of former neo-Nazis who converted to Islam and either immediately or eventually supported extremist interpretations of it, such as Devon Arthurs, Joseph Jeffrey Brice, Sasha L. or David Myatt (who later left Islam and remains affiliated with the Satanic Neo-Nazi cult Order of Nine Angles).
The ease with which some of these individuals transitioned between supposedly hostile ideological movements could suggest that what attracts individuals to different violent extremist movements is ultimately similar. While they may lead to different outcomes after someone has adopted a specific world-view, the precise ideological dogmas may not play a crucial role during the radicalisation process itself. Instead, direction from peers, seeking for a collective identity, notions of insecure masculinity, loneliness, humiliation and lack of purpose are among the alternative factors that could help explain the desire to take up violent extremism, independent of the specific movement. In the context of the growing trend towards ideologically elastic extremist online-subcultures, considering these alternative factors within radicalisation processes will be of increasing importance.
While the research into the online and offline interplay between violent right wing, alt-right and Islamist movements is nascent, there is an urgent need to better understand the ideological leanings of Gen-Z Islamists before they become mainstream, like their alt-right predecessors.
Jakob Guhl is Policy & Research Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), where his research focuses on the far-right, Islamist extremism, hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.
Moustafa Ayad is the Executive Director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia (AMEA) at ISD, where he monitors and tracks extremist group activity online.
Julia Ebner is a Senior Research Fellow at ISD, specialising in far-right extremism, reciprocal radicalisation and European terrorism prevention initiatives.
This article is republished with permission from the September 2021 edition of Spotlight magazine, ‘Emerging Threats‘. Spotlight is a publication from the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network for RAN’s network of practitioners. Image credit: Bloomsbury.