By Virginia Massignan & Mor Yachin
In recent years, groups comprising various ideological perspectives have carried out violent attacks. While MENA groups still conduct the most attacks, a recent report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) claims that the United States faces its largest threat from far-right terrorism. The need to identify patterns of past attacks across the ideological spectrum thus remains a priority for developing effective tracking and response.
A recent study by Winkler et al. published by GNET shows that dates corresponding to spikes in online viewership and international news items can serve as useful indicators of future acts of violence or other events critical to extremist groups. Symbolically significant dates attract public attention in ways that position extremist groups to amplify their messaging through media coverage. They can also reinforce collective identity by stressing the ongoing resilience of the groups, and influence the beliefs and behaviors of extremists through emulation of the characters featured in the groups’ narratives. In certain cases, significant dates can also predict future extremist events; as year-high spike in U.S. mass shootings corresponding to the anniversary of the Branch Davidians compound seizure illustrate.
The GNET study focuses on identifying symbolically important dates for extremist groups in the MENA region, on the far right, and on the far left. It builds upon previous research connecting terrorism to newsworthiness in foreign media and work on correlations between attention spikes related to the activities of MENA-based groups that correspond to the definitional components of proto-states. Across the ideological spectrum, the study identified 81 calendar dates that corresponded with online and offline attention spikes. Forty-nine of these events related to groups based in the MENA region, 23 to far-right groups and nine to far-left groups.
The symbolically significant dates of MENA-based groups strategically aligned with the six defining characteristics of a proto-state. Examples include the Christmas Day attacks to highlight their ideological perspective, al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks to showcase a desire to attack government institutions, ISIS’s capture of Mosul on June 10, 2014 to demonstrate territorial control, Berg’s beheading video release on May 11, 2004 to document their population control, the announcement of ISIS as a caliphate on June 30, 2014 to emphasize their governance structure, and al-Shabaab’s allegiance pledge to al-Qaeda on February 9, 2012 to illustrate the capacity for alliances. In sum, MENA-based groups utilization of dates associated with each of the proto-state definitional characteristics sparked attention both online and offline.
The study demonstrates that symbolically significant dates for the far-right groups show distinctive patterns from those of MENA-based or far-left groups. Far-right groups tend to focus on dates primarily symbolizing only three of the six proto-state characteristics: governance, population control, and alliance-building. In the process, they also rely on historically significant dates, particularly those associated with the U.S. civil war and Nazis. One example is April 21, 2018, an event associated with population control. The far-right group Les Identitaires set up a faux border checkpoint to deter migrants from crossing over the French-Italian border. The date also coincided with Adolf Hitler’s birthday, potentially to underscore racial exclusion sentiments. Another is August 11, 2017, a date associated with alliance-building. White nationalist groups violently protested in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The date also aligns with Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s first Civil War assignment.
Lone actors ideologically aligned with far-right causes, however, display distinctive patterns from groups in their choice of activity dates. Avoiding links to population control, governance, or alliance-building, lone actors align their activities with dates associated with lethal attacks and reinforcement of their ideological projects. For instance, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, carried out a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Far-right extremist groups, while currently less violent than their MENA counterparts, pose potential future threats due to their strategic timing of events to coincide with historically significant dates and their initial forays into each of the six definitional elements is concerning.
Far-left extremist groups show less inclination to associate symbolically significant dates to their activities than their far-right and MENA counterparts. The few incidents when far-left groups drew notable attention are tied to events concerning population control or governance, but not always to historically significant dates. May 1, celebrated as International Workers’ Day since 1889, is a date where far-left groups often engage in population control-related events. Initially marked to celebrate the working class, the date has been used by extremist groups to voice their grievances. On May 1, 2018, for example, violence erupted during protests in Paris, France, with the Yellow Vests and the anti-capitalist Black Bloc participated. A recent event revealed far-left groups’ emergent interest in territorial control. On June 11, 2020, the John Brown Gun Club, along with Antifa and Black Lives Matter members, controlled a six-block area around a Seattle police precinct, establishing the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Currently, far-left groups appear to pose less of a threat than the MENA-based or far-right extremist groups lacking one consensus ideological project or a demonstrated, effective alliance-building capacity.
See the full report at HERE
Image Credit: PEXELS
Virginia Massignan, Ph.D., serves as the Research Coordinator for the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative (TCV) at Georgia State University. Her most recent research critically analyzes the community-building strategies of extremist groups and the audience-targeting tactics of foreign state-sponsored media campaigns on social media platforms in multiple languages.
Mor Yachin is a doctoral student and a Presidential Fellow at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, pursuing her Ph.D. in Communication Studies. Her research interests include health communication and media effects, older populations, and their use of innovative technologies. In addition, she focuses on the intersection of social media and music.