FACT CHECK: Is White-Nationalist Terrorism "Not That Big a Problem"?
Updated: Mar 20
MISLEADING. Terrorism connected to radical Islam does claim more lives annually, but that number has been in decline since 2014, while far-right lone-actor attacks are on the rise.
In his April 23 column for the National Post, John Robson, a documentary filmmaker and history professor at the University of Ottawa, claimed that “white nationalism just isn’t that big a problem.” His article was prompted by a tweet from foreign-affairs minister Chrystia Freeland that read: “Today, at the @UN Security Council, Canada condemned white supremacist terrorism. This grave terrorist threat must not be ignored and must be at the top of the agenda when we talk about confronting terrorism.” In particular, Robson took issue with the last part of Freeland’s tweet and argued that, because radical Islamic terrorism kills more people each year, it instead should be at the “top of the agenda.”
Any discussion of the data on terrorism ought to be preceded by the caveat that, because there is no globally accepted definition of the term, incidents of terrorism are difficult to quantify. That disclaimer goes double for data sets that attempt to sort terrorist attacks by motivation or ideology. However, though the way they word it varies, most governments and institutions studying terrorism agree on a definition along the lines of: the use of violence by a nonstate actor to further a political agenda.
According to Vision of Humanity’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI), terrorism was responsible for 18,814 deaths in 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available). This roughly corresponds to Robson’s claim—for which his main source was admittedly Wikipedia—that terrorism kills “some 20,000” people annually. The GTI attributes 56 percent of these deaths to the world’s four most active terrorist organizations: Islamic State militants, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab—all four of whose ideologies are connected to Islam. By contrast, far-right extremists (whose ideologies generally include white nationalism and white supremacy) were responsible for fifty-nine incidents of terrorism in 2017, resulting in seventeen deaths.
Robson’s claim that radical Islamic terrorism kills more people annually than radical far-right terrorism, then, is correct—but the leap from it to his claim that white nationalism “isn’t that big a problem” is misleading in several ways. The first has to do with the differences between the terrorism of groups like ISIL and that of far-right extremists. According to the GTI, 74 percent of all deaths by terrorism in 2017 occurred in countries in a state of war. Just two of these countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, accounted for 48 percent of all terrorism deaths worldwide. As the GTI reports, “There is a strong statistical relationship between the intensity of conflict and terrorism.”
This relationship is further clarified in a report on terrorism by Our World in Data, whose researchers observed that terrorist activity spiked significantly during the war on terror, which involved US-led forces invading Iraq and Afghanistan. This connection was also clear to analysts back in 2007, when the Brookings Institution reported on a study that found “the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks...and that figure includes not only a surge in attacks in Iraq itself, but also an increase in the rest of the world.” While it is true that terrorism with ideological connections to radical Islam claims more lives than any other kind of terrorism, that fact has more to do with the high level of geopolitical conflict in predominantly Muslim countries than anything else.
Far-right terrorism operates much differently than radical Islamic terrorism, which makes it difficult to meaningfully compare the two. Far-right terrorism is largely the domain of radicalized lone actors rather than organized groups. As reported by Dutch research publication Perspectives on Terrorism, “Lone-actor terrorism is not unique to one particular extremist ideology, yet in some ways its 20th and 21st century emergence is strongly tied to developments in right-wing extremism.” Another study on the topic by Studies in Conflict & Terrorism defines what it calls “far-right loner” terrorism, stating that “loners do not directly associate with other active extremists, but instead, become radicalized through extremist group propaganda, literature, and Internet websites.” It also found that, among far-right loner terrorists in the US, “the overall most common primary ideological issue was animus toward race/ethnic minorities.”
While Islamic terrorism has been in decline since 2014, far-right terrorism is currently on the rise. The GTI reported a record high of far-right terrorist attacks in 2017—more than in the previous two years combined—and the frequency of these attacks has been climbing steadily since 2002. Furthermore, according to seven decades of data compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, the far right is responsible for radicalizing almost twice as many Americans as have been radicalized by Islam.
Chrystia Freeland is far from the only politician with curbing this decade’s marked increase in far-right and white-nationalist terrorism at the top of her agenda. In November, French president Emmanuel Macron warned of both the rising threat of the far right and the complacency many seem to exhibit toward that threat. In the wake of the Christchurch mosque attack that killed fifty people in March (more than twice as many as were killed by the radical far right in all of 2017), New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern called for governments around the world to help address this increasingly urgent issue.
Relative to groups like ISIL, lone-actor far-right terrorism claims far fewer lives. But based on terrorism’s most widely accepted definition, casualties are not the point. According to a recent report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, “far-right violence has a potential risk of being misunderstood and under-classified, thus creating the perception among victims of that violence that democratic countries ‘are blind on the right side.’ This erosion of trust in the rule of law and the monopoly of force is one goal of extreme right-wing terrorists.” In this view, attempts to downplay the radical far right’s threat to society—especially to the lives of people of colour and their faith in public institutions—contribute to the problem.