Europe’s hidden terror menace

By Khaled Diab

The fifth anniversary of the 7 July attacks has refocused attention on Islamist , but the neo- threat goes largely unnoticed.

13 July 2010

On the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, the issue of Islamist terrorism and Islamic extremism is back in the media spotlight. While the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the seriousness of the situation is often exaggerated into a menace of Hitlerian proportions.

In contrast, Hitler's ideological descendants, who have become increasingly emboldened in recent years, constitute a growing, if still minor, threat that largely goes unnoticed and under-reported.

An example of this menace is the Belgian neo-Nazi group Bloed, Bodem, Eer en Trouw (Blood, Soil, Honour and Loyalty), whose trial is to start soon. The group, whose members were arrested in 2006, stands accused of planning terror attacks targeting the National Bank and other institutions, plotting the assassination of a number of prominent politicians and conspiring to destabilise the Belgian state. BBET had even apparently managed to infiltrate the Belgian military and had amassed a large cache of guns and explosives.

More worryingly, perhaps, at least in terms of social cohesion, the neo-Nazi group had intended to sow the seeds of discord by carrying out a “false flag” operation to murder the popular Flemish far-right politician Filip Dewinter in the hope that the blame would be pinned on Islamists, stoking further hatred of the country's embattled and marginalised Muslim minority. During the expected outrage that would ensue, they would then seize the opportunity to assassinate the radical Lebanese-Belgian politician and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah.

Had members of an Islamist cell been planning similar outrages, news of their forthcoming trial would have grabbed headlines across Europe and enough columns to support the Karnak temple complex would have been written on the subject. As it stands, the group has elicited little to no attention outside Belgium.

Not that I feel we should deal with neo-Nazi extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it. More attention needs to be paid to the fact that it is a growing menace. We need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon, especially since mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current.

Some, dare I say many, will consider my last assertion as an overreaction and will dismiss BBET and other violent far-right groups as little more than the outer reaches of the ‘lunatic fringe'. And at some level, this is true and can equally be applied to violent Islamist groups. But just because they're mad and bad, that does not exclude the possibility that they are the symptoms of a deeper malaise – there is some warped logic to their madness.

Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to neo-Nazi and other far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic “pure” past – based on , in the case of Islamists, and based on race and, to a lesser extent, religion for neo-Nazis.

And, as the economic situation worsens – especially for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, but also for the middle classes who are increasingly feeling the bite of job losses, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls – this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow.

And minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat, as has long been the case with far-right parties, many of which have gained a sheen of respectability in recent years. In fact, time and again, violent neo-Nazi groups and individuals have been linked to these parties. For example, there are reports that the BBET had ties to the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party, as had a teenager who went on a racially motivated murder spree in Antwerp.However, this does not exonerate the rest of society. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of Europe's Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to “Islamise” Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks in the US has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots. Some governments have been complicit in this for foreign policy purposes, while some politicians, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, have skillfully manipulated the situation to enter the corridors of power.

In a bid to downplay the threat, some will play a macabre numbers game and claim that Islamic terrorism in Europe claims far more lives than far-right violence. Although it is true that there have been no spectacular, large-scale attacks, neo-Nazis are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against , Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe.

For example, between 2000 and 2005, racial violence spiked dramatically in many European countries. Denmark alone reported an increase of 70% in reported racial violence and crime.

Of course, neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn't mean they don't want to or don't plan to, as the case of the BBET amply demonstrates. In May 2010, a British neo-Nazi father and son – who, in an worrying echo of a bygone era, had set up a group to overthrow the government because they believed it had been taken over by Jews – planned to poison Jewish, Muslim and black people with ricin.

In addition, seems to be going increasingly global, with groups in different European countries and the US building increasingly strong alliances. Examples of this include Combat 18 and Blood and Honour (of which BBET is a splinter group).  Could such transnational groupings become the kernel of a loose-knit global neo-Nazi network along the lines of al-Qaeda? Only time can tell, but I certainly hope not.

The most troubling threat posed by neo-, and the far right in general, as opposed to , is that it is an indigenous ideology which once held powerful sway in Europe, even in countries that were not run by Nazi regimes. If we are not careful and do not learn the lessons of history, there is the future possibility that Nazi and fascist totalitarianism may rear its ugly face again.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 11 July 2010. Read the related discussion.

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