Antiracism and Counterterrorism: A Transatlantic Perspective

January 29, 2021
Engy Abdelkader
7 min read
Photo Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock


Imagine a warm summer day in Oslo, Norway’s capital. A bomb has exploded inside a vehicle parked in the government district, killing eight people and injuring hundreds.

Dressed in a police uniform, the thirty-something Norwegian male responsible for detonating the explosive device has boarded a ferry to a nearby island, the location of a political youth summer camp hosted by the center-left Labor Party, the incumbent political party. Upon arriving at the camp, he commits a killing spree, murdering 69 (mostly young) people.

Later, authorities discover a 1,500-page manifesto titled, A European Declaration of Independence. In the document, the murderer depicts himself as Christianity’s savior while attacking multiculturalism, Muslim immigration, and the Labor Party. When pressed for answers regarding his motive, the young man who was active on anti-Muslim websites explains, “I acted in self-defense on behalf of my city, my people, my country” against a perceived conspiracy assaulting Norway’s national identity.

Was this an act of terrorism?

Historical Context and Definitional Approaches

While the concept is commonly linked to Islam and Muslims, it stems from the “Reign of Terror” in the French Revolution. Since the 1970s the international community has condemned terrorism because it undermines human rights while threatening global security. Despite this disapproval, however, there is no consensus regarding a universal definition. Rather, a series of almost two dozen international treaties require countries to criminalize in domestic law specific terrorist acts such as aircraft hijacking, hostage-taking, violence at airports, using an aircraft as a weapon, and bombings, for instance.

While these treaties refrain from defining the concept, the UN General Assembly declared in 1994 that terrorism was distinct from private acts of violence due to the former’s “political purpose.” Still, the sectoral treaties do not require evidence of such motive to establish requisite criminality.

In absence of an international definition, regional and national approaches to terrorism differ. These differences often reflect contrasting domestic and international agendas and may reveal specific histories that inform doctrinal perspectives. For instance, on a regional level, the League of Arab States 1998 Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism exempts “armed struggle against foreign occupation and aggression for liberation and self-determination.” In contrast, the Council of Europe’s 1977 Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism provides no such exceptions to terrorist activity. Arguably, this is reflective of the former’s colonial history and persistent anxieties. Such differences help contextualize the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes legitimate political violence.

On a national level, state actors have abused the designation to undermine real or perceived political threats and facilitate human rights abuses. For instance, in both China and Myanmar, authorities have manipulated a national security narrative to justify genocidal campaigns against minority Muslim populations despite the dearth of evidence substantiating such claims.

Such human rights abuses are facilitated in no small part by anti-Muslim stereotypes denigrating the entire group as violent extremists and religious fanatics due to international events such as September 11, 2001. Too often, public, political and media discourse surrounding terrorism has focused almost exclusively on the imagined Muslim threat despite empirical evidence (discussed below) suggesting otherwise. This, in turn, helps perpetuate stereotypical depictions with far-reaching negative implications as evidenced in China and Myanmar.

Ultimately, the significance of the terrorist label lies in its peculiar semantic power to stigmatize whomever it is directed, for better or worse. Without international consensus, state actors subjectively determine national definitions and approaches.

Recent Trends

The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol has renewed debate about terrorism in the United States. Like President Joe Biden who condemned the insurrectionists as domestic terrorists, the majority (59 percent) of registered American voters believe the perpetrators should be viewed as such. Since the horrifying assault, U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy confirmed that more than two dozen related domestic terrorism cases are now open.

Moreover, according to a recent bulletin from the National Counterterrorism Center and the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, antigovernment militias and racists extremists “very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021.” Significantly, violent extremist “targets, includ[e] racial, ethnic, or religious minorities and institutions, law enforcement, and government officials and buildings.” Remarkably, the military presence at Biden’s presidential inauguration exceeded the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, highlighting the magnitude of the extremist threat.

Despite these alarming developments, the national security threat posed by right-wing extremists and white supremacists is not new. In 1871, the U.S. Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act to protect the civil rights of African Americans from white supremacists. The act authorized President Ulysses S. Grant to declare martial law, levying penalties against terrorist organizations and using the military to suppress the KKK. At that time, President Grant stated, “Insurgents were in rebellion against the authority of the United States.”

More recently, research spanning decades shows that a greater terrorist threat—in both the United States and European Union—comes from right-wing extremists, ultra-separatist groups, and white supremacists. Since 2002, for example, right wing extremists have killed more people in the United States than self-identifying Muslims. Since 1994, most domestic terrorist attacks and plots have been committed by white supremacists and anti-government extremists from the violent far-right. Last year, for instance, white supremacists and far-right militia groups perpetrated approximately 70 percent of politically motivated violence. Similarly, in the EU, Europol’s Annual Terrorism Situation and Trend Report consistently shows that ethno-nationalist and separatist groups are responsible for the most terrorist attacks in the region.

In other words, while public, political, and news discourse—as well as official resources—has often centered “radical Islam” or “Black Identity Extremists,” the bigger security threat arguably lies elsewhere.

Why This Matters

While the empirical evidence has long shown that right-wing extremists and white supremacists represent a formidable national security threat, those threats have not been prioritized accordingly. Rather, the national security agenda has been politicized and racialized with an almost exclusive focus on racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups. This is problematic for several reasons.

First, politics and biases endanger public safety. Consider, for instance, the findings of the Royal Commission’s high-level inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attack, mass shootings at two mosques that left more than fifty people dead. The Commission criticized New Zealand’s intelligence agencies for its limited understanding of right-wing extremism and the woefully lacking resources devoted to threats other than “Islamist terrorism.”

Second, applying the crime of terrorism exclusively to racial, ethnic, and religious minorities to the exclusion of other credible (or more formidable) threats from right-wing and white supremacist sources undermines rule of law principles. Indeed, criminal laws must be applied equally to penalize offenders and offer justice for victims while deterring others from pursuing similar recourse. To treat the crime of terrorism as a lesser offense for some, on account of their race, religion, and/or ideology, is to invite similar future infractions from a particular stratum of society. That equality in law seems so provocative to some reveals our internalized biases.

Lastly, focusing squarely on racial, ethnic, and religious minorities effectively perpetuates and reproduces social inequalities and hierarchies that manifest more broadly, from hate crimes to discriminatory immigration laws to bias-based bullying in primary education.

Anyone Can Be a Terrorist

Anyone can be a terrorist including members of the majority population. Their criminal acts must simply meet the applicable legal definition. We should challenge laws, policies, and practices that suggest otherwise.

Relatedly, regarding that killing spree in Norway: Anders Brievik was convicted of terrorism in 2012. To determine whether he committed the crime of terrorism, one must first look at the relevant legal definition. Norway defines terrorism as any criminal act committed with the intention of:

    1. seriously disrupting a function of vital importance to society, such as legislative, executive, or judicial authority, power supply, safe supply of food or water, the bank or monetary system, or emergency medical services or disease control,
    1. seriously intimidating a population, or
    1. unlawfully compelling public authorities or an intergovernmental organization to perform, tolerate, or abstain from performing any act of substantial importance for the country or the organization, or for another country or another intergovernmental organization.

Pursuant to this law, Brievik is currently serving a maximum sentence of 21 years but is unlikely to be released since he has shown no remorse and represents a threat to society.