The ‘terrorist’ label: the implications of (not) calling extreme right-wing violence terrorism

Rohan Stevenson

March 15, 2024

Alexandre Bissonnette – who shot and killed 6 people in a Quebec City Mosque in 2019 – was not charged with terrorism offences, despite his attack being described as ‘terrorist’ by both Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and the Quebec Premier[i]. Neither was Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed 9 African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina Church[ii]. In Canada, between 2001 and 2019, 56 individuals were charged under terrorism legislation but not one was associated with extreme right-wing (ERW) ideology, despite it being behind more deaths than Islamist extremism[iii]. In Portugal, none of the 5 terrorism convictions to date have been linked to ERW ideology, despite a ‘not insignificant’[iv] number of crimes caused by it. Similar trends have been identified in the US, Germany and Spain[v].

Why is there such ‘penal selectivity’[vi] when it comes to criminalising ERW violence, in comparison to, for example, Islamist extremist or ethnonationalist separatist violence? Some scholars[vii] have pointed to legal complexities that make it challenging and resource-intensive to prove terrorist intent in comparison to the evidence requirements for more ‘ordinary’ crimes such as murder. This doesn’t, however, account for the disparity between treatment of ERW and other forms of violence. Others look to Donald Black’s[viii] idea of the ‘behaviour of law’ which posits that the operation of law is ‘directly proportional to social status, inequality and social distance between authorities and offenders’[ix], while more critical approaches[x] see counterterrorism as having racialised – usually Islamophobic – foundations. Based on these two theories, the widespread institutionalisation of white dominance[xi], and unconscious cognitive biases amongst legal personnel[xii], would influence decision-making across the criminal justice system.

Terrorism-related sentences often don’t exceed those for murder or hate crimes[xiii]. Nonetheless, scholars have pointed to the ’expressive function of law’[xiv] and the ’performative power of counterterrorism’[xv] to argue that legislative decisions can have discursive and symbolic impacts that extend beyond the nature and length of the punishment itself. Daniel Koehler[xvi], for example, has suggested that not labelling ERW violence as terrorism could a) make its victims feel that they are ’second-class victims’, b) create a distorted public perception of what ’terrorism’ is, and c) impact official terrorism statistics and, by extension, the formation of counterterrorism policy. He continues that under-classifying ERW violence risks creating the impression amongst its victims that states are ’blind on the right side’, thereby undermining public trust in both the monopoly of force and the rule of law[xvii].

Such arguments have led several scholars[xviii] to advocate for improved consistency when it comes to the application of the ’terrorist’ label in the legislative arena. Criminalising ERW violence under terrorism legislation could establish its policy relevance, improve government accountability, encourage better distribution of counterterrorism resources, delegitimise racism, stimulate more balanced media coverage, encourage early prevention and motivate tech companies to more proactively remove ERW social media content[xix]. Others have, however, pointed to both the limitations and potential harms of using terrorism legislation to counter ERW violence.  The proscription of ERW groups, for example, may simply lead actors to other forms of political activism that are harder to do away with[xx], while the increased ’securitisation’ of ERW actors could lead to a ’backlash’ in the form of increased violence[xxi]. Indeed, as Jacob Aasland Ravndal[xxii] suggests, ‘while repression and stigmatisation may discourage some people from joining radical and extreme right groups, they may also push some of the most ardent activists onto more clandestine and revolutionary paths, ultimately leading to violence and terrorism’.

Such critiques raise important questions about the wisdom of extending often ineffective, counterproductive and even damaging counterterrorism measures to target even more citizens. Calls to securitise ERW violence, for example, could lead to an expansion of policing and legitimisation of surveillance which may ultimately target communities of colour disproportionately[xxiii]. Like counterterrorism policies past, securitising ERW violence could create more ’suspect communities’ of, for example, young people, or reinforce existing ones. As one Muslim activist[xxiv] has argued, ’when politicians and the media call on us to take white violence as seriously as violence perpetrated by Muslims, they actually reinforce the trope of Muslims as terrorists, injecting Muslims into a discussion that should have nothing to do with them’. Furthermore, because ERW actors are often ’lone wolves’ radicalised online, some countries are increasingly, pre-emptively criminalising non-violent acts that take place in the online sphere, such as viewing terrorist-related content, in a move that risks ’chilling effects’ on freedom of speech, journalistic enquiry, academic freedoms and public debate[xxv]. This increased policing of non-violent extremism is one symptom of what Richard Jackson has described as the ’epistemological crisis of counterterrorism’ characterised by a ‘particular paranoid logic’ whereby security officials increasingly engage in the ‘contemplation of nightmares rather than identifiable social, political and climatological realities’[xxvi].

Following these critiques of counterterrorism practices more broadly, Lee Jarvis[xxvii] has thus advocated for the ’desecuritisation’ of ERW violence. Such an approach, he argues, could reduce alarmism and provide reassurance to those feeling threatened by ERW violence , provide opportunities for better engagement with ERW groups and individuals and facilitate a shift in emphasis towards more ’pressing‘ public policy concerns, such as education, healthcare and the environment[xxviii]. He does concede, however, that such an approach risks being seen as ‘diminishing the insecurities’ of those at risk of ERW violence, and ‘may not satisfy those committed to a more emancipatory ethic’ in critical terrorism studies[xxix].

We stand at a critical juncture in the evolution of counterterrorism policy and practice, at which decisions need to be made about how best to respond to ERW violence. It’s a juncture that provides a valuable opportunity to take stock of existing counterterrorism frameworks and to think critically about their usefulness in responding, not only to ERW violence, but to all forms of ‘terrorism’. As this article has attempted to demonstrate, the implications of labelling (or not labelling) ERW violence as ‘terrorism’ are manifold and complex. Nonetheless, it is paramount that they receive sufficient consideration if we are to avoid similar mistakes to the counterterrorism measures of yesteryear.  

[i] Nesbitt, M. (2021); Violent crime, hate speech or  terrorism? How Canada views  and prosecutes far-right  extremism (2001–2019), Common Law World Review, Vol 50(1) 38–56

[ii] Norris, J. (2017); WHY DYLANN ROOF IS A TERRORIST UNDER  FEDERAL LAW, AND WHY IT MATTERS, Harvard Journal on Legislation, Vol. 54: 501–541.

[iii] Nesbitt (2021)

[iv] da Silva, R., Paulo Ventura, J., Moreira de Carvalho, C. & Reis Barbosa, M. (2022): “From street soldiers to political soldiers”:  assessing how extreme right violence has been criminalised in Portugal, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 15:1, 102-120

[v] See Norris (2017); Koehler, D. (2019): Violence and Terrorism from the Far Right: Policy Options to Counter an   Elusive Threat, ICCT Policy Brief; Fernández de Mosteyrín, L. & Martini, A. (2022): Meaning and context in analysing extremism:  the banalisation of the far-right in Spanish public  controversies, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 15:1, 38-60

[vi] da Silva et al (2022)

[vii] Koehler (2019)

[viii] Black, D. (2010): The Behavior of Law. Bingly, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

[ix] Black (2010), quoted in Norris, J. (2010): When (and where) can right-wing terrorists be  charged with terrorism?, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 13:4, 519-544

[x] Corbin, C. M. (2017): Terrorists are Always Muslim but Never White: At the Intersection of Critical Race   Theory and Propaganda, Fordham L. Rev. 86: 455–485.

[xi] Meier, AA. (2022): Terror as justice, justice as terror:  counterterrorism and anti-Black racism in the  United States, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 15:1, 83-101

[xii] Corbin (2017)

[xiii] Koehler (2019)

[xiv] Sunstein, C. R. (1996): On the Expressive Function of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 144  (5): 2021–2053.

[xv] de Graaf, B. (2011): Evaluating Counterterrorism Performance: A comparative study. Oxford/New York: Routledge

[xvi] Koehler (2019)

[xvii] Koehler (2019: 1)

[xviii] See Koehler (2019); Norris (2017); da Silva et al (2022); Byman, D. (2018): When to Call a Terrorist a Terrorist,  Foreign Policy, Oct. 27.

[xix] Norris (2017); Byman (2018)

[xx] da Silva et al (2022)

[xxi] Argomaniz, J. & Vidal Diez, A. (2015): Examining Deterrence and Backlash Effects  in Counter-Terrorism: The Case of ETA, Terrorism and Political Violence, 27:160–181,

[xxii] Aasland Ravndal, J. (2018: 859): Explaining right-wing terrorism and violence in Western Europe: Grievances,  opportunities and polarisationEuropean Journal of Political Research 57: 845–866,

[xxiii] Zerkel, M. (2021): Why We Should Rethink Calling White Supremacist Violence ‘Terrorism’. 

[xxiv] Maha Hilal, quoted in Zerkel (2021): n.p.

[xxv] Zedner, L. (2021): Countering Terrorism or Criminalizing Curiosity? The Troubled History of UK Responses to Right-wing and Other Extremism, Common Law World Review 50: 57–75.

[xxvi] Ghamari-Tabrizi (2006: 22), quoted in Jackson, R. (2015: 33): The epistemological crisis of counterterrorism, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 8:1, 33-54. 

[xxvii] Jarvis, L. (2022): Critical terrorism studies and the far-right: beyond problems and solutions?, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 15:1, 13-37.

[xxviii] Jarvis (2022)

[xxix] Jarvis (2022: 30)

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