Communities of hateful practice: right-wing terrorism and collective learning

For a long time, terrorism studies has largely neglected violence by right-wing extremists, focusing overwhelmingly on jihadist or ethno-national terrorism and theoretical debates about definitions or “critical” vs. “mainstream” approaches. However, the recent string of right-wing violence both in Germany and worldwide has made the urgency of research on this topic pressing.

In the second phase of the research group, therefore, my project will focus on the characteristics of collective learning of far-right terrorists. Based on my earlier work on terrorism as part of insurgent strategies and forms of organizational learning, I attempt to explicitly conceptualize “right-wing terrorism” within the framework of terrorism studies. Parts of the reasons why right-wing terrorism has been understudied in this discipline are interrelated definitional ambiguities: First, in contrast for example to jihadist or far-left violence, patterns of right-wing attacks have often been hard to identify due to a lack of a coherent strategy and communication by the perpetrators. Secondly, much of far-right violence has often been categorized as hate crimes or street terror rather than political terrorism, less strategic and more spontaneous forms of violence, with confusion about how these relate.

While these questions have to be tackled conceptually, there is also growing empirical evidence that some long-standing assumptions are about to change, and we might confront a new era of far-right terrorist violence. Following the historical approach of David Rapoport, there have been so far four waves of terrorism of which the first three lasted for about forty years, with, if the pattern holds, the current religious (mainly jihadist) fourth wave in the process of waning. Terror by right-wing extremists is nothing new, of course, but so far has mostly failed the simultaneous criteria for a comprehensive wave, namely revolutionary ambition, global reach, clandestine organization, and signature tactics and strategies. The string of attacks and discoveries of far-right structures in recent years, from the lone actor terrorism of Oslo, Christchurch or Halle to the networks of “Atomwaffen Division”, “The Base” or the “Boogaloo Bois”, indicates, however, that right-wing violence may rise as a fifth wave of modern terrorism. In contrast to earlier times, in which far-right aggression predominantly focused on national settings and street terror against minorities, violent extremists are increasingly embedded in global, interactive (online) networks and act within a broader strategic framework targeting the liberal order as such. Ideologically combining anti-Semitism, racism and anti-feminism/LGBTQI, this movement sees modern societies based on liberalism and human rights as degenerate and weak, threatening the traditional values of white masculinity and leading to inevitable collapse. Violence is employed both to terrorize political enemies and accelerate the collapse of liberal societies in a kind of civil war, complemented by widely referenced ideological pamphlets and a, mainly online, culture heroizing attackers.

In contrast to jihadist terrorist structures, in which (at least as an ideal) a central authority over “soldiers” acting in the name of a Muslim community or Caliphate exists, this movement is characterized by a high degree of decentralisation and heterogeneity. “Leaderless resistance” is not, as it was for al-Qaeda, a weapon of last resort but a defining principle, with attacks mainly committed by small cells or lone actors. Moreover, despite its clearly identifiable ideological core of group-focused enmity and rejection of human equality, the extreme right-wing sphere comprises a wide spectrum of (partially overlapping) actors and networks, ranging from traditional neo-Nazis and alt-right white supremacists to anti-government extremists and vigilante militias, misogynist male supremacists (often classified as “Incels”), and anti-immigrant “angry citizens”. Consequently, right-wing terrorism is for the most part not characterized by sophisticated organizations with centralized strategic decision-making, but seemingly random acts of violence emerging from a radicalized subculture in which conceptual distinctions between supporters, groups and perpetrators are blurring and “lone actors” are part of a “digital pack”.

Despite its ideological and organizational fragmentation, right-wing terrorism is connected by ideological and strategic common denominators. While idiosyncrasies of individual attacks and processes of radicalization are important, in this project I am therefore interested in the mechanisms of collective agency of far-right strategic violence. In addition to traditional small-cell and militia underground structures, complex processes like “stochastic” or “hive” terrorism have been proposed to capture the fluid and dynamic mobilization of extremists to strike at particular points in space and time. While I have previously employed concepts of organizational learning to capture transformations of jihadist groups, right-wing extremists mostly lack the organizational structures those presuppose. I therefore utilize broader concepts of collective learning, considering them as communities of practice engaged in complex processes of generating collective identities and knowledge, ultimately serving acts of death and destruction.

1 Fürstenberg, Michael und Carolin Görzig. 2019. Im Schatten der Zukunft. Internationale Politik 74(4): 104-109. Accessed July 3, 2020.

2 Zimmermann, Mechthild. 2019. Patterns of Terror. MaxPlanckResearch 4/2019: 66-72. Accessed July 3, 2020.

Go to Editor View