US’s terrorist listing of European far-right group signals fears of rising threat—abroad and at home

US’s terrorist listing of European far-right group signals fears of rising threat—abroad and at home

The rise of the radical far right in Europe poses a threat not only to the continent but also to Americans at home and abroad.

But while the U.S. government tends to be quick to use sanctions against perceived bad actors across the globe, when it comes to the transnational threat that far-right violence poses, successive U.S. administrations have been more coy about using another critical and effective tool: terrorist designations.

It wasn’t until mid-June 2024 that the Biden administration’s State Department sanctioned its first violent far-right group, the Nordic Resistance Movement. A neo-Nazi group based in Sweden but with a footprint that extends throughout Scandinavia, the NRM has built a reputation for brutality and espousing a vision of totalitarian rule. As the State Department noted in its designation, the group is also stockpiling weapons and explosive materials.

Prior to the Nordic group’s listing as a terrorist entity, the Trump administration designated the far-right Russian Imperial Movement as a terrorist group in 2020.

Both groups are now officially deemed “specially designated global terrorists” by the United States. As a result, the groups are subject to an asset freeze, and anyone trying to support them risks prosecution for financing terrorism.

As a former State Department counterterrorism official with more than a decade of experience sanctioning terrorists under U.S. law, I know that it’s no accident that the groups U.S. officials are targeting now are based in Europe rather than in America.

Targeting the far right overseas

The threat posed by violent far-right actors is certainly as serious in Europe as in the United States. But United States agencies do not have authority to legally sanction groups such as the U.S.-based Oath Keepers, Proud Boys or the Atomwaffen Division as terrorists.

Constitutional rights that protect freedom of speech, assembly and the right to bear arms make it exceedingly difficult to sanction domestic groups. Further, all of the relevant executive orders and statutory laws in the anti-terrorism space are explicit that the State Department must designate foreign-based groups.

With limited power to crack down on far-right groups in the U.S., agencies are instead looking to curtail the influence of violent far-right ideology from overseas.

Yet the designations of only two violent far-right groups as “specially designated global terrorists”—separated by four years—is disappointing to me, especially when considering the range of far-right threats that dot the European continent.

The EU’s crime-fighting agency, Europol, reported in its December 2023 report that there were 45 arrests of far-right extremists in 2022 and the “threat posed from right-wing terrorist lone actors, radicalized online, remained significant.”

The most significant attack was an October 2022 shooting carried out in Bratislava, Slovakia, in front of an LGBTQ+ bar that resulted in two deaths. Interestingly, the State Department’s designation of the Nordic Resistance Movement highlighted that the group’s violent actions include an anti-LGBTQ+ platform.

Anti-immigration attacks

The Biden administration designated the Nordic Resistance Movement as a terrorist group shortly after EU parliamentary elections, in which far-right political groups made significant gains.

Far-right groups, such as Germany’s Alternative for Germany, won seats—15 of them—for the first time. The group encourages violence against immigrants – communities often singled out by violent radical-right extremists such as the Nordic Resistance Movement.

In fact, the Nordic group’s most notorious attack was carried out at a refugee center in Gothenburg, Sweden, in January 2017, during which an attempted bomb attack left one person seriously injured.

The perpetrators of the attack were trained at a camp in Russia by the Russian Imperial Movement – the group that the U.S. State Department designated as a terrorist group in 2020.

More recently, on June 18, a former member of the Nordic group carried out a knife attack on a foreign-born 12-year-old child in Finland.

Migration policy has long been a focus for violent far-right extremists, and increasingly politicians have been the targets.

In May 2024, for instance, a center-left German politician was beaten up while hanging campaign posters in an ideologically motivated attack.

In another assault, a politician in Dresden, Germany, was assaulted by a group that allegedly called out, “Heil Hitler.”

In fact, according to the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, the Nordic group’s goal is to “overthrow democracy across the Nordic region and Scandinavia in favor of establishing a Third Reich-inspired Nazi dictatorship.”

Groups like the Nordic Resistance Movement are leveraging a fragile and polarized European society, playing on fears that migrants are a threat to the continent.

Protecting democracies

Against the backdrop of recent violent far-right attacks against politicians and immigrants, along with recent European election results, the timing of the Biden administration’s designation of the Nordic Resistance Movement reflects growing fear in Washington that the far-right’s political rise in Europe may inspire violent extremists to move beyond chants, slogans and swastikas to mass shootings.

Nonetheless, the United States has been less inclined to sanction far-right groups than many of its partners. For example, the United Kingdom has designated seven far-right organizations as terrorist organizations; for Canada, the count is nine.

Simply put, the United States, despite its penchant to sanction enemies—from hostile states such as Russia to terrorist groups such as ISIS—appears reluctant to fully take advantage of its terrorist designation tools against violent far-right actors.

And that, I believe, could be a concern. U.S.-based far-right extremists are known to be very connected to similarly minded groups and individuals in Europe. Organizers of the 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had alleged links to the proscribed Russian Imperial Movement.

By designating groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement as terrorists, the Biden administration is hoping to dissuade Americans from supporting Europe’s far right. Under the terms of the State Department order, if any American did offer support, they could end up behind bars.

At the same time, it may be that the Biden administration’s listing of the Nordic group is a signal to Europe that there are more far-right-related terrorist designations to come.

After all, the administration made a point to explain that the Nordic group’s designation was taken “following consultations with our European partners.”

And with multiple important elections on the horizon in Europe, Biden’s decision also represents an effort to champion democracy and push back against groups that promote us-versus-them narratives that define enemies as others worthy of attack.

If listing the Nordic Resistance Movement as a terrorist organization is a sign of more designations to come, it could further two of the Biden administration’s stated goals: promoting and protecting democracy overseas and combating domestic terrorism.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



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