Sunday, May 3, 2020

Nazis Should Be Victims

Recently, the UK Home Office proscribed two neo-nazi organizations–Sonnenkrieg Division and System Resistance Network–as terrorist organizations, making membership in those groups itself illegal. Commenting on this for the CARR blog, Dr. Craig McCann, a "countering violent extremism" consultant with prior experience in law enforcement, largely praised the actions of the Home Office. He did however express one reservation, namely, that this might fuel narratives of the victimization of the far right.

McCann and the Prevent Strategy

I pointed out McCann's prior experience in law enforcement to hint at where I think his priorities might lie, but it by no means summarizes his qualifications in commenting on anti-terrorism measures. McCann holds both a law degree and an MA in criminology and has published his dissertation about the UK's Prevent Strategy as a monograph from Routledge.

In it, he provides an account of the Prevent Strategy's impact on the far-right-but-not-properly-fascist-in-most-academic-senses English Defence League. His book provides an inside account of the Prevent Strategy from one of its chief architects. Despite being involved in the creation of much of the legislation creating and modifying the Prevent Strategy, he remains critical in certain respects about the legislation implemented, how it has been enforced, and its overall effectiveness in its stated aims. Ultimately, the program was aimed at intervening on the basis of ideology rather than material participation in a criminal conspiracy to "prevent" criminal action in the name of proscribed groups.

McCann's overall aim in his post is to explain what it actually means for an organization to be proscribed in the era of Prevent. Given his credentials, he focuses largely on anti-terrorism law and its application in prosecuting terrorism. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, an organization may be designated as terrorist if it commits, participates in, prepares for, promotes, or encourages terrorism or "is otherwise concerned in terrorism." He doesn't tell us what constitutes "terrorism" under UK law.

This point, however, is largely irrelevant to the overall purpose of the article, which is about answering what the impact is on groups already given the terrorist designation irrespective of whether they fit the definition. He notes that the early years of anti-terrorism law were plagued by loopholes, notably exploited by a domestic organization that initially went by the name Muslims Against the Crusades. After being proscribed, the same group continued its activities under a series of new names until the loophole was closed.

Another amendment to the Terrorism Act 2000 was the Counter Terrorism & Border Security Act 2019. It expanded the definition of terrorism to include expressing support for a proscribed organization in a way that might induce others to support the organization. This was done in response to a 2018 London demonstration in which a group of activists carried flags of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Maoist guerilla organization operating across parts of Turkey and Syria aimed at establishing a communist Kurdish state.

Feeding the Victim Narrative

Although McCann notes the consequences for public expression in defining terrorism so broadly, his primary concern is with the PKK incident and what its failure might mean for recruitment into the fascist right:

[G]roups of protestors carried PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) flags and banners during a demonstration in London, despite the PKK being a proscribed terrorist organisation since 2001, leading to criticism of the police for not using their powers. The door must swing both ways if the police are to foster confidence in the application of proscription legislation as without a parity of response, this risks further feeding the victim narrative peddled by members of the extreme right-wing who will highlight how this legislation is being proactively applied to groups to which they may subscribe, but not to others.
This concern, that targeting Nazis will be used by Nazis for propaganda, is fairly standard fare among liberals and those posing as liberals who want to do nothing about fascism while purporting to be against it. The basic reasoning, as above, is that any action that we take to oppose fascism that is not applied equally against other ideologies merely feeds into fascist narratives of being under siege. This, these people argue, will garner sympathy for fascists rather than thwart them.

Usually, this manner of argumentation is used to justify not confronting fascists in any measurable way. (Ask me about the time my ex and her friends were accused by some Karen about being "violent" by putting up anti-Klan posters.) McCann and CVE practitioners more generally, take the opposite tack. In equivocating networks based on the crimes they commit, CVE proponents advocate increased repression across the board.

A Shift in Global Militancy

The term "terrorism" originated in 19th century czarist Russia when self-applied by an anarchist and the term was popularized by German-American anarchist Johann Most. Although law enforcement dealt in what laws would come to call terrorism, and the term was adopted in popular culture, it wouldn't be until the 1990s that the term started to be defined in criminal law.

The far right has long had its share of hit squads. However, the 90s saw the first wave of fascist militancy that was not preceded by a period of left wing militancy. Historically, fascist militants operated against and in response to militancy on the left, often mimicking its style, tactics, and rhetoric. This new period saw the increased usage of what Strasser-inspired white separatist Tom Metzger called the "lone wolf" strategy.

In the 1970's, the FBI expanded COINTELPRO–an illegal spying and sabotage program originally directed against domestic national liberation movements and the anti-war left–to include what they called "white hate." At the program’s height, it was estimated that at least 6% of all members of the Ku Klux Klan were informants for the FBI, with some chapters even set up by the Bureau to siphon membership from nearby chapters.

These legal measures have been in some ways hampered by the apparent priority of law enforcement, especially at the national level, for cultivating and maintaining informants above curbing the threat neo-fascists pose, even if it’s only insofar as they violate the law. Further, since the Second World War, intelligence agencies and militaries have relied on the expertise of ex-Fascist and ex-Nazi officers, with the CIA even going so far as to build what would become the West German foreign intelligence apparatus out of the Eastern European intelligence network of the Third Reich.

The Victims of Anti-Terrorism

As anti-colonial and anti-government Marxist militancy waned through the 60’s and 70’s, far right figures and organizations increasingly emulated this style for nationalist ends. This included not only neo-fascists, but also Salafists, Wahhabists, reactionary Buddhists, and adherents of Hindutva. As the decades have worn on, these groups have learned from each other, copying organizing strategies, recruiting tactics, and guerrilla maneuvers.

Under the pressure of COINTELPRO, neo-fascists and the Klan grew increasingly hostile toward the US government. Further, the decimation of the third wave of the Klan by the FBI created a power vacuum within the legacy organization that neo-nazis like David Duke and Tom Metzger came to fill. After a period of civic engagement, neo-fascists returned to militancy, this time fueled by a bevy of race war fiction and a new theory of leaderless resistance. This period saw the emergence of mass casualty events by neo-fascists who were not formally connected to any organized group.

Whereas law enforcement had historically engaged in illegal espionage programs to deal with waves of militancy against the state, those periods were typically led by leftist and national liberation organizations. This wave of mass killings among neo-fascists, however, was unaccompanied by similar tactics on US soil by leftist or foreign organized groups, and so law enforcement treated the problem as intractable under the current legal regime, uncharacteristically prioritizing constitutional rights.

Although the first anti-terror laws were passed during this wave of neo-fascist killing, it was Salafist, Wahhabist, and environmentalist militant action around the world that prompted the rise of the national security state in the 21st century and the entrenchment of anti-terrorism law and policy. Following the September 11th, 2001 attacks in which operatives of Al Qa’ida–a Salafist organization fostered by the CIA to fight the USSR in Afghanistan–hijacked four commercial airplanes and ran three of them into the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon while the hijackers in the fourth plane were thwarted and the plane was grounded in a field in Pennsylvania, states around the world cooperated in what they called the global war on terror.

Terrorism of the Mind

Even with the greatly expanded legal authority of the national security state, law enforcement persisted in violating the law in their attempt to "fight terror," which more often than not meant finding dejected Muslims, often poached from mosques, and convincing them to participate in a criminal conspiracy. Following the assassination of Al Qa’eda leader Osama bin Laden in May of 2011, the emergence of the Islamic State as well as many other Salafist factions across the Middle East, Persia, and North, East, and West Africa catalyzed a reorientation in states’ approach to anti-terrorism law. Called “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) in the US and continental Europe and the "Prevent Strategy" in the UK, this new approach introduced in the summer of 2011 was the culmination of a number of issues within anti-terrorism enforcement.

First, the organizations given the terrorist designation operated in an ideological ecosystem consisting of non-militant ideologues and would-be militants with no formal affiliation, and there was a degree of social interaction between these three poles. To this point, the law enforcement approach to these groups differed across the ideological spectrum. Western xenophobia and its civil rights consequences motivated the creation of an anti-terrorism law that cut a distinction between foreign and domestic terrorism which afforded more legal protections to the latter while prompting a response to the former, particularly Islamic organizations, that human rights advocates claim violated domestic and international laws.

Second, militant organizations across the right wing spectrum increasingly tailored their rhetoric to inspire others to adopt the lone wolf strategy pioneered by US neo-fascists. This approach meant a symbiosis between prominent far right ideologues and their relatively anonymous followers. In a way, it resembled the original self-identified "terrorists" whose publications advocated that anarchists engage in "propaganda of the deed." CVE researchers have come to call this approach "stochastic terrorism."

Third, the emergence of the Islamic State hybridized the functions of a far right hit squad with that of a state sponsor of foreign militancy. Unlike UN recognized states, the Islamic State openly solicited foreign militants to carry out mass casualty attacks like its far right militant contemporaries. However, unlike those individuals and organizations, the Islamic State, by virtue of controlling several urban strongholds over a large stretch of land across Iraq and Syria. is able to provide substantial material and logistical support in the same way UN recognized states sponsor foreign militants.

The CVE and Prevent Strategy approaches were aimed at addressing the imbalance of the application of anti-terrorism law among various militant orientations. Further, they were also aimed at accommodating the decentralized or perhaps outsourced nature that planning mass casualty events took on. This entailed a focus on intervening ideologically, creating a mission creep among researchers into "non-violent extremism."

Where the initial round of anti-terror laws were a boon for surveillance and defense contractors, the move toward CVE and the Prevent Strategy created a cottage industry of grant-funded think tanks focused on ideological interventions. Given that much of the available funding for such projects came from state governments, much of the research reflected the priorities of state governments, which ultimately demanded a selectivity in subject.

Terrorism Can't Be Neutral

Researchers in these think tanks carefully avoid discussing militant formations aligned with their home governments, even when those formations were ideologically identical to others that drew the attention of their research. Further, researchers are encouraged to draw connections to hostile foreign governments, even when those connections are only by chains of association or statistical inference.

Despite its pretensions to a new, neutral anti-terrorism, the research out of these think tanks cumulatively reflects the priorities of law enforcement. As I have said numerous times over the years, if cops are workers, then the product of their labor is crime. This is reflected nowhere better than in the handling of what has come to be known as terrorism. Law enforcement has consistently demonstrated a preference for retaining informants, even to the point in assisting them in building their militant organizations further.

By virtue of the moral nihilism of fascists as well as their personal identification with the state relative to either left wing or Islamist militants, law enforcement typically finds fascists more willing to become informants to avoid jail time. That is, irrespective of any equality in approach across the ideological spectrum, the consequences of militancy will fall harder on non-fascist militants.

On top of all this, CVE research also has a huge blind spot for anything that might otherwise be classified as "terrorism" or "extremism" if it is in the name of law enforcement or the military. Despite a social media sphere advocating extrajudicial brutality and murder, police and military veterans groups like the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters organizing for a second American revolution, an epidemic of killer cops who just so happen to have social media reflecting these ideas, and a publishing ecosystem that treats them like martyrs, what we might call armed forces extremism receives almost no attention from CVE researchers.

Ultimately, CVE as a project is predicated on sanitizing the repression of challenges to state authority while deftly overlooking identical formations that operate in its favor. This is of course by design. The concept of "violence" has always operated in service of hegemonic social structures, and corresponds less to a specific set of actions than a proximity to state power. "Extremism" is yet another empty signifier that indicates a vast difference without specifying with respect to what.

The expansion of anti-terrorism enforcement into the sphere of ideology only further demonstrates the folly of letting law enforcement take the lead on policy making. As anti-terrorism law narrows the scope of acceptable ideological discourse, anti-terrorism law will have to become an ideological battleground not for what kind of militancy we want to stop, but what kind we want to preserve.

Do we want a militancy that aims to kill ethnic minorities? Or do we want a militancy that aims to make it expensive for capitalists to exploit workers? Do we want a militancy that knows only of domination and fealty? Or do we want a militancy predicated on solidarity and liberation?

I know who I want making the bombs.