After the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan in August 2021, it found itself praised by an unlikely group: far-right extremists. While on paper these two movements seem diametrically opposed, there is actually a great deal of overlap between jihadism and the far-right. Multiple cases have already demonstrated the fluidity of extremist beliefs, and it is highly likely that “fringe fluidity” will continue to drive adherents from one extremist group to the other.
The Taliban’s Unlikely Cheerleaders
The Taliban’s rapid reconquest of Afghanistan in August earned the militant group praise from the unlikeliest of quarters: the American far-right. As reported by Vice, extremist netizens could barely contain their excitement at the turn of events. “To be honest, the Taliban is epic,” one white nationalist wrote on Telegram. A blog linked to the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division praised the Taliban “victory against the Jewish-controlled world.” The blog further celebrated the Taliban takeover because it demonstrated “that our enemy, this system, is but a paper tiger.”
The severity of far-right praise of the Taliban drew the attention of John Cohen, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. In a call with state and local law enforcement agencies, Cohen stated that framing the activities of the Taliban as a success has potentially inspired those who seek to incite a civil war in the U.S.
The far-right’s public praise of the Taliban has shined a light on a phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent but largely ignored in recent years: the overlap between jihadist and right-wing extremist (RWE) movements through the phenomenon of fringe fluidity.
Fringe Fluidity: How does an overlap exist?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman have studied this overlap between jihadism and the far-right and in 2018 published the article “Fluidity of the Fringes: Prior Extremist Involvement as a Radicalization Pathway.” Through an examination of six individuals who began as far-right extremists and adopted jihadism, the authors conclude the existence of “fringe fluidity,” or the “pathway by which an individual may come to engage in a new extremist ideology cognitively or behaviorally.” Fringe fluidity is facilitated when there exists commonality between two extremist movements. Once an individual has accepted extremism of one stripe, it becomes easier for them to adopt a different extremist belief, provided that it possesses sufficient overlap with the prior belief.
The Jihadist – Right Wing Extremist Overlap
While a basic examination of the two ideologies seemingly refutes any overlap (as jihadis violently oppose anyone who does not subscribe to their Salafist beliefs and white supremacists oppose anyone who is not white and, in most cases, Christian), there are actually several commonalities between the two movements. For instance, both movements see equality (feminism, LGBT rights, and tolerance of different lifestyles) as the death knell of modern society. They also abhor liberalism, democracy, and global capitalism. Furthermore, they are both virulently anti-Semitic and Zionist and equally revolutionary in that they both believe that contemporary society is destined for catastrophic collapse and that they alone know what should replace it. In sum, the two movements are greatly aligned in their manichean diagnoses of what errs the world and simply disagree over the means to fix it.
This overlap has already tangibly manifested in multiple cases. In 2017, 18-year-old neo-Nazi Devon Arthurs took hostages in a smoke shop in Tampa, Florida, while shouting his anger over the U.S. bombing Muslim countries. He eventually released the hostages and surrendered to police, who discovered that Arthurs had previously murdered his two roommates because they disrespected Islam. Arthurs and his roommates had first befriended each other over a shared commitment to Nazism and were all members of the Atomwaffen Division. However, about a year before the hostage-taking, Arthurs reportedly converted to Islam and adopted Salafism, becoming increasingly radicalized away from neo-Nazism and towards jihadism. His reasoning was that jihadism was less “soft” than the far right, in that he believed jihadis actually committed violence in the name of their beliefs while the far right was too caught up in “talking the talk” rather than tangibly furthering their ideology through violence.
Similarly, Ethan Melzer, a U.S. Army private, was charged in June 2020 with terrorism offenses after he provided details about his unit’s “location, strength, and armaments” to the Order of Nine Angels (O9A), a hybrid neo-Nazi and Satanic extremist group. Melzer intended O9A to pass the information along to jihadists “for the purpose of facilitating an attack on the unit.” O9A’s ideology includes the beliefs that “Adolf Hitler was sent by our gods to guide us to greatness,” and support for Osama bin Laden and jihadist violence.
Implications for the War on Far-Right Terror
Over the past years, the U.S. and other Western governments have begun to sound the alarm on RWE. For instance, in March 2021, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (REMVE) and militia groups “present the most lethal DVE [domestic violent extremist] threats” to the U.S. As rightly noted by analysts, including former FBI agent Michael German and American University Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the resources funneled into fighting foreign jihadi terrorism often dwarfed those of the far more lethal (post 9/11) problem of RWE.
Although the newfound focus on fighting right-wing extremism is necessary, it is important that political leaders and security services account for fringe fluidity in their policymaking. Rather than focusing all or most of the attention on the most dangerous ideology, fringe fluidity tells us that the true danger lies in extremist beliefs generally. The bottom line was described by Eric Hoffer in his 1951 masterwork, The True Believer: “Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet.”
The Future of Extremism: A Hybrid of Ideologies?
It is highly likely that mutual respect, defections, and perhaps alliances between extremist movements will continue to threaten global security. As it currently stands, the U.S. is poised to devote significantly greater resources into fighting right wing extremism. An unintended consequence of this pivot from jihadism to RWE is that it will possibly allow jihadism interdiction to stagnate (as the focus on jihadism allowed RWE interdiction to do post-9/11). In a novel example of the balloon effect, it is exceedingly likely that under this scenario right wing extremists, increasingly under scrutiny from law enforcement, will turn to jihadism. A crackdown on RWE will deny extremists freedom of action and diminish their effectiveness; when this occurs, fringe fluidity tells us that many persecuted far-right extremists won’t quit or surrender. A significant minority of them, like Devon Arthurs and Ethan Melzer, will renounce or at least distance themselves from RWE and turn to jihadism.
Although extremists may believe profoundly in Salafism, white supremacy, Marxism, or any other ideology du jour, the basic element of extremism is anger. As the Devon Arthurs example demonstrates, when an extremist sees that for whatever reason his chosen brand of extremism is not achieving results, he is much more likely to shift to one that does rather than give up altogether.
The current state of extremism worldwide suggests that the U.S. and other Western nations will see many more ideology-jumping extremists in the near future. Although RWE is the most deadly threat here, jihadis are achieving tremendous success across the world. The fall of Afghanistan is only the beginning. In Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, the West African Sahel, and Myanmar, jihadist groups have achieved notable recent success, in addition to that of their ideological allies in perennial hotspots like the Lake Chad Basin, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Israel. As the Western powers continue to confront the hate that lurks in their own homelands, it is exceedingly likely that the recent success enjoyed by jihadists across the world will inspire frusterated right-wing extremists to defect to what they perceive as the winning team.