The perils of studying far-right extremism must be surmounted


On 20 April, the UK government banned the US-based neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.

Home secretary Priti Patel said she was taking action “to protect young and vulnerable people from being radicalised”. Recent statistics from the UK’s counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent, do indeed show increasing numbers of people from the radical right referred to it, while Home Office figures indicate that a sizeable proportion of those referred are young. We can also point to a steady global rise in radical-right political violence – with the 2019 Global Terrorism Index reporting a 320 per cent increase in far-right terror attacks across Western societies over the previous five years.

Understanding why could not be more important. Hence, at this time of renewed threat, the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, in partnership with Richmond, the American International University in London, is launching the UK’s first MA in terrorism, security and radical-right extremism. This is designed to train the next generation of security professionals, researchers and journalists. It will give students access to a range of summer internships with thinktanks, non-governmental organisations and policymaking bodies around the world. It will also allow students to receive a joint UK and US degree as part of the dual accreditation of the course.

Yet while it is essential to research and teach this crucial subject, there are obvious sensitivities and dangers. For example, researchers in extremism studies have reported instances of intimidation and bullying, as well as trauma from examining appalling imagery for extended periods. There is also a special duty of care for students – especially those from minority backgrounds – looking into the morass of racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic messages typical of radical-right ideology and discourse. Furthermore, there is a clear physical security dimension.

So what measures need to be put in place?

The first safeguard in teaching about extremism and terrorism is close supervision of the primary source material that students come into contact with. Tutors should make sure that graphic imagery or deeply offensive diatribes are used sparingly and that exposure is properly managed even when students embark on their own research projects. While keeping in mind the legal dimension – it is illegal to access and distribute manifestos and other material produced by lone right-wing terrorists in many countries – we must also ensure that the emotional and psychological toll on staff and students is treated as seriously as any other mental health issues that arise within universities.

The second safeguard is making sure that classes are not accessible to malign extremist actors, who might want to disrupt and intimidate faculty and students. The safest option here is to avoid publicly sharing the locations and times of courses. Researchers in particular should avoid revealing where they’re going and where their offices are located, and only report on events after the fact.

In the light of the Covid crisis, when so much teaching has moved online, faculty may also need to dial down our online presence and beef up the cyber-security of students and staff to ensure that malign actors can’t “Zoom bomb” course meetings, while putting in place safeguards (such as virtual private networks and Tor browsers) to reduce the chances of staff or students’ personal information falling into the wrong hands.

Furthermore, universities should have memorandums of understanding with the police and protocols in place to deal with possible instances of malign actors showing up in person. These may require enhanced physical measures (such as barriers and secure sections in buildings) as well as security personnel on site to monitor those moving in and out of key parts of the university’s real estate.

The final and most important point in teaching about extremism and terrorism is not letting the extremists and terrorists win. While safeguards should be thought about and contingency plans put in place, these mustn’t be allowed to get in the way of proper teaching and research. In recent years, radical-right actors are never far from the headlines, but we shouldn’t overplay their success nor create undue paranoia and such nervousness around the topic that people are scared to engage with it. The key, as we hope our new MA will demonstrate, is to give the next generation of practitioners and researchers the tools to tread the line between sensitivity and boldness, and so increase our understanding of the issues without inflaming them further.

Author Bio: William Allchorn is Associate Director of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.