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When extremists and white supremacists infiltrate security forces

Before embarking on his livestreamed murder of 51 Muslim worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch last year, the Australian white supremacist Terrorist Brenton Tarrant posted a manifesto online. He claimed that his ideological beliefs were shared “in every place of employment and field” in Western countries but “disproportionately” so “in military services and law enforcement”.

A makeshift memorial to the 51 victims of Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant outside the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch on March 25, 2019. It marked the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history.

A makeshift memorial to the 51 victims of Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant outside the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch on March 25, 2019. It marked the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history.

Before embarking on his livestreamed murder of 51 Muslim worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch last year, the Australian white supremacist Terrorist Brenton Tarrant posted a manifesto online. 

He claimed that his ideological beliefs were shared “in every place of employment and field” in Western countries but “disproportionately” so “in military services and law enforcement”. 

He estimated that the “number of soldiers in European armed forces that also belong to nationalist groups to number in the hundreds of thousands, with just as many employed in law enforcement positions”. 

Tarrant may not have been entirely exaggerating. In recent weeks, reports broke of extensive infiltration by neo-Nazis of Germany’s most elite special forces unit, known by its German acronym, the KSK.

Certain KSK members reportedly pilfered 62 kg of explosives and 48,000 rounds of ammunition from KSK stocks. This prompted the German defence minister to disband an entire KSK fighting company seen as infested with extremists.  

White supremacist sentiments within the security forces is hardly a German problem. 

In the United Kingdom, there have been similar concerns of white supremacist groups such as National Action targetting British servicemen for recruitment.

Across the Atlantic, violent white supremacist groups such as the Atomwaffen Division and others have indoctrinated a number of United States servicemen as well.   

This disturbing phenomenon of white supremacist penetration of Western security forces is a function of the societal and political mainstreaming of such ideas in wider communities in Western countries such as Germany.

THE GREAT REPLACEMENT MOTIF 

White supremacist extremism, also known as “right-wing” and “far right” extremism, is a broad label of convenience that lumps together, amongst others, white nationalist, neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, anti-gun control, anti-LGBTQ and increasingly even misogynistic grievances.

While its key tropes have gestated for decades, an underlying theme that has come to the fore in recent times has been the notion of what the French philosopher Reynaud Camus in 2012 called Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement).

This argument holds that white, Christian Europe is being overrun by masses of black and brown Muslim immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Especially since the refugee crisis of 2015, in which more than a million asylum seekers fleeing conflict landed on the shores of European Union countries, some public intellectuals, social media, political personalities and movements have, wittingly or otherwise, helped make the Great Replacement motif more mainstream within European societies.

For instance, the conservative British journalist Douglas Murray has voiced deep concern about how Muslim immigration is gradually eroding a tired European civilisation.

His influential, erudite book, The Strange Death of Europe, has gained significant popularity amongst anti-immigration politicians in the US and Europe such as the Hungarian leader Victor Orban.

Citing white Christian Europe’s “existential civilisational tiredness”, Mr Murray warns that “while the movement of millions of people from other cultures into a strong culture might have worked”, the mass movement of “millions of people into a guilty, jaded and dying culture cannot”.

White Christian Europe, “one of the most cultured civilisations in history”, is thus about to be “swept away by people... who are unworthy,” he pointedly warns. 

To be sure, Mr Murray, Mr Camus and other prominent conservative European intellectuals promoting this Great Replacement motif should not be hastily pigeonholed as extremists. 

That said, their ideas have become mainstream in European circles to such an extent that some observers note that “if you go to a horse race betting bar and talk politics” and “mention the ‘great replacement’, people will understand what you mean”.  

Worse, the Great Replacement motif has been weaponised as a rallying cry for white supremacist shooters around the world, including Tarrant, whose own manifesto is tellingly entitled — The Great Replacement.

THE WIDER ECOSYSTEM OF WHITE SUPREMACISM 

Certainly in Germany itself, the Great Replacement theme finds expression within the intellectual ranks of the so-called New Right.

This is a broad, well-networked movement with transnational links comprising — not the neo-Nazi skinheads of the “Old Right” — but rather well-educated, social media-savvy businessmen, publishers and young civil society activists of groups like Generation Identity, as well as the older, equally well-heeled politicians of the right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD. 

As one observer put it, the New Right has rebranded white supremacist extremism in Germany, giving it “a friendly face”. The New Right message is not that friendly though.

Typical slogans include “Islamisation? Not with us” and “Defend yourself! This is your country”.

Tellingly, former German military personnel have stood for election with the AfD while a former KSK commander has become an eminent ideologue for the New Right. 

Germany’s KSK problem is thus symptomatic of white supremacist notions of German culture under threat from supposedly avaricious Muslim immigrants increasingly become mainstream ideas.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WEST AND SOUTHEAST ASIA 

What then is to be done? 

First, as far as Germany is concerned, systematically mapping out the links between white supremacists within the military and with like-minded counterparts in the wider white supremacist ecosystem is an important first step.

This is not an exclusively German challenge either. In the US, which as noted has experienced white supremacist infilitration of the armed forces as well, white supremacist ideas have been widely disseminated through platforms such as The Daily Stormer and Internet forums like 4chan and 8chan. 

Hence there is a need to better understand the links between radicalised former or active servicemen and the wider white supremacist ecosystem. 

Secondly, immigrant communities in the West must also be encouraged to better contextualise their faith and cultural practices within Western multicultural milieus to aid better integration — thereby neutralising a key white supremacist trope.

For instance, one prominent American white supremacist has declared that every individual must choose between “the restoration of the European man or his complete annihilation and replacement with non-white savages predominantly driven by Islam”.

Thirdly, developing wider societal literacy in ferreting out subtle white supremacist ideas issuing from the most seemingly erudite of personalities is critical.  

Like the telegenic New Right in Germany, key ideologues of the alt-right movement in the US — an euphemism for modern white supremacism — make it a point to adopt a “suit-and-tie image” to appear respectable and sophisticated.

The threat of white supremacist infiltration of the armed forces and wider society is not entirely irrelevant to Southeast Asia too.

However, in our region, a different type of extremism — violent Islamism — has been implicated.

For instance, in April 2015, it was reported that around 70 members of Malaysia’s armed forces were found to be involved with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

As with the white supremacist case in the West, in Southeast Asia, some of these radicalised soldiers had been influenced by seemingly attractive extremist content and individuals online.

The ubiquity of social media in Southeast Asia implies that more servicemen and women are potentially vulnerable.

The obvious differences between white supremacist and Islamist extremist ideologies aside, the common need to protect the hearts and minds of security force personnel against extremist ideologies of any stripe suggests that there is considerable scope for national security practitioners and analysts in the West and in Southeast Asia to share insights and learn from one another.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Kumar Ramakrishna is associate dean for policy studies, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and research adviser to the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

white supremacy extremism terrorism Brenton Tarrant

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