Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 19, 2020
Confronting the Challenge of 'Post-Organisational' Extremism

The UK’s recent ban of the sixth far right group since 2016, the neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division, might come as little surprise given the growing challenge posed to the country by right wing extremism. But what might seem stranger is that this largely online entity—allegedly founded by a 13-year-old Estonian boy—‘no longer existed’ by the time of its proscription, with members already fanning out to join new online groups since the its dissolution in February<1>.

Episodes like these reflect a constellation of interrelated challenges associated with an increasingly ‘post-organisational’ threat landscape—where the fluid boundaries between organisations and movements, direction and inspiration, and online and offline are becoming more and more ambiguous.

The fracturing and franchising of global extremist movements globally poses a critical challenge for policymakers and tech companies. Amid mounting pressure from governments and civil society, some progress has been made in recent years in removing illegal terrorist content associated with proscribed groups from more mainstream social media platforms. However, our current approaches are not fit to tackle an increasingly diffuse, ‘post-organisational’ threat emerging from both Islamist and far-right extremism.

Given the increasingly decentralised, post-organisational and ‘crowdsourced’ nature of both the global Islamist and far-right movements, in large part enabled through burgeoning online extremist ecosystems, it is essential that policymakers and tech companies alike develop policy frameworks that move beyond a group-centred approach to understanding the threat from violent extremist groups.

A Changing Threat Landscape

In 2019, high-profile attacks in New Zealand, the US, Germany and Norway were committed by individuals with little or no connection to extremist organisations or proscribed terrorist groups. Evidence suggests that these individuals were connected to loose extreme right networks largely operating online<2><3><4><5>.

This points to a shift towards an increasingly post-organisational paradigm whereby online connection to extremist culture and ideology could be as important to inspiring violence as connections to “on the ground” groups. Scholars Bruce Hoffman and Colin Clarke posit that “a confluence of ideological affinities is more powerful in inspiring and provoking violence than the hierarchical terrorist organizational structures of the past”<6>. Across Europe and North America, we are seeing the challenge moving from a “monochromatic threat from Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’ towards ‘a kaleidoscope new threats from “boogaloo bois,” white supremacists, neo-Nazis, shadowy anarchist elements, and the extreme fringe of violent incels”<7>.  The FBI’s listing of the fringe conspiracy community Qanon as a domestic terror threat, and threats coming from an increasingly wide range of actors tangential to the extreme right show the diversification of this challenge<8>.

Digital platforms have played a major role in realising the long-seeded concept of ‘leaderless resistance’ and ‘leaderless jihad’, first discussed decades ago by extremist ideologues such as white supremacist Louis Beam Jr and the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Musab al-Suri<9>. In understanding this post-organisational landscape, it is essential to analyse the online ecosystems that provide a permissive space where violent and terrorist activity can be explicitly endorsed.

The Post-Organisational Far Right

This post-organisational challenge poses a particular threat within far right extremism, with increasingly ideologically cohesive, networked and transnational movements forging new online ecosystem across unregulated imageboard sites such as 8chan and 4chan, censorship-free discussion platforms like Voat, ultra-libertarian social media sites like Parler, and encrypted messaging channels such as Telegram, to coordinate campaigns and share extremist content<10>.

But there remains considerably less international alignment around the far right than there is on Islamist threats, posing major challenges to classification and enforcement. There have been moves to proscribe far right groups as terrorist organisations in some national contexts, such as National Action in the UK and Blood & Honour in Canada, while the US recently proscribed its first foreign ‘Racially and Ethnically Motivated’ terrorist organisation, the Russian Imperial Movement<11><12><13>. But such movements are banned in some countries but not others, even if, like Combat 18, they have transnational membership<14>. While tech companies have been developing their own internal guidelines and terms of service around ‘hateful’ and ‘dangerous’ groups, specific policies around terrorism are partly hamstrung by the limitations of international lists of proscribed terrorist groups, such as the UN Designated Terror Groups list, which are focused on ISIS and al-Qaeda related threats<15>.

Meanwhile groups like Atomwaffen Division, originally formed in the US, are currently not banned at all despite explicitly advocating for the use of terrorist tactics. An analysis of the presence of terrorist-supporting constituencies on Telegram has shown that while the organisational power of groups such as Atomwaffen Division is still important, there is an expansive network of terrorist-endorsing channels on the platform that are not explicitly affiliated with any group, which are very easy for individuals to tap into without expressing formal affiliation to a movement or making contact with other affiliates. Channels and content can thus be seen as “pro-terrorist” whereby support is expressed for politically motivated violence or individuals who have committed attacks, even when there is no express affiliation to a proscribed organisation<16>.

Such ambiguity points to the importance and urgency of a broader discussion at a national and international level around ways of addressing the post-organisational extreme right through a counter-terrorism apparatus, which is still largely geared towards countering a group-based challenge, and proscription-based approaches.

Defining the parameters of an extremist movement

Such ambiguities have been especially clear in the recent case of the ‘Boogaloo’ phenomenon, a broad-based anti-government movement with considerable white supremacist elements whose membership has been accelerated by crisis narratives around the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd<17>. Individuals identifying with the amorphous movement, which hinges considerably on a distinctive and fast evolving online subculture, have been arrested for plotting to fire-bomb Black Lives Matter protesters <18>.

In a recent series of takedowns targeting hundreds of Boogaloo affiliated groups, pages and accounts, Facebook sought to distinguish between a “violent” boogaloo network that was banned, while leaving online what it described as a different, “broader and loosely-affiliated boogaloo movement” that does not seek to commit violence<19>. But such a distinction is not necessarily that clear cut. Joan Donovan director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School claimed that Facebook’s attempt to distinguish between violent and non-violent boogaloo groups was “particularly dangerous” and “a fallacy that allows some white supremacists to continue to operate so long as they tone down their violent rhetoric”<20>. Whether the Boogaloo movement is inherently supremacist remains open for debate, but this episode demonstrates the challenges in considering extremism threats through a solely ‘organisational’ lens.

While reflecting the internal processes of a private company rather than a government, such distinctions have echoes of the (largely arbitrary) distinctions made between the ‘violent’ and ‘political’ wings of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in considerations around terrorism designation. While Hamas is banned in its entirety as a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the EU, the UK instead lists Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, as a proscribed terrorist organisation. Meanwhile, the UK and Germany recently joined the US in proscribing Hezbollah’s entire organisation, while only its military wing is banned by the EU<21>.

After ISIS

This post-organisational challenge goes beyond the far right. With ISIS’ so-called ‘caliphate’ territorially defeated, the international community risks making an oft-repeated mistake, by underestimating the continuing ideological threat and morphing patterns of mobilisation of the wider Salafi-jihadi movement. There has been limited action by policymakers and platforms to target the broader extremist ideological ecosystem that will inevitably outlast the rise and fall of any individual group or organisation. For instance, while social media companies have had relative success in removing official ISIS and al-Qaeda content from platforms, including through a cross-industry ‘hashing’ database of terrorist propaganda, there is still a considerable ‘gray zone’ of Islamist extremist ideological material that falls foul of platform terms of service, but slips through the gaps due to enforcement primarily focused on ‘organisational’ material.

ISD researchers have identified considerable networks of users, channels and pages sharing al-Qaeda and ISIS “legacy terrorist content” across both Facebook and YouTube. This includes seminal texts that underpin the strategies and objectives of Salafi-jihadist groups, from Abu Musab al-Suri, an ideologue described as the “architect of global jihad” who has been central to the tactics, techniques, and tone of Islamist extremism for the past two decades<22>. In 2019, research from ISD found that al-Suri’s 1,604-page tome on jihadist strategy, ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’, referred to as the “Mein Kampf of the jihadist movement”, could easily be found on both Facebook and YouTube simply by searching for their titles in Arabic<23>.

Meanwhile, as the online challenge posed by ISIS and its supporter networks enters an increasingly ‘post-organisational’ frame with the degradation of its centralised media operations, even official propaganda from the terrorist group continues to proliferate on mainstream platforms in 2020. ISD researchers recently carried out a three-month investigation on a network of pro-ISIS accounts on Facebook that are freely sharing explicit propaganda material to audiences in the tens of thousands, documenting the use of a range of tactics to evade moderation and takedown<24>.

Implications for Effective Responses

The increasingly post-organisational nature of the extremism threat across the ideological spectrum has a number of implications for traditional top-down, group-based approaches favoured by policy makers. As Hoffman and Clarke point out, “Bureaucratic organizations with hierarchical leadership structures and clearly-defined objectives have been supplanted by loosely networked movements with amorphous goals that exist across the ideological spectrum,”  challenging the usual methods adopted by policymakers and practitioners to disrupt the operations of specific groups, online and offline <25>.

It is becoming clear that viewing the challenge through a purely organisational lens fails to reflect the current threat landscape, particularly on the far right but also increasingly with contemporary Islamist challenges. Rather, there is a clear need to understand the role of wider ideological formations and online subcultures in building extremist cohesion and inspiring offline activities, including terrorist violence. This realisation has broad policy implications, from offline prevention to online moderation, where approaches need to move beyond framing threats in terms of group membership and towards understanding extremist ecosystems.


<1> Lizzie Dearden, “Why has Britain banned a neo-Nazi terrorist group that ‘no longer exists’?”, The Independent, July 14, 2020.

<2> "Christchurch shootings: Mosque attacker charged with terrorism”, BBC News, May 21, 2019.

<3>San Diego synagogue shooting: One person dead in Poway, California”, BBC News, April 28, 2019.

<4>German Halle gunman admits far-right synagogue attack”, BBC News,  October 11, 2019.

<5>Norway mosque shooting probed as terror act”, BBC News, August 11, 2019.

<6> Bruce Hoffman and Colin Clarke, “The Next American Terrorist”, The Cipher Brief, July 2, 2020.

<7> Ibid

<8> Marianne Dodson, “FBI Labels Fringe Conspiracy Theories as Domestic Terrorism Threat”, The Daily Beast, August 1, 2019,

<9> JM Berger, “The Strategy of Violent White Supremacy Is Evolving”, The Atlantic, August 7, 2019.

<10> Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner, “The Great Replacement: The Violent Consequences of Mainstreamed Extremism”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, July 2019.

<11>Far-right group National Action to be banned under terror laws”, BBC News, December 12, 2016.

<12>Stewart Bell, “Canada adds neo-Nazi groups Blood & Honour, Combat 18 to list of terror organizations”, Global News, June 26, 2019.

<13> Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Will Give Terrorist Label to White Supremacist Group for First Time”, New York Times, April 6, 2020.

<14> Combat 18 is banned in Germany and Canada. “Germany bans Combat 18 as police raid neo-Nazi group”, BBC News, January 23, 2020.

<15>United Nations Security Council Consolidated List.

<16> Jakob Guhl and Jacob Davey, “A Safe Space to Hate”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, June 2020.

<17>Dale Boran, “The Boogaloo Tipping Point”, The Atlantic, July 4, 2020.

<18> Luke Barr, “Boogaloo: The movement behind recent violent attacks”, ABC News, June 19, 2020.

<19> Lois Beckett, “Facebook bans extremist ‘boogaloo’ group from its platforms”, The Guardian, June 30, 2020.

<20> Ibid

<21> Milo Comerford, “The Politics of Proscription”, Tony Blair Institute, January 26, 2018.

<22> Moustafa Ayad, “The Management of Terrorist Content”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, July 2019.

<23> Moustafa Ayad, “El Rubio’ Lives: The Challenge Of Arabic Language Extremist Content On Social Media Platforms”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, June 2019.

<24> Moustafa Ayad, “The Propaganda Pipeline”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, July 2020.

<25> “The Next American Terrorist”

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