TODAY marks a change in the US presidency. One that has been wracked by contention and controversy. There was a time whenever a new American leader took office, one of the most pressing concerns faced was keeping the country safe from Islamist-inspired extremism and terrorism.

Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) group and other related terror organisations were the focus of attention. Today, it’s not as if such threats have vanished, far from it, but it speaks volumes that as Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, security officials have another clear and present danger to contend with.

Two decades after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of what American leaders dubbed the “global war on terror,” there are signs that Washington and the world are finally waking up to the extent of the threat from right-wing extremist ideas and groups.

Recent events in which members of such groups were among those that violently breached the US Capitol have unnerved America. So much so that it has prompted extraordinary security precautions whereby federal officials have been vetting thousands of National Guard troops arriving to help secure today’s inauguration.

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Countering “insider threats” has always been standard procedure during any presidential inauguration. But of the 21,500 Guard personnel that have now arrived in Washington any who will be near President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will receive additional background checks.

Ever since those dramatic events on January 6 at the Capitol, senior US military officials and investigators have taken steps to respond to concerns and evidence that former or current service members are to be found among the disparate groups and militias that make up the ranks of America’s right-wing extremists.

While Pentagon officials are at pains to point out that such individuals are “not representative of the country’s military,” for too long now America generally has had a history of playing down the rise of right-wing extremism describing them instead as “hate groups.”

Some of this stems from the fact many such organisations have been regarded as ‘homegrown’ or “nativist” born out of historic racism and white supremacism within the country. The Ku Klux Klan is the obvious historical precedent while today’s Proud Boys and others are more recent manifestations.

For too long now in America terrorism has been regarded as something that came from elsewhere and as such was treated for decades in the US as a foreign-policy issue even if events like the Oklahoma bombing as far back as the 1990s suggested otherwise.

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Some however did try to warn of the dangers. It was in a report back in 2009 that Daryl Johnson, a counter-terrorism expert at the Department of Homeland Security, flagged up the potential for renewed right wing violence. But the report’s publication provoked a barrage of criticism from conservatives.

The then Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin, called it a “piece of crap”, while John Boehner, then the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, demanded its retraction. But since then, America has had a rude awakening of which the Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 was just another step along the way.

Since then, the country’s Department of Homeland Security concluded last October that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists” – were the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland”.

Likewise, an even more recent report by the Transnational Threats Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), showed, far-right groups, including white supremacists and anti-government extremists were behind 67% of the terrorist attacks and foiled plots in the US last year.

For way too long now say counterterrorism experts, America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies while willing to tackle terrorism “over there,” have simultaneously been excluding far-right groups with international terrorist links from its target lists.

If one thing has become increasingly clear it’s that these extremist ideas and groups are once again posing a grave threat to democratic societies worldwide and links between them through methods of communication, dissemination of ideas, training and tactics are now a global network

As New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed out after a right-wing terrorist killed over 50 people at a pair of mosques in her country in 2019, “there is no question that ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organisation they are new.”

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That much was evident again in the wake of the attack on the US Capitol. As Michael Colborne, a Canadian journalist covering eastern Europe who monitors social media platforms used by extremist groups highlighted, events in Washington were big news for the global – far right.

From “Italy’s neofascist CasaPound Italia’s news site, to the website of German neo-Nazi group Der Dritte Weg (the Third Way),” events at the Capitol were presented as proof that they, too, could violently seize power when the time came.

On the face of it those that attacked the Capitol might have appeared a motley crew but as experts agree within their ranks are committed hardcore activists well organised, armed and more than capable of carrying out serious acts of terrorism.

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It’s not surprising then that in recent days, the eight joint chiefs of staff, who head the four branches of the US military – the army, navy, marines and air force – have taken the unusual step of reminding all serving members of the armed forces that their duty is to the constitution and the president-elect, Joe Biden.

And it’s not only in the US that there are rising concerns about right-wing activism in the armed forces. In Germany, security services there tallied more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in the three years ending in March last year according to a government report released last October.

Closer to home the UK security forces have also admitted the need to counter the rise of the extreme right, which is estimated to account for a fifth of the workload of the country's 10,000-plus counter-terror personnel.

As Joe Biden is sworn in as president today, among his first challenges he says will be healing a divided America. That will be no easy task. But if his administration is to be effective in doing so it must recognise that right-wing extremism is much an American problem as it is elsewhere. As such it must be tacked urgently for the transnational threat that it is.

David Pratt is The Herald's Contributing Foreign Editor

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