QAnon really gained momentum in Europe during covid
In the U.S., the number of deaths linked to terrorists motivated by far-right beliefs now surpasses those linked to jihadists since 9/11. Counterterrorism researchers and law enforcement officials are increasingly turning their focus to QAnon and related conspiracies as an acute security threat — much in the way they once looked at Islamist extremism. (This is a pivot from the years leading up to the Jan. 6 riots, when U.S. law enforcement was frequently accused of downplaying right-wing extremism.)
Between 2018, when the movement first emerged, and 2021, 22 violent incidents and plots in the U.S. were linked to QAnon, according to an analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies — nine of which could be classified as terrorism, including a poorly planned assassination plot targeting President Joe Biden and an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam.
In Europe, where jihadist terrorist attacks are still more common than right-wing terror and where QAnon is a more recent import, the movement has not gotten as much attention — but that’s starting to change. QAnon in Europe was turbocharged by backlash to covid lockdowns and vaccination requirements. In addition to the attempted storming of the Reichstag, a recent report from the EU law enforcement agency Europol documented a growing number of “threats made against politicians, government representatives, and health authorities”
In October 2021 a QAnon-financed and organized kidnapping of a girl in France from her grandmother’s home by her mother (an adherent of the conspiracy) got significant media attention across Europe. The incident is believed to have been the first crime in Europe linked to the movement.
In 2020, a far-right extremist named Tobias Rathjen killed 11 in a shooting spree at two Shisha bars frequented by Turkish immigrants in the city of Hanau, Germany, before killing his mother and himself. Described in subsequent reports as an “extremely online” individual, Rathjen’s social media posts showed he was an adherent of the “Great Replacement” theory, the conspiracy, also popular with American QAnon adherents, that politicians and Jewish elites are colluding to bring nonwhite immigrants into the West. While he never directly referenced QAnon, Rathjen also ascribed to a number of other theories related to the movement, including one holding that the U.S. military is torturing children at a network of underground military bases.
The Hanau case highlighted the degree to which QAnon-style beliefs often overlap and dovetail with other far-right causes. “QAnon is almost like a parasite. It just kind of latches on to these other extremist movements and ingratiates itself,” Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism and extremism researcher at the Soufan Center, told Grid.
European governments are starting to do what their U.S. counterparts have done: put a greater emphasis on right-wing extremism as a whole. The German government recently announced a plan consisting of 89 measures to tackle right-wing extremism at a societal level. The country’s Defense Ministry has also announced measures to combat the increasing problem of far-right infiltration of the country’s military.
“This is a huge inflection point for Europe,” said Clarke. “They’ve been so focused on jihadists, and they still have a bigger problem with homegrown jihadism than we do, but they’re also dealing with the rise of the far right.”
Clarke says that one challenge in addressing the problem is that unlike groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, when it comes to QAnon, there’s no centralized structure or leadership that can be targeted.
Then there’s the Russia angle: The New York Times has reported that one of those arrested Wednesday was a Russian citizen and that the group that carried out the attempted coup had at least tried to contact the Russian government about the plan; it’s unclear if they got a response. This will raise new concerns over the degree to which Russian government-backed disinformation efforts plays a role in spreading conspiracy theories. In the U.S., there has also been increasing overlap between theories pushed by Kremlin propaganda and those originating in QAnon forums.
“The Russians are always surfacing in these stories, right?” Clarke noted. “They try to amplify divisive issues, many of them conspiratorial. That’s a key component of what they do in the social media space. It’s low-hanging fruit for them and when you look at how it ties up Western security agencies dealing with this stuff, they clearly get a return on investment.”
— Joshua Keating