The US President, Donald Trump, indicated that Antifa will soon be formally designated as a terrorist group, following the riots that took place in different US cities after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
Antifa’s roots in America can be traced back as early as the 1970s and the group is often described as “far-left” with extremist anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist views that can embrace anarchism, communism, and socialism.
Antifa activists have recently attracted public attention for their provocations and violent attacks at political rallies and demonstrations.
Leaving aside Antifa’s history and ideology, it is worth focusing on what the peculiarities of the group are, because blacklisting it as a terrorist organization might not be as easy as it seems. It must also be noted that the Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa’s activities as “domestic terrorist violence” back in 2016 when its activists began to attract attention for attacks against Trump supporters and police officers.
President Trump’s statements regarding the blacklisting of the Antifa movement have been followed by opinions of experts and officials pointing out how Antifa is not an organization, but rather an ideology. As FBI Director, Cristopher Wray , explained:
“For us, Antifa we view as more of an ideology than an organization…We have quite a number though, I should tell you, of properly predicated investigations of what we categorize as ‘anarchist extremists,’ people who are trying to commit violent, criminal activity that violates federal law, and some of those people do subscribe to what we would describe as — to what we would refer to as kind of an Antifa-like ideology.”
If we try to isolate some characteristics of the Antifa group we will come up with some interesting elements:
Antifa is far from a traditional terrorist organization (such as the IRA, al-Qaeda, or FARC) as it presents no hierarchical leadership structure and no chain of command and control.
Antifa could be seen as a “movement” composed of different groups and individuals acting autonomously while spontaneously sharing information.
The affiliation of its members can often be indicated as “loose” and mainly focused on informal relations and exchange of information.
A “loose” membership implies that an activist or a sympathizer might simply join a demonstration, perpetrate violence and then go back to a normal life routine without even being in touch with any of the more coordinated groups. Would this be sufficient to classify an individual as “a member of a terrorist organization”?
Additionally, those who share the Antifa ideology but do not promote violence can be classified as terrorists? Is the Antifa ideology intrinsically violent? This is another tough question because, unlike the jihadist ideology with its specific violent traits, Antifa has a wide range of ideologies and views (not necessarily violent) within its movement, and as a consequence, it is very hard to define.
If Isis has broken the traditional structural rules of jihadis organizations by permitting individual self-claimed affiliation, often manifested after an attack through a video recording or a letter, Antifa is even further from that as it provides no clear organizational structure or ideology.
The main issue regards the use of violence, theoretical or practical, because an incitement to violence will very likely find someone willing to carry it out. For instance, a call for jihad is as dangerous as its practical application and it is in fact the first step to a potential attack.
Hence, it is not a problem of ideology or cause, but rather of method and for this purpose, it is worth mentioning the definition of “terrorism” proposed by Dr. Boaz Ganor, director of the Israel-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism:
“Terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims”.
This definition includes three main factors that are all essential:
- The core of the activity, the modus operandi: VIOLENCE – if it does not involve violence or a threat of violence, then it cannot be classified as “terrorist”;
- The objective or motivation: POLITICAL – The political objective defines the action as “terrorist”. In the absence of this, the incident can be classified as “criminal”;
- The target of the attack: CIVILIAN – The violence is directed at civilian targets. As indicated by Ganor: “Terrorism exploits the relative vulnerability of the civilian “underbelly”—the tremendous anxiety, and the intense media reaction evoked by attacks against civilian targets”.
If we are in the presence of these three factors, then we can consider the incident as a terrorist attack. As a consequence, an organization, a group or a simple violent action should be examined on the basis of its action, rather than on its ideology or cause. This approach could somehow simplify the Antifa dilemma, even if we are still far from a solution.