In early July 2023, France was confronted with large scale demonstrations, unrest and riots against police violence. Following the death of 17-year-old Nahel M. people, mostly with a immigrant background, took to the streets to claim justice and hold memorial marches. In the process, 577 vehicles and 74 buildings were set on fire, property was damaged, and policemen as well as demonstrators were injured.
Also in the same year, a protester named Salwan M. burnt a copy of the Quran in Stockholm. According to his statements he is a member of the far-right nationalist party the Sweden Democrats. With his public protest he incurred outcries worldwide for his partially right-wing extremist statements.
In Brussels, Belgium, in November 2022, a man fatally stabbed an officer and injured a second one while yelling “Allahu Akbar”. According to officials, the man had been surveilled and was on a violent extremist watch list.
But also smaller local events make it into the news. At the beginning of 2023, it was reported that a group of juveniles repeatedly vandalized and damaged property of the nearby university in Potsdam, Germany. Further, they harassed students and physically attacked some of them physically. Moreover, anti-queer and racist verbal attacks were made and graffiti with right-wing symbols were found.
Finally, in 2016 a conspicuous case became known as the case of Lisa. In January 2016, the thirteen-year-old Lisa F. reported to the police to having been a victim of rape, supposedly by foreigners. Although this statement later turned out to be false, a Russian journalist made the case public with the incorrectly defined crime. The news reports by the journalist who was accused of incitement subsequently led to demonstrations by right-wing and extremist groups as well as an assault on a home by asylum seekers in Berlin.
These randomly selected cases were allegedly ideologically motivated, ranging from political to religious extremism. Investigations into these incidents have been conducted, and in some cases, arrests were made. Still, there is a difference between single reports of crimes in the news and a consistent and constant record of crimes. Of course, EU countries have statistics of criminal activities; yet at closer examination, they hardly compare as they report different crimes. Understanding the reasons for such different reporting standards is the first step to harmonise crime statistics across the EU. Ultimately, an ever-closer Union must have a common understanding of what constitutes religious, right- or left-wing extremism, or a foreign influence campaign. Harmonized statistics are also a prerequisite for an EU-wide analysis of such phenomena.
Database of Extremist Crimes in Europe
The FERMI project seeks to analyze among other factors the nexus between online activities, e.g., on social media, and real-life crime. For an analysis of such complex connections a comprehensive and applicable dataset is fundamental. A first step for EU-wide comparable datasets on regional levels has been made by Eurostat with the NUTS classification system. Here, a harmonized geographical breakdown from EU-level to local level has been achieved. A similar system is needed for crime statistics.
Of course, the first step to gaining an overview of crime statistics in different countries is to have a common understanding of crime and its different categories. This is a complex endeavor since crime is a complex social construct that includes various actors, networks, relations, institutions, norms, laws, symbols and discourses – to name but a few. Many steps are involved in the process of defining something as a crime. Victims, witnesses, police and the judicial system take a look at events and evaluate them with respect to their subjective perception) and/or the criminal law. Moreover, online activities as a novelty in the 21. Century give rise to new possibilities of disseminating disinformation and the technological progress increases the reach of these information. Still, the Fermi project goes beyond the technical detection of disinformation by including socioeconomic analyses. The analysis of political motivation for crimes, however, further complicates research in the project and research in general. This complication stems from the fact that the analysis depends on definitions of political motivation as well as on differentiations between political motivation (left-wing, right-wing etc.). The definition of left-wing extremism, for instance, differs greatly between countries due to country-specific historical backgrounds and social circumstances. In other words, crime and different categories of crime are dependent on the cultural background of a society, thereby showing that EU-member countries differ in this respect.
In the European Union, there exists no central database that covers political extremism in the countries on regional level and that is accessible. The European Database of Terrorist Offenders (EDT) is a promising dataset derived from judicial files, comprising perpetrators who have been convicted since 2012. The use cases include detailed information about the cases, e.g., childhood circumstances, mental health issues, motives, risk and protective factors etc. However, the cases include persons who are convicted, and the dataset, thereby, is not yet large enough to examine connections between crimes and socioeconomic factors on regional levels quantitatively. Additionally, this dataset is depending on EU member states to give input, which in turn is restricted by their capacity to investigate, providing a limited number of use cases.
Therefore, research in this field often relies on country-specific studies of particular cases, on survey data rather than comparative studies and on analyses of print and online media sources. Moreover, concepts of political extremism vary widely between countries which further complicates examining possible analogies or contrasts.
Some countries have shown some effort to keep track of ideologically driven crimes in a more consistent manner. For instance, in Germany, data on politically motivated crime (PMK) is to a certain degree publicly available. Within the PMK statistic there is a differentiation between left-wing, right-wing, and religiously motivated crimes, and those triggered by a foreign ideology. Moreover, the main categories of crimes are also reported,among them violations of the law for free assembly, damage to property and propaganda. The German federal states with the State Criminal Police Offices (Landeskriminalämter) are responsible for reporting to the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) on PMK. However, on levels below the federal states the police offices are not obliged to publish the data. Receiving access to PMK data on NUTS-3 levels, is therefore almost impossible.
In Sweden as in other countries, there is no clear-cut definition of “hate crime, or bias-motivated crime”. However, there are offenses that cover bias motivation in some way: “agitation against a national or ethnic group, unlawful discrimination, and insult”. The above-mentioned example of Salwan M. shows a rather clearly formulated motivation in the actions of the offender. Like Germany, detailed data below regional level is hard to grasp when aiming at achieving more complex analyses.
In some countries data on politically motivated crime is recorded by domestic intelligence agencies. This data, however, is often either not published at all or reports are published that focus more on single cases or very specific target groups and do not allow for quantitative comparative cross-country analysis.
Implications for Research
The first note regards research within a country. Not being able to analyze on levels below NUTS-1 or NUTS-2 regions has the effect that, first, the more aggregate the geographical analysis is the less observations per country are available. In general, larger sample sizes generate more precise estimations for unknown variables and reduce bias in research. Yet, researchers have to assess their resources for research and the costs of doing the analysis (time, financial resources, collection of datasets, etc.) and set this in relation to the research goal. Incomplete or inaccessible datasets pose a strong constraint to their work. Thus, researchers often turn to U.S. data which often is more easily accessible. The downside of using U.S. data and transferring it to the European context is that the results have only limited applicability for those who financed the research.
A second implication that is connected to the low number of observations is that more granular geographical units allow the examination of more complex interrelations. To assume that cities or districts (Landkreise in Germany, NUTS-3 level) have similar or equal properties to federal states (NUTS-2 level) with respect to the research interests might be too strong an assumption and will therefore inhibit any quantitative analysis.
In the end, missing data and non-comparable data might produce misleading or partially false results and could consequently have an impact on actions and measures to be taken. Here, the Fermi project aims at contributing by highlighting these issues and providing practical solutions under circumstances of limited data accessibility.
A final important aspect to consider regarding public data on politically motivated crime are politics and public perception. Statistics on ideologically driven crimes may potentially shed a negative light on some regions and could lead to stigmatisation. Political reservations are therefore somewhat understandable when the impact of extremism and the public perception of it on the local economy are taken into consideration. Once a region is known for certain extremist activities a downward spiral can lead to an ever-worsening situation, unless of course proper countermeasures are being implemented. Thus, awareness of the problem and its proper analysis are imperative.
Although the arguments for not having public and harmonized datasets on extremist crimes in Europe are understandable, EU member states need to weigh the political benefits of not publishing the data against the costs of ignorance. Rising political extremism in many countries, and in many regions therein, is associated with significant societal and economic costs. In many cases individual incidences are reported by the media or through social media anyway. The stigmatization is therefore likely, even though a proper analysis might show that a few single cases are often not representative for an entire region.
From a research perspective, besides lacking data the main issues concern reliability, validity and consistency of data. Research that aims to analyze the effects of politically motivated crime might help to allocate resources to fight such extremism more effectively. Although the topic is sensitive in nature one might argue that pressuring to tackle these issues publicly is overdue as the very same issues are already covered in a non-structural and incomplete manner in the media and political discussions. After all, while we have already achieved a common understanding of what is beer, liqueur or schnapps, isn’t it time to agree on a definition of what crimes are motivated by foreign ideology, right-wing, left-wing, or religious motivations?
 Jon Henley, "'Stop rioting, stop destroying':victim's grandmother call for calm in France," The Guardian, July 2, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/02/france-riots-quieter-night-reported-across-the-country-despite-close-to-500-arrests.
 Cathrin Schaer, "The Quran-burning protested in Sweden and his complex past," dw.com, July 21, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/the-quran-burning-protester-in-sweden-and-his-complex-past/a-66308516.
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 The Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) is a classification system for geographical units by Eurostat for producing regional statistics. NUTS-1 levels describe the highest aggregation level after the country level and the levels below NUTS-1 (NUTS-2 and NUTS-3) describe lower levels of aggregation (EU 2022).
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