When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, sealing a remarkable victory in its nearly 20-year war of attrition against the world's leading superpower, jihadist networks around the world erupted in jubilation.
But the victory was also met with praise from an unlikely quarter: far-right activists in the West. While they loathe Islam, viewing it as an existential threat, some on the far-right expressed their grudging respect for the Islamist militants, and even applauded their victory.
“I raise a glass to the liberators of Afghanistan, the Taliban,” the notorious US white nationalist Nick Fuentes said on his “America First” web show, lifting his coffee mug in a tongue-in-cheek toast to the militants.
“That’s Taliban land. What are Americans doing there?”
As VICE News reported at the time, some far-right activists went further, lauding the Taliban victory as a model for their own extremist movement to learn from. One far-right Telegram user, prefacing his comments by affirming his contempt for Islam, wrote of his admiration for the way the Taliban’s “farmers and minimally-trained men fought to take their nation back.”
“They took back their national religion as law, and executed dissenters. Hard not to respect that,” read the post, which lurched – like many of the far-right messages praising the Taliban victory – into antisemitic conspiracy theories about a supposed global Jewish cabal.
Another Telegram user, a prominent white nationalist account, wrote that he was cheering the victory.
“To be honest, the Taliban is epic,” he wrote. “I celebrate every time the [the US government] is embarrassed. You should too.”
These messages of admiration from the Western far-right for a militant Islamist group – while anomalous at first glance – highlighted the many synergies between these violent extremist movements. Experts say that, while jihadists and Western right-wing extremists see themselves diametrically opposed, they are in many ways two sides of the same coin, sharing a similar worldview, enemies and tactics, and a common desire to violently impose their values on society. And increasingly, they appear to be learning and borrowing from one another.
“For far-right extremists, the Taliban represent what many of them hope to achieve in their own countries here in the West, which is basically overthrowing the democratic system through armed struggle and violence, and to create a ‘pure society’ based on their hateful creed,” said Mollie Saltskog, a research fellow at the Soufan Center.
Experts say the movements share a remarkably similar way of thinking, viewing themselves as on opposing sides in an existential clash of civilisations, creating a need for them to radicalise supporters to act as martyrs for their cause.
“They both embrace a perception of the world that clearly divides humanity between good and evil … and nothing in the middle,” said Julien Bellaiche, an analyst at Jihadoscope, which monitors jihadist activity.
And they also hate many of the same things. Chief among their shared enemies is the liberal democracy promoted by Western governments, geared at creating tolerant, pluralistic societies which both right-wing extremists and jihadists saw as decadent, depraved, and ultimately devoid of meaning.
Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and Deradicalisation Studies, said that right-wing extremists typically see liberalism as a threat to Western civilisation.
“They think that liberalism makes us weak, and destroys our inherent warrior-like characteristics as men,” he said.
The Taliban has similarly singled out liberalism, even publishing essays criticising its shortcomings as an ideology. Bridget Johnson, managing editor for Homeland Security Today magazine, said one article published on a Taliban-affiliated website in August had argued that liberalism had “no objective morality to to provide humankind” and “was just based on liberal emotionalism.”
She was struck by how the argument could have come from right-wing “firebrands on Twitter.”
In place of liberal democracy, said Koehler, both movements seek to impose their own vision of an ideal society, structured according to their own respective racial or religious hierarchies, but both dominated by masculine “warrior” ideals, with women subjugated to submissive “traditional” roles. Antisemitism was also rife, with both movements seething with conspiracy theories blaming supposed Jewish interests for their troubles.
With so much in common, it perhaps no surprise that right-wing extremists and radical Islamists are increasingly copying from one another’s playbooks, at least if their propaganda is any indication.
ISIS, said Johnson, had “transformed online terror propaganda” during its rapid ascent in the early 2010s, an innovation that experts say played a key role in its rise to global prominence.
“They introduced this high production value,” she said. “They made things look more stylised, like a video game, like an action film.”
A new generation of accelerationist neo-Nazi groups – who seek to bring about the violent collapse of society – have drawn direct inspiration from their example, to the point that there was now a “striking aesthetic and rhetorical resemblance” between much jihadist and white supremacist propaganda, said Bellaiche, the Jihadoscope analyst.
As Motherboard reported in 2019, the European neo-Nazi group Feuerkrieg Division – known for its slick, highly-stylised propaganda – has put out propaganda images based on a screengrab from a notorious ISIS video showing how to make bombs, while an affiliated US neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division, has created images glorifying Osama bin Laden and depicting the burning World Trade Center towers.
Those images have been accompanied by posts on Atomwaffen-affiliated sites explicitly urging white supremacists to follow what it termed “the Islamic example,” and calling for “young men willing to put down their lives for our ideas no matter the cost.”
And there are indications of influence flowing the other way too. Western alt-right groups have proven themselves adept at using memes to spread their ideas to younger generations online – a strategy that helps give their ideology viral reach and help them to normalise hate speech by cloaking it in ironic humour.
Now researchers are seeing online Islamist sympathisers take a similar approach, with the emergence of pro-jihad memes based on ubiquitous formats like the Drake meme or Pepe the Frog.
“I think that they are trying to repurpose different forms of propaganda [to appeal to] a new audience, especially a young teenage juvenile audience that has been growing up in Western countries,” said Koehler.
“The meme culture, that also is tightly connected to the incel milieu and specific online subcultures, I think has been recognised by some Islamist groups as a very fruitful ground for recruitment.”
Additional reporting by Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux