In the last few weeks, the world has seen a number of high profile attacks on civilians, many of them claiming to be (or having been claimed by) the fundamentalist militant group Daesh (also known as Islamic State). While these attacks are despicable, they are hardly unique. Similar attacks on civilians have been conducted throughout history by pockets of individuals unhappy with some aspect of the governing status quo, be that religious, ideological or political. Disagreements exist in all societies, and extremist groups draw upon them the world over to increase their influence and accomplish their aims – from the Ku Klux Klan, to the IRA, to ETA.

Might your fictional world have similar extremist groups, and what effect might that have on the rest of society?

Extremist groups do not come from nowhere. In order to portray an extremist group within your own fictional society, it must be rooted in some disagreement, or at least a perceived problem with the way people in your society operate. This disagreement or problem doesn’t even have to be true, only that it is perceived to be so by some segment of the population. Indeed, the majority of the people who believe it to be true are much more likely to hold that view in private, or at least to a much more moderated extent than the extremists.

The point is, an extremist group does not exist in a vacuum. There is not a binary divide between extremists being incorrect on one side, and everyone else being correct on the other. Beliefs do not spring fully-formed from nothing, and often twist news and current events to fit their own agenda. There might even be two, equally extreme groups, on exact opposite sides of the disagreement.

Quinn watched the events on the monitor with horror. How many dead this time? Sure, the Rilaan bred at twice the rate humans do, and that stench… but did they really deserve to die? Shortages, the Save Earth Alliance insisted. As far as Quinn remembered, there had always been shortages. True, the Rilaan’s arrival couldn’t help, but massacring them like that? He felt sick.
Perhaps the Rilaan should be rounded up. They could be kept safe that way. Their breeding monitored, maybe. And it would make it easier to see how much they were consuming. The SEA might back off if they could keep it under control. Yes, Quinn would support that.

We can see here a situation where the arrival of an apparently friendly group of aliens is the catalyst for an extremist group. While Quinn, and presumably a good chunk of the population can remember that the shortages have existed long before the Rilaan even arrived, the extremist Save Earth Alliance are adamant that the shortages are the fault of the alien immigrants. By the looks of it, that continued insistence is beginning to resonate with the rest of the less-extremist population too, to the point where they are beginning to support some of the SEA’s aims, and justifying them to themselves through their own lens.

Here Quinn is clearly not a terrorist sympathiser, nor is he in favour of the SEA’s aim of killing innocent civilian Rilaan – but in capitulating to the will of the SEA, he is clearly increasing their power, and helping them accomplish their aims. What happens when the majority of the population vote for the Rilaan to be rounded up? Once the Rilaan are in camps, what would the SEA’s next objective be? History tells us it likely won’t end well.

The people murmured as Talani stood at the lectern. Another attack on the pyrewood foresters. Another anti-magic phrase daubed onto the wall of the sawmill. More unrest.

She cleared her throat. “This is a sad day for the entire kingdom. For centuries, pyrewood magic has protected our borders. The wardfires burning as  a symbol of our independence and strength.”

“Traitors!” a voice screamed from the crowd. Murmurs of agreement followed.

Talani felt a trickle of sweat drop down her face. “Of course, that protection has not been without its price. The unchecked magics that are unleashed in the vicinity of Underdown when fires get out of control. But this is a price we have to pay.”

The crowd applauded their agreement.

“I call upon the leaders of the Underdown rebels, to cease their attacks. To accept the offers of the King’s Council to vacate their homes, to be relocated elsewhere to safety.”

Another cry from the sound. “They won’t budge! Bloody leave them there for what they’ve done!” Another noise of agreement from the crowd. This was getting out of hand.

“Their position is entirely understandable,” Talani pleaded, “But their methods-”

“Another attack!” Someone yelled. A forester’s body was dragged into the crowd. The familiar daubing of slogans on the corpse. The crowd erupted into outrage.

“They will pay for this! Come on, lads! Let’s give those Underdown dogs a taste of their own medicine!”

Talani stood helpless, pleading and ignored as the crowd disappeared, axes and torches waving. She had failed.

We can see here a terrorist group feeling threatened by the actions of a government. While the King’s Council clearly believes the Pyrewood groves are necessary for their kingdom’s protection, those who have to live with the consequences are fighting back.

The interesting thing here is that one extremist group, who may not speak for the majority of those they claim to, has actually created an opposing extremist group among the foresters that they have been attacking. The actions of a few extremists have provoked a violent reaction against their own people, regardless of whether they were in any way responsible for the attacks. We now have a society with two groups of extremists, one who believes the wardfires are necessary regardless of the risks, the other who would like to see the wardfires stopped regardless of the risks. Both willing to kill innocents to accomplish their goals.

We can see here that both groups may actually have a point, the disagreement being simply an ideological one. Most of the kingdom’s population probably sympathise with one or the other to some extent, even if they do not necessarily agree with the violent methods used to get their way. Where might this situation go? Might it be possible to diffuse the situation, as Talani failed to do, or might it continue to escalate, with each side taking revenge for the other’s actions, until the kingdom has a civil war on its hands?