Few people around the world could have taken comfort from New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush’s conclusion that the Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a self-described white supremacist who killed 50 Muslims in a mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, was a “lone wolf”.
The description is misleading, especially as it has been revealed that the attacker met extreme right-wing groups during a European tour two years ago, according to investigators who are looking at a possible international dimension to the tragic attacks and whether the gunman had links with violent individuals and racist organisations around the world.
Although the attack was described as the work of a “lone wolf” acting alone in this tragedy, this does not mean that the gunman did not receive help, inspiration or facilitation from a much wider set of people, organisations and ideas.
There is an international terrorist dimension, as Western governments try to understand the extent of Tarrant’s relationships with white supremacists.
It is now known that the gunman travelled to different European countries, as well as to North Korea, Pakistan and Turkey. Hungary’s Counter-Terrorism Centre said that Tarrant had arrived in Hungary as a tourist last November on a train between Timisoara in Romania and Budapest in Hungary.
In a statement, it said that Tarrant had entered the country on 26 November 2018 at the border railway crossing in Lokoshaza about 250 km (155 miles) southeast of Budapest.
It said that Tarrant was travelling by himself when he entered Hungary, did not appear on any terrorist database, had not been flagged by authorities elsewhere and would have been allowed to stay in Hungary for up to 90 days without a visa.
The centre said it was investigating what Tarrant did and where he went while he was in Hungary. The travels and his views on different social-media platforms did not raise concerns at the time.
This shows that such individuals and many ultra-right organisations are not as closely watched as are Muslim extremists, for example.
But after the carnage in New Zealand, questions are being asked about how to define, measure and understand the threat of ultra-right groups in the West.
Most of the far-right attacks in the West in recent years were not carried out by organised cells like the Islamic State (IS) group, but by “lone wolves”.
Atrocities from the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting in 2012, the Jokela School shooting in Tuusula, Finland, in 2007, the Utoya massacre in Norway in 2011, the Oslo shooting in 2017, the Trolhattan attack in Sweden in 2015, the Munich shooting in 2017, the Charleston Church shooting in the US in 2015, the Umpqua Community College shooting in the US in 2015, the Quebec City Mosque shooting in 2017 and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting in 2018 were all carried out by “lone wolves”.
The nature of the attacks and the fact that they were launched in the name of the extreme right in Europe, America or elsewhere with the apparent involvement of a “lone wolf” has made the security authorities in the West downplay the risks of this rising tide and deal with the white supremacy threat at the national level and not as an international threat as they do when it comes to international jihadists.
The question of a potentially larger network of people and ideas that bind far-right groups and white supremacy ideology sympathisers together crystallised after the Christchurch attacks, which appear to be well planned and part of a broader trend.
They came fewer than six months after a gunman shot and killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in the United States.
Tarrant claims he planned and executed the attacks himself. But in the same breath, he pointed out that he got inspiration and developed relations with the Knights Templars, a group that was also mentioned by Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 people in a bombing and mass shooting attack in Norway in July 2011.
In a 74-page manifesto the gunman disclosed that he did “contact the reborn Knights Templars for a blessing in support of the attack, which was given.” He continues that “I have only had brief contact with knight Justiciar Breivik, receiving a blessing for my mission after contacting his brother knights,” indicating that he had been inspired by other infamous far-right operators.
“I support many of those that take a stand against ethnic and cultural genocide. Luca Traini, Anders Breivik, Dylan Roof, Anton Lundin Pettersson, Darren Osbourne etc.,” the gunman wrote, naming white supremacists ahead of the massacre.
The gunman also mentioned Tommy Robinson, the leader of the far right in the UK, who in recent years has managed to cultivate a new kind of far-right activism in the UK, a country which has not been historically attracted to it.
As Daniel Trilling, the editor of New Humanist magazine put it, “after his efforts to build an anti-Muslim street movement failed – first with the collapse of the English Defence League in 2013, then an attempt to launch a UK branch of the German anti-immigrant movement Pegida in 2016 – Robinson reinvented himself as an online propagandist.”
Robinson is the figurehead of a headless movement that feeds on xenophobia, Islamophobia and white supremacy, beliefs which are usually barred from mainstream debate.
For his followers, Robinson is an anti-establishment hero. He claims to have been silenced, but he receives a huge amount of media attention and has almost a million followers on Facebook.
The question is whether there is now an underground movement of militants working together, via encrypted online applications, to spread white supremacist ideology and prepare future terrorist attacks.
Many of the far-right networks in the West have international linkages, from Germany and Italy to France, the United States and Russia.
Changing Face Of The Far-Right
The far-right, extreme-right, hard-right, radical-right, fascist-right or ultra-right are all terms used to describe a wide range of political, cultural and social beliefs. Identity and race also play crucial roles in the ideology of the far-right groups.
During the attacks in New Zealand, the gunman live-streamed his killing of children, women and men in a video posted on 8Chan, an extreme right-wing forum from where it was widely disseminated.
During the live-stream, the attacker revealed racist and anti-immigrant views before opening fire on people at random.
In recent years, observers have noticed that the far-right groups have become more fixated on Islam, characterising the religion as a threat to Western culture, Christianity, liberal values and the white race
The gunman listened, while driving to carry out the attack, to a song from a Serbian nationalist video made in 1995 during the war against Bosnian Muslims. The lyrics praised the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic who was subsequently convicted of genocide and war crimes.
There were also references to historic battles between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire in his manifesto. The names of men convicted of murdering Muslims and Jews in Europe were found on the weaponry he carried.
Moreover, the words “for Rotherham,” a reference to the sexual abuse of 1,400 children in the South Yorkshire town in Britain between the late 1980s and 2013 at the hands of a gang consisting of British-Pakistani, Kurdish and Kosovan men, were also found.
Most of the victims were white girls, but British Asian girls in Rotherham also suffered abuse and did not report it to the authorities because of the fear of shame in their community.
In his manifesto of 16,500 words, the New Zealand terrorist “explains” why he carried out the murders by advocating white supremacist ideology and praising “non-diverse nations,” naming China as his ideal state in following a policy of “monoculturalism”.
He also says he began planning the tragic attacks after a visit to Europe in 2017.
He “justifies” the killing of children by arguing that “children of invaders do not stay children; they become adults and reproduce, creating more invaders to replace your people.”
Some argue that it is difficult for the intelligence agencies to distinguish serious threats and potential attacks from the expression of extreme views.
Some experts on the international far-right movements argue that the task is much harder now because the far-right online community disguises itself by using coded language and symbols that it can be difficult for the ordinary eye to understand.
It also uses methods like posting large amounts of content of “aggressively, ironically and trollishly poor quality” to an online forum or social network, in some cases to derail discussion or otherwise make the site unusable for its regular visitors.
The gunman in the New Zealand attack tailored his manifesto to the online underground community using coded language and jokes, a technique used in online right-wing media culture to hide its real agenda.
Inside the Daily Stormer’s Style Guide, a handbook for a neo-Nazi blog founded in 2013, there is a list of 18 “advisable” racial slurs and “extreme exaggeration.” It suggests that for legal reasons followers online should not openly incite violence. But it goes on to add that “whenever someone does something violent, it should be made light of… The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”
The ultimate goal is to “dehumanise the enemy to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths,” the Guide instructs. “While racial slurs are allowed/recommended, not every reference to non-white[s] should be a slur. It should not come across as genuine raging vitriol. That is a turnoff to the overwhelming majority of people,” it says.
A radicalised online far-right culture makes the fight against it a huge challenge. Platforms used to communicate such as 4Chan and 8Chan make it difficult to flag potential threats as they are not regulated and do not make the efforts of mainstream social-media platforms to take down offensive material and flag dangerous individuals.
The fight against these groups will require commitment not only from politicians, the security services and the police, but also the mainstream media and social-media platforms.
The massacre in New Zealand could be a wake-up call for the real and rising danger of far-right extremist movements and their hate culture.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Lone wolf or an army?