Christchurch: The myth of the lone wolf attacker

Investigators say the terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand was carried out by a single perpetrator. But referring to him as a "lone wolf" deceptively conceals a breeding ground of extreme-right terror.

Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people on July 22, 2011, is often cited as a prototypical "lone wolf" perpetrator of terrorist attacks.

"Europe is becoming increasingly familiar with attacks by extremists, but Breivik's actions made him the deadliest lone wolf attacker in the continent's history," Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad wrote in Newsweek in April 2016.

The alleged perpetrator in Christchurch, who was initially described as a lone wolf only a few hours after the terrorist attack on two mosques, deeply worshipped Breivik.

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'No group ordered my attack'

The investigation is still in its preliminary stages; At this point, it is not yet entirely clear whether the man arrested and charged in relation to the terrorist act, Brenton Tarrant, wrote the 74-page manifesto himself.

Law and Justice | 21.06.2018

He circulated the document on social media shortly before the attacks and sent a copy to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's office. It reads: "I am not a direct member of any organization or group, though I have donated to many nationalist groups and have interacted with many more (...) No group ordered my attack, I make [sic] the decision myself."

At the same time, the author emphasized: "The total number of people in these organizations is in the millions, the total number of groups in the thousands."

Though consciously portraying himself as an individual perpetrator, Tarrant apparently also sees himself as part of a larger movement. How does this track with the "lone wolf" concept?

Read more: What you need to know about Christchurch terrorist attacks

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The 'ideological hinterland'

"The idea that terrorists operate alone allows us to break the link between an act of violence and its ideological hinterland," British journalist Jason Burke wrote in an article for The Guardian on March 30, 2017.

Burke has written several books on the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group and al-Qaida. He believes that the lone wolf theory "implies that the responsibility for an individual's violent extremism lies solely with the individual themselves."

Modern terrorists may not always belong to a group that can be clearly named such as al-Qaida, the "Islamic State” or the National Socialist Underground (NSU), an extreme-right German terrorist cell that was responsible for a string of murders. Nevertheless, their radicalization takes place in the social climate in which they live. The internet and social media allow terrorists unprecedented ways to network globally and the ability to propagate their ideologies — right up to livestreaming their attacks on Facebook, as was the case with the Christchurch attack.

Most experts agree that terrorists are products of their time: An increase in intolerance has established itself in recent years as a global social trend, fueled by political discourse that is becoming increasingly populist. The yearning for simple answers polarizes; strangers and those with different viewpoints quickly become enemies. Extremism is taking root in mainstream society — a trend that is reinforced with the digitalization of human life.

Read more: Lone-wolf attackers show similar patterns

The social component of terrorism

Real relationships are replaced by virtual ones. But even online interactions have real consequences. David Sonboly, who murdered nine people at a Munich shopping mall on July 22, 2016, was heavily involved in online xenophobic networks. Sonboly deliberately chose the fifth anniversary of Breivik's terrorist attack as the date for his shooting. He received praise from certain circles of like-minded people for the choice of date.

Some jihadi attackers who struck in Europe were presumed to be lone wolf perpetrators who idealized IS, but actually had virtual contact with IS members in Syria and Iraq immediately before carrying out their attacks. Anis Amri, who drove a truck into the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin, was one of them.

"Terrorism is not something you do by yourself, it is highly social," Burke has written. "People become interested in ideas, ideologies and activities, even appalling ones, because other people are interested in them," and perpetrators often want to become famous and inspire copycats.

Should Christchurch attacker Tarrant actually prove to be the author of the 74-page manifesto, then he is explicitly making parallels between himself, Breivik and Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015: "I have read the writings of Dylann Roof and many others, but only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik."

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

Germany 2009: Stabbing of woman in Dresden court

Marwa El-Sherbini, a pharmacist who lived with her husband and son in Dresden, was killed in Dresden's district court on July 1, 2009. She was stabbed by a 28-year-old Russian-German man shortly after testifying against him in a verbal abuse case. He'd previously called her a "terrorist" and "Islamist." El-Sherbini is considered to be the first murder victim of an Islamophobic attack in Germany.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

Norway 2011: Mass murderer Breivik carries out terror attacks

Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in two lone-wolf terror attacks on July 22, 2011. He first set off a bomb in the government district in Oslo before killing young people attending a summer camp on the island of Utoya. Prior to the attack, Breivik published a manifesto where he decried multiculturalism and the "Islamization of Europe."

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

USA 2015: Chapel Hill shooting

Three university students — Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha — were shot dead by their 46-year-old neighbor on February 10, 2015. The shooter described himself as an opponent of organized religion and reportedly repeatedly threatened and harassed the victims. The killings sparked outrage online, with millions of tweets using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

USA 2015: Church massacre in Charleston

On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine African-American worshipers were killed, including a pastor at the church, which is one of the oldest black congregations in the United States. The 21-year-old suspect was convicted of a federal hate crime and sentenced to death.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

Germany 2016: Mass shooting in Munich

A mass shooting at a shopping mall in Munich on July 22, 2016 wounded some 36 people and killed 10 — including the 18-year-old shooter. The perpetrator, a German of Iranian descent, made xenophobic and racist comments and idolized school shooters, according to police. He also suffered from depression, was frequently bullied and wanted to take revenge on people with immigrant backgrounds.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

UK 2017: Attack on Finsbury Park mosque

On June 19, 2017, a 47-year-old man killed one person and wounded another 10 after driving a van into a group of pedestrians near the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. All of the victims were Muslims who were on their way to take part in special night prayers during Ramadan. The perpetrator later stated that he was motivated by a "hatred of Islam" and was sentenced to life in prison.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

USA 2017: Car attack during neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville

One woman was killed and dozens were wounded when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017. The counterprotesters had been demonstrating against the Unite the Right rally, a gathering of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The suspect was sentenced to life in prison.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

Canada 2017: Attack on mosque in Quebec

A gunman opened fire on worshipers at the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City in late January 2017, killing six people and wounding over a dozen. The shooting took place during evening prayers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the shooting as "a terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge."

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

USA 2018: Tree of Life Synagogue shooting

On October 27, 2018, a 46-year-old gunman opened fire at a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding seven. He reportedly shouted anti-Semitic slurs during the attack and previously posted conspiracy theories online. It was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in US history.

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

Germany 2019: New Year's attack in Bottrop and Essen

Shortly after midnight as people were out celebrating, a 50-year-old man carried out targeted attacks on immigrants in the western German cities of Bottrop and Essen — injuring eight people, one seriously. He deliberately drove his car at two Syrian and Afghan families who were out celebrating with their children in Bottrop. German authorities said "he had a clear intent to kill foreigners."

Right-wing extremist terror attacks: A timeline

New Zealand 2019: Twin terror attacks on mosques in Christchurch

At least 50 people were killed and dozens others were injured in twin terror attacks at mosques in Christchurch. Officials called it a "right-wing extremist attack" and the deadliest shooting in New Zealand's history. One of the gunmen livestreamed the attack and posted a racist manifesto online before the attack. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it "one of New Zealand's darkest days."

Breivik gave the Hitler salute in the courtroom; Tarrant formed the "OK" symbol with the thumb and index finger of his right hand during his first appearance in court on Saturday and spread the other three fingers — now a common sign between white far-right extremists.

It is known that both Breivik and Tarrant were in contact with other far-right extremists at home and abroad, both in real life and online. Tarrant in particular has traveled extensively, including in Europe. On his Facebook profile, which has since been deleted, he shared extremist content and articles about right-wing extremists from Europe, including at least one report by DW on right-wing extremist soldiers in the Bundeswehr — Germany's armed forces — who for him are apparently kindred spirits.

Breivik and Tarrant view themselves as modern-day crusaders in the battle to preserve the purity of an allegedly threatened white European breed. Both regard Muslims in particular to be "invaders" who strive for world domination.

Read more: Lone wolf terrorists are security officials' worst nightmare

The 'blood and soil' ideology

Australian Senator Fraser Anning released an official statement immediately following the Christchurch terrorist attack: "Let us be clear, while Muslims may have been the victims today, usually they are the perpetrators. Worldwide, Muslims are killing people in the name of their faith on an industrial scale." While Prime Minister Scott Morrison swiftly announced that his government would censure the senator, Anning's comments are not an isolated incident. Islamophobia, racism and white nationalism have long managed to find their way into the upper echelons of western democratic governments, be it in Australia, the US, or Europe.

Both right-wing populism and right-wing extremism, when defining the concept of nationhood, make equal use of the "blood and soil" ideology — a Nazi-era nationalist slogan expressing a "racially" defined national body ("blood") united with a given settlement area ("soil").

Like Tarrant, who styled himself the "defender" of Christchurch, critics say the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party leader Alexander Gauland spreads racist fearmongering notions of ethnic (white, Christian) Germans being "replaced” by immigrants, usually Muslims. Indeed, the AfD derives its nationalist isolationist policies by drawing on an alleged "ethnic inversion" ("Umvolkung" — a loaded Nazi-era term historically used by the extreme right to describe demographic change through immigration). During an appearance in Frankfurt in September he said: "We have no interest in becoming [all of] humanity. We want to remain Germans."

Read more: AfD politician says he 'understands' Breivik

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Alexander Gauland

Co-chairman Alexander Gauland said the German national soccer team's defender Jerome Boateng might be appreciated for his performance on the pitch - but people would not want "someone like Boateng as a neighbor." He also argued Germany should close its borders and said of an image showing a drowned refugee child: "We can't be blackmailed by children's eyes."

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Alice Weidel

Alice Weidel generally plays the role of "voice of reason" for the far-right populists, but she, too, is hardly immune to verbal miscues. Welt newspaper, for instance, published a 2013 memo allegedly from Weidel in which she called German politicians "pigs" and "puppets of the victorious powers in World War II. Weidel initially claimed the mail was fake, but now admits its authenticity.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Frauke Petry

German border police should shoot at refugees entering the country illegally, the former co-chair of the AfD told a regional newspaper in 2016. Officers must "use firearms if necessary" to "prevent illegal border crossings." Communist East German leader Erich Honecker was the last German politician who condoned shooting at the border.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Björn Höcke

The head of the AfD in the state of Thuringia made headlines for referring to Berlin's Holocaust memorial as a "monument of shame" and calling on the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past. The comments came just as Germany enters an important election year - leading AfD members moved to expel Höcke for his remarks.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Beatrix von Storch

Initially, the AfD campaigned against the euro and bailouts - but that quickly turned into anti-immigrant rhetoric. "People who won't accept STOP at our borders are attackers," the European lawmaker said. "And we have to defend ourselves against attackers."

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Marcus Pretzell

Pretzell, former chairman of the AfD in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and husband to Frauke Petry, wrote "These are Merkel's dead," shortly after news broke of the deadly attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Andre Wendt

The member of parliament in Germany's eastern state of Saxony made waves in early 2016 with an inquiry into how far the state covers the cost of sterilizing unaccompanied refugee minors. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Germany, according to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees (BumF) - the vast majority of them young men.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Andre Poggenburg

Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, has also raised eyebrows with extreme remarks. In February 2017, he urged other lawmakers in the state parliament to join measures against the extreme left-wing in order to "get rid of, once and for all, this rank growth on the German racial corpus" - the latter term clearly derived from Nazi terminology.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

Alexander Gauland - again ...

During a campaign speech in Eichsfeld in August 2017, AfD election co-candidate Alexander Gauland said that Social Democrat parliamentarian Aydan Özoguz should be "disposed of" back to Anatolia. The German term, "entsorgen," raised obvious parallels to the imprisonment and killings of Jews and prisoners of war under the Nazis.

AfD leaders and their most offensive remarks

... and again

Gauland was roundly criticized for a speech he made to the AfD's youth wing in June 2018. Acknowledging Germany's responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, he went on to say Germany had a "glorious history and one that lasted a lot longer than those damned 12 years. Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history."

Terrorists rarely work alone

Tarrant did not radicalize in a social vacuum any more than did Christian Lappe, a German citizen who converted to Salafism — a radical, ultraconservative form of Islam — and died fighting for IS in Syria. The same goes for the NSU terrorists Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos, and Beate Zschäpe, who carried out racially motivated murders in Germany.

In this context, a study on 119 individual perpetrators of terrorism presented by the International Center for Terrorism Studies (ICST) at Pennsylvania State University in February 2013 is revealing. According to the study, the vast majority of supposedly "lone actor terrorists regularly engaged in a detectable and observable range of behaviors and activities with a wider pressure group, social movement or terrorist organization."

The ICST study drew another dramatic conclusion: "In the time leading up to most lone-actor terrorist events, evidence suggests that other people generally knew about the offender's grievance, extremist ideology, views and/or intent to engage in violence.”

For a large majority (83 percent) of offenders, others were aware of the grievances that later spurred their terrorist plots or actions. In a similar number of cases (79 percent), others were aware of the individual's commitment to a specific extremist ideology. In 64 percent of cases, family and friends were aware of the individual's intent to engage in a terrorism-related activity because the offender verbally told them."

In light of the findings and recent events, the comfortable "lone wolf" theory fails to hold true. Terrorists are part of society — and it is up to society as a whole to stop them.