Since March 15 2019, a string of lone actor, far-right copycat atrocities provide important clues to the kind of transnational, online movement we now confront, writes Emanuel Stoakes.
Before storming the Al Noor Mosque, the would-be killer dressed in military fatigues, attempted a livestream and signalled his intent on an image board popular with communities of hate.
This chain of events is familiar to many New Zealanders; yet, in this instance they took place five months after the Christchurch attacks, in a town on the other side of the world. The perpetrator was a young Norwegian named Philip Manshaus, who opened fire inside a Mosque in Baerum, near Oslo.
The 21-year-old killed no one at the namesake house of prayer – he was overpowered by a worshipper three times his age – but he clearly sought to imitate the acts of the man who committed the atrocities of March 15, 2019.
Manshaus is just one of a number apparent “lone wolf” terrorists that were influenced by the unthinkable events that took place here, in the city where I live. Others include 19-year-old John Earnest, who posted on the 8chan website and livestreamed his attack on a Synagogue in California; likewise Patrick Crusius, 21, who killed 23 people in a shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He cited the terror activity in Christchurch approvingly in his “manifesto”.
In Germany, shootings in the towns of Halle and Hanau can be linked to this terror surge, as can a range of plots thwarted by police, many of them far more systematic, ambitious and organised than the killings that preceded them. As recent events appear to indicate, the terror threat continues to metastasise, with infiltration of the military an emerging theme.
The run of post-Christchurch, lone actor, far-right copycat atrocities is explored in “the Terror of the lone wolf”, a documentary that aired on ARD, Germany’s national broadcaster last week, for which I conducted interviews in New Zealand. As the film notes, the resurgent fascist terror phenomenon remains poorly understood and requires much more attention.
The case of Stephan Balliet
Bearing this in mind, I was grateful to get the opportunity to take a closer look at one of the wolves in the pack that emerged after Christchurch. I have been able to access material yet to have been made public as it relates to the case of Stephan Balliet, who is currently on trial for 13 offences, including two counts of murder, in relation to an act of solo terror in the German town of Halle. Like Manshaus and the Christchurch killer he sought to weaponise the internet: live-streaming his crimes and posting a link on an image board for an audience of his “peers” to access.
His case seems to represent much that is common to the spate of lone actor attacks linked to Christchurch; not only its “copycat” hallmarks, but the performative quality of the violence, undertaken with reference to themes from internet subcultures, apparently directed at an audience who haunt the same message boards and are fully versed in its idiom.
Balliet struck a Synagogue on October 9, 2019: Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, an event when he knew the building would be full of congregants. Having tried, and failed, to enter, he shot and killed a 40-year-old passer-by; later he murdered a customer in a nearby kebab shop.
Court documents and unreleased writings of Balliet’s that I have obtained reveal how decisively he was influenced by the Christchurch shooting, propelling him out of “blackpilled” inertia and despair, the papers record, to the point where he “finally decided to commit his own crime”. This may explain some of the mimetic qualities to his activity on, and preceding, October 9.
An unreleased question and answer file which I have also obtained demonstrates that Balliet had initially planned to target a mosque. The language contained in the document represents a virtual facsimile of that which appears in various far-right forums, a combination of in-jokes, gamer or meme references freighted with schoolboy conceit and a penchant for the cruel and transgressive; the hallmarks of an ostensibly cocky, but ultimately insecure young man, seeking the approval of his peers.
Balliet even wrote a question and answer style “self-interview” which was never shared publicly; like a later “manifesto” he prepared for the day of the attack, it was written in English, not his native German. His writings, the court documents note, seem to be designed to appeal not to a cross-section of the public, but “a small internet and gaming community that at least shares his preference for certain online games and his special humour, if not his political views”.
Auckland-based security consultant and former Pentagon official Paul Buchanan, whom I interviewed for the documentary, notes that this trend is one of the distinguishing features of the far-right extremist terror phenomenon of which Balliet is a part. While its practitioners “use media exposure as a measure of their success”, he said, the main target audience of their violent activity is their own community.
“What I’m getting the impression from watching these repeated attacks and, now the glorification via social media, is that this is actually it’s sort of an in-group discussion.”
To Balliet, being seen by this narrow audience was key. As noted in the ARD documentary, when speaking from the dock, Balliet’s voice broke and he became emotional as he declared that the livestream of his actions was more important than the killings he committed.
The ‘spectacle’ as a weapon – and why it matters
Performativity and the use of language may seem like trivial or abstract matters to bring up in relation to such a serious subject, but as a regular monitor of messaging platforms and image boards frequented by fascists, the dominant social currency of exchange potentially provides clues to the motivations of would-be terrorists, including young New Zealanders, and how they could be manipulated and recruited by external actors.
Chats I have seen on Telegram and other platforms reveal how a self-identifying member of a new far-right movement here discussed purchasing black market weapons, setting up cells and attacking “leftist buildings and people.” (His alleged actions were disavowed by the group.)
Elsewhere, I have seen New Zealand-based accounts harass anti-fascist activists online, make thinly veiled threats against the Muslim community, quote Hitler approvingly and declare their support for violent far-right groups like Atomwaffen and the Base. Such exchanges were marked by the same qualities that are commonplace across the “chanosphere” – of young men trying to impress one another as they would in a group of teenage friends or a gang.
While none of this necessarily means that another attack is likely, it does indicate that New Zealand is far from immune to the almost untrackable radicalisation that is occurring across all parts of the western world on anonymised message boards and secure platforms, from which, unexpectedly, a new “lone wolf” might suddenly emerge.
Alexander Reid Ross, a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, noted that the Christchurch shooter “claimed in his 8chan post he was abandoning shitposting for a ‘real life effort post,’ indicating that each post on forums like 8chan marks an effort to build the phenomenon of far-right hate”.
To Ross, inhabitants of message boards like 8chan’s /pol/ and their counterparts on other platforms “knowingly cultivate an ecosystem for which lone wolf terror manifests a kind of apotheosis. The attack simply enacts a rupture, through which their fascist online world spills into people’s everyday lives through the publicity that it brings.”
Terror is always preceded by radicalisation – and radicalisation is a process. Someone who knows about aspects of this journey is Caleb Cain. The young American’s social profile fits neatly within the pattern of a potential lone wolf (although, he says, he was never drawn to violence): young, white, disaffected; seeking community and meaning.
Cain’s experiences provide clues to how young men like him can become brainwashed into becoming fascist murderers. A key ingredient, he says, is hopelessness and desperation, both about oneself and about the state of society – a process known as “blackpilling”, typically involving pseudo-science, cherry-picking of information and beliefs in conspiracies such as the Kalergi plan, a purported elite plot to dilute the white presence in Europe through mass immigration.
In this worldview, the bankruptcy of political action (since everything is corrupted by the anti-white conspirators) and existential threats are emphasised, leaving violence as the only viable option. Inaction is cowardice.
“It was one thing for the Germans to get people to come to the camps and to do those horrible things because you had a whole movement of people behind it – peer pressure, right? But to get lone wolf attackers or to get small groups to go out and do things, they need to feel their back is against the wall, personally, at a deep level,” he noted, speaking over the phone from Washington DC.
Returning to Germany, it is important to note that Balliet is still refusing to identify who sent him money to aid his crimes: he received a sum equivalent to around a thousand dollars in bitcoin, a cryptocurrency favoured by terrorists since its exchange can occur without the relative transparency of normal banking practices. As a BBC investigation into far-right activity in the UK observed, this trend of anonymised money-sharing is not isolated and can be accompanied by remote recruitment.
It is worth noting that a soldier based at Linton Military Camp with alleged far-right ties was singled out in a police document that highlighted the links between such transactions and potential far right terror activity. The young New Zealander was charged earlier this year with two offences, including “unauthorised disclosure of information” that is “likely to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand”.
The transnational nature of the far-right threat requires cross-border efforts to combat the problem of online radicalisation, yet meaningful agreement on this issue appears to remain far off. Kiwi Muslim Anjum Rahman said she has been disappointed by the level of willingness displayed by governments to tackle the issue.
“I went to New York last year for the Christchurch Call Dialogue Meeting; then they reported back. And it still seemed to me even after the Christchurch attack the major [counter-terror] focus is on Muslims,” she sighed.
Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst with the Soufan Center, a US-based nonprofit that specialises in security issues, told me that collective government action is essential to protect the public. “We have started to gather pieces of the puzzle of how right-wing extremists fund, network, travel, recruit, train, and organize,” she said, noting that Russia has emerged as a “critical node” in the transnational right-wing extremist network.
“This type of extremism, however, is still largely understudied if compared to, say, Salafi-jihadism. It is therefore important that western governments take steps to give law enforcement and the intelligence community the tools needed to further understand the architecture of this transnational movement in order to effectively counter it.”
The ‘IRL’ antidote
For Cain, who now works in the field of deradicalisation, the greatest antidote to hate is “in real life” (IRL) meetings with the people that are demonised in the one-dimensional world of the message boards.
An experience that was particularly affecting in this respect took place for Cain a year to the day of the attacks in Christchurch, when he met victims and survivors of the attacks in person.
Inside the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue, there was “all this love and support and there were all these kids running around,” he said, yet he couldn’t help be “hyper-aware of where I was standing. What I had seen”.
At Linwood Islamic Centre, later that day, he revealed his past associations to his hosts. “I told them who I was and they opened right up,” he recalled. “They said: “You’re not that any more brother.’ I don’t even know how to even process that.”
While in Christchurch, personal tragedy struck for Cain. A family member overdosed on drugs and was in a critical condition. The Linwood congregation offered him support and prayer as he faced this crisis; their compassionate actions contrasted sharply with the cynicism and hate in the anonymous communities he had engaged with online for so long.
This made him think of the Christchurch terrorist. “All he had to do was talk to them,” he said.
“They would have embraced him. He chose not to do that.”