The New Face of Global White Nationalist Terror

The Charleston shooter, like Anders Breivik, shows how the radical white right has become ever more unhinged and dangerous.

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 19:  In this image from the video uplink from the detention center to the courtroom, Dylann Roof appears at Centralized Bond Hearing Court June 19, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Roof is charged with nine counts of murder and firearms charges in the shooting deaths at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. (Photo by Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 19: In this image from the video uplink from the detention center to the courtroom, Dylann Roof appears at Centralized Bond Hearing Court June 19, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Roof is charged with nine counts of murder and firearms charges in the shooting deaths at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. (Photo by Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images)

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man who shot and killed nine black worshipers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church on June 17, 2015, seems singularly awful. He’s also awfully familiar.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a 36-year-old Norwegian, detonated two bombs and went on a shooting spree in and outside of Oslo, leaving 77 people — most of them teenagers — dead. Breivik, like Roof, planned and carried out his attacks alone. Breivik, like Roof, left a chilling manifesto outlining his grievances against those he would murder. And Breivik, like Roof, exhibited a clear yet complicated relationship with a global far right subculture known as “white nationalism.”

This is the new face of global white nationalist terror.

At times carelessly characterized as “right-wing extremism” or “organized racism,” white nationalism is a subculture unto itself. Though white nationalists often consider themselves heirs to the Southern Confederacy or the Third Reich, their agendas are fitted to the contemporary world. The movement’s core claim is that the global white population is being bred out of existence thanks to a confluence of multiculturalism, interracialism, and progressive social causes like feminism — all of which are usually seen as having been orchestrated by Jews. The movement calls on whites to overthrow governing regimes or withdraw into segregated all-white enclaves. White nationalism has never had a centralized organization, but was instead manifest in scores of small activist groups that sprung up throughout Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. These groups often formed around a charismatic leader who would enforce both ideological dogma and order.

Despite frequent calls for revolution, white nationalist groups have rarely carried out acts of large-scale violence. There have been some exceptions, most notably the American militant organization The Order, which was responsible for a string of robberies and murders during the mid 1980s. After U.S. federal agents succeeded in disbanding The Order, however, its imprisoned former members urged other white nationalists not to replicate their tactics, arguing that armed resistance to liberal society was futile.

Since then, the white nationalist world has been plagued by internal fighting as various organizations and leaders compete over status. Such inner conflict has long hindered the movement’s growth. To the extent that white nationalists have been able to collaborate and network with each other, it’s through their vibrant culture industry. Via the spread of white power music — a punk and heavy metal-style genre with lyrics that demonize non-whites — and skinhead fashion, white nationalists around the world developed a shared language and set of symbols and rituals that allowed this fractious global community to see itself as one.

Dylann Roof and Anders Behring Breivik engaged with white nationalism primarily through its subculture. Roof draped his body in South African apartheid flags. He adorned his website with Nordic runes, and marked its URL address with the number “88” — code for “Heil Hitler!” And as his family members are now saying, he began listening to white power music as his views became more radical. Likewise, Breivik devoted a large portion of his manifesto to celebrating and reprinting the lyrics of Swedish singer Saga — one of the most popular musicians in the white nationalist world. The lyrics she sang warned of the fast-approaching extinction of the white race and celebrated World War II-era Nazis as “the forces of light against the darkness in a holy war.” Breivik encouraged those who wanted to replicate his lone-wolf method to memorize Saga’s songs to help themselves stay motivated and focused while planning attacks in isolation.

Had these two terrorists been active during the early 1990s, their use of symbolism and admiration for white power music would have suggested that they were connected to an organized white nationalist cell. Then, music and other goods were distributed via mail order and during concerts and other events, and access was therefore more restricted to those who were deeply engaged with the scene.

But since the early 1990s, the white nationalist movement has transformed. Like other marginalized political causes, it maintains a robust Internet presence, which means sympathizers can now bathe themselves in white nationalist literature, music, and media without ever having seen another activist in person, attended a rally, or belonged to a formal white nationalist collective. As the system of groups with leaders and standards for membership gives way to a new movement of anonymous and solitary online activity, individuals are poised to mold white nationalism’s messages and ideas in ways that suit their own beliefs and agendas. White nationalism’s call for revolution against the forces of pluralism and diversity, now sounded for all to hear, is being reinterpreted in unpredictable ways.

Roof and Breivik exploited the potential offered by a new online white nationalism unhinged from fixed creeds. Aside from their embrace of the movement’s symbolism and music, the two voiced core white nationalist beliefs in their writings. Roof described his cause as part of a global struggle to defend the purity and enfranchisement of whites throughout the Americas and Europe. And in his sprawling manifesto, Breivik rages against feminism’s impact on “indigenous” Europeans’ birthrate and outlines plans to create breeding centers in Norway to foster a new population with pure Nordic genes.

And yet there are a number of ways that both Roof and Breivik diverged from the white nationalism’s original dogmas. In his manifesto, Roof writes that East Asians “could be great allies of the White race,” adding that he is also “of the opinion that the majority of American and European Jews are White” and can under certain circumstances be embraced for that reason. Breivik, even as he called for mass Nordic breeding centers and praised the singer Saga, called himself an anti-racist and claimed to be uninterested in white racial solidarity. Though his writing is filled with contradiction, it is clear that he was most concerned with Islam and the alleged threat Muslim immigration posed to the cultural purity of Europe. And like Roof, Breivik strikes a conciliatory tone when writing about Jews, announcing his support for the state of Israel and describing Jews as partners in his war against Islam. Orthodox white nationalist groups attempted to distance themselves from Breivik by claiming that his embrace of Jews prove he had nothing to do with their movement. Such groups will certainly use the same tactic to distance themselves from Roof.

But by embracing white nationalism in piecemeal fashion — by championing some of its dogmas while violating others — Roof was acting in step with the new normal. White nationalism was for him a buffet of ideas and symbols rather than a cult to join, and he used that freedom to craft a worldview based on his personal resentments and concerns.

To the extent that the white nationalism poses a significant threat, it is not coming from the movement’s official organizations or celebrity figureheads but rather from anonymous Internet readers obliged to nobody but themselves. And as the movement becomes increasingly flexible and decentralized, its community of followers will grow larger and more diverse in its grievances and desired solutions. Combating this emerging trend is a daunting task. Not only are white nationalist terrorists likely to fit the lone wolf profile, but few can predict how they will interpret the call to revolution and just who they will target with their acts of violence.

Image credit: Grace Beahm-Pool/Getty Images