An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Dark Web Enabled the Christchurch Killer

The attack in New Zealand was inspired in part by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, but the real threat is lone wolves lurking in the far corners of the Internet.

Norwegian mass murder Anders Behring Breivik makes a Nazi salute before his appeal hearing at a court at the Telemark prison in Skien, Norway, on Jan. 10, 2017.
Norwegian mass murder Anders Behring Breivik makes a Nazi salute before his appeal hearing at a court at the Telemark prison in Skien, Norway, on Jan. 10, 2017. (LISE AASERUD/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past three decades, large-scale terrorist attacks motivated by extreme-right beliefs have almost exclusively been carried out by lone actors and small autonomous cells. The reason is simple. Maintaining an extreme-right group with terrorist ambitions is impossible in Western democracies today due to state monitoring and the lack of external support and safe havens. A recent example of extremists who tried, but failed, to prepare an attack while keeping a public profile is the British group National Action, whose leaders and activists are currently serving long prison sentences. This leaves extreme-right revolutionaries with two options: operate in the public but refrain from illegal behavior, or go underground.

The key to understanding today’s terrorist threat is to be found underground—especially the online underground, which has become a breeding ground for contemporary extremists of all kinds, including the Christchurch shooter. Notably, he announced his attacks in advance on an online forum and even shared a Facebook link used to livestream the attacks.

The question remains, however, whether an actual underground movement—a network of dedicated activists working together, via encrypted online applications, to prepare future terrorist attacks—exists transnationally. No one can know for sure, but by looking at previous attacks, few traces have been found suggesting that such transnational networks exist today within the extreme right.

At the national level, however, several countries appear to be unwittingly hosting extreme-right underground networks interested in facilitating terrorist campaigns against minorities, political enemies, or the government. Many of these networks also have international linkages. The most prominent example is the German National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist cell, which between 2000 and 2006 murdered nine immigrants and a policewoman, and carried out at least three separate bomb attacks.

The investigation revealed that the three-person cell had received financial and operational support from a wider underground network. Furthermore, while the police and the public suspected the murders to be criminally motivated, a considerable number of activists within the German extreme-right scene apparently knew they were connected to the NSU and even wrote songs about this before the cell was compromised.

Beyond Germany, other countries hosting underground extreme-right networks with terrorist ambitions include Italy, France, the United States, and Russia. In fact, after 1990, the number of deadly extreme-right attacks per million inhabitants has been several times higher in Russia than in any other country. In the West, the countries with the highest rate of attacks were Sweden and Germany, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Greece. However, most of these deadly attacks were not carried out by organized groups or even by autonomous cells, but my loosely organized gangs, small and unorganized groups of people, or by lone actors, such as the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and now the latest Islamophobic attack in Christchurch.

Western democracies are facing two types of violent threats from the extreme right today. On the one hand, most attacks are spontaneous, and are carried out by unorganized actors with an extreme-right motivation, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The most common weapons used are knives, fists, sticks, and iron bars. Such attacks would normally not qualify as terrorism.

On the other hand, most large-scale attacks with multiple casualties are committed by lone actors or small autonomous cells. These attacks are rarer, are always premediated, and typically use firearms and explosives. Muslims have become a primary target recently, including in the Christchurch attack. However, although they are attacking similar targets, the perpetrators operate in isolation from each other without direct communication or formal cooperation between them. But that doesn’t mean that these lone actors and autonomous cells don’t draw inspiration from each other.

In the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, is named as the killer’s only true source of inspiration. On July 22, 2011, Breivik first detonated a 2,100-pound fertilizer bomb in the Norwegian government quarter in the heart of Oslo, killing eight people, before shooting and killing 69 people on Utoya, a small island 25 miles from the capital. A further 158 people were severely wounded in the attacks. His targets, government representatives and members of the ruling Labour Party’s youth wing, were selected on the charge of being so-called cultural Marxist traitors, deliberately facilitating a “Muslim invasion” of Norway.

Breivik’s terrorist attack was unique in several ways. Besides the high death toll, it was one of few cases where the perpetrator completely self-radicalized online. It was also the only complex extreme-right terrorist attack in the past three decades that combined explosives with firearms. Both these characteristics seem to be shared by the Christchurch shooter, who carried explosives in one of his cars, and appears to have self-radicalized online without interacting with organized extreme-right groups.

Breivik was also the first person to produce a bomb from diluted fertilizer. The effort to dilute the concentration of ammonium nitrate in fertilizer was introduced in Europe after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to prevent the manufacture of such bombs. However, Breivik managed to circumvent this measure, he claims, by combining insights from hundreds of bomb-making recipes downloaded from the internet. Thus, from an operational perspective, Breivik’s “accomplishments” could indeed be a source of inspiration for future terrorists.

But the most noteworthy aspect of Breivik’s story is the lack of support he received within the broader movement after the attacks. Notably, very few actors with the organized extreme right have voiced support for Breivik, except for in Russia. And those who have supported him typically endorse his political views but not his actions. The most important reason is likely the brutality of the attacks, as well as the fact that he killed many white children (in his mind legitimate targets because they were members of the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party).

An online support network for Breivik was established following the attacks, consisting of many Tumblr blogs and coordinated by a mysterious person using the alias Angus Thermopylae. For some time, Angus became Breivik’s official spokesperson. He ran serval support blogs, published letters Breivik had written from prison, and coordinated a collective translation of Breivik’s manifesto into numerous languages.

However, it soon turned out that a majority of Breivik’s followers were young girls drawn to him for romantic rather than for political reasons. Although Angus was highly capable in terms of internet operational security, leaving no traces behind to the various intelligence services trying to identify him, he was, ironically, ultimately compromised by one of these girls, who gave up his name to a Norwegian journalist. He turned out to be a Dutch man living in the United States. Once he was confronted by the journalist, his support activity ended, and the entire support network imploded.

Until Friday, few alleged copycats had emerged. Some have been identified through the media, but in most of these cases Breivik turned out not to be a primary inspiration. The first case of someone truly inspired by Breivik may be the recent arrest of U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant who had plotted a major attack against politicians and journalists in the United States and was arrested before he could carry it out. Apparently, this lieutenant kept a copy of Breivik’s manifesto and had developed a similar classification system of legitimate targets, but too little information has been released thus far to draw conclusions about this case.

The Christchurch terrorist suspect is therefore the only clear-cut case of a true Breivik follower. He leaves little doubt about this when he states in his manifesto that while having read the work of many others, he “only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik.” In the same manifesto, he also claims to have contacted the “reborn Knights Templar” for a blessing in support of the attack. (Knights Templar was Breivik’s fictional terrorist organization, which he deliberately devised to inspire future attacks.)

It is too early to tell whether Knights Templar has actually been reborn, or if other members or cells exist, as the Christchurch terrorist seems to suggest. If true, it would be an unprecedented development in the modern history of right-wing terrorism in the sense that such transnational terrorist networks have not existed since the 1970s and 1980s, exemplified by the so-called Black Orchestra network, which was based in Italy, but received training and support in Portugal.

Although the Christchurch terrorist was clearly inspired by Breivik, there are actually not many traces of Breivik’s own writings or ideology in the Christchurch manifesto. While Breivik’s manifesto was cut-and-pasted from other sources, and half written by him, the Christchurch terrorist appears to have written most of the manifesto himself, and tailored it to the online underground community using coded language, irony, and deliberately implicating certain controversial figures to trigger unrest and polarization.

Like Breivik, the Christchurch terrorist included a self-styled interview with himself, explaining his own motivation, preparations, and ideological preferences. Notably, he justifies the killing of children, arguing that “children of invaders do not stay children, they become adults and reproduce, creating more invaders to replace your people.” Breivik never justified killing children in his own manifesto, but 33 of his victims on Utoya, the island where he conducted the second attack, were under the age of 18. Two were only 14 years old.

Many of the texts Breivik authored were rather bizarre, which may have contributed to him not being received particularly well within the broader extreme-right movement. For example, he wrote that fathers should always have custody of children, said that marriage should be based on mutual interests rather than feelings, and proposed establishing state-run surrogate clinics where Nordic children could be born and raised. Breivik’s manifesto was also 1,516 pages long, compared to the more digestible 74-page Christchurch manifesto, which is written in more straightforward language and designed to excite readers in the online underground.

Considering that the Christchurch terrorist targeted mosques and Muslims rather than white children, he may end up with greater status inside the underground movement than Breivik did. Indeed, there are already indications on various extreme-right forums that readers support the attacks.

Friday’s attack should remind us that in most Western democracies, the number of deadly events motivated by extreme-right beliefs is considerably higher than those motivated by Islamist extremism. That said, it is mainly an underground and unorganized threat, and those who shape public opinion should be careful of blaming those operating in the public sphere and within legal boundaries such as radical right parties or anti-immigrant protest movements. There is actually a negative correlation between electoral support for radical right parties in Western democracies and the levels of deadly attacks with an extreme-right motivation.

While such parties and movements in some cases may represent a threat to democratic values and minority rights, the threat of large-scale violence comes from the online underground, and policymakers therefore need to know more about why some people are attracted to that dark world.

Jacob Aasland Ravndal is a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. He has published extensively on right-wing terrorism in Western Europe in international journals. Twitter: @Jacravn