From the Web to Real Life
The Growing Threat of Online-Bred Right-Wing Extremism
Mark Mitchell/ REUTERS
Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, is responsible for murdering 50 worshippers at mosques in the New Zealand city. He livestreamed his rampage online, and when he appeared before the magistrate he flashed an "OK" signal with his hand, an ambiguous code for "white power."
Vincent Yu/ AP/ picture alliance
A police officer stands guard in front of the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. Around 200 Facebook users watched the attack live on their smartphones, tablets or computers. Some of them cheered the shooter on.
Francois Lenoir/ Reuters
A man holding part of the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people, mostly teenagers, in Norway in 2011. He justified his act with a patchwork of misanthropic theorems.
Lise Aserud/ AP
Brevik, here shown doing the Hitler salute in court, has been an inspiration for other right-wing terrorists in recent years, including David Sonboly, a German-Iranian teenager who shot and killed nine people in Munich in 2016.
Mohamed Aly Shebab
Sonboly, who used Breivik as the profile image for his Whatsapp account, tracked down the same type of pistol that Breivik used on the darknet. He also left behind a document on his computer that he described as his "manifesto."
Filip Singer/ epa-efe/ rex/shutterstock
Right-wing protesters light flares in eastern German city of Chemnitz on August 27, 2018 in the wake of the murder of a 35-year-old man in the city who was supposedly killed by an asylum seeker. The marches in Chemnitz, which included members of the neo-Nazi scene, set off a national wave of concern about the growing power of the far-right in Germany.
Ryan M. Kelly/ DPA/ The Daily Progress
A photo taken moments before Alex Fields Jr., a 21-year-old described by prosecutors as a white supremacist, drove into a crowd of anti-right-wing protesters in Charlottesville, in the U.S., in August of 2017. Heather Heyer, 32, died when the plowed into her. Fields Jr. was later found guilty of murder for the crime.
Spencer Platt/ AFP
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the biggest neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., hold a swastika burning in Georgia. In recent years, domestic intelligence agencies have struggled or neglected to monitor far-right groups operating largely on the internet.
Thursday, 3/28/2019 05:33 PM
At around 1:30 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, some people on 8chan, an online message board, watched a mass murder unfold. Brenton Tarrant had just announced he would carry out a deadly attack and stream it live on Facebook. The first fans quickly voiced their support. "Good luck," one user wrote; another: "Sounds fun." A third person wrote that it was the "best start to a weekend ever." When Tarrant's head-mounted camera showed him murdering the first person at the entrance to the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand -- someone who had just greeted him kindly -- a fourth person wrote, "Holy fuck nice shootin."
Around 200 Facebook users watched through their smartphones, tablets or computers as the 28-year-old got out of his car, opened his trunk where he kept his weapons, and began killing 50 people in and around two mosques. His victims included children, like the 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim; students, like the 14-year-old Sayyad Milne; men, like the father Khaled Mustafa, and women, like Husne Ara Parvin, who was gunned down while trying to protect her wheelchair-bound husband.
A mass killing of Muslims, documented in real time, filmed in the style of a first-person-shooter video game and cheered on like a football match. "This is how we win," a fifth person wrote. It's hard to imagine a greater contempt for humanity.
None of the 200 users flagged the video to Facebook, and thousands of people have watched the livestream after the fact. The social network, whose CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, likes to brag about the tens of thousands of moderators on its payroll who constantly monitor content, didn't notice anything at first. Facebook didn't receive the first notice until 12 minutes after the livestream ended. The company said it had removed 300,000 copies of the video within the first 24 hours and that its automated filters had blocked a further 1.2 million copies from being uploaded. But as with any data that's shared quickly and widely via the internet, the expungement wasn't entirely successful. If someone really wants to, they can still find the video online.
'Propaganda of the Deed'
Brenton Tarrant achieved his goals. He garnered worldwide attention. He left behind 17 minutes of horror. And when it was all over, he received online respect and adoration from people who shared his views. These kinds of people live all around the world, including in Germany, and they don't even attempt to hide their glee over the death of Muslims.
"Propaganda of the deed" is a political tactic first conceived by anarchists in the 19th century. Terrorists like Tarrant are now reviving the notion, using the tools of the digital era -- livestreams on social networks, appeals to like-minded users, memes -- to spread their ideologies. Certain images, such as of the backpack Tarrant wore during his attack, take on a symbolic, almost iconic quality and are used to encourage others to follow suit.
Is it permissible to write about -- and therefore elevate, however unwillingly -- a murderer like Tarrant? Is it OK to use his name? Or should journalists conceal it, as New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has done? Must we endure the hard truth that if Tarrant were to read this article, he may feel a sense of triumph?
The answer is yes. We must talk about Brenton Tarrant. We must write about him to understand what happened and what could happen again. Tarrant is an agent of a new kind of terrorism, one that aims to recruit copycats via the internet. SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Sascha Lobo aptly described Tarrant as a "troll terrorist." It's an almost harmless-sounding designation for a type of perpetrator considered by security authorities to be highly dangerous, but against which there does not yet exist a coherent defensive strategy.
A Patchwork of Misanthropy
The explanations that have so far been offered in the wake of shooting sprees often seem helpless, like a template for social mourning. Perpetrators are described as awkward, disturbed loners who may or may not have had difficult childhoods. They are remotely diagnosed as either mentally ill or socially isolated. Researchers call such perpetrators "lone wolves."
This is accurate, for the most part. According to investigations so far, Tarrant, too, does not appear to have had any accomplices. Although on Wednesday, Austrian officials announced that someone with the same name as the attacker apparently donated 1,500 euros to the far-right Identitarian movement in Austria, he apparently didn't act on behalf of some leader; he planned his crime alone. No one in his life seems to have noticed what was transpiring in his mind or how he was becoming more radical every day. There are no indications that he is mentally ill.
But what if there was some ideological connection between certain mass murderers, and their deeds weren't so singular and inexplicable after all? What if those deeds were, in fact, political? Perhaps lone wolves have formed a pack. Perhaps they see themselves, to use their own language, as front-line soldiers in a mass movement actively trying to fight against what they see as the dangers of our time.
This perspective becomes more plausible when ones considers the Christchurch attack. It's easy to draw a line between Brenton Tarrant's thinking and that of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. Both men justified their murderous behavior with a patchwork of misanthropic theorems, woven together into so-called manifestos that have been spirited across digital channels and that now serve as kinds of bibles for new prospective killers.
Tarrant referenced Breivik in his statement and according to Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who wrote a book about Breivik, there were similarities in the two murderers' writing styles and layouts. "Both share the same ideology, a kind of modern fascism in which Muslims are perceived as the primary enemy," Seierstad says. Tarrant even claimed in his manifesto that he had briefly been in touch with Breivik, although it's unclear exactly when and how.
David Sonboly, the German-Iranian teenager who shot and killed nine people from immigrant families in and around Munich's Olympia shopping mall in 2016, also sought proximity to the Norwegian terrorist. It was important for Sonboly that he use the exact same model of pistol that Breivik used in his attack. After an extensive search on the darknet, he found what he was looking for.
If one wants to get a sense of some people's fears about the supposed death of the white race, it's no longer necessary to look on the websites of hard-core neo-Nazis. And one no longer needs to attend far-right meetings to find out where the purported dangers are supposedly lurking: among Muslim immigrants, or as Tarrant calls them, the "invaders."
The conspiratorial fantasies of extremists like Breivik, Sonboly or Tarrant have seeped into the popular zeitgeist, facilitated by savvy YouTubers or online rappers. They wind up in forums like 4chan or 8chan, in video-gaming communities like Discord or Steam and on platforms like Global Fascist Fraternity, Fascist Forge or Ironmarch. They are embedded in a right-wing internet culture with its own codes and terminology. Participants often find it hard to distinguish between seriousness and sick irony, maybe even between the virtual and the real. The disturbing applause for the livestream of a brutal killing spree makes sense if those applauding no longer can or want to distinguish between first-person shooter games and mass murder.
Killers like Breivik or Tarrant see themselves as the avant-garde of a dwindling majority. Heavily armed and believing the end is nigh, they take matters into their own hands. While others talk, they act, including with bloodshed, to defend the supposed interests of the white race.
Such entrenchment can affect young minds; indeed, the ideology behind it has influenced many perpetrators' thinking in recent years. In February, for instance, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard was arrested on suspicion of plotting a major attack against journalists and politicians of the Democratic Party. He supposedly had been inspired by Breivik.
Should these kinds of mass murderers be considered part of the same big ideological family? Are they -- without belonging to a formal organization -- terrorist sleepers in a movement that finds cohesion in the notion that some people do not deserve to live, and can therefore justifiably be wiped out? It raises the question of how many sleepers of this type exist, and of when the next one will wake up.
An Imminent Clash
Brenton Tarrant grew up in the 1990s in eastern Australia, in a small town called Grafton. His father worked as a garbage collector and his mother was a teacher. They had two children. Tarrant's father died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 49.
Tarrant quit his job as a fitness trainer and decided to travel the world. The trip seems to have shaped and solidified his ideology. In the Balkans, he was confronted with a version of history, the myth of the eternal struggle between Christians and the Muslim hordes coming from the East to replace the cross with the crescent moon.
Tarrant wrote the names of Christian warriors who battled Ottoman armies a thousand years ago on the weapons and magazines he would later use to murder dozens of worshipers. Tarrant aligned himself with these men. He may also have been trying to portray his crime as part of a centuries-long, epic quarrel.
The notion of an end-all struggle between Christianity and Muslims has partially replaced conventional racism as the ideological rallying point for the extremist far-right in recent years. This perspective resembles that of Islamist fundamentalists, who in their fight against the "infidels" also draw an arc between the early Middle Ages, the Crusades and the present day. "Extremists never see themselves in the role of aggressors, but in a state of existential threat," says Peter Neumann, a terrorism researcher at King's College London. "In their eyes, the clash of civilizations is imminent."
Racist Thought Patterns
During the Yugoslav Wars, Serbian war criminals used a similar ideology to justify their violence against Muslim Bosnians. Brenton Tarrant chose a Serbian battle song from the 1990s as the soundtrack for his video. New versions of the song, called "Karadzic, Lead Your Serbs," were published online by far-right radicals with the subheading, "Remove Kebab."
According to Tarrant's "manifesto," the spring of 2017 marked the point he decided violence was the only true solution. At the time, 11-year-old Ebba Akerlund had recently been killed in Stockholm by a 39-year-old Uzbek who had driven over her with a truck. A few weeks later, Emmanuel Macron became the president of France, where Tarrant happened to be traveling at the time.
There, he wrote, the situation was worse than he had expected. He sat in his rental car in front of a shopping mall and saw "invaders" everywhere. He also mentioned the sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve 2015/2016. He found them "shocking" and addressed the perpetrators in his writing: "You will hang."
Tarrant called his manifesto "The Great Replacement," which is not only the title of a book by the French author Renaud Camus, who was born in 1946, but an ideological take on the modern era that has spread through far-right networks and parliamentary populism around the world in recent years.
In Germany, this chimera is known as an "Umvolkung," as the Islamophobic author Akif Pirincci called his book. The parliamentary group leader of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), Alexander Gauland, writes about a "population exchange" in party press releases. To be sure, one cannot hold people like Camus or Pirincci or Gauland responsible for the actions of a mass murderer, but they're referring to the same thought patterns.
According to Camus' worldview, there is a large-scale, deliberate movement to replace the "original" European population with Arabs and Africans. The author considers the mass murder of European Jews, the Shoah, to be smaller than the planned "genocide" of the Europeans.
This ideology also sees European civilization as being endangered by white men no longer being in charge. The most radical interpretation of this ideology leads to violence. In view of the alleged impending threat of extermination, anything goes. Rules and laws no longer apply. From the point of view of the terrorists and their supporters, the right-wing killers are heroes of the resistance.
Following the attack in New Zealand, Camus took to Twitter. He urged his "Muslim friends" to return to a place of safety, on Islamic soil, because he, Camus, was greatly concerned for their security. It was an expression of concern that could also be read as a threat.
Maximum Media Attention
When Brenton Tarrant returned from his trip to Europe, he settled in New Zealand instead of Australia. He chose Dunedin, a city in the country's south that had been designed by Scottish colonialists and modelled after Edinburgh. Seagulls glide through the air down at the city's harbor. Penguins and seals live on the coast. The largest group of immigrants are British.
The house in which Tarrant lived is on a small hill, not far from a bay. It's brightly painted and has a white wooden fence. The mailbox reads, "No junk mail."
Tarrant had a gun license. He had a key to the shooting range at the Bruce Rifle Club, where he practiced regularly. He used a hunting rifle and a semi-automatic rifle, weapons he procured legally on the internet. When Tarrant joined the club in February 2018, its vice president recalled recently, he was already a skilled marksman.
Tarrant wrote that, at first, he had chosen Dunedin as a potential target. But then he changed his mind in favor of Christchurch, a four-and-a-half-hour drive by car, because he believed the mosques there would have more visitors. The buildings themselves also lent themselves more to TV. This reasoning was a common thread throughout his entire manifesto: How does one achieve maximum media attention? When Tarrant was brought before the magistrate, he flashed an OK gesture with his right hand -- an ambiguous yet increasingly popular symbol for "white power" and a triumphant nod to his secret admirers.
Florian Hartleb, an expert on right-wing extremism, has no doubt that "such an act of violence could have happened in Germany, Austria or Sweden." For one, the perpetrator of the massacre in New Zealand appears to have been heavily influenced by the conspiratorial discourse of the far-right in Europe, and there is an entire community on the continent that has celebrated the Australian for his murderous deeds. The day after the mosque attack, one user on Kohlchan, a German-speaking online platform, crudely celebrated the act and wrote "BANG BANG BANG." Another replied, "And that was just the beginning," adding: "When's this going to happen at the mega Turk mosque in Cologne? A few police commandos who are fed up? Let's go!"
Hartleb believes there is a lack of awareness of this phenomenon in Germany, including among the authorities: "While ideology is seen as a central motivating factor for Islamist perpetrators, it's often dismissed as secondary when it comes to the far right." Take David Sonboly, for instance, the Munich shooter. At first, police concluded that the psychologically disturbed 18-year-old was driven by revenge for having been bullied in school. Only later did several experts commissioned by the city of Munich declare the shooting rampage a hate crime. Hartleb was one of those experts.
'Virtual, Global Terrorist Networks'
Where is the line between shooting spree and terrorism? Sonboly shouted to his victims: "You fuckers only have yourselves to blame! You bullied me!" But between shots, he also yelled: "I was born here! I'm doing this because of the fucking kanaken," a derogatory German word for Middle Easterners, Turks and Northern Africans. And: "I hate you Muslims!"
A year before his murder spree, Sonboly -- himself the son of an Iranian -- decried the "foreign sub-humans with mostly Turkish-Balkan roots" and talked about the "cockroaches" that "I'm going to execute." He left behind documents on his computer that he boldly referred to as a "manifesto." He also revealed who his idol was: His profile picture on WhatsApp was a photo of Breivik. The day he killed nine people in Munich was the fifth anniversary of the mass murder in Norway.
On Steam, the gaming platform, Sonboly frequented forums in which users regularly glorified mass shooters and terrorists and agitated against the "mass invasion" of Muslim refugees to Europe. One racist user from the U.S. state of New Mexico with whom Sonboly chatted nicknamed him the "kebab removalist" after his attack. In late 2017, the user himself shot up a high school and killed two Latin American students. At the apartment of another one of Sonboly's chat partners, the police found instructions for how to build pipe bombs and large quantities of small-caliber ammunition. Hartleb, the extremism researcher, first discovered the link between the Munich and New Mexico shooters. He speaks of "virtual, global terrorist networks."
Steam is a gaming platform operated by Valve, an American company. The platform gained popularity through "Counter-Strike," an early, violent first-person shooter. Valve is the market leader for computer-game downloads, with an estimated annual revenue of more than $4 billion (3.5 billion euros).
Last year, the company made headlines over a new game that was released on Steam called "Active Shooter" that allowed players to take on the role of a school shooter. Clips from the game and other first-person shooters bear similarities to the live video Brenton Tarrant recorded of his slaughter. The lines between what is virtual and what is real become blurred.
After considerable protest, Valve removed the "Active Shooter" game from its platform. The chat forum for mass shootings was also taken down. But to this day, homages to racist attacks can still be found there. One user named Gorgon, for instance, wrote that he would have blacks and Jews "extinct," adding: "We will start an amokalypse, brothers!!!!"
Some people have glorified the Christchurch murders as an especially exciting form of "larping," which is gaming jargon for "live action role playing." There are even sites that publish rankings of racist assailants. Tarrant is currently in the No. 4 spot. No. 1 is Breivik.
Catalyst for Toxic Ideas
It goes without saying that not everyone who plays first-person shooter games -- like Sonboly, who logged more than 4,000 hours on Counter-Strike -- becomes a killer. But at the same, it often acts as a catalyst for toxic ideas.
The case of Nino K. showed just how dangerous Islamophobic ideology can be when combined with hate on the internet. A few days before the Day of German Unity in 2016, which is celebrated every year on Oct. 3, K. detonated a pipe bomb at a mosque in the eastern city of Dresden.
K. had collected internet memes on his personal computer. One showed God standing next to a conveyor belt sending people to Earth and saying: "My brain's empty. From now on there will only be Muslims." Another depicted a rubber dinghy full of refugees with the words, "Where's Jaws when you need him?"
K. also took to the streets with his political views. He joined Pegida, the xenophobic protest movement whose name is a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. At one of the demonstrations, he climbed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and screamed that Merkel had "extended her hand to the greatest weapon of mass destruction: Islamism." He added that she would be held accountable for her "actions against the German people."
Nino K. inscribed his pipe bomb with the word "Mosche," a misspelling of the German word for mosque, and detonated it in front of the apartment of the imam, who lived there with his wife and children. K. had taken their deaths into consideration, a court ruled -- though K. denied this. He was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. "It was very lucky that no one died," joint-plaintiff lawyer Kati Lang said. The imam moved his family out of Saxony after the attack. They are still traumatized to this day.
In a different incident, the far-right terrorists of the "Oldschool Society" (OSS) wrote in their chat group, "Then we'll blow up one mosque after the other and hang those pigs on the spot." The neo-Nazis exchanged as many as 1,000 messages a day. Among other things, they planned attacks on refugee shelters.
But before an attack could be carried out, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office arrested four of the group's alleged leaders. Domestic intelligence officials and the German police had managed to plant an informant in the closed OSS forums. It was an analogue solution to a digital problem. "If we hadn't had access to the group, we wouldn't have been able to expose it," an official said. The group originally formed on Facebook before switching to an encrypted messenger service.
Another radical right-wing group called HoGeSa -- a German abbreviation for "hooligans against Salafists" -- first formed on Facebook and later mobilized thousands of participants on the streets of Cologne. The police were caught completely off guard, leading to forty-five injured officers and wild rioting in the city center. Investigators had apparently been oblivious to what was transpiring online and spilling over into real life. In a confidential analysis, the State Office of Criminal Investigations in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Cologne is located, concluded that the movement did not represent a "uniform group" but rather a "heterogeneous scene made up of criminals from across the spectrum." The unifying elements: hostility to Islam, fear of foreigners, brutality -- and the internet.
Agencies tasked with ensuring public safety are having a hard time keeping up with these new developments. For too long, they relied on their experiences with the old, familiar structures of the far-right extremist scene. They monitored far-right groupings and parties, clubhouses and street demonstrations. But the terrorist threat from the far-right has become more unpredictable as the internet has become its central meeting place. In a confidential report to the Bundestag in February, Germany's domestic spy agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, complained that "the processing of far-right terrorist concepts" had become "considerably more labor- and personnel-intensive." Because potential perpetrators no longer moved in conventional far-right extremist structures, there arose "problems with further observation and reconnaissance" by the spy agencies.
The profile of a typical perpetrator has changed. Now they are around 30, male and, to a large extent, unknown to the authorities. Their worldview is often a mishmash of various right-wing ideologies and conspiracy theories. Their hate is directed, above all, at asylum-seekers and Muslims.
The confidential intelligence report stated that surveillance, therefore, must be more strongly "directed at far-right extremist internet activities, since this is where there are high risks in terms of radicalization, mobilization and conspiracy." Scholars such as the London-based political scientist Peter Neumann urge a more thorough examination of the phenomenon. "So far, no authority or study has conclusively explained the relationship between online comments and offline behavior," Neumann says.
One notable development among today's haters of Islam is the number of people who identify as "Reichsbürger," or Reich Citizens -- a fringe group that still recognizes Germany's 1937 borders -- and "preppers," who organize their lives under the assumption that a doomsday-type situation is looming and that government-led order could soon collapse. They, too, often develop their apocalyptic worldview in closed chats. Meanwhile, the caches of weapons that the police confiscate time and again are very real. At the apartment of one Reich Citizen in Bavaria, the police found a loaded revolver, a shotgun and plastic bins full of food. He said he was afraid that the "Muslims would overrun us and the police and military wouldn't be able to stop them."
The authorities simply do not have the personnel to surveil the entire internet. Sure, the departments within the police and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in charge of right-wing extremism are better equipped than those that deal with left-wing extremism. But they still have considerably fewer resources than the ones that tackle Islamic terrorism. Since 9/11, the political priorities have been clear: When leaders talk about terrorist threats, they mean Islamists.
International cooperation is also difficult. Because of its history, Germany has the strictest laws when it comes to radical right-wing agitation. "In the Anglo-Saxon world, many remarks made online fall under freedom of speech, while we would be required to pursue them from a legal standpoint here," said one domestic intelligence officer. "That's why I hardly ever expect to receive useful information from foreign countries when it comes to neo-Nazis." Meanwhile, authorities in Germany have long known that leaders in the German scene maintain international contacts.
The Federal Criminal Police Office has reacted to the new threat from the right by hiring more investigators. The new head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Thomas Haldenwang, wants to grow its right-wing extremism department by 50 percent. And Germany's Chief Federal Prosecutor in Karlsruhe will now step in even sooner when right-wing terrorism is suspected. This was the case in Chemnitz recently, where far-right extremists were sending each other conspiratorial messages about "civil war."
Yet high-ranking domestic intelligence officials are still concerned that new right-wing terrorist structures could emerge in Germany. "We need to be watchful," said one state-level official. "According to our analysis, the number of potentially militant people is considerable. A single event could suffice as an initial spark to set off acts of violence." The collective failure to recognize the National Socialist Underground, a group of neo-Nazi serial killers that evaded capture for years, hasn't been forgotten. And the ways the Christchurch shooter's actions have resonated among German right-wing extremists is feeding that concern.
The Strange New Right
The situation in the United States shows what happens when the dangers of the violent far-right are ignored for too long. According to the Anti-Defamation League, violent right-wing extremists have killed considerably more people in the country than any other group since Sept. 11, 2001. In 2017, the first year in which Donald Trump was in office, approximately 60 percent of all terror attacks in the U.S. were motivated by right-wing extremist ideology, whether racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic. The Global Terrorism Database counted only six attacks in the U.S. in 2006, but in 2017, there were 65 attacks that killed 95 people. Thirty-six of those attacks, which left 11 people dead, were attributed to right-wing groups.
There are several reasons for this increase in right-wing violence over the past decade. For one, the election of Barack Obama as the first black president fired up racists like hardly anything that came before. At the same time, online forums were left unmonitored for years, allowing right-wing extremists to organize without any oversight. And Trump's election facilitated a climate in which the -- by now well-organized -- right-wing networks could emerge from the dark corners of the internet and onto American streets.
When the U.S.' new radical right suddenly began showing up at universities and in city centers in early 2017, few people were familiar with the sight. After having spent so many years on the internet, often tightly bound to the computer gaming community, they looked like figures from a fantasy world. They wore motorcycle helmets and armor. Some wore "Make America Great Again" hats. Together, they became known as the "alt-right."
Most of these people are not terrorists. But nor are they "very fine people," as President Trump called those who had participated in the Nazi march in Charlottesville. Many are perfectly willing to carry out acts of violence.
But the escalation in the U.S., with its gunfire and bombs and deaths, is happening on two levels. The first includes populists and agitators. People like the current U.S. president, who defended the far-right protesters in Charlottesville, thus signaling to right-wing extremist agitators that their actions are no longer taboo. On the second level, members of the alt-right march down the street with weapons on full display while giving interviews to journalists.
'We Want Total Civil War'
Step by step, the threshold to terrorism comes closer. After the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, FBI Director Christopher Wray explained in a hearing in Congress that his bureau had about a thousand open investigations against domestic terror suspects. He said that was exactly how many there are against suspected members of the Islamic State.
What is happening in the U.S. could well happen in Germany. There are harbingers. One e-mail to a potential terrorist read, "We want total civil war."
The encrypted message, sent this past July, continued: "Our emphasis is on violence and killing as well as propaganda that could lead to this sort of violence and killing." It referred to violence meant to maintain the Volk -- a German word meaning people or ethnic group -- and a race war. To achieve this, the message said, as many men as possible would be necessary. "We are hoping for a long-term collaboration with you, that in the future can go far beyond propaganda," the recruiter wrote. He concluded the message with: "Sieg Heil! Many greetings!"
The message was written in perfect German, clearly by a native speaker. The sender's identity is unclear, but one thing is certain: The person is a member of Atomwaffen Division Deutschland, an offshoot of the U.S.-based neo-Nazi network Atomwaffen Division (AWD).
The group came into existence in 2015 in the Ironmarch.org online forum. At first, AWD was only known to online insiders, and was considered an internet phenomenon. But this virtual space fostered followers similar to the Christchurch shooter: young men who aren't just interested in making strong statements online, but also are willing to act in real life -- which is to say, commit murder.
Just Do It
So far, five people have fallen victim to young men associated with AWD. These included the homosexual Jewish student Blaze Bernstein, who was allegedly killed by the AWD member Samuel Woodward in a California park last year. Woodward, a former classmate of the victim's, is currently standing trial in the U.S. for murder. Public prosecutors are calling it a hate crime, while Woodward's lawyer says the defendant was psychologically disturbed. AWD followers don't care. They idealized the perpetrator, and a new role model was born.
The AWD's world is shockingly similar to the troll universe of the Australian Brenton Tarrant: a toxic mixture of frustrated posers, ideological internet warriors and psychologically unstable fanatics. In their community forums, AWD followers celebrate right-wing extremist murderers and mass shooters, no matter where they are in the world, with grim humor. "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything," AWD sympathizers wrote in a meme on a photo of their hero Brent Tarrant, shortly after the New Zealand attack. They added the Nike logo, with its slogan, "Just do it."
Whether it's attacks, murders or massacres: Atomwaffen Division celebrates anything that damages society. Copycats are expressly wanted. Extremism researcher Keegan Hankes from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, who has been studying the neo-Nazi group for years, argues that its goal is to provoke the dissolution of society by encouraging corruption and destruction, whether it's drug dealers selling more products or banks collapsing. AWD's goals are similar to those of the mass murderer in New Zealand. Attacks are intended to provoke a civil war which will pit the "white race" against the rest. They are willing to use any method to attain this goal.
A "White Resistance Manual" has been circulating around AWD's chat rooms. It's a 340-page dossier that calls for "leaderless resistance" and provides instructions on how to build bombs. It also includes suggestions for ideal targets: power plants, water treatment facilities, cell phone towers. In other words, the critical infrastructure of modern society.
A Global Terrorist Network
This is how human time bombs gestate, often unnoticed by the police or security agencies. With about 80 to 100 members in the U.S., AWD is no mass movement, but it would be dangerous to dismiss the group as a purely online phenomenon. In late February, the FBI arrested alleged AWD member Benjamin Bogard in Texas. In one video, in which the young man wears a skull mask, he waves around a shotgun and instructs viewers to take a firearm to the side of a road and begin shooting people. "Heil Hitler!" he adds.
According to U.S. media reports, Bogard also looked up bomb-making instructions online and searched for photos of Dylann Roof, the man who shot nine African-Americans during a church service in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Since the attack, Roof is seen as yet another hero among right-wing internet warriors. The Christchurch attacker named him in his manifesto.
For long time now, AWD's activities haven't been limited to the United States. The scene has internationalized and is almost impossible to control as a result. Hateful rhetoric against Jews, homosexuals, blacks and Muslims is spread on platforms like Discord or Wire, recruiting new sympathizers for a global network. There are now offshoots of AWD, or groups that are affiliated with it, in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Germany.
In June, Atomwaffen Division Deutschland released a propaganda video. A masked man stands in front of a flag with a swastika and calls for a "last fight in the ruins" that "will soon come." In November, AWD followers hid flyers in books in a university library in Berlin. "German students! Don't misuse your mind any longer in the service of the enemies of the people!" they read. As contact info, it included an email address printed above a photo of two armed masked men.
The BKA and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had exchanges about the German AWD video, and the public prosecutor's office in Frankfurt am Main is conducting an investigation for dissemination of propaganda material for unconstitutional organizations. But nine months after the video's release, the perpetrators have yet to be identified. In response to a parliamentary request for information from the Left Party, the federal government said it had no indication that Atomwaffen Division fit the criteria of a terrorist organization.
By Jörg Diehl, Alexander Epp, Ullrich Fichtner, Laura Höflinger, Roman Höfner, Martin Knobbe, Roman Lehberger, Philipp Oehmke, Jan Puhl, Marcel Rosenbach, Britta Sandberg and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt