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.
'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.
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?
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."
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.
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
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.