On lone wolf terrorism: past, present, and future

Mourners in Auckland place flowers at their local mosque for the victims of the shooting attacks in Christchurch. Photograph: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

While the bodies of victims from the Christchurch shooting last Friday were still warm, including those of 3 and 4-year-old children, social media platforms were busily taking down livestreamed footage from the alleged killer. Due to morbid curiosity and maddening algorithms that saw the terrorist propaganda ‘trending’, Facebook alone removed the video 1.5 million times in 24 hours.

Without doubt, hate on social media travels the world more quickly, and takes root more emotively, than expressions of love and solidarity. Not in Germany, though; a country where hosting hate speech can incur fines of €50m for social media platforms. It is a lesson in obvious need of Anglophone pupils.

Facebook was scarcely alone in checking itself after New Zealand’s deadliest attack. The Daily Mail posted the terror manifesto – including links for downloading – while the BBC interviewed the head of Generation Identity, the ideological movement most in sync with the suspect’s ideology. Still others trafficking in anti-Muslim bigotry looked over past columns or rhetoric dismissing the threat – or even the notion – of Islamophobia; hopefully now with no little regret for fanning the flames of prejudice. This is what can happen.

And this is what keeps happening. Over the weekend The Telegraph reported on ‘a spate of racist incidents’ across Britain. On Saturday alone, those apparently taking inspiration from the murder of 50 Friday worshippers include a marauder armed with a knife and baseball bat in Stanwell on Saturday; while that night a Peterborough man was arrested on suspicion of preparing explosives.

Both were linked to radical right extremism, as was yet another lone actor would-be bomber in Leeds, arrested the week before. Welcome to Britain’s new normal. All of these are isolated incidents that add up to a very clear pattern missed only by the wilfully ignorant or malign.

The pattern is this: an undercurrent of bigotry exists, and is fanned socially by ideologues and irresponsible media platforms. Many of the same sentiments – notably, that Jewish or Muslim religious minorities are somehow suspect; disloyal, conspiring or otherwise other – are then filtered into mainstream society. The filterers are typically leading voices in the media or even in national governments; Fraser Anning’s repugnant point-scoring is but the anti-Muslim tip of an ice-shelf.

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these rehashed forms of discrimination – emphasising cultural rather than ethnic peril for white Europe – were repackaged by radical right parties for political gain. Yet in contemporary Britain, there is no longer a serious NF or BNP-type electoral vehicle, with thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of voters. In fact, radical right parties and grassroots activists are probably at their lowest numerical ebb in Britain since before the war.

While this is good news, paradoxically, it also means Britain’s radical right is rudderless and largely unconstrained by leaders, optics or long-term political aims. This is a recipe for self-directed acts of terrorism. The latter, drawing upon (usually online) networks of support but logistically preparing attacks unaided and alone, has been a signature tactic of the radical right for literally decades. It was pioneered as individual terror by the US-based National Socialist Liberation Front in the 1970s, ideologically nurtured as a ‘one-man army’ by the neo-Nazi James Mason’s Siege newsletter in the 1980s, and disseminated through digital communications in the 1990s as ‘leaderless resistance’ by the likes of Louis Beam and Tom Metzger of WAR (White Aryan Resistance).

Yet this terrorist tactic has now moved well beyond the neo-Nazi fringe and appeals to a much wider radical right community. Take the hyper-polarised atmosphere in the run-up to the midterm elections in the US, which led to several acts of political violence. There was the horrific murder of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA on 31 October. The preceding week the country was gripped by the posting of 14 pipe-bombs to leading Democrats in the US. Also at the end of October two African-Americans were shot dead by a suspected white supremacist who had unsuccessfully tried to enter a Black church – similar to the way in which Dylann Roof murdered nine worshippers in Charleston on 17 June 2015 – and earlier that day claimed ‘Whites don’t shoot whites’.

Although not properly grasped at the time or since, what connects them all? Each of these terroristic murderers acted alone.

The devastating effects have been seen in London by David Copeland in 1999; by Anders Breivik in 2011; and by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter last year. Yet even that monstrous roster is but lowlights of a much bigger issue. I know this to be the case, as I’ve testified against a handful of would-be Breiviks in the last year alone. Nor are these self-directed attacks limited to right-wing extremists but, over the last decade, have been embraced by jihadi Islamists, incels, and those who might be violent and vulnerable.

That longer list includes wanna-be jihadi Omar Mateen, who killed 49 in the then-worst mass shooting in American history in 2016, when he targeted a nightclub in Florida. A year later Stephen Paddock took that baleful crown after killing 59 people – while wounding hundreds more – after shooting from the 32-story of a hotel onto a music festival. The self-declared ‘incels’ Eliott Roger killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014, while Alek Minassian murdered 10 people in Toronto. The latter was a vehicle ramming attack that has come to prominence in recent years, after lone actor outrages in London, Nice, Berlin, Stockholm and Barcelona – to name but the most deadly in the last three years. It is a safe bet that all of these were radicalised, or at least party radicalised, online.

Why is this? As the director of the world’s largest research unit on radical right extremism, CARR, I’ve been warning about the risk of broadband terrorism for a decade now. Amongst many things the internet has revolutionised, political violence is right near the top. The web provides global reach, potential anonymity, and permanence for everything a terrorist needs, from a like-minded community of militants to every preparation needed for an attack. Google maps for target surveillance; DIY terrorist manuals a few clicks away, with step-by-step instructions for attacks; and a media all too eager to propagate the message. For these reasons, it is the age of the ‘lone wolf’.

We are too complacent about radical right extremism, and social media is metastasising everywhere. Between this Scylla and Charybdis for DIY hate crimes and political violence, I fear that worse is to come.

Professor Matthew Feldman is the Director at CARR. His profile can be found here:

© Matthew Feldman. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).