Exactly one week after a young white nationalist killed 22 people and wounded another two dozen in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, another young man 5,000 miles away walked into a mosque in suburban Oslo, Norway, with a gun and opened fire, intent on killing worshippers there.
Thanks to quick action by members of the mosque, 21-year-old Philip Manshaus was unable to kill anyone. He instead was only able to fire off a few rounds, inflicting minor injuries, before his would-be victims subdued him and he was arrested.
When police went to his home, they found the body of his 17-year-old stepsister, whom he had slain before attempting his rampage. Police believe he was “prepared to cause more deaths and injuries when he traveled to Al-Noor Islamic Center in suburban Baerum.”
They also found on his online accounts that he had an active presence on the white-nationalist-friendly message board Endchan, where he had posted—like his far-right terrorist brethren—messages outlining his motivations. Chief among his inspirations: the massacres by white nationalists in El Paso and in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“It’s my time, I was chosen by Saint Tarrant after all,” he wrote in one message, referencing the last name of the killer who massacred 51 people in March at two Christchurch mosques. “We can’t let this go on, you gotta bump the race war threat [in real life].”
As Americans struggle to cope with the new reality of a seemingly endless stream of domestic terrorists either enacting or attempting mass murder in public spaces—all of them fitting the profile of the “red-pilled” conspiracy theorist radicalized online, all of them killing sequentially, inspired by each previous likeminded terrorist—they may take some small consolation in the realization that they are not alone.
At the same time, the sober realization that the rising tide of white-nationalist terrorism is not just an American problem, but a global one that reaches every corner of an Internet-connected world makes clear the massive breadth and scope of the problem.
Hate inspiring hate
“We are now no longer talking about one-off events, but a loosely coordinated chain of far-right attacks across the world, where members of these networks inspire – and challenge – each other to beat each others’ body counts,” Peter Neumann of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence told The Guardian. “The ultimate motivation … is to launch a race war. The aim is to carry out attacks, claim responsibility, explain your action, and inspire others to follow.”
The nexus of this wave of terrorism is an international white-nationalist movement known broadly as identitarianism, which claims that white Western civilization is under a broad assault from a nefarious conspiracy of “globalists” who intend to “replace” white populations around the world with an “invasion” of nonwhite immigrants and the destruction of their cultural values.
A report issued last week by the U.K.-based antiracist organization Hope Not Hate explored the spread of identitarianism as a global phenomenon. “The movement has now spread beyond Europe and found adherents around the world, be that obscure and tiny groups in Russia, South America and Australia, or its growing influence in North America amongst the alt-right. Identitarianism has gone global,” the report explains.
Both American and European white nationalism is based in many regards on old supremacist ideas that have been around since at least the 1920s, largely derived from long-debunked eugenicist notions about the nature of race, genetics, and intelligence. In Europe, as Hope Not Hate’s report explains, the recent wave of identitarian politics is derived from newer white-nationalist activism and its attendant ideology, particularly the work of academics such as Allan de Benoist, Julius Evola, and Renaud Camus.
The online virus
What distinguishes this new wave of white nationalism is less its repackaged ideas than its delivery and its recruitment methods: Its ideologues fan out across the internet and its multiple open platforms and recruit new believers, primarily by targeting vulnerable young people, in nearly every one of its nooks and crannies. White nationalist recruiting and organizing occurs on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, on public media platforms such as YouTube and its comments sections, at aggregators such as Reddit, and intensively at wide-open platforms such as 4chan, 8chan, Endchan, and now Gab. They can even be found recruiting in open spaces where monitoring is impossible, such as video-game chats, and gaming platforms such as Steam and Twitchy.
Then, once attracted to the belief systems, the fresh recruits are encouraged through online organizing to take their ideology out into the streets and manifest it in the real world. This often can take the form of everything from rallies and street marches with far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, American Guard, Identity Evropa, and Generation Identity in events ranging from the deadly “Unite the Right” riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017, to the many far-right street events in Portland, Oregon, since 2017, to massive anti-immigration protests held in European cities.
It can also take the shape of paramilitary organizations that train with weapons, as well as more benign-seeming outlets such as boxing clubs, clothing labels, and book clubs. Nearly all of these are first organized online.
The online communities themselves encourage individual violent action, however, particularly by glorifying terrorist acts and then “gamifying” them—creating scores for murders based on the numbers of dead, the difficulty of the target, and the effectiveness of the act. These communities thus are enacting a well-established “lone wolf” strategy of sequential domestic terrorism that in fact has been a cornerstone of racist-right strategic thinking since the 1980s. “Lone wolf” does not mean that an incident is an isolated example with no connections to ideology; rather, it actually suggests the converse, that it is an act deeply connected through ideology.
And the problem, regardless of what Tucker Carlson might claim, is significant if not massive in size (consider that 4chan, which was the platform of choice for such terrorists as the Christchurch and El Paso killers, receives some 20 million visitors per month). Terrorism analyst J.M. Berger foresaw this issue in 2016 when he began comparing the potential audiences for Islamic State recruitment with those for white nationalists:
After decades of being silenced, white nationalists could suddenly organize into significant audiences, sometimes as many as tens of thousands of people, sometimes more. Functional anonymity insulated many adherents from the professional and social consequences of professing overt racism in the real world. And they could project their message to audiences who had not sought them out—hundreds of thousands more.
A New York Times investigation published in April explored how various acts of domestic terrorism committed by far-right ideologues around the world were interconnected by the spread of white nationalism online, both through the sequential inspiration to commit “lone wolf” acts of violence and the exposure to such underlying ideas as “cultural Marxism” and “the Great Replacement.”
The Times’ analysis “found that at least a third of white extremist killers since 2011 were inspired by others who perpetrated similar attacks, professed a reverence for them or showed an interest in their tactics. … The connections between the killers span continents and highlight how the internet and social media have facilitated the spread of white extremist ideology and violence.”
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center explained to the Times that the dynamics of this global racism is actually nothing new for white supremacists. “They don't see themselves as Americans or Canadians, very much like the Christchurch killer didn’t see himself as an Australian; he saw himself as part of a white collective,” she said. “It has never been the case that these people didn’t think in a global way. They may have acted in ways that looked domestic but the thinking was always about building an international white movement.”
From Russia with hate
However, this movement is not spreading worldwide just organically, as a product of the strength of its ideas. Rather, it is being financed by a global network of wealthy far-right interests that are propping up the organizations, websites, and events that fuel the movement with funding. And the nexus of that network is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
A more recent New York Times piece explored this in some depth by drilling down into the phenomenon of the spread of far-right extremism in Sweden. It describes how a national debate in the Scandinavian nation—long a stronghold of democratic socialist politics—was actually kicked off by a Donald Trump tweet about immigrant crime in Stockholm inspired by a bogus Fox News report, but then quickly morphed into political gains for a far-right political party with Nazi roots. But there were underlying forces involved:
To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalization of nationalism.
The Times piece explores how the disinformation machine being financed by Russian oligarchs in Sweden is able to distribute its wares throughout Europe, particularly via identitarian and other far-right nationalist groups. In Sweden, the most powerful of these is the party that gained 18% of the vote in recent elections, Sweden Democrats—whose history is deeply rooted in swastika-bearing neo-Nazi groups from the 1980s.
Kate Starbird, an information scientist at University of Washington, accidentally mapped out how this Russian disinformation system operates when she began examining how false rumors and stories around Black Lives Matter were circulated on social media. One of the primary sources of such disinformation, she and her team found, was the Russian-operated Internet Research Agency.
Significantly, disinformation was directed at both the right and left sides of the political aisles. Many of the IRA’s fake stories were intended to stir outrage among minorities—but mostly at liberal Democrats.
These IRA agents were enacting caricatures of politically active U.S. citizens. In some cases, these were gross caricatures of the worst kinds of online actors, using the most toxic rhetoric. But, in other cases, these accounts appeared to be everyday people like us, people who care about the things we care about, people who want the things we want, people who share our values and frames. These suggest two different aspects of these information operations.
First, these information operations are targeting us within our online communities, the places we go to have our voices heard, to make social connections, to organize political action. They are infiltrating these communities by acting like other members of the community, developing trust, gathering audiences. Second, these operations begin to take advantage of that trust for different goals, to shape those communities toward the strategic goals of the operators (in this case, the Russian government).
As Starbird explained, the purpose of the disinformation is to sow political chaos and dysfunction, to make the machinery of democracy fall apart. When the financing for these goals is coming from wealthy oil oligarchs who favor authoritarian regimes, it’s clear what the long-range goal of these assaults on democratic systems around the globe is about.
Putin and his oligarchs have been busy financing far-right nationalists throughout Europe and elsewhere. Among the beneficiaries of Russian largesse, besides Sweden Democrats, have been France’s Marine Le Pen, chair of the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front); Greece’s nationalist Golden Dawn party; Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; and the German AfD (Alternative for Germany) party; one AfD parliamentarian is believed to be completely in Russia’s pocket. Putin is notably close with Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism are cornerstones for his administration. Italy’s far-right Lega party was revealed earlier this year to have discussed how to funnel Russian funds into its own coffers.
Perhaps just as important, European far-right radicals unanimously voice their support for Putin and the Russian regime. Similar fan-like support (think of the “Russia is our friend” chants at alt-right street events) can also be found among American white nationalists, particularly alt-right godfather Richard Spencer and noted neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin (who called Putin a “great white savior”). Likewise, Putin and his regime have cultivated ties with a wide range of American Christian nationalist groups.
The shadow within
Even without the deliberate spread of extremist nationalism through financial and political support, the underlying problem remains the same: the ease with which it spreads, virus-like, among an impressionable populace vulnerable to populist appeals to their self-interest. This manifests itself, ultimately, in the copycat sequence of mass murders and public violence against vulnerable minorities with which we are now confronted. “If you’re reading this you have been elected by me,” wrote the would-be Oslo shooter in his Endchan post, suggesting that he understood all too well the viral chain reaction he intended—futilely, as it turned out—his act to spark.
All of these terrorists, successful or not, share another attribute: They all see themselves as heroic, saviors of their civilization or their race, a quality that renders them immune to normative moral judgments about murder and racism. “This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe,” wrote the El Paso killer in his online manifesto. “I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”
What has caught everyone off guard is the speed with which the phenomenon is spreading.
“In pre-Internet days, the violent extremist act itself of neo-Nazis and white supremacists was considered messaging and labeled ‘propaganda of the deed,’” Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Extremism and Hate at California State University, San Bernardino, told Daily Kos.
“Today, sociopaths, particularly ideological ones, are seeing social media not just as a radicalizing and messaging tool, but also as an archive of a folkloric warrior narrative,” he continued. “Once they too act out, they have a link to notorious killers of the past, where their new manifestos are inscribed in a continuing perverse online subculture of scripted violence.”