New Zealand Shooting: White Supremacists and Jihadists Feed Off Each Other
From jihadists’ attacks in France and Florida to white nationalists’ attacks in Quebec City and Christchurch, each adds fuel to extremists’ stories of Crusades and ethnic invaders.
As the world digests the heartbreaking details of last week’s white nationalist terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we must once more reckon with the same horrid violence we’ve seen from Dylann Roof, Robert Bowers, and others in recent years—the latest reminder in the post 9/11 West that terrorism is not limited to radical jihadists.
Still, even the most direct of comparisons between movements like the so-called Islamic State and neo-Nazis frequently fall short to describe the extent to which these movements mirror each other. Contrary as their movements may seem, white supremacists and jihadists both leech off different ends of a tragedy like Christchurch as seen in the barrages of propaganda from both movements on social media.
White supremacists celebrated the Christchurch attack across various venues, from community-specific forums like Stormfront and Vanguard News Network (VNN) to alternative, free-speech-purposed social media platforms like Gab and Minds. Energized users have praised Brenton Tarrant’s alleged attack in the context of other major far-right terrorist attacks, hailing him as a martyr to their cause.
One such user posted clips of Tarrant’s live video stream from his attack with the writing “screw your optics,” a reference to the final social media post by Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, which has since become a meme among white nationalists.
Another image disseminated by white nationalists depicted Tarrant as Jesus Christ, accompanied by his writing-covered rifle and manifesto.
Various users linked Tarrant to Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist whose 2011 attacks killed 77.
Stormfront users were mixed in reactions—not so much in a good-versus-bad way, but in a did-this-help-our-cause way. User “RedRosie,” for example, said that “Mosques in our countries are a symbol of invasion. If even one of them closes permanently as a result of this, I call it a win.”
But while white supremacists celebrate, Tarrant has done a major favor for ISIS and al Qaeda recruitment efforts.
On platforms like Telegram messenger and Facebook, jihadists from around the world disseminated news of the shooting and called for revenge. For ISIS, the attack is an easily exploitable opportunity to radicalize prospective recruits and justify its incitements and attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the event, ISIS-linked channels online were flooded with messages characterizing ISIS as the only viable solution to such hate and demanding attacks on “Crusaders,” a label which ISIS and its supporters attribute loosely to any Christian or member of a Christian-majority country.
The administrator of “Supporters of the Truth,” an ISIS-linked English-language Telegram channel, wrote that the Christchurch attack is an “example why the Crusaders deserve no mercy at all, and why they should be massacred whenever an opportunity arises.”
Rapidly created posters by ISIS-linked media groups similarly urged for lone wolf attacks on churches as revenge for the Christchurch attack. One poster depicts an ISIS fighter in a church, inciting, “You alone wolf of the Muslims who are lying everywhere, make yourself a torch that burns their skins…”
Other messages suggested broader ranges of targets. An Indonesian-language post disseminated across ISIS-linked channels and chat groups called for Muslims to give a “worthy reply” to “travelers from the land of Australia.”
Responding to Tarrant’s livestreamed video of the attack, which showed his rifles covered in white supremacists slogans, ISIS supporters online disseminated an image of a rifle with Arabic text threatening revenge.
Like the aftermath of other tragedies, social media has played a critical role in capitalizing on the Christchurch attack. On an ISIS-linked Telegram chat group, user “al-Aseef al-Baghdadi” demanded that fellow ISIS supporters “logon to Facebook and Twitter and incite for shedding the blood of the worshippers of the Cross.”
On March 18, three days after the Christchuch attack, ISIS released a speech by its spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, in which he comments on the attacks, among other topics. Despite ISIS’ years of labeling non-supporting Muslims as apostates, Muhajir’s speech seemed to temporarily disregard that history upon the victims’ sudden propagandic value:
“The scenes of death in the two mosques are enough to wake the sleep and incite the supporters of the Caliphate who live there… to take vengeance for their religion…”
And it’s not just ISIS leeching off the tragedy. A statement from Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement spokesman Ali Mahmoud Rage, a joint statement from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and other messages by al Qaeda entities condemned Donald Trump as leading the “mountain of Western hatred” against Islam. However, their messages also argue a point unsurprisingly similar to that of white nationalists: that the Christchurch attack was the result of an inevitable hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West.
The al Qaeda affiliates also called for revenge, with the joint AQIM-JNIM statement demanding for lone wolves to target “the heads of the Crusader far right.”
This growing mountain of responses considered, don’t be surprised when the Christchurch attack remains a staple of jihadi propaganda a decade from now.
These parallel swells of incitements by both jihadists and far-right extremists in some ways strip both movements of their ideological veils, leaving behind a much barer look at extremism itself. For these violent groups and communities, such tragedies are mutually beneficial events. That said, an attack like that in Christchurch should not be seen simply a tragedy in and of itself; it is a link in a longer, branching chain of attacks. From jihadists’ attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France and Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to white nationalists’ attacks on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City and now in Christchurch—each of these events adds more fuel to extremists’ delusions of “Crusades” and ethnic “invasions.” They feed into their poisonous narratives that praying to one’s God, whichever one it may be, is an act of war.
It’s not incorrect to attribute Tarrant’s alleged attack on a toxic and divisive political climate, but it does miss just how important the Internet itself is in allowing violent extremist ideology to thrive. Far-right movements and ISIS began surging around the same time in recent years, both driven by the unfettered power of social media. The planning and recruitment that once required secret meetings and burned letters now takes place uninterrupted, right out in the open.
Worsening the problem is a prevalent delusion that warning signs from people like Tarrant are somehow more elusive than those of the jihadists who are so frequently monitored and thwarted. The Internet, and especially social media, is among the most critical elements giving life to these communities. And when comparing the way jihadist online spaces are handled compared to white supremacists, it’s not even close; hiding behind images of their countries’ flags and pseudo-patriotic slogans, white supremacists are too often left unchecked. Tarrant streamed his alleged attack online not just to shock us, but because he knew he would have an audience of supporters, who are still producing glorifying propaganda from his barbaric broadcast.
It took governments and the tech sector years to address ISIS’ recruitment boom on social media. Today, we’re seeing the same blunder when it comes to white supremacist communities. Thus, as we mourn for the victims of Christchurch and their families, diminishing extremists’ capacity online should be just as much a preventative focus as any other social or legislative measures to come.