The Economist, March 21st, 2019
He seems to have been a classic “lone wolf”. As far as police can tell, the man who murdered 50 worshippers, and critically wounded nine more, at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15th was not part of any organisation. The 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, claimed to have developed his violent beliefs on his own, surfing the internet and visiting Europe. He bought his weapons himself. He honed his skills at a suburban shooting-range. No one there suspected that he was preparing a massacre.
Yet he was part of something much bigger. The names and slogans scrawled on his weapons were familiar to extreme white nationalists all around the world—but hardly anyone else. His ranting internet manifesto, “The Great Replacement”, repeated a staple far-right conspiracy theory: that non-white and Muslim immigrants in Western countries are invaders, ushered in by scheming elites to replace ethnic-European populations. Variants of that once-fringe idea are now common, not just in social-media posts by anonymous wackos but in the speeches of elected politicians from Hungary to Iowa.
In another sense, too, the lone wolf had a pack. Attacks by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other extreme-right types are growing more common. In America they outnumber those committed by Islamists. Of 263 domestic terrorism incidents in 2010-17, fully 92 were carried out by far-right attackers, compared with 38 by jihadists, according to an analysis of the Global Terrorism Database by the Washington Post. In Europe jihadist killings still predominate, but deaths from extreme-right terrorism have surged since 2010 (see chart).
The past six months have seen a rash of far-right terrorist incidents. Last autumn a white nationalist killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. France broke up a plot to kill Emmanuel Macron, the president, and Spain arrested a fascist hoping to assassinate Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister. Germany uncovered an extremist cell in the army, allegedly planning to kill the foreign minister and others. In February America’s FBI arrested a Coast Guard officer who had an arsenal and a target-list of Democratic politicians.
Globally, white-nationalist terrorism is far less deadly than the jihadist variety. But it is more prevalent than authorities acknowledge, says Jacob Aasland Ravndal of Norway’s Centre for Research on Extremism. Legal definitions of terrorism often require that an attack be planned in advance. Much extreme-right violence is spontaneous. Even burning down a refugee centre may count as a hate crime, not terrorism. Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency, ascribed just 3% of terrorist attacks in 2017 to the far right. But Mr Ravndal’s database of ideologically motivated violent incidents shows that in western Europe, though jihadists kill more people, the far right carry out more attacks.