More than two years since the terrorist attacks against the Muslim community in Riccarton and Linwood in 2019, the greatest risk of extremist violence in New Zealand, as elsewhere, comes from lone actors. It is very likely that the next perpetrator of an extremist attack, like the Christchurch terrorist, will have had little or no interaction with likeminded individuals offline. While scholars of radicalisation previously emphasised the importance of extremist groups and the role of face-to-face interaction, that perspective is now outdated. The perpetrators of recent carnage in Christchurch, El Paso, Escondido and Poway, Quebec, Halle, Hanau, Pittsburgh, Trollhattan, Lafayette, Oregon, Santa Barbara, Atlanta, all radicalised and acted alone, unaffiliated with extremist groups. Such individual attacks are just as planned and lethal as those carried out by groups.
This does not mean that these individuals are not part of and influenced by a much larger transnational movement. But it is important to emphasise the difference between individuals radicalising online and engaging in terrorism alone, and those who meet offline and act as part of a group. It is crucial for security professionals and (less importantly for) scholars to know how and where people are radicalising, what might push them towards violence, and where and how they might "leak" their intentions. Knowing where the greatest threat comes from allows scarce security resources to be more effectively targeted. Unfortunately, the task for security agencies is much more difficult than simply focusing on extremist groups that often actively seek attention through websites, podcasts and social media.
There are several reasons why lone actors radicalising online pose a greater risk than those in more visible extremist groups. As mentioned, groups of extremists are easier to monitor: by contrast, potential terrorists online, even those who talk about violence, are almost imperceptible in a constellation of hate and bravado. Many deliberately hide their plans: the Christchurch terrorist, unconnected to any extremist group aside from sporadic social media posts, largely disappeared for two years before his attacks. There is a danger that other individuals may copy this withdrawn preparation, just as perpetrators copy the tactics, targets and other repertoires of past attacks. This active attempt to remain undetected is clearly not new: in the manifesto he released before his 2011 attack, Anders Breivik provided explicit advice on remaining patient during the preparation period.
Important too for understanding the role of isolation and the internet in radicalisation is the unremarkable observation that people act and interact very differently online to how they do in the "real world". Anonymous online interaction allows users to create an idealised version of themselves, to create characters who are more confident, charismatic and less neurotic than their real offline selves. This trend is more pronounced in individuals who are more depressed or have lower self-esteem. In the context of potential pathways to radicalisation and violence, this means that individuals are often more extreme online than they are in real life. Online, white nationalists are often inspiring and heroic in a way they are not in real life, their avatars evoking the Knights Templar and other romantic images. By contrast, real life meetings can be disappointing, with everyone less impressive or dedicated than they appear online. At the same time, offline activities provide both friendship and a sense that together they are 'doing something' for the movement. In this way, meeting offline can act as an outlet after the pressure cooker environment of online extremism.
By contrast, online only interaction can very quickly push users to increasingly extreme positions. On sites such as Gab, 4chan and 8chan, users are pilloried for liberal statements and respected when they express racism, misogyny, or a desire to take action. Users outbid each other with increasingly radical statements, driving a process of escalation which can sometimes tip over into offline action. The time people spend online rises each year, meaning this process occurs over increasingly shorter time periods. Increased time in extremist online spaces means greater exposure to extreme content, a greater chance of becoming used to brutality, fascinated with violence, or enraged by graphic footage of violence against their own group. The "echo chamber" and groupthink effect of siloed spaces is also more magnified, with people less time exposed to opposed perspectives and information.
In effect too, an online subculture has formed with little loyalty to national identity. Many individuals now have a much greater connection to a globalised, transnational subculture with its own norms, codes of conduct, and jargon, than they do to the symbols, debates and identity of the nation around them. This online extremist subculture sees itself in opposition to mainstream society and creates incentives for violent action against it.
Greatly increasing this risk, the nature of contemporary online spaces now means that the pathways to various forms of mass violence are becoming increasingly blurred. People with antisemitic, neo-Nazi, Islamophobic, anti-Maori, white nationalist, and misogynistic views now interact with those prone to other forms of less ideological violence such as attacks against schools, workplaces or public spaces. The perpetrators of these varied forms of mass violence often exhibit similar individual profiles, have similar histories of mental illness or psychological disturbance, and have a deep interest in weapons and a fascination with violence. All hold some form of grievance against society, which motivates violent action.
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In the past, these people would rarely, if ever, meet. Now, the cross-fertilisation of ideas, the identification of common enemies and the escalation of grievance to violence can take place easier and faster than ever before.
Chris Wilson is the programme firector of the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies at Auckland University.