What Makes a Christchurch-Style Attack Feel So Likely in Britain?
The sentiments at work in the manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist can be found in Britain with increasing frequency.
“It absolutely could happen here.” This was the Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace’s response on BBC Radio 4 to the question many in the United Kingdom and around the world have asked themselves in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 50 people praying in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand: Could it happen here?
Superficially, a response like this may appear to be the perfunctory answer to such a hypothetical, particularly given that it was posed on a broadcast entitled “Threat of UK far-right” and given the discernible rise in popularity of far-right movements and ideologies throughout Europe. However, it behooves analysts and lay observers alike to consider exactly what this response says about the state of Britain’s ideological landscape today. Why could it happen here, and what makes it feel so possible?
It is important to acknowledge that Wallace’s answer might be the result of intimate knowledge of the condition on the ground in Britain that wider society does not, or even cannot, know. Law enforcement foiled 18 alleged terrorist attacks since March 2017, four of these planned by so-called far-right actors. Likewise, the European Union’s law enforcement apparatus, Europol, also uncovered five terrorist plots planned by right-wing individuals in 2017. There are undoubtedly many individuals still under observation at present for indications that they are planning a terrorist attack. While the exact threat level thereby remains obscure, additional or alternative avenues must be explored to consider the possibility of fatal, far-right terrorism.
Terrorist attacks such as the one in New Zealand are the manifestation of underlying biases in society, articulated at an extreme. Although law enforcement and government officials have placed serious pressure on social media platforms and search engines to restrict access to the manifesto written by the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, the substance of the text can be analyzed in order to discern driving forces behind his actions.
According to the manifesto, the man viewed European society (which he deemed to include also non-European states that were populated by white Europeans, such as Australia, the United States and New Zealand) as imperiled by the alleged replacement of (white) Europeans with non-Europeans, namely non-white Muslims. The text articulates at length ideas of how immigration, high birth rates among immigrants, and European beliefs in multiculturalism were facilitating the erasure of white societies in Europe, something the author felt threatened the existence of various elements of culture and tradition unique to white Europe.
The author takes pains in the opening pages of his manifesto to claim that he does not object to Islam nor to the existence of non-white people in the world, but rather argues against immigration and ethnic heterogeneity in society based on the belief that multiculturalism is incompatible with human nature, and that immigration and non-Europeans in European countries threaten the survival of Europe’s cultures, traditions and people. “The attack was to ensure a preservation of beauty, art and tradition,” he writes. “In my mind a rainbow is only beautiful to due [sic] its variety of colours, mix the colours together and you destroy them all and they are gone forever and the end result is far from anything beautiful.”
The author entitles one section of his manifesto “Europe for Europeans,” in which he endorses the forced removal of “Roma, African, Indian, Turkish, Semitic, or other,” people “regardless from where they came or when they came” to Europe.
According to the Hope Not Hate’s State of Hate 2019 report, a July 2018 poll found that 35% of Britons believed that “Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life.” A January 2018 survey found that 30% felt that either “almost all Muslims do not want to integrate” or that “most Muslims do not want to integrate despite the few that do.”
The terrorist articulates the reason for attacking Muslim immigrants in particular because they “are the most despised group of invaders in the West, attacking them receives the greatest level of support. They are also one of the strongest groups, with high fertility, high in group preferences and a will to conquer.” Inherent in these and many of the other claims found in the manifesto is the fundamental rejection of multiculturalism, a staunch belief in the incompatibility of Islam or Muslim immigrant communities’ cultures with a European culture, and a nostalgic belief in the idea that European states were more peaceful when more racially homogeneous as they were in previous centuries.
Similar sentiments can be found in other manifestos from perpetrators of far-right terrorism in the last decade. The most prominent one cited by the Christchurch terrorist is the manifesto of the man responsible for the deaths of 77 people in Norway in July 2011. At more than 1,000 pages, this manifesto opens with an assertion about “the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe,” the “Islamisation of Western Europe” and the perceived evils of multiculturalism.
Another example can be found in the mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, where the attacker, motivated by the belief in an “impending racial holy war,” killed six worshippers and injured four more before killing himself. In Sweden, a lone-wolf attacker shot and killed two people and injured 13, largely in a 10-month period between 2009 and 2010; he espoused anti-immigrant ideologies and selected targets based on their race.
British Way of Life
The sentiments at work in the manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist can be found in Britain with increasing frequency. According to the Hope Not Hate’s State of Hate 2019 report, a July 2018 poll found that 35% of Britons believed that “Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life.” A January 2018 survey found that 30% felt that either “almost all Muslims do not want to integrate” or that “most Muslims do not want to integrate despite the few that do.” Furthermore, on the idea of Muslim immigration and replacement theory, only 13% of Britons are able to correctly approximate the size of the Muslim population in Britain (5%), while 40% of Britons overestimate that percentage.
An additional survey of Britons conducted by ComRes in October 2018 found that 43% agreed with the statement that “Western liberal society can never be compatible with Islam,” with 25% strongly agreeing. The Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Arab News newspaper also conducted a poll, finding that 64% of Britons believed that “Arabs have failed to integrate” in Britain, and that 69% of Britons believed the United Kingdom had accepted “too many refugees.” Studies such as these indicate the prevalence of ideologies that would be foundational to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim terrorist attacks in Britain.
Statistics from the Home Office show that these ideas are being acted upon with a greater prevalence. For example, reported hate crimes motivated by race nearly doubled between 2011/2012 and 2017/2018, while religiously-motivated hate crimes have more than quadrupled since 2011. According to reports, the majority of specifically religion-related hate crimes last year were perpetrated against Muslims, and previous government findings show that Muslim adults were disproportionately more likely to be targets of religiously-motivated hate crimes. Additional reporting demonstrates a degree of interconnectivity between racial and religious hate crime in Britain, a component of the attack in New Zealand.
Analysis of “racially motivated hate crime by religion” found that Muslim adults in Britain were significantly more likely to be the subject of such race-related hate crimes. (It is important to briefly acknowledge that these rising rates may be due to an increased willingness to report hate crimes, but they still fail to capture the entire picture as almost half of all incidents allegedly go unreported to the police.)
Most often, reported hate crimes involve verbal abuse or threats, graffiti on places of worship or homes, and physical assaults. Evidence of this is perhaps most palpable in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in New Zealand. According to statistics from the charity Tell Mama, the group has received reports of 95 hate-based incidents between the day of the attack on March 15 and March 21, with almost 90% of these incidents making explicit reference to the violence in Christchurch. The police, meanwhile, are investigating attacks on six mosques in Birmingham.
Considerable or even fatal physical violence has flared up in multiple instances within the last half decade alone. In mid-March 2019, an incident of far-right violence allegedly took place in Surrey when a heavily-armed man yelling racial abuses stabbed a young man. In June 2017, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a man drove a van into a group of Muslims in Finsbury Park, killing one and injuring nine others; he was allegedly incensed following the terrorist attacks in London earlier that month. Although not exclusively motivated by Islamophobic or anti-immigrant beliefs, the member of Parliament for the Batley and Spen constituency, Jo Cox, was also murdered by a far-right extremist in June 2016.
An additional finding of hate crime statistics from the government shows that Islamophobic and anti-immigrant attacks rise in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, with notable upsurge following the murder of Lee Rigby (May 2013), the Westminster Bridge attack (March 2017), the Manchester bombings (May 2017), and the London Bridge attack (June 2017). Increases in hate crimes related to religion were also evident following the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in January 2015, though there was no surge in the weeks after the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
Another factor identified in cases of violence against immigrant and Muslim communities in Britain has stemmed from reports relating to sexual abuse and grooming scandals in which the perpetrators were reported to belong to Muslim communities. Finally, an additional spike in police-classified “racially or religiously aggravated offences” occurred in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in July 2016, following an already steady rise in offences throughout the campaign.
Statistics such as these demonstrate a concerning rise in manifestations of aggression based on Islamophobic or racist beliefs in Britain and exist along the continuum that motivates far-right ideologues to commit acts out of hatred. However, it is important to acknowledge the distinction between these incidents and a terrorist attack such as the one in New Zealand. Increases in race and religious-based hate crimes often occur in the immediate aftermath of major, emotional events. These attacks are what some in the counterterrorism community would call sudden extremist violence, a phenomenon whereby a person’s violent action is unplanned or only briefly planned, and is the result of a reaction to specific trigger.
Likewise, numerous instances of verbal abuse and threats are the result of the manifestation of anger or hatred in unplanned moments, invective interjections with no intent or a lack of requisite planning to cause physical or mass, fatal harm.
Beyond the British context, there are many more far-right organizations, message boards, social media platforms and informal networks that serve to radicalize viewers. As was the case in New Zealand, Norway and the United States, far-right terrorists accessed and took inspiration from radical materials from many countries.
Attacks including the one perpetrated in New Zealand or the other locations referenced are the result of additional and specific form of radicalization, one that condones and even valorizes bloodshed and takes considerable planning. Mass violence exists at the most extreme end of the spectrum of far-right ideology and necessitates a series of structural and institutional supports to achieve the requisite level of grooming.
As the Christchurch terrorist explained, “young men and women see this suicidal nihilism and isolate themselves from this mainstream, ‘multicultural’, egalitarian, individualistic insanity and look for allies anywhere they can find them, in the flesh or online. They congregate, discuss, despair, strategize, debate and plan. They decry weakness, mock fecklessness and worship strength, and in this worship of strength they radicalize and find the solution.” These institutions and material requirements are also essentially met in Britain.
While currently banned by the government, for years far-right extremist organizations such as National Action, Scottish Dawn, NS131 and Combat 18 disseminated radical material, connected far-right thinkers and promoted violent activism from members. Despite their proscription that hinders their ability to openly recruit and radicalize, these organizations and offshoots still operate. For example, System Resistance Network and Sonnenkrieg Division, which adopt neo-Nazi principles, continue to engage in violent activities and to endorse violence. Many other, smaller (sometimes regional) groups likewise serve to reinforce prejudices in such a way that compels some toward violence.
Consistent exposure to propaganda that does not expressly advocate violence but reiterates anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiments alongside language that encourages immediate action to “protect” or “defend” the nation can still contribute to a person’s willingness to commit a terrorist attack. For example, in the case of New Zealand, the perpetrator claimed that he was not in fact a member of any hate groups but rather used the internet to listen to and talk to like-minded people around the world who spoke about the urgency of the issue and the futility of non-violent means of reform. In Britain, videos produced by Tommy Robinson, the English Defence League, UK Independence Party and a range of other videos produced by less well-known names are easy to find on YouTube and Facebook, speaking to ideas about “replacement” and calling upon Britons to act to preserve a “British” way of life threatened by Muslim immigration.
Radio broadcasts such as Radio Aryan also relay extreme nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. While deprived of a platform by many social media outlets, many online forums remain readily available to connect far-right thinkers in Britain, whereby they can mutually radicalize by reinforcing prejudices and encouraging each other toward violent action, much like the Islamic State and other radical groups.
Beyond the British context, there are many more far-right organizations, message boards, social media platforms and informal networks that serve to radicalize viewers. As was the case in New Zealand, Norway and the United States, far-right terrorists accessed and took inspiration from radical materials from many countries. Moreover, the many organizations and activists that contribute to the counter-jihad and identitarian movements — generally speaking movements endorsing the need for a white, non-Muslim Europe — which can be found in many Western countries and may contribute to the radicalization of Britons.
Finally, the manifestos of far-right terrorists can be found through traditional search engines, and these texts are known to help crystallize radical ideologies in readers, as was the case for the man responsible for the killings in New Zealand.
The difficulty that the British authorities face in preventing far-right terrorism is tied to the array of means by which a person may become radicalized and the reality of lone-wolf style attacks. Policing and banning far-right organizations, as well as government programming aimed at monitoring and deradicalizing individuals and communities, may prevent the level of violence witnessed in New Zealand recently. However this is hardly certain, especially given the reality that terrorists like the Christchurch shooter may never have joined any hate groups and managed to gain access to radical materials unbeknownst to the authorities.
British authorities in the aftermath of the violence in New Zealand have pledged to issue official threat warnings with regards to far-right terrorism, the question remains as to how effective this and other measures will be. Finally, while gun control measures in New Zealand and Great Britain are different, terrorists are inherently so committed to the cause that they are willing to circumvent the system to stockpile arms. As the trials of National Action members show, for example, far-right groups remain able to attain guns. Moreover, it is important to recognize that far-right terrorism may inflict bloodshed using a variety of means other than guns.
Just as Wallace’s response is a reflection of the unknowable future, so too are studies such as this that recognize the potential for violence but see it as by no means definitive. However, given the robustness of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment, an assortment of far-right groups endorsing violence, and a technology sector that has failed to (and may never be able to) remove those broadcasts and manifestos designed to incite violence, there can be no other reasonable answer to whether a high-fatality, far-right terrorist attack could happen in Great Britain than that it “absolutely could.”
*[Note: The author has intentionally excluded the names of perpetrators of terrorism, as well as the titles of their manifestos, so as to focus the attention on the ideologies they espoused, and also because many far-right terrorists, including the perpetrator of the Christchurch attack, claim to have been radicalized after using the internet to find these manifestos.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.