White-supremacist influence casts shadow over mosque attack
LONDON - The self-proclaimed racist who attacked a New Zealand mosque during Friday prayers in an assault that killed 49 people used rifles covered in white-supremacist graffiti and listened to a song glorifying a Bosnian Serb war criminal.
These details highlight the toxic beliefs behind an unprecedented, live-streamed massacre, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
Some of the material posted by the killer resembles the meme-heavy hate speech prominent in dark corners of the internet. Beneath the online tropes lies a man who matter-of-factly wrote that he was preparing to conduct a horrific attack.
The shooter’s soundtrack as he drove to the mosque included an upbeat-sounding tune that belies its roots in a destructive European nationalist and religious conflict. The nationalist Serb song from the 1992-95 war that tore apart Yugoslavia glorifies Serbian fighters and Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, who is jailed at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague for genocide and other war crimes against Bosnian Muslims. A YouTube video for the song shows emaciated Muslim prisoners in Serb-run camps during the war. “Beware Ustashas and Turks,” says the song, using wartime, derogatory terms for Bosnian Croats and Muslims.
When the gunman returned to his car after the shooting, the song “Fire” by English rock band “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” can be heard blasting from the speakers. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!” as the man, a 28-year-old Australian, drives away.
At least two rifles used in the shooting bore references to Ebba Akerlund, an 11-year-old girl killed in an April 2017 truck-ramming attack in Stockholm by Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year-old Uzbek man. Akerlund’s death is memorialized in the gunman’s apparent manifesto, published online, as an event that led to his decision to wage war against what he perceives as the enemies of Western civilization.
The number 14 is also seen on the gunman’s rifles. It may refer to “14 Words,” which according to the Southern Poverty Law Center is a white supremacist slogan linked to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” He also used the symbol of the Schwarze Sonne, or black sun, which “has become synonymous with myriad far-right groups,” according to the center, which monitors hate groups.
In photographs from a now deleted Twitter account associated with the suspect that match the weaponry seen in his live-streamed video, there is a reference to “Vienna 1683,” the year the Ottoman Empire suffered a defeat in its siege of the city at the Battle of Kahlenberg. “Acre 1189,” a reference to the Crusades, is also written on the guns.
Four names of legendary Serbs who fought against the 500-year-rule of the Ottomans in the Balkans, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, are also seen on the gunman’s rifles.
The name Charles Martel, who the Southern Poverty Law Center says white supremacists credit “with saving Europe by defeating an invading Muslim force at the Battle of Tours in 734,” was also on the weapons. They also bore the inscription “Malta 1565,” a reference to the Great Siege of Malta, when the Maltese and the Knights of Malta defeated the Turks.
Norway's Anders Breivik
The New Zealand mosque attacker claimed inspiration from Norwegian rightwing extremist Anders Behring Breivik and the deadly rampage in Christchurch on Friday resembled his 2011 massacre in its methods and motives.
Extremists around the world have sought to emulate Breivik ever since his deadly attacks in Norway which left 77 people dead in 2011.
The Christchurch attacks bore several of the features of Breivik’s: mass shootings, multicultural victims, a racist manifesto published online and inscribed weapons.
In a 74-page document posted on Twitter just before the attack, the Christchurch shooter said he “took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik”, using terminology reminiscent of that used by the Norwegian extremist.
“I have only had brief contact with Knight Justiciar Breivik, receiving a blessing for my mission after contacting his brother knights,” wrote the shooter.
A lawyer for Breivik, Oystein Storrvik, told Verdens Gang newspaper that “it seems unlikely” the Christchurch attacker had been in direct contact with Breivik, given the strict controls imposed on him in prison.
Breivik killed 77 people on July 22, 2011 when he set off a van bomb near government offices in Oslo, then opened fire on a Labour youth camp on the island of Utoya.
He said he killed his victims because they embraced multiculturalism.
The now 40-year-old Norwegian had also posted a more than 1,500-page manifesto in which he called on others to follow his example.
For Norway, the Christchurch attacks brought back memories of the Breivik attacks, its most violent event since World War II.
“It recalls painful memories,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said.
“Anyone who has ever lost a loved one, whether it’s because of terrorism or not, understands what these families are going to go through,” Vanessa Svebakk, a Norwegian who also holds New Zealand citizenship and who lost her 14-year-old daughter in the Utoya attack, told AFP.
“But for those of us who have lost someone because of terrorism, the feelings are even stronger.”
Tore Bjorgo, the head of the University of Oslo’s Center for Extremism Research, said “there are clearly a lot of the same ideas behind” the two attacks.
They include, among other things, “the idea that European civilisation is threatened by immigration in general and by Muslim immigration in particular, and that it is legitimate for some people to resort to extreme violence to stop it,” he told AFP.
“There are pretty clear indications in the (Christchurch) manifesto that we’re dealing with a white supremacist,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French expert on far-right movements.
“The manifesto goes further than what Breivik wrote in his own text. Breivik didn’t describe himself as fascist,” he said.
Like Breivik, the Christchurch killer compared himself in his manifesto to Nelson Mandela, saying he even expected to win the Nobel Peace Prize one day.
Both attackers share “this narcissism, this grandiose image of themselves,” Swedish terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp told AFP.
Breivik, who now goes by the name Fjotolf Hansen, is serving a 21-year-sentence that can be extended indefinitely. He is held in isolation without internet access, and his limited contacts with the outside world are closely monitored, at times blocked.
Breivik’s attacks have already inspired other extremists in the past.
On July 22, 2016, exactly five years after the Norway attack, a young man with mental health issues and said to be obsessed with Breivik killed nine people in a Munich shopping centre before committing suicide.
“There have also been other terror plots inspired by Breivik at more or less advanced stages, in Poland, the Czech Republic, France and the United States,” said researcher Bjorgo.
Each attack risks triggering new ones.
The New Zealand attack “was clearly devised to inspire others, both those on the extreme right and Islamist extremists,” Utoya survivor Bjorn Ihler told AFP.
“That it was filmed live indicates there was a deliberate strategy to create a narrative that can be used by extremists on both sides.”
While his manifesto and video were an obvious and contemptuous ploy for infamy, they do contain important clues for a public trying to understand why anyone would target dozens of innocent people who were simply spending an afternoon engaged in prayer.
There could be no more perplexing a setting for a mass slaughter than New Zealand, a nation so placid and so isolated from the mass shootings that plague the US that police officers rarely carry guns.
Yet the gunman himself highlighted New Zealand’s remoteness as a reason he chose it. He wrote that an attack in New Zealand would show that no place on earth was safe and that even a country as far away as New Zealand is subject to mass immigration.
The manifesto included a single reference to US President Donald Trump in which the author asked and answered the question of whether he was a Trump supporter: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.”
Throughout the manifesto, the theme he returns to most often is conflict between people of European descent and Muslims, often framing it in terms of the Crusades.
He said his desire for violence grew when he arrived in France, where he said he was offended by the sight of immigrants in the cities and towns he visited.
Three months ago, he said, he started planning to target Christchurch. He said he has donated to many nationalist groups, but claimed not to be a direct member of any organization. However, he admitted contacts with an anti-immigration group called the reborn Knights Templar and said he got the approval of Anders Breivik for the attack, a claim that has not been verified.
The gunman rambled on about the supposed aims for the attack, which included reducing immigration by intimidating immigrants and driving a wedge between NATO and the Turkish people. He also said he hoped to further polarize and destabilize the West, and spark a civil war in the United States that would ultimately result in a separation of races. The attack has had the opposite impact, with condemnation of the bloodshed pouring in from all quarters of the globe, and calls for unity against hatred and violence.
His victims, he wrote, were chosen because he saw them as invaders who would replace the white race. He predicted he would feel no remorse for their deaths. And in the video he livestreamed of his shooting, no remorse can be seen or heard as he sprays terrified worshippers with bullets again and again, sometimes firing at people he has already cut down.
(AW and agencies)