In March 2019, a gunmen killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; it was the deadliest attack by a right-wing terrorist (RWT) for nearly a decade. The shooting inspired copycat attacks across the Western world, with several atrocities in America and Europe displaying the same modus operandi, some explicitly name-checking the Christchurch shooter.
By Eden Stewart, Senior Analyst and Callum Yourston, Analyst: Risk Awareness Team – 19 May 2020
The globalization of right-wing terrorism
A defining feature of the attack in New Zealand was the use of livestreaming to broadcast the massacre around the world. As well as a record of his crimes for posterity, the footage was intended to be a ‘call to arms’ for like-minded individuals around the globe, and in this, it was at least partly successful. While longer term trends suggested the threat from RWT was already intensifying, the Christchurch shooting appears to have both popularized the attacker’s ideology and tactics, and prompted others to take action.
The day after the Christchurch shooting, 50-year-old Vincent Fuller launched his own attack in Stanwell, Surrey, after learning of events in New Zealand and watching the livestream footage. Ultimately, Fuller was only able to injure a single person before being arrested. While other factors likely contributed to Fuller’s decision to launch his attack, the case nonetheless demonstrates the power of high-profile attacks to incite others on the other side of the world.
What methodologies are right-wing terrorists most likely to use?
While the incident in Stanwell was the last successful terrorism attack by RWT in the UK, three further plots involving far-right extremists have been disrupted since then. In contrast to the Stanwell attack, at least two of these plots involved the planned use of explosive or incendiary devices. While potentially more lethal than ‘low complexity’ methodologies employing improvised weapons like vehicles and knifes, such plots require more planning and the acquisition of material which makes them more likely to be identified and disrupted by security services.
However, in attempting to emulate deadly ‘spectacular’ attacks like those in New Zealand, or in Norway in 2011, right-wing actors in Britain have comparatively few options. Whereas in the United States and much of Western Europe, widespread firearm ownership has enabled RWT to carry out mass-casualty attacks with relatively little preparation, Britain’s strict gun controls means the likelihood of extremists acquiring firearms suitable for marauding attacks is low.
Transnational right-wing terror networks?
The flow of personnel, resources and expertise across international borders has long been a feature of violent Islamist extremism. In contrast, right-wing terrorism was traditionally the preserve of individuals loosely affiliated with domestic extremist milieus. This is no longer the case; the Christchurch attacker sent money to European far-right organizations, convicted British extremists visited Ukrainian fascist militias, and the Home Office recently banned the British arm of the US neo-Nazi group ‘Atomwaffen Division’.
The internationalization of right-wing extremism has been fostered by the emergence of common narratives around national identity, immigration and Islam, exemplified by ‘the Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory propagated by the Christchurch gunman and others. However, while the growth of this ideology has likely contributed to the increase in far-right terrorism across the West, there is little evidence of cross-border operational collaboration between different extremist groups, who continue to hold a range of different and often contradictory beliefs and objectives. Indeed, most RWT attacks are conducted by lone actors with no or limited connections to extremist networks.
Plots by RWT are unlikely to abate, and available data points towards a long-term increase in those holding extreme right-wing views. While authorities have proven adept at prosecuting members of far-right organisations, plots by lone actors will be harder to prevent. Those most likely to succeed will employ unsophisticated methodologies which typically cause fewer casualties and attritional losses.
However, the occurrence Black Swan events cannot be ruled out. The 1995 Oklahoma Bombing, 2011 Norway attacks, and the 2019 Christchurch shooting were all without precedent, and a capable, disciplined actor could realistically conduct a mass casualty attack with terrible human and financial costs.