My piece for Open Democracy: New dimensions of terrorism: tracking right-wing inspired (25th March 2020) lone wolves

Open Democracy

New dimensions of terrorism: tracking right-wing inspired lone wolves

The significance of the American position should not be underestimated, for they are also host to many of the most powerful social media and gaming platforms in the world.

Florian Hartleb
25 March 2020
Anders Behring Breivik in court during the ninth week of his trial.

Anders Behring Breivik in court during the ninth week of his trial.


Alexander Widding/Demotix. All rights reserved.

There is a new tendency towards right-wing inspired terrorist aggression conducted by a single person as a number of recent attacks around the globe have demonstrated, in 2019 Christchurch/New Zealand and El Paso/USA, in February 2020 Halle/Germany and recently an attempt in Sydney/Australia. This new dimension of terrorism has been ignored by political decision-makers, investigators and secret service authorities as well as experts on terrorism for a long time, filed away as attacks by crazy individual assailants – a reaction that still persists to-day.

Global media first discovered this new dimension of right-wing terrorism on 22 July 2011, when after many years of planning, in a diabolical choreography, the Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people, with many young people numbered amongst his victims. The twenty-first century has become the century of individual, so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorism. This modern type of politically motivated brutality is “home-made” and home grown, and cannot be attributed to Islamic fundamentalism. Individuals with far-right tendencies kill in order to establish a society according to their own standards. They do this without requiring a back-up organisation, but autonomously and apparently unpredictably.

I argue from concrete cases, as an official expert witness for the City of Munich on the occasion of a terrorist attack on 22 July 2016 when an 18-year old German-Iranian, David Sonboly, killed nine people in Munich – all with a migration background. Only after 3 years, were these attacks regarded as politically motivated. In the meantime I discovered via US local media that the perpetrator was connected with another ‘lone wolf’ through a platform called “Steam” and a so called anti-refugee-club, who later in December 2017, killed 2 people.

Lone wolf terrorism relates means to acts, committed by people who operate as individuals, profess they act on the grounds of political convictions, but do not belong to an organised terror group or terrorist network, and act without the direct influence of a leader or any kind of command structure or obedience hierarchy, providing propaganda and communicative distribution of extremist ideology themselves. Terrorism is still regarded as the group phenomenon it largely was in the twentieth century, before this tendency appeared.

The lone wolf has no obvious “brothers in combat“ or close reference person. However, like the group terrorist he has an ideology, which he himself “carves into shape“ designed according to his personal needs, in particular his own frustrations: a personal ideology of grievances. The lone wolf sees his surroundings through this lens and communicates in this way. Often lone wolves are men who hate women, who are socially isolated, often with mental disorders and who dwell 16-18 hours a day in a virtual space where they are searching for conspiracy theories and chat partners.

There is typically a triggering event for every form of terrorism at this personal level. Such a key moment is classified as a Trigger – an expression also used for a camera’s shutter release or for the firing of a gun. The attacks are planned over the long term, and include a PR-strategy such as a written manifesto containing the personalized ideology sui generis, you-tube videos, live streaming (as in Christchurch for example) and an address to a world audience.

The virtual progression of this radicalisation process should be examined in more detail – particularly taking into account the perpetrators’ own language used in chat spaces. Digital competency is indispensable for enabling this tracking to take place. There are still related teaching bodies who do not have a clue about the dynamics of the virtual world. Social (also political) communication has changed in its basic principles, forcing extremism and terrorism also to adjust to its new realities. We can no longer rely on a party membership card for tracking the individuals and organizations involved.

The Christchurch Call implemented straight after the March 2019 attacks, on an initiative by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron directly identified “eliminating extremist terrorism and violent online extremism“. But a troubling sign can be seen in the United States’ refusal to add its name to the list. Officials in the Trump administration told the Washington Post that doing so would pose “constitutional concerns.” A White House statement added that, while it stood “with the international community in condemning terrorist and violent extremist content online,” the United States was “not currently in a position to join the endorsement.” Close examination and a close reading of the Christchurch Call does not seem to justify the White House stance. The document avoids any mention of government-mandated codes of speech. It emphasizes that any action must abide by “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But the significance of the American position should not be underestimated, for they are also host to many of the most powerful social media and gaming platforms in the world. The other problem with the Christchurch Call is that it is unclear how success will be measured, and what should happen next to this overall initiative. All-in-all, prevention demands a strategy which at first glance appears to be a paradox:

  • In the virtual life we must socially isolate conspicuous aggressors and shatter and destroy right-wing extremist communication bridges on virtual platforms such as Steam. Terrorists can achieve their goals and carry out their attacks that much more quickly, if they exchange ideas with people with similar mindsets.
  • In real life socially isolated individuals must often be re-integrated and regain their ties to society. Teaching and psychological services dealing with personality disorders are crucial here. The ongoing taboo around depressive illnesses doesn’t help, although in recent years there have been awareness campaigns in the media.

The lone wolf has perverted the positive aspects of the individual person and converted these into a terrifying form of irreparable damage – directed straight ahead at whatever confronts or obstructs them. The enemy image is denied any individuality whatsoever: Jews, refugees, Muslims, people of colour etc. Internal social cohesion is replaced by anti-social explosive power. Lone wolf terrorists with right-wing motives are mentally conspicuous, but they are also part of a larger ideological package. These are people who find pleasure in displays of aggression – for instance discussions on terrorism in the media and virtually – and see an effective means here to express their own problems and desires.

They mix grandiose political grievances with murdering people who have done nothing to them and with whom they have no personal connection. Their racist image of the world divides the world into friends and enemies, and their hatred is directed towards minorities. The manifestos of Breivik and Co. are full of such abstruse and even laughable ideological convictions.

In sum, new, virtually networked, types of actors have developed who in society, both the public and the media, continue only to be sporadically perceived as a danger against a background of a deceptive general ambivalence. The authorities avoid holding the debate that will be required to set off new paths of enquiry if right-wing violence is to be detected. However, homage is being paid to terrorists on public platforms such as “Encyclopedia Dramatica’ who give these perpetrators a numerical score. Despite complaints, these entries continue to exist and are constantly being updated (in 2019 for Christchurch and El Paso). Along with the virtual portrait gallery on Steam there are numerous groups with the name “Breivik”, for instance.

The consistent lack of responsibility from the gaming industry, which denies the racism that occurs, and says it does not detect any debates relevant to society in their forums, is a final insult to common sense. Ignoring dangerous networking on gaming platforms declared harmless is just as dangerous as any seemingly intentional de-politicisation of attacks by lone wolves. This is a terrain where assuredly the need will grow to hold this debate on right-wing domestic (homeland) terrorism and its causes.