By Chris Wilson
Past white nationalist terrorism demonstrates that the greatest risk often comes from individuals on the periphery of organised extremist groups.
It is more than 18 months since a now convicted terrorist Brenton Tarrant drove to Christchurch, began livestreaming and walked into a mosque with automatic weapons, murdering 51 Muslims. We know a great deal about his mindset and motives. He is a white nationalist, part of a transnational and seemingly growing and radicalising extremist movement. Central to white nationalism is the belief that the white race is facing elimination through immigration, declining birth rates and liberals’ attack on traditional ways of life. In its most extreme form this belief generates a sense of urgency which leads to terrorism. This article considers the risk of further white nationalist attacks in New Zealand, from where such risks might emanate, and where the security services should focus their attention.
What is the Current Risk in New Zealand?
One commentator recently estimated “that there are about 60 to 70 (far right extremist) groups and somewhere between 150 and 300 core right wing activists in New Zealand”. It is difficult to evaluate this claim given no list or other evidence was provided but it appears to be a substantial overestimate. Based on publicly available information such a figure could only be reached by including long and recently defunct skinhead movements, criminal gangs, short-lived political parties and largely harmless Facebook community pages and websites. In the study of political violence, such entities are not considered extremist groups in any meaningful sense.
Exaggerating the extent of organised white nationalism in New Zealand also risks acting as a recruitment tool for the cause. Large and growing movements attract new members. For aggrieved, economically precarious and lonely young men, who believe that they do not receive the status they deserve in society, the news that New Zealand has such a large movement can entice them to seek out or form their own groups. Defining extremist groups so broadly may also risk distracting the security services from those which pose an actual threat.
Yet there clearly remains a risk of further white nationalist violence in New Zealand. It seems likely that there are fewer than five groups which pose a risk of violence, but their threat must be taken seriously. One leading member of Action Zealandia filmed himself making a Nazi salute, stated his desire to buy illegal firearms, vandalise buildings associated with the left, and throw bricks at LGBT activists. Another man affiliated with the group was arrested for making a threat against the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. And two men (that we know of) associated with Action Zealandia were former or serving members of the New Zealand Defence Force. White nationalism goes beyond that group, of course. There are currently approximately 80 prisoners in New Zealand Corrections facilities across the country who identify as members of ‘White Power’ (although the extent of that affiliation or the ideological commitment of these individuals is not recorded). And an election year poses increased risk of terrorist violence, particularly by fascist groups who disagree with the democratic process. The risk of a white nationalist attack against Muslims or another minority community therefore remains real.
What Should the Security Services Look For?
The New Zealand intelligence and other security services received a great deal of criticism in the wake of the March 2019 attacks. A change of focus to monitor the risk of white nationalism was required and appears to have taken place. Yet the anonymity of extremist discussion online, the large number of people involved, and the difficulty of knowing which individuals will use violence make the task of these agencies a gargantuan one. Despite these difficulties, the study of political violence can provide some insights for the security services as they choose which groups and individuals to focus on.
While we do not know the extent of the overlap between military personnel and white nationalism, any such links are a cause of concern. Military service provides these men with training (and access to classified information) not available to non-serving members of the public. Yet military training is not necessary for perpetrators to carry out mass casualty attacks as we have seen in the case of Tarrant, Anders Breivik, Dylann Roof, and the Philadelphia, Quebec, El Paso and other attackers. Former military personnel also have no more access to weapons than other civilians: the Action Zealandia member claiming he sought to buy firearms admitted he needed to purchase them on the black market despite his past in the New Zealand Defence Force.
Instead, I suggest that three dynamics can provide signals of a higher likelihood of violence: intra-group competition; group fragmentation and inter-group competition; and whether the group formed after the March 15 attacks.
Past white nationalist terrorism demonstrates that the greatest risk often comes from individuals on the periphery of organised extremist groups. In the months and years before their attacks, Breivik and Tarrant for example, attempted unsuccessfully to be recognised and taken seriously by movement leaders. Rejection drives a process of radicalisation as these individuals become increasingly extreme trying to demonstrate their credibility.
A further risk of violence comes from the fragmentation of groups into new and sometimes smaller units. As they splinter, these groups seek to compete with each other for attention, resources, recruits and legitimacy in a process known in the study of political violence as outbidding. Often the most effective means of competing with others is to become increasingly militant and ultimately, violent.
Finally, I believe it is important to distinguish between those groups which existed before the March 15 Christchurch attacks and those which have formed after. The skinheads and neo-Nazis of the pre-March 2019 era were murderers and racists but they were far from ideologues with a coherent political agenda. They were a far cry from the white nationalist terrorists and accelerationists of today.
March 15, 2019 provided a watershed moment for New Zealand, as major violent events often do. Mass casualty events often have a dramatic impact on extremist movements: moderates drop out and the hard core of militants remain; new more militant members join the movement; and groups splinter and compete. To prevent the reoccurrence of an event like March 15 our analysis of the threat must be as targeted and nuanced as possible.
Chris Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research and teaching are focussed on violent conflict and terrorism.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.