Internationalised and gamified: the attack was indicative of the contemporary far-right terror threat

Yesterday, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a suspected gunman killed two people in the east German town of Halle. Heavily armed with homemade weapons, after failing to enter his original target – a synagogue – he shot dead two people nearby and injured a further two before being detained by German police upon attempting to flee.

A document circulated online and attributed to the alleged gunman by the ICSR at King’s College, London, and written in the parlance of the modern online far right, made explicit that the apparent rationale behind the rampage was both antisemitic and Islamophobic

The tragedy is just the latest in a string of deadly far-right attacks around the globe over the last year, including in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso and Pittsburgh in the USA, again reiterating both the increasing threat of far-right terrorism and the international nature of the extreme right. 

An international audience

The publication of documents outlining the details and motivations ahead of the attack, the usage of livestreamed video and the use of vocabulary common to far-right online spaces echo the familiar characteristics of recent far-right shootings.

Both the broadcast and documents were mostly in English, therefore immediately accessible and understandable to a global online audience. This echoes previous attacks where shooters have broadcasted their rampages and inevitably reaching an international audience and their manifestos later spread and translated into multiple languages in order to be understood by a larger audience.

A commonality between all the previous attacks is a view of the threat as racial or civilisational. Writing and speaking in English is a way to connect with potential supporters across the West and reflects the importance of international, usually English-language, online far-right spaces for such connections.

The Halle shooter’s plan varied slightly from previous ones, highlighting the ever evolving nature of far-right terror, but also made plain that he viewed the murders he committed as part of a wider violent offensive, aimed at inspiring others to do the same. 

The documents circulated online featured descriptions of homemade weaponry, including a semi-automatic submachine gun and explosives in contrast to previous shootings. Despite also carrying a manufactured, but antique, rifle, the planning document claimed that the home-made weapons would be the primary mode of attack, in order to prove the viability of improvised firearms and therefore encourage those without access to industrially-made guns to carry out their own attacks. It appears that the plan formed part of a wider violent offensive, aimed at inspiring others to do the same.

Gamification of terror

The planning document points to another worrying trend in pro-terror online spaces; what has become known as the ‘gamification’ of far-right terror attacks. Ever since the Christchurch mass shooting, commentators on the now closed 8chan /pol/ forum and various pro-terror Telegram channels and other forums have discussed far-right terrorism in terms of their “score”. This vocabulary is borrowed from TV and computer games, but used here to describe the number of lives a shooter takes. Sometimes it also reflects a desire to “beat the highscore” of previous terrorists. Lists of the most deadly attacks, rendered in graphics reminiscent of retro computer games, are circulated on Telegram and far-right forums as “leaderboards”, where the most deadly terrorist attacks over the last decade are ranked and the shooters celebrated. The Christchurch shooter is, for instance, often referred to as a “saint”.

However, there is more to gamification than a score system. It is also about terror as entertainment, and the excitement these supporters derive from watching someone “win” or set a new “high score”. For the potential terrorist, part of the motivation appears to be the prospect of ending up at the top of the scoreboard and thereby gaining some significance through delivering on those expectations and outdoing previous shooters.

Glorification of death and murder is not new to the far right, but the video of the Christchurch shooting popularised the tactic of livestreaming video. With far-right phrases graffitied onto the weapons featured in the video stream, it got maximum attention and provoked responses from the online far-right. It created imagery that anybody that has played a first-person shooting game would recognise. The camera mounted on the helmet made the attack look like computer game, and following the attack, edited versions of the video even appeared online with the interface of a game added. 

Video of the Halle shooting spree, filmed from a helmet mounted camera, was live streamed on the popular game streaming platform Twitch. One page of the document lists a number of “achievements” which would be gained if a specific weapon was used, if people of different religions were killed and even points for targeting children. These ‘achievements’ were given different names akin to the way many computer games reward players. As a result, the nazi website The Daily Stormer, called it a “gamer uprising”.

The stream begins with the alleged shooter talking to the camera and and then apologising to the streaming audience when he fails to gain entry to the synagogue, possibly reflecting the feeling that he had failed to deliver what the audience expects. Many commentators on far-right forums who argued that the attack did not live up to the listed “achievements”, the gunman amateurish and the plan poorly thought through.

Hatred against women

The livestream video featured not only extreme anti-feminist politics, but also indicated a familiarity with the online involuntary celibate or ‘incel’ subculture, whose members blame their lack of sexual and romantic success on feminism and women and whose extreme misogynist element has been cited as the motivation for a number of terror attacks in recent years. Incels make up one part of the ‘manosphere’: a loose collection of websites, forums, blogs and vlogs concerned with men’s issues and masculinity, oriented around an opposition to feminism and, within parts, embrace of extreme misogyny and wider hatred.

The man in the livestream video plays two songs on a car stereo during the attack which indicate familiarity with the incel subculture. One is a track, created by a vlogger in the incel community, known for its glorification of the Toronto incel terror attack, the other is from a Japanese anime TV series with a Western following. In his livestream, the shooter calls himself a “weeb”, a reference to the ‘weeaboo’ subculture of Westerners who are keen fans of Japanese popular culture, a subculture which some members of the incel community identify with.

In the video he also states that he believes “feminism is the cause of declining birth rates in the West which acts as a scapegoat for mass immigration, and the root of all these problems is the Jew.” A conspiratorial interpretation of feminism is a uniting viewpoint across the manosphere, and while antisemitism is not a uniform view therein, antisemitic views are still often present, including in parts of the incel community. This was evident in extreme antisemitic statements on a central English-language incel forum following the attack, incuding those that highlighted an overlap with the wider far right, with one user asking for copies of the livestream, before stating they’d managed to find a copy on a neo-Nazi forum. In comparison, German-language incel forums contained little discussion of the event, again highlighting the importance of English-language online spaces to the international far right’s networking.

Wider threat

Often the talk in the media is of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, a term that can, when used incorrectly, give the impression that an individual has radicalised in complete isolation. The truth is that while some terrorists do plan and carry out their attacks alone, it is very rare for them not to have emerged from an ecosystem of sorts.

Across the entire far right we are seeing the emergence of a post-organisational threat, a decentralised collective of anonymous people working in broadly the same direction and towards similar goals, often in informal interaction with one another. That is not to say formal organisations are no longer important – they clearly are. National Action in the UK and Atomwaffen Division in the US have shown the very real threat posed by structured far-right terror groups.

However, there is also a worryingly large number of people engaging with extreme and pro-terrorism content online, that are ostensibly unaffiliated to any formal organisation. In various corners of the internet they are engaging in a form of collective politics, just not as a formal member of a structured organisation. As the breadth of targets of hatred highlighted by the Halle shooter’s statements indicate too, these unstructured online communities are imparting a variety of extreme ideologies and influences, from antisemitism and Islamophobia to extreme misogyny and much else. 

The internet has catalysed this form of informal decentralised collective action, with forums such as 4Chan and 8Chan and communication platforms such as Discord and Telegram facilitating discussion and sometimes planning. If we are to understand the real nature of contemporary far-right terrorism, we have to look beyond branded organisations and also explore this complex, labyrinthine and hard-to-monitor world of pro-terrorism online spaces.

This attack on a synagogue on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is a worrying sign of the rise of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere, of which far-right online communities are a part, but not the only place where antisemitic views are held. More needs to be done to counter this development. At the same time, this recent string of attacks on both Muslim and Jewish places of worship is also a reminder that antisemitism and islamophobia are often linked.