The Christchurch Terror Attack: A Case of Online Radicalisation?

By Joe Whittaker & Chamin Herath

On 15 March, 2019, a far-right terrorist conducted two consecutive attacks at Mosques in New Zealand’s capital, Christchurch. The attacker killed 51 people who had come for Friday Prayers and injured 40 more. In August of 2020 he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for his crimes. Beyond the tragic loss of life, the attack became notorious because it was live streamed on Facebook. The killer also uploaded a manifesto online prior to the event, and during the attack he shouted ‘Subscribe to Pew-Die-Pie” – a meme that refers to a popular YouTuber. It was immediately clear that the Internet played an important role in the event.

On 8 December, 2020, the Government of New Zealand released an almost 800-page report of their Royal Commission into the attack, which includes a substantial section on the life and behaviours of the killer. It details a range of different online behaviours that add a richness to our understanding of his radicalisation trajectory. Almost immediately, mainstream news sources like the Guardian noted that the ‘report found [that the] terrorist radicalised on YouTube.’ The New York Times journalist Kevin Roose concurred with this, adding that the report firmly establishes that the shooter was a YouTube radical. Below, we will offer an overview of the killer’s pre-event behaviours and argue that despite the Internet playing an important role, it is a misnomer to think of this case as one of “online radicalisation.”

At face value, the attacker’s journey may seem like a typical case of online radicalisation. Since the age of six, he had used the Internet extensively, surfing the web unsupervised on a computer in his bedroom. As a result, he developed a passion for online gaming, particularly multiplayer role-playing games and first-person shooters. As a socially isolated teenager, gaming was the only social activity that he participated in and according to one friend that he met online, he often shared racist and ethno-nationalist views in the online chat.

By 14, he began to use 4chan, an online forum that was, and still is, used prominently by extreme right-wing communities. By his early 20s, he began using Facebook and sporadically posted far right content and expressed his extremist views publicly. Within the two years prior to the attack, he became more active on the platform and followed several far-right pages, such as Australia’s United Patriots Front (UPF), and The Lads Society Season Two, a private group made up of UPF members. However, whilst he affiliated himself with these groups online, he never met them offline.

In fact, when the founder of The Lads Society mentioned that they had ‘clubhouses’ in Melbourne and Sydney, he declined to participate. Nevertheless, he was an active contributor to their pages, and he posted a number of comments with links to YouTube videos, articles from far-right media sources, and memes concerning current issues in Europe and New Zealand.

Around the same time, the killer began donating to various international right-wing organisations through PayPal and Bitcoin. Among those to whom he donated were prominent individuals from the far right such as YouTuber Stefan Molyneux and the leader of the Austrian Identitarian Movement, Martin Sellner, the latter of whom he shared multiple email exchanges with. Despite engaging with a wider network of online co-ideologues, once he had decided to commit an attack, he did not attempt to contact anyone for funding or operational support. The only possible signal of intent to other members of his wider online radical milieu occurred one year before the attack, when he engaged in an online discussion and suggested that the main threat to Western society was the immigration of “high social cohesion immigrants” and implied that it cannot be stopped without violence.

Regardless, it is common practice among members of the online extreme right community to utilise guarded irony, rather than to specifically advocate violence, in order to maintain an aura of uncertainty around the true nature of their beliefs. In the lead up to the attack, the Christchurch attacker halted all communication and dedicated his time to planning the events of 15 March in meticulous detail.

There are striking similarities between the Christchurch attacker and the case of Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter: another lone actor who was also described as having “radicalised online.” Both men abused steroids; conducted online and offline reconnaissance; divulged their plans to those closest to them; and posted online in advance of their attacks. It seems that both fit the bill of the threat laid out by Weimann almost a decade ago of ‘the “lone wolf,” living next door, radicalised on the Internet, and plotting strikes in the dark.’ However, like Mateen, there are important offline factors that paint a different picture.

If the killer was radicalised online, this would go against the grain of previous research into lone actor terrorists’ use of the Internet, which has generally found both online and offline antecedent behaviours to be present. Although lone actors often rely on the Internet more than their group-based counterparts, their trajectories often includes interactions in both online and offline radical milieus. In their research on 119 lone actors, Gill and Corner find that there is a growing tendency to rely on the Internet, but that if an offender engages in an online interaction – such as network activity or online planning – they are more likely to engage in the offline domain too.

Similarly, Corner, Bouhana, and Gill find that in their sample of 125 lone actors, only 16% were first exposed to radicalising influences online, although they note that a proportion of their sample dates back to the 1990s, so may have been active pre-Internet. Importantly, there is still a dearth of empirical research into both the phenomena of lone actor terrorism andonline radicalisation, and therefore current conclusions must be tentative.

There are offline influences that could be key in understanding the killer’s trajectory. He had several psychological stressors from an early age. This includes his parent’s separation, which his mother noted changed his personality, becoming more clingy, anxious, and not socialising well. After the separation, his mother’s new partner, a man of Aboriginal descent, was abusive to both him, his sister, and his mother. The report notes that this was around the time that he started expressing racist ideas in public, twice being disciplined at school for it. It was also around the time that he started posting on 4chan; it is left undetermined in the Royal Commission report as to which came first or whether one caused the other. At school he had few friends and was bullied for his weight. A few years later, when he was around 16 or 17, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, eventually taking his own life. This was around the time when the killer began to exercise compulsively and shed some weight. The idea of a “cognitive opening” is well-trodden ground within radicalisation research; many individuals who have personal crises become more open to new worldviews.

There were also several important offline factors in his later life as well. His mother, sister, and a gaming friend all agreed that he returned from his travels around the world a changed person and displayed many more openly racist tendencies. Although there is no reason to believe that he had offline contact with any known extremists, he did tell all three that he was mugged in Ethiopia, which they believed increased the intensity of his racism. There was also an incident with his mother and her new partner, who is of Indian descent, in which the killer refused to eat at a café populated with migrants, leaving his mother “petrified” about the individual’s increasingly racist views. It is also possible that he suffered from mental health issues, diagnosing himself with autism and stating that he was possibly sociopathic. Mental health issues – and autism spectrum disorder in particular – has historically been prevalent in lone actor terrorists, although research tends to play down the notion that it is a direct cause of violence.

This case highlights how difficult it can be to separate the online world from the offline. The report notes that his travels, including the mugging incident, were important in the hardening of his beliefs and movement to action, but also notes that he was on the Internet constantly while experiencing these countries because he was socially isolated. In the age of smart phones and mobile Internet technology, one might be inclined to question the utility of an online/offline dichotomy. Today, the two domains are inseparably interlinked. This can also be seen in his pre-attack reconnaissance, which he conducted physically by driving to the mosques and using a drone, but then emailed himself his notes.

Ultimately, whether you think that the Christchurch attacker was radicalised online will depend on your conceptualisation of a nebulous idea. If this is fulfilled by the Internet playing an important role, then this case clearly fits the bill. However, a clearer look at his life raises important questions – when did his radicalisation begin? How important was the Internet compared to his childhood experiences? How did his experiences in later life affect his Internet usage?

These are not questions with easy answers, which is why we argue that frames such as “online radicalisation” can be misleading and lead us to policy positions that only address part of the problem and may lead to negative outcomes. For example, a focus on removing terrorism content from the Internet, while laudable, may have unintended consequences for law enforcement investigations. Despite the important role of the Internet, it is worth bearing in mind, as Durodie and Ng wrote over a decade ago that: ‘No individual approaches the Internet in isolation. They come to it already bearing a vast number of ideas, assumptions and emotions.’ To focus on “online radicalisation” may cause us to overlook these factors.

Joe is a lecturer in Cyber Threats at Swansea University and researches terrorists’ and extremists’ use of the Internet. He is also a research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @CTProject_JW

Chamin has recently completed his masters in Cyber Crime and Terrorism from Swansea University and has a keen interest in cyber threats, misinformation and violent extremism, both on and offline. He is currently a volunteer Research Analyst for NextGen5.0. You can follow him on Twitter: @chamin_herath