on security

Mar 19, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

9 mins read

What the New Zealand Attack Tells Us About the State of Terrorism

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would be looking for answers from Facebook and other social media firms about how an attack was livestreamed on their platforms.
(DAVID MOIR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Although the Christchurch killer worked alone to attack his targets in southern New Zealand, he clearly felt connected to a global movement and believed that he was part of a historical continuum. 
  • The quick dissemination of the killer's white supremacist manifesto and livestream video of the attack online illustrate how the internet, social media and cheap mobile cameras have empowered terrorist actors to become their own forms of mass media.
  • The killer also cited jihadist attacks in Europe as part of his motive — highlighting how terrorism can become a vicious cycle that spawns other acts of terrorism.

An anonymous poster on 8chan’s "politically incorrect" /pol/ message board, which is known for hosting large quantities of uncensored vulgar and hateful content, announced March 15 that he was going to finally take action and "attack the invaders." He provided a link to his Facebook page where he said he would livestream the attack. While 8chan (and especially the /pol/ message board) is full of pranks, empty threats and hyperbole, this poster was not joking. 

Shortly after posting the message, he began to livestream a video on Facebook showing him entering a mosque in west Christchurch, New Zealand, and then opening fire on the congregation just as Friday prayers were starting, before driving off to attack worshippers at another mosque across town. Once he was apprehended by the police, the shooter had taken the lives of approximately 49 civilians, wounding scores of others. The murderer is a 28-year-old Australian citizen who I will consciously refuse to name because doing so would help fulfill his craving for attention. 

The Big Picture

The assailant behind the deadly shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, had been plotting an attack for two years. This underlines that terrorist attacks do not occur in a vacuum — rather, they are the result of a process that must be followed, which makes perpetrators vulnerable to detection each step of the way. Because of this, it is important to focus on indications that attacks are being planned regardless of the actor's race, ethnicity or ideological bent. 

An Act of Terrorist Theater

Prior to launching the attack, the Christchurch killer posted links to a manifesto he had written on the same 8chan board, asking for others on the board to distribute it widely. He also emailed the manifesto to the office of New Zealand's prime minister, along with some 70 other recipients — urging his readers to attack politicians, corporate leaders and nongovernmental organizations that support globalism and multiculturalism. This makes it abundantly clear that he conducted the heinous attack as a political message intended to spawn "copycats," and that it was clearly an act of terrorism carefully planned and executed to serve as what I refer to as "terror theater."

Terrorism has always been intended as a message. But in today's era of the internet, social media and cheap mobile cameras, terrorist actors can now become their own mass media. Certainly in this case, despite the efforts of social media companies to remove the content from the internet, both the manifesto and livestream video of the attack have already widely proliferated, and can now never be put back in the bottle — which was exactly the killer's intent. Of course, he is not the first to use these tools — the perpetrator behind the 2012 Toulouse attack in France and the perpetrator behind the 2014 attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium both wore video cameras during their attacks as well. 

Additionally, the Christchurch killer clearly displayed his intent by painting a variety of white supremacist-related terms on the guns he used in the attack, which he posted images of on Twitter shortly before launching the attack. Certainly, this very intentional employment of social media to amplify the message of his attack will draw much attention and perhaps additional regulation of social media platforms. There are also, however, some important lessons that can be learned from an examination of the attack cycle and the tactics employed in this attack.

Examining the Attack Cycle

The far-right bomber who committed the 2011 attacks in Oslo, Norway provided a great deal of detail on how he progressed through his attack cycle, including how he selected and surveilled his targets, the manner in which he obtained bombmaking components and constructed the vehicle bomb, as well as how he acquired his firearms. When looking at this most recent attack in New Zealand, the killer did note in his manifesto that he had been plotting an attack for two years. He also said he decided to target the city of Christchurch three months ago, and provided some insight into his rationale behind choosing the mosques he struck.

But unlike the Oslo bomber, he did not provide any detail on how he conducted surveillance of those targets, or how he trained and prepared for the attack. He also did not share any information on how he amassed the small arsenal of firearms that New Zealand authorities found in his vehicle, including two legal AR-15 rifles, a semi-automatic shotgun, a pump shotgun, a bolt action rifle and a lever-action rifle (five of which were reportedly purchased legally).  

The Christchurch killer did, however, note that he intentionally chose to conduct an armed assault instead of a bombing because he sought to inflame the already-heated public discourse over firearms ownership, and because he thought it would generate more media coverage. Compared with a bombing, an armed assault also provided a longer livestream video, and one that closely resembled a first-person shooter game for those the killer sought to recruit to his cause.

In his manifesto, the shooter also claimed he had no ill will toward the police, and had no intention of killing any officers. He also noted that while he realized the chances were slim, he hoped he'd survive the attack so that he could plead not guilty, and use the ensuing trial to further disseminate his propaganda — viewing it as a platform to extend the exploitation phase of his attack cycle.

Not Just for Jihadists

The fact that the Christchurch killer worked alone and was not affiliated with an organized white supremacist group is unsurprising. While the leaderless resistance model of terrorism is now more commonly associated with jihadists, white supremacists adopted the concept decades ago due to intense and unrelenting law enforcement pressure. Because of this, attacks by white supremacists are almost always conducted by either a lone assailant (like in Christchurch, the Oslo bombing or the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Georgia) or by small cells (like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing). 

But just because these individuals and small cells operate in isolation does not mean they are radicalized and act in a vacuum. Like their jihadist counterparts, white supremacist lone actors and small cells are most often connected to a wider community of radicals via the internet, which offers an echo chamber of hate and grievance that often helps advance the radicalization process and inspire attackers to act. These communities can also provide access to propaganda, target lists and tactical advice, such as bombmaking instructions. 

Significantly, in the internet age, these communities are also global, which was clearly reflected by the Christchurch killer. Although he was a single Australian working alone to attack a target in southern New Zealand, he clearly felt connected to a global movement and believed that he was part of a historical continuum. In his manifesto, he claimed that he had briefly been in contact with the Oslo bomber, and that others with the Knights Templar (a medieval Roman Catholic military order now allegedly reborn as an anti-Muslim militant group) had "blessed" his attack beforehand — eerily similar to the way Islamic leaders have blessed some attacks by grassroots jihadists via the Internet.

While governments often focus on monitoring jihadist-related activity, recent history — including this latest attack in New Zealand — clearly demonstrates the importance of watching for right- and left-wing radicals as well.

The slogans and names written on the attacker's guns also provide some insight into the global nature of white supremacist ideology. On one of his rifles, he had written the name of a Canadian man who shot up a mosque in Quebec City in 2017, leaving six people dead. And on another, he had written the name of a Swedish white supremacist who slew three people at a school in 2015 with a sword before being shot dead himself. Names of figures in European history involved in turning back Muslim invasions of Europe, such as Charles Martel, were also written on the rifles.  

Not surprisingly, the number 14 was emblazoned in several places on at least two of the Christchurch killer's rifles as well, which is shorthand for the white supremacist motto "14 words." The motto is attributed to the notorious U.S. domestic terrorist David Lane, one of the founders of a neo-Nazi gang that conducted a spree of robberies, bombings and murders during the 1980s who died in 2017 serving a 150-year prison term for his crimes. In addition to inscribing it on his weapons, the killer also repeated the "14 words" phrase several times in his manifesto. 

By design, the leaderless resistance form of terrorism provides a great degree of operational security for those practicing it. But the method also brings with it some serious limitations that law enforcement can capitalize on to detect and prevent such attacks. Perhaps the greatest of these limitations is that the lone assailant must conduct every step of the attack cycle by himself. This means that he must expose himself repeatedly to detection as he progresses through the cycle, especially during activities such as conducting surveillance and acquiring weapons. The assailants also frequently post radical information on the internet — and specifically, social media — which can bring them to the attention of authorities. 

But while governments often focus on monitoring jihadist-related activity, recent history — including this latest attack in New Zealand — clearly demonstrates the importance of watching for right- and left-wing radicals as well in an effort to pre-empt future attacks. 

The Cycle of Violence

More broadly, this case also serves as a reminder that terrorism can become a vicious cycle that spawns other terrorism. The Christchurch killer referenced past jihadist attacks in Europe as among the events that radicalized him to take action — specifically calling out the April 2017 vehicular assault in Stockholm as his breaking point. Within hours of the Christchurch attack, Islamic State supporters began threatening retribution for the assault. Shortly after the news of the shooting broke, one Islamic State supporter even posted a photo of a firearm and a suicide bomb with threats and the date of the attack (March 15, 2019) written on them in a manner mimicking the writing on the rifles used in the Christchurch attack. 

The cycle of violence will, therefore, undoubtedly continue to feed on itself. On its own, however, the attack on the two mosques in New Zealand will ultimately fail to spark the widespread violence its assailant had hoped would eventually grow into to a race war sowing divisions in the United States and the rest of the world. And while the Christchurch shooter may inevitably succeed in serving as an inspiration to others vulnerable to radicalization, like his white supremacist predecessors, they will be few and far between.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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