On March 15, Australian lone-wolf assassin Brendan Tarrant slaughtered 50 Muslims in and around two mosques in Christchurch, chillingly recording New Zealand’s worst terror attack online. Blurring his innocent/guilty distinction by shooting Muslim worshippers real-time, Tarrant was inspired to perform a Christian ‘counter-jihadist’ crusade (naming Malta’s 1565 Great Siege and 1571 Battle of Lepanto inspirations on one of his guns) driving his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant terrorist rampage. Resembling Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, Alexandre Bissonnette’s 2017 killing of six believers in Quebec’s Great Mosque, and Luca Traini’s 2018 gun chase of migrants in Macerata, Tarrant’s right-wing bloodshed imposes a rethink behind these pure, graphic displays of terrorist violence. 

Terrorism represents the execution, or threat of performing political violence to trigger emotional distress beyond direct victims. Following the Christchurch massacre, the immediate dead and injured were used by Tarrant as ‘message-generators’ to express his multicultural intolerance, and instead promote white-nationalist supremacy to Western states and societies. In a liberal, democratic society like New Zealand, American terrorism expert Brian Jenkins imagines how Tarrant’s butchery can transform terrorism into bloodstained theatre: “Theatrical terrorism refers to people killed not because they deserve it, or are in the wrong place, but to make a point with audiences... the terrorist message is written with people’s blood who matter to the addressee.” Terrorist violence appears to be mindless, but a terrorist’s message asks for political change through threat, chaos and anxiety to targeted audiences. Before committing London’s 2005 7/7 attacks, Al-Qaeda’s leaderless suicide bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan declared how “words are dead... until we give them life with our blood. Your democratically-elected governments complete atrocities against my people in Afghanistan and Iraq... Until we feel security, you’ll be our target.”

Terrorists hit identifiable targets to upset wider audiences into a lasting political, economic, social and cultural crisis. Concerned states and societies, as targeted audiences, can suffer to recover morally following terrorist attacks of atrocious proportions. 9/11, for instance, demoralised American military might and economic power in the wake of Al-Qaeda’s well-organised, but highly-devastating coordinated attacks. Media exposure complements the need to transmit justifications to targeted audiences, motivating terrorists to violently refashion their uncompromising beliefs to an extreme shock value. Publishing his manifesto The Great Replacement, and streaming his homicidal hunt online, Tarrant revolutionised a terrorist’s propaganda by the deed by seeking to inspire insecure, future lone-wolf ‘counter-jihadists’ to copy his vicious motivations. Atrocities tend to remind audiences, particularly targeted states and societies, that a political cause behind an armed struggle remains alive and well for terrorists. The IRA’s 1984 Brighton Hotel bombing is an example. The near assassination of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, together with her entire Conservative cabinet by Provisional IRA volunteer Patrick Magee, proved an endless reminder of the Irish republican fight to free Northern Ireland from Britain. Thirty-five years later, the January 19 car bombing in Londonderry (Derry), committed by New IRA dissidents, aimed to refresh IRA paramilitary traditions against British occupation, considering Brexit’s uncertain reimposition of hardborder checkpoints between the two Irelands.   

Tarrant’s imagined invasion of Muslims, migrants, and other minorities in Europe provoked his framing of targets as global ‘white genocide’ perpetrators. A resulting decline of white-power civilisation reinforced his radicalisation to employ violence, believing how ‘armed resistance’ through terrorism is central to wage war on Islam. In their homicidal mission, terrorists reconsider targets as threatening categories of people meant for elimination. Norwegian sociologist Sveinung Sandberg confirms:”Potential for terrorism gains prominence when individual, and particularly collective identities, are formed around the belief that these are surrounded by existential threats... both culture and survival are at stake.|” Tarrant’s moral tensions changed to bloodthirsty revenge through random, perverse and unpredictable use of violence, taking aim to level misery among Muslims and migrant communities everywhere. 

Identical to Cherif Chekatt’s solo jihadist outrage, responsible for stabbing and shooting five Christmas shoppers in Strasbourg last December, Tarrant’s destructive acts continue to raise concern for liberal state counter-terrorism. 

Branded as ‘super-empowered angry people’, lone-wolves and leaderless cells of all creeds remain hardly spotted, but gifted to sow their cause and message through mass-scale carnage. Anders Behring Breivik was Tarrant’s key inspiration for New Zealand’s terrorist tragedy. International, regional and national security institutions must beware of how Norway’s mass-killer has revolutionised lone-wolf violence since his July 2011 attacks. He single-handedly plunged a democracy into devastating chaos,  blending courage, foresight, discipline, coordination, as well as motivation, to commit his folly murder of 77 innocent compatriots in Oslo (killing eight with a truck bomb), and Utoya (killing 69 through a shooting spree). Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, with three people murdered by the jihadist-inspired Tsarnaev brothers, former American president Barack Obama admitted: “The realistic scenario, with which democracy has to guard against right now, ends up more of lone-wolf attacks rather than large, collectively-organised acts of terrorism.”   

Samuel Bezzina is an independent researcher in terrorism and political violence.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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