Originally published by Council on Foreign Relations – October 11, 2019
As Stephan Balliet opened fire this week at a synagogue and kebab shop in Halle, Germany, the world watched, horrified but no longer surprised. The shooting was a near carbon copy of the terrorist attack earlier this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a far-right gunman broadcast his killing of fifty-one people at two mosques live on the internet.
The Yom Kippur shooting in Halle, like Christchurch, represents the confluence of three significant trends in terrorism: a rising far right, the targeting of places of worship, and the use of social media and livestreams.
A Far-Right Wave of Violence
The far right is beginning to dominate the terrorism stage in the Western world. It was responsible for every single extremism-related killing in the United States in 2018—including six mass-casualty incidents. Last year was the most violent in terms of U.S. terrorism since 1982, according to START’s Global Terrorism Database. Right-wing assailants have also perpetrated high-level political assassinations in the United Kingdom and Germany. Anti-Semitism has been particularly prevalent; Germany, for example, suffered 1,800 acts of anti-Semitism last year, its highest since 2006.
These networked adversaries, operating within a loose, leaderless ideological framework, are a different kind of terrorist. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence [PDF] highlights this, noting the proliferation of perpetrators writing manifestos rather than being motivated by radicalizers or taking orders from commanders. Like his predecessors, the Halle shooter posted a manifesto online, hoping to provide a call to arms for fellow white nationalists. Although Balliet is German, he wrote it in English, suggesting he sought a global audience.
Bringing Terrorism to Holy Sites
Largely due to ideological grievances, religious sites have become the primary target for far-right terrorists, particularly since the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike are increasingly at risk at these vulnerable spaces, known as soft targets. Other far-right attacks in recent years in Charleston, South Carolina; Quebec City, Canada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; Baerum, Norway; and now Halle have all targeted places of worship, spanning the major religions. Two attacks this year, those in Poway and Halle, were carried out on Jewish holidays, attempting to transform days of special reverence into ones of horror.
A Live Internet Audience
More and more terrorists are publicizing their shocking violence on social media, and in extreme cases livestreaming their rampages to followers on the internet. Social media users received a devastating introduction to this phenomenon during the Christchurch attack, when a brutal seventeen-minute video shattered the usual sense of isolation amid violent incidents around the globe. In so doing, the gunman dragged terrorism into the social media age. (The perpetrator of the 2019 synagogue attack in Poway attempted unsuccessfully to livestream his shooting.)
In the latest episode, the Halle gunman opened his thirty-five-minute video by expressing his anti-Semitic views. “I think the Holocaust never happened,” he said, then tried and failed to gain entry to the synagogue, where he is suspected to have planned to carry out a massacre. Blocked from the facility, he proceeded to murder a woman outside and then a man at a nearby kabob shop.
Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins famously called terrorism “theater.” That theater is now playing out on computer screens around the world, in real time. The power of social media has turned terrorist attacks in New Zealand and Germany into heinous acts of performance art, designed to inspire imitation around the world.
How to Respond
There are no easy fixes to this intensifying problem. There is not always an organized group to investigate, leader to target, or single online community to de-platform. Moreover, far-right extremism is often more transnational than is commonly assumed.
An effective response will require greater devotion and resources from domestic intelligence agencies—indeed, this is already occurring in places—as well as persistent international collaboration. Improved law enforcement training and awareness are also essential. As both community observers and first responders, law enforcement agencies provide both the first and last lines of defense, so they need to be well-prepared and ready to act.
The synagogue in Halle was able to repel the attacker, but policymakers and practitioners must identify and enact stronger, longer-term responses to this threat.