Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.com.
The decision to kill innocent civilians who are strangers – whether you are a jihadist terrorist or a white nationalist militant – can never be easily explained, but there does seem to be a common profile for “lone actor” Western terrorists today, irrespective of their ideology.
First, they are radicalizing because of what they read online. ISIS created a vast global library of propaganda that influenced terrorists such as Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016. Mateen never met with anyone in ISIS and never traveled to Iraq or Syria where ISIS was headquartered. His radicalization was entirely driven by what he viewed on the internet.
Similarly, Brenton Tarrant, the terrorist who allegedly carried out the New Zealand attacks, killing 50 people, tapped into a large library of white nationalist material from around the world on the internet, according to the document that Tarrant posted about his motivations for the attacks.
Tarrant’s heroes were right-wing terrorists from around the West: Darren Osborne. who killed a Muslim man near a mosque in North London two years ago; Dylann Roof. who killed nine African-Americans in a church in South Carolina in 2015, and, above all, Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011.
Just as school shooters in the United States model themselves and learn from other school shooters, so too do aspiring terrorists learn from and emulate other terrorists.
Nothing in Tarrant’s manifesto suggests that he was indoctrinated in-person or was trained by a white nationalist group. Like Mateen, he radicalized because of what he saw online.
Second, both Mateen and Tarrant seem to have been drifting through life while they shopped for an ideology that justified acts of violence.
Mateen flirted first with the Shia militant group Hezbollah and then with the Sunni militant group al Qaeda, according to co-workers, before he finally settled on the ultra-violent Sunni group, ISIS.
According to his manifesto, Tarrant embraced anarchism, communism and libertarianism before finally settling on white nationalism.
Mateen nurtured dreams of becoming a policeman but instead was working as a security guard at a golf community, which was not his heroic self-conception of his proper role in life.
As he carried out the attack on June 12, 2016, Mateen told a 911 operator, “My name is ‘I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Baghdadi is the self-styled caliph of ISIS, which quickly claimed Mateen as a “soldier of the caliphate.” Mateen was no longer a security guard at a golf community, now, in his own eyes and those of ISIS, he was a real soldier.
Similarly, according to Tarrant’s account in his manifesto, he was going nowhere fast in life. Tarrant “did not attend university” because he “had no great interest in anything offered in the universities to study.” Instead, Tarrant, an Australian, was drifting around the world as a tourist in France, Spain and Portugal and eventually New Zealand.
Just as Mateen was a “soldier” for ISIS and pledged his allegiance to the caliph, Tarrant said in his manifesto that before he carried out his attacks he contacted the “reborn Knights Templar for a blessing…” The Knights Templar were crusaders against Muslim rule in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Tarrant’s hero, Breivik, claimed they had reconstituted in the 21st century.
In both cases, the terrorists were no longer merely zeros, they were now heroes in their own minds, acting either as a soldier of the caliphate or with the blessing of the Knights Templar.
Third, just as the adherents of other murderous ideologies that preceded them believed, Mateen and Tarrant felt that utopia here on earth could only be achieved by the removal of “the Other.” For Stalinists it was the kulaks. For the Nazis it was, of course, the Jews. For ISIS, it is the Shia and other “infidels.” For violent white nationalists it is non-whites, and particularly immigrants.
As we saw with the globalization of ISIS’ ideology, which led to outbreaks of terrorism across the West, the increasing prevalence of white nationalist ideas around the globe has provided fertile ground for acts of violence.
Political leaders in several Western countries feel no compunction about staking their careers on white nationalist themes that are typically anti-immigrant, often anti-Muslim and sometimes anti-Semitic.
A few years ago these ideas were on the fringes of politics in the West, but they have now entered the mainstream.
Consider that Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, has built his political career on anti-immigrant stances. Orban has also made a central part of his platform the denigration of the Jewish American-Hungarian billionaire, George Soros, as a “puppet master.” A common anti-Semitic slur is that Jews are the secret puppet masters controlling the world.
Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has variously said that immigrants carry “all sorts of parasites and protozoa,” that they have imposed sharia law in parts of Sweden and that they use churches in Italy as “toilets.”
Geert Wilders was once a marginal figure in Dutch politics but in 2017, his party came in second in parliamentary elections.
Wilders has long espoused a wide variety of anti-Islamic views.
Similarly, Marine Le Pen in France was also once at the margins of French politics. In 2010, Le Pen compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation of France. Seven years later, Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, but she still garnered a third of the votes.
In 2017, the anti-Muslim party Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third largest party in the German parliament even though it was only founded four years earlier.
President Donald Trump’s views about Mexican immigrants are, of course, well known, as was his campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States. On Friday, Trump referred to immigrants on the US’ southern border as part of an “invasion.”
Similarly, Tarrant described Muslim immigrants in his manifesto as “invaders.”
The man who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October repeatedly referred to immigrants from Mexico and Central America as “invaders” and blamed a Jewish organization that helps refugees.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Of course, merely espousing white nationalist views doesn’t make you a terrorist any more than merely espousing views about jihadism make you a terrorist. But these ideas are a necessary feature of acts of white nationalist terrorism of the kind that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, or for the acts of jihadist terrorism that have plagued the West for many years.
Both Mateen and Tarrant needed the ideologies of ISIS and white nationalism to give them the justification to murder dozens of innocent strangers. Both radicalized online and felt that they were carrying out heroic missions that would help set the conditions for some utopian future. Of course, all they achieved was to create a hell here on earth for their victims and their families.