March 18, 2019

IntelBrief: Christchurch and the Globalization of Right-Wing Terrorism

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, March 17, 2019, where one of the two mass shootings occurred.  (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
  • A right-wing extremist is accused of committing a devastating act of terrorism in New Zealand last week, attacking two mosques and killing at least 50 worshipers.
  • The U.S. has spent the past 20 years building a counter-terrorism infrastructure to share information with allies, though this pipeline has almost exclusively been used to exchange intelligence about jihadist groups.
  • Right-Wing Violent Extremism is now labeled by terrorism experts as a global threat, not merely a domestic phenomenon in the West.
  • In the U.S., there is a disconnect between law enforcement action and messaging on the national political level, with President Trump downplaying the issue of RWE.


A self-described right-wing activist is charged with killing at least 50 people and injuring at least 50 others in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack occurred during Friday prayers at two mosques. To maximize the psychological impact of the attack, the perpetrator utilized social media by live-streaming the attack on Facebook. Live videos receive more play on Facebook than previously recorded ones. The video bears a striking resemblance to a video game, and many of those viewing it initially failed to comprehend it was happening in real life. Some viewers cheered on the perpetrator via comments on the live-stream. The terrorist left behind a rambling 87-page manifesto that railed against multiculturalism and Muslim immigration and highlighted a  desire to spark a broader civil war between whites and non-whites.

Despite the data suggesting Right-Wing Violent Extremism (RWE) is the most significant domestic terrorist threat in the United States, far fewer resources are devoted to combatting it than other types of extremism and terrorism. Europeans have made significant changes in order to fight the threat. In Germany, more researchers have been added to Department Two of Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), which tracks RWE. The department plans to increase its ranks by 50% in 2019 with the goal of approaching the size of the largest department working on Islamist terrorism. Similarly, in the UK, between 2016 and 2017 there was an 88% increase in counter-terrorism operations as part of investigations into far-right extremist activities and hate crimes. In 2018, the MI5 was tasked with taking over the intelligence gathering, tracking, and monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and individuals in the UK. This means that the ideology now sits in the same portfolio as Islamist terrorism and Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

As RWE becomes an increasing threat to the U.S. and Europe, its international dimensions are becoming more evident. Right-wing extremists are traveling the globe and forging connections, building a worldwide network of like-minded ideologues and supporters. Foreign entities aim to infiltrate and influence the RWE movement. Russian propaganda tactics from the Cold War era are shifting from supporting left-wing extremist and Communist movements to capitalizing on the resurgent RWE movement in both the U.S. and Europe. There are many similarities in ideology, strategy and tactics, especially in recruitment, between jihadist organizations and RWEs, including an emphasis on anarchy and disrupting society through violence. 

Even though the U.S. has spent the past twenty years building the counter-terrorism infrastructure for Washington and its allies to share information and cooperate on intelligence, this pipeline has mostly been used to exchange tips about al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The counter-terrorism expertise in the U.S. government could also focus on RWE, but that requires political will. The U.S. and the West are capable of devoting the same amount of energy and resources to disrupting right-wing terrorist networks and plots. In the United States, there is a disconnect between the actions of the F.B.I., Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) and other local agencies working together to disrupt right-wing terrorist plots, and political messaging at the national level with President Trump consistently downplaying the issue, recently calling white nationalists ‘a small group of people.’ The evidence does not support this claim, and the global nature of the threat presented by RWE is growing.


Correction: In our IntelBrief from 18 March 2019, it was incorrectly stated that Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency is called the BND, instead of BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz). This page provides a corrected version of the IntelBrief.


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