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From Gangs to Groupuscules & Solo-Actor Terrorism: New Zealand Far-Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives in the Context of the Christchurch Attack

From Gangs to Groupuscules & Solo-Actor Terrorism: New Zealand Far-Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives in the Context of the Christchurch Attack
26th April 2021 Dr. William Allchorn
In Insights

At 1.40pm on 15 March 2019, Christchurch shooter, Brenton Heston Tarrant, approached the Al-Noor Mosque near the city’s Hagley Park. Greeted by a septuagenarian usher at Friday prayers, Tarrant opened fire on worshippers for six minutes. He only stopped to reload and to gather more ammunition and weapons from his car outside before continuing his bloody rampage. Returning to his vehicle at 1.46pm, the terrorist then drove for seven minutes (6.5km) across town to the Linwood Islamic Centre, where he began firing through the Centre’s windows at worshippers gathering inside. Challenged by a congregant, Tarrant then fled the scene of his second massacre at 1.56pm before being arrested at 1.59pm. Whilst the use of livestreaming and the transnational nature of the attacker’s networks set a trend for radical right terrorism in 2019 and 2020, a vital detail remains unique to Christchurch: It is the site of one of the most deadly radical right terror attacks within recent history. In total, 51 people were killed and another 50 seriously wounded.

Notwithstanding this appalling act, New Zealand’s recent history has been peppered with (albeit isolated) instances of radical right extremist violence. After the terrorist violence inflicted upon worshippers at the Al-Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, much greater attention has been given to right-wing violent extremism. Historically in New Zealand, this extremism has ranged from white skinhead gangs, such as the New Zealand’s Southern Cross Hammerskins, to radical right parties like National Front, and on to more recent activist groups such as Action Zealandia.

Radical Right Groups and Narratives in New Zealand: Anti-Māori, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Establishment, Chauvinist and Blood and Soil Environmentalist Sentiments

In the most recent country report for the CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project, we researched twelve radical right organisations and influencers that have been active in recent years; organised according to the mainstreamness of their ideology and propensity for violence. Moving from white supremacist gangs to identitarian groups, the report tracked the evolving repertoire of action and violence within New Zealand’s radical right extremist scene. From the murder of the son of New Zealand cricketer Richard Motz in Christchurch by a neo-Nazi activist to the four victims of a seventeen-year killing spree by the (now defunct) neo-Nazi ‘Fourth Reich’ group, it was clear that extremist lone actors and radical right groups have been painting a concerning threat picture for some time prior to the 2019 Christchurch massacre.

Another interesting facet of the report was seeing how New Zealand’s radical right scene had evolved immediately after the Christchurch attacks. Indeed, and like in neighbouring Australia, at least two groups (the neo-fascist National Front and the identitarian Dominion Movement (DM)) went as far as disbanding their operations after the attack. As reporters have noted, however, members have not simply disappeared but have instead migrated to other radical right extremist groups, with strong evidence that DM members became part of another identitarian group, Action Zealandia. This again points to another facet of such a small extremist milieu in New Zealand: often the same activists (such as Colin Ansell and Kyle Chapman in the New Zealand case) crop up again and again in what some researchers have characterised as New Zealand’s “undulating” and fragmented radical right extremist scene.

Turning to the narratives propagated by the groups themselves, these – like much of the organisation and trajectory of the radical right extremist scene itself – had a distinctively New Zealand centric inflection. Exposed to violent rhetoric present in street movements and at the groupuscular level, each face of radical right extremism mobilises around a common set of anti-Maori, anti-establishment, chauvinist as well as blood-and-soil environmentalist narratives. For example, and in line with revisionist conspiratorial beliefs, the Dominion Movement opined the marginalisation of Europeans in New Zealand, stating: “are we only supposed to remember the supposed crimes of our ancestors, our apparent trickery and the supposed theft of Māori land, the phoney victims of British oppression?” Moreover, chauvinism was also evident at the core of many groups’ ideological claims – with Action Zealandia stating: “Strong men are the foundation of strong communities and successful families… Having fit and educated men will shape the success of the movement.”  Furthermore, a key hot issue among New Zealand’s Yellow Vest division was the UN Migration Pact – with the Yellow Vests calling upon followers in response “To protect our lands, our water, our airwaves, our borders, our national security, our sovereignty, our foods, our education, our health, our foods, our environment, our justice, our religious freedoms, our people, our culture, our kids.”

Radical Right Countering Violent Radical Right Extremism in New Zealand, Post-Christchurch

Like in Australia, the radical right extremist threat has only been recognised recently. This means that there are few examples of formal programmes and interventions designed to mitigate or tackle head on forms of radical right extremist terrorism and violence. Such a lacuna is obviously related to the low threat picture posed by radical right extremism and terrorism in general in New Zealand prior to the tragic events of 15 March 2019. It is therefore a propitious time for police, government and civil society to redouble their efforts in thinking about how to prevent another similar attack through developing a radical right counter-narrative campaign.

Having said this, one of the best examples of radical right counter-narratives, or strategic communications relating to radical right extremism, came in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks. The Christchurch attack and New Zealand’s impassioned response to it witnessed a proactive shift in seizing the initiative against radical right violent extremism. It focused on everyday individuals and victims, thus derailing tabloid-type attempts to place the attacker at the heart of national discussion. Narratives used at the time of the attack by Ardern show a high level of coherence and fidelity, borne out in her interweaving micro-level narratives about individuals affected by the attack, while also operating at the macro level by reaffirming ‘inclusive’ and ‘tolerant’ aspects of New Zealand’s national identity. Such a weaving of macro and micro ideas of New Zealand national identity demonstrated the power of administering an alternative narrative to foster a new sense of belonging and acceptance, refusing the anti-Muslim, exclusivist ideology of the terrorist perpetrator and instead placing a new onus on including migrant members of New Zealand’s national community, and thus using language to demonstrate inclusive notions of New Zealand as a nation (‘you are one of us’).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The radical right counter-narratives report on New Zealand provided a survey of narratives and potential counter-messaging responses following the Christchurch terrorist attack. Moving from street-based activism to cellular-based groupuscules and online influence organisations, the report identified the problematic links between radical right extremist groups, survivalists and gang culture in New Zealand. Other issues that appear to be animating radical right extremism included the pushback against gun restrictions in the post-Christchurch context and nativist opposition to the 2018 UN migration pact. These fed threat narratives around a constellation of anti-Maori, white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-establishment, environmentalist and chauvinist concerns that map onto these mainstream issues and have (an albeit limited) violent potential. In particular, chauvinism and the notion of an idealised strong and fearless man appear to be driving much of the extreme rhetoric amongst New Zealand’s radical right at the time of writing.

It is worth reiterating that the government’s response provides a unique case study of how practitioners can respond to these sorts of attacks. With counter-narratives in particular, practitioners would be advised to draw on the strategic communications response in New Zealand, especially by the Prime Minister’s office and Police Commissioner in the immediate post-attack context. These centre around: The importance of inclusive messaging around nationhood and identity in the immediate aftermath of a radical right extremist attack, designed to shape mainstream discourse against that of the perpetrator; the importance of leadership, especially at the top of Government, in creating and conveying these messages; the importance of empathetic and emotive language when responding with a focus on victims rather than the radical right attacker; and, the importance of a co-ordinated counter-messaging response that can help to delegitimise the perpetrator’s ideological claims.

By mobilising alternative narratives and identifying new grievances that might be appropriated by this form of ideological extremism (in this, gun rights and UN migration compacts), NGOs, practitioners and policymakers will therefore be better equipped at dealing with radical right extremism in New Zealand moving forward. Reflecting on its response to terrorist atrocities, New Zealand has been given a rare moment to experience the terrible throes of radical right extremism in the present moment. In the future, therefore, it is vital that New Zealand police, governments and NGOs avoid such a unique experience repeating itself by acting in a preventative manner when it comes to radical right extremism. Such an approach will involve funding and facilitating countering violent extremism and counter-narrative projects that undermine the multiple prejudices and grievances that give rise to this form of activism in the first place. Only then will New Zealand halt the scourge of radical right extremism in its midst.