Revered as a saint by online extremists, how Christchurch shooter inspired copycat terrorists around the world
“Brenton Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally. He showed me that it could be done. And that it needed to be done.”
Those were the words written by John Timothy Earnest shortly before he stormed a synagogue in Poway, California, and opened fire on the Jewish congregation.
The shooting was the first deadly attack linked to the massacres at two mosques in Christchurch – but not the last.
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On 3 August, a man who declared himself a “supporter of the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto” murdered 22 people in El Paso.
And a week later, a gunman who hailed Tarrant as a “saint” launched a failed attack on a mosque in Norway.
Several other suspected plotters have been arrested in the US and New Zealand, while a man was stabbed in an alleged terror attack in the UK a day after the Christchurch massacres.
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Vincent Fuller, 50, had watched Tarrant’s livestream and news coverage of the attack before launching a rampage armed with a baseball bat and a knife.
“Vincent got a bit angry about the news from New Zealand because he said, ‘It is always them, the Muslims, that get looked after and get cared about,’” his girlfriend told police.
The following day, Fuller marched through the streets of Stanwell attacking cars driven by non-white people while shouting “kill Muslims” and “white supremacy”.
Minutes before starting his rampage, Fuller wrote a Facebook post reading: “I am English, no matter what the government say. Kill all the non-English and get them all out of England.”
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A second Facebook post shortly afterwards added: “I agree with what that man did in New Zealand as we will not be brainwashed.”
On social media and internet forums, right-wing extremists are inciting each other to take up Tarrant’s mantle and launch massacres against Muslims, Jews and non-whites around the world.
Tarrant’s almost 17,000-word manifesto had called for readers to fight against the perceived “replacement” of white people in western nations.
Its title – The Great Replacement – is taken directly from a theory named by the French white nationalist Renaud Camus and spread by pan-European extremist group Generation Identity.
By using the theory’s name as his manifesto’s title, Tarrant created a global trend on Google search where, initially, anyone searching for his screed would be met with the “great replacement” theory itself.
It has been taken up to various degrees by high-profile figures ranging from right-wing politicians to neo-Nazi terrorists across Europe, the US and Australia.
On one end of the scale, populists claim they are merely concerned by demographic and cultural change, while the other extreme sees conspiracy theorists claim the “replacement” is being driven by Muslims, Jews or other groups who must be violently resisted.
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The El Paso gunman, Patrick Crusius, created another spike in searches on 4 August after posting his own manifesto declaring that he had read The Great Replacement.
Instead of Muslims, he declared his attack to be a response to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”, but still adhered to the same idea of a “cultural and ethnic replacement”.
Not only have the attackers been copying each other’s ideas, but they have formed a loose format for their atrocities incorporating online manifestos, livestreams and memes from dark internet culture.
In far-right online circles, extremists have drawn a clear link between the Christchurch, Poway and El Paso shootings.
All three perpetrators posted their manifestos on the 8chan image board, which has since been taken offline.
But the shooters continue to be celebrated on other sites, including the 8chan alternative Endchan, where the Norway mosque attacker left his final post.
“Well cobbers it’s my time, I was elected by Saint Tarrant after all,” read his post. “We can’t let this go on.”
Philip Manshaus included a meme depicting Tarrant as a “saint” and Earnest and Crusius as his “disciples”.
The same image continues to circulate on “chan” message boards and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where Christchurch fans churn out posts, memes, videos and links supporting the shooters and calling for more attacks.
Much of the output is in English, but Tarrant’s manifesto has so far been translated into more than a dozen different languages and his attack has been celebrated by far-right groups across Europe.
More than 1,000 people have joined one Telegram channel named in honour of Tarrant, which appears to be run by a Ukrainian man who sends out hard copies of his manifesto.
A meme depicting the Christchurch, Poway and El Paso shooters that was shared by supporters including the Norway gunman
The public group contains photos of armed men wearing combat fatigues and performing Hitler salutes, Nazi imagery, antisemitic conspiracy theories and vile cartoons of Muslims.
“The fight is not on the internet,” reads a Ukrainian post published on Friday. “Train, arm yourself, get ready.”
The channel has been amplifying news of Christchurch-inspired attacks and plots around the world and distributing advice urging people not to discuss their plans online.
“Glory to Tarrant! Eternal glory for opening our eyes to the future that is preparing us,” said a recent post.
Patrik Hermansson, a researcher on far-right extremism at Hope Not Hate said Tarrant had been “sanctified”.
“Supporters talk about ‘doing a Tarrant’,” he told The Independent. “He’s become a very central figure, a symbol of anti-Muslim violence and the wider far-right neo-Nazis.
“His manifesto has been translated into possibly a dozen different languages, there are shooting games that are built by far-right activists.
“They are built to look like the mosques in Christchurch and you play as Tarrant.”
Mr Hermansson said Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof had also been assigned “heroic status” by the same online communities but Tarrant had generated a huge following by his references to other far-right figures and symbols, and in-jokes played out through music and memes.
“The knock-on effect is relatively clear with the short timeframe of attacks that followed, he added.
“It takes much more than reading a manifesto to make you pick up a weapon and it’s very hard to predict what can trigger an attack. But what we’re seeing online is very worrying.”
A translated copy of Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto next to a gun, in an image posted on a Ukrainian-language Telegram channel (Telegram)
He and other experts do not see Christchurch as the sole inspiration for the attacks that followed, but more of a trigger for extremists who were already on the journey towards terror.
Professor Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, said: “In these times of heightened political crises where people feel like their country is on a cliff, you get those who are pushed over by that rhetoric.
“That has implications has for Brexit in October and for the 2020 presidential elections.”
Professor Feldman said Christchurch “copycats” had adopted aspects of Tarrant’s methods and ideology but adapted it according to the focus of their own hatred.
“We are seeing definite copycats, people who are being inspired by this,” he added.
“Without any kind of hierarchically controlled organisation, there is no command and control, which is the fundamental difference with the radical right and jihadism. That’s why you can’t copy and paste responses to jihadi Islamism.”
Britain, the US, Australia and many European countries have previously seen far-right extremism as “domestic” terrorism and focused resources on combatting international jihadi groups.
But the increasingly international nature of the extreme right-wing is drawing greater attention in the wake of the Christchurch attack.
An FBI briefing to the House Homeland Security Committee in May warned that “individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents”.
8Chan: Extremist site blamed for far-right shootings goes offline
“Radicalisation to violence of domestic terrorists is increasingly taking place online,” said assistant counterterrorism division director Michael C McGarrity.
“The increasingly global nature of the threat has enabled violent extremists to engage other like-minded individuals without having to join organised groups.”
British security services are clear that Isis still poses the greatest threat to the UK, but have incorporated the far-right into national terror assessments for the first time and given MI5 an increased role.
Five right-wing terror plots have been foiled in the UK since March 2017, including a neo-Nazi’s plan to murder his local MP.
A spokesperson for UK Counter Terrorism Policing said: “We are committed to tackling any form of extremist ideology that has the potential to threaten public safety and security.
“The overriding threat to the UK remains from Isis-inspired groups and individuals, but rising numbers of arrests and Prevent referrals relating to right-wing ideology demonstrates that we are alive to that threat and are working tirelessly with our partners to confront it.”
Conversations are ongoing between social networks, internet firms and security services for a renewed push against far-right platforms.
Experts caution that shutting down individual sites such as 8chan can disperse users into even more hardcore places that are more difficult to monitor.
But many also argue the move is necessary to prevent new followers from being drawn along the same path of radicalisation, either through landing on violent propaganda via Google searches, or drawn in by social media algorithms.
Professor Feldman said the internet had become a “one-stop shop” for terrorists – from radicalisation to sourcing weapons and bomb manuals.
He warned that far-right forums have been becoming more overtly violent over the past three years, with extremists shifting from “claiming they say stuff ironically to telling people they actually believe it”.
Mr Hermansson suggested that post 9/11 political rhetoric on Muslims and immigration had engendered a “boldness” on the far-right, even as faith in western political systems wanes.
“There is a feeling of political depression and that non-violence isn’t working,” he said. “The people committing the attacks had possibly thought about it before, and then they saw how Tarrant was elevated to a god-like figure.
“They look for meaning and this is a way of finding it.”