Abstract: The number of lone-actor attacks committed by far-right extremists have surged in recent years, most notably in the West where mass-casualty attacks have occurred, including the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The fatal attack in February 2020 in Hanau, Germany, revealed the perpetrator’s influences to be a combination of traditional far-right, race-based, and anti-immigration narratives, alongside several more obscure conspiracy theories. This case demonstrates the need for further research into the intersection of these ideas and the online ecosystems in which they thrive, where notions such as the “Great Replacement” theory, aspects of which were echoed in the Hanau attacker’s own manifesto, are heavily propagated. It is this overarching idea that connects seemingly disparate attacks in a global network of ideologically analogous acts of terror.

At approximately 10:00 PM on February 19, 2020, Tobias Rathjen began a firearms attack inside the Midnight shisha bar in Hanau—a town within the Main-Kinzig-Kries district of Hesse, Germany—killing three people. From there, he drove around two kilometers to the neighborhood of Kesselstadt, opening fire at the Arena Bar & Cafe, killing five people. He then made the short drive back to his family home on Helmholtzstraße a few hundred meters away, where he fatally shot his mother before finally committing suicide.1 In the hours following his attack, it emerged that Rathjen had uploaded various materials online that revealed his far-right sympathies but that also referenced various niche conspiracies not typically associated with the extreme right.

On February 13, 2020, he had created a YouTube account, before uploading a single video entitled “Tobias Rathjen” the following day2 addressing “citizens of the United States of America” in English, and directly warning them of covert underground military bases used by secretive forces in the torture of young children.3 On a personal website linked in the video’s description, Rathjen had uploaded three subsequent videos in German, of which only two have been fully recovered, as well as a 24-page ‘script’ also in his native language4 and interpreted by many as his manifesto, accompanied by two shorter annexes.5 Within these materials, Rathjen outlined both his perception of “non-German” (non-white) immigration as a threat to the (white) German people and referenced his hostility toward Islam, as well as outlining various conspiracy theories in detail. Most notably, he stated that an unnamed “secret service” had surveilled him since birth and that he was able to observe various atrocities, covertly orchestrated by governments internationally, using the power of his mind via a vaguely defined technique termed “remote viewing.”6 In an attempt to corroborate these outlandish theories, Rathjen also uploaded nine links to outside sources, including supposed victims’ testimonies and blog posts by well-known conspiracy theorists.7 The mixture of English- and German-language resources published on the website and Rathjen’s decision to record his initial video in English are indicative of his intentions to reach a global audience and point toward the broader internationalization of far-right terrorism, rather than confining the impacts of his attack to a purely German-speaking audience.

While the attack follows a number of other, seemingly similar incidents in Germany—most notably, the Halle firearms incident allegedly carried out by Stephan Balliet in October 2019,8 where he allegedly attempted to carry out a mass shooting inside a synagogue—it is one of the deadliest, with nine victims killed in total.9 In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was determined by authorities to be fueled by “xenophobic motives,”10 and in a statement made following the incident, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared racism and hate a “poison” to society.11 In line with the motif of previous attacks such as the Christchurch12 a and Bærum (suburb of Oslo) mosque shootingsb and the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019,13 all victims, with the exception of Rathjen’s mother, were from immigrant backgrounds, with Turkish and Kurdish individuals among the dead.14

This article will first briefly consider the profile of Tobias Rathjen, before situating his attack within the broader context of Germany’s political climate, which has notably seen its far right buoyed in recent years, both in mainstream political movements as well as by organized violent groups. Given that investigators have stated that Rathjen acted alone,15 it will next discuss lone-actor terrorism on the far right, which although not being a new phenomenon, gained traction through the philosophy of American Klansman Louis Beam’s “Leaderless Resistance.” The impact of technological change upon far-right attacks will also be explored, given most recent attacks (including Rathjen’s) have included an online dimension, be it the uploading of a video or manifesto, or in some cases livestreaming the attack itself. Moreover, digital spaces are manifestly fueling momentum for far-right attacks, in some instances decreasing the radicalization period of individuals, and in others, inspiring copy-cat attacks and the gamification of terrorist violence.

This article will then provide a detailed examination of the intersection between conspiratorial thought and the far right, which is particularly pertinent in light of Rathjen’s clear absorption in a number of conspiracy theories, and will suggest that these attacks can be linked by their adherence to the “Great Replacement” narrative. However, it will then suggest that Rathjen’s attack must be somewhat differentiated from this wave given his parallel obsession with more outlandish, less explicitly racist conspiracies. It will conclude by outlining the need for further research into the connection between the nature of conspiracy beliefs—racist or otherwise—and radicalization into violence.

The Hanau Shooter
The profile of the alleged Hanau shooter Rathjen is itself relatively nondescript. He gained a business degree from the University of Bayreuth in 2007, and worked in a number of financial firms in Germany during his career. At 43 years of age, he still lived with both of his parents and was supposedly single throughout his life, indicating an insular figure, potentially at odds with his peers. However, various aspects of his attack and ideology indicate that it is somewhat different from both the German and indeed global landscape of far-right terror. Rathjen adhered not only to traditional far-right racist narratives, but was also obsessed with a number of comparatively niche conspiracies.

While this is likely indicative of an “extremely online”16 individual, it is also possible that he was affected by mental health problems. The linking of mental health issues and lone-actor terrorism is often contentious, not least because of the fair accusation that if a perpetrator of terrorism is white, they are frequently deemed mentally unwell, negating their agency in a privilege that is rarely extended to terrorists from other racial backgrounds.17 Yet, the overlap between mental illness and lone-actor terrorism should not be overlooked, as researchers at University College London have shown a strong association between mental illness and lone-actor terrorism in comparison to group-based terror.18 Accepting the contributing role poor mental health may play in some attacks, this most recent incident exemplifies the interconnected relationship between racial hate and conspiracy theories, demonstrating that an understanding of both remains crucial to understanding this fresh wave of far-right, lone-actor attacks in the normalizing age of social media. By lone-actor terrorism, the authors refer to the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI)’s 2015 working definition of lone-actor terrorism as:

The threat or use of violence by a single perpetrator (or small cell), not acting out of purely personal material reasons, with the aim of influencing a wider audience, and who acts without any direct support in the planning, preparation and execution of the attack, and whose decision to act is not directed by any group or other individuals (although possibly inspired by others).19

Police officers stand outside the Midnight shisha bar on February 20, 2020, after a shooting in Hanau, Germany.
(Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

The Far-Right Landscape in Germany
While it is broadly agreed that the traditional ‘organized’ far right is at a weak moment in its history in the United Kingdom, this cannot be said of all countries.* The notion that its ideology of hate has become more normalized within public discourse is difficult to refute, as is demonstrated in the increasingly racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of political parties worldwide.20 By far right, the authors refer to Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal’s comprehensive definition, which encompasses both the ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’ right-wing factions. The radical right is deemed to be non-violent, and notably operates within democratic boundaries—and thus refers to political parties with far-right policies—whereas the extreme right believe that democracy should be replaced and that violence against the so-called ‘enemies of the people’ is justified.21

Germany, in particular, has seen an influx in the normalization of far-right ideology, most evidently in the rapid growth of the nationalist political party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD).c Since its formation in 2013, it is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, holding 89 seats,22 a success that is largely attributed to its challenge to Chancellor Merkel’s policy on welcoming a large number of migrants and refugees into the country. It was this policy that the regional politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Merkel’s CDU party, had spent years defending when he was fatally shot on his doorstep in June 2019 by a suspected far-right extremist and former campaigner for the AfD.23

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2020, the Militärischer Abschirmdienst (Germany’s Military Counterintelligence Service) launched investigations into 550 German soldiers for alleged connections to right-wing extremism, with its elite special forces unit described as a particular hotbed.24 The researcher Daniel Koehler has explored the connection between the far right and the military, showing how in some instances, violent right-wing extremists have attempted to infiltrate the military so as to gain skills and access weapons.25 The implications of these findings are relevant for all countries facing a growing far-right threat.

This political climate appears to be fertile ground for explicitly violent organizations, as cross-national neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division and Combat 1826 have found strongholds in Germany, alongside domestic right-wing groups such as Gruppe Freital, Revolution Chemnitz, and Gruppe S.27 While German investigators have stated that Rathjen acted alone,28 and the influence of this wider context cannot be concretely quantified, it must be noted that he did not become radicalized in isolation and ultimately may have been impacted by this potentially permissive political environment, in addition to that of the digital ecosystem.

Lone-Actor Terrorism and the Leaderless Resistance
While lone-actor terrorism is not a novel phenomenon, it is increasingly being adopted by actors across the ideological spectrum, including those on the far right, with research showing that attacks perpetrated by individual actors on the far right proportionally outweigh violence committed by organized far-right groups in Western Europe.29 To understand this surge of violence, it may be beneficial to consider the essay “Leaderless Resistance” written in 1983 (but not widely published until 1992) by the American Klansman Louis R. Beam in which he rails against “orthodox” theories of organization that conform to a pyramid-type structure. In its place, he advocates for an organizational system based upon “phantom cells” that operate without centralized control or direction, but are linked by adherence to the same worldview and will thus respond uniformly to a given situation.d “Leaderless Resistance,” he writes, “leads to very small or even one-man cells of resistance. Those who join organizations to play ‘let’s pretend’ or who are ‘groupies’ will quickly be weeded out.”30 Events that followed its publication, including the FBI shootings at Ruby Ridge31 in 1992 and the Waco siege32 in 1993, cemented the importance of Leaderless Resistance as a key organizing strategy of far-right and Christian Identity groups in the United States, who were encouraged to operate in isolation from one another so as to evade the supposed dark forces of big government.33 As the scholar Jeffrey Kaplan explained, “suddenly, the term Leaderless Resistance was on everyone’s lips.”34

This lone-actor/small-cell model was influential in the deadliest far-right attack in history, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 people, committed by Timothy McVeigh, who, despite collaborating with a former military colleague in his attack-preparation, ultimately carried out the attack alone.35 It continues to influence the modern-day far right as exemplified in a blog post written by the editor of Alt-Right.Com, Vincent Law, in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally where he stated: “every single one of you has to become an officer capable of independent activism. Our movement needs to start resembling a Leaderless Resistance.”36 There is a clearly a distinction between those who actively adhere to the philosophy of a Leaderless Resistance, and those who simply act alone. It would be unwise, therefore, to assume that all of the recent and more historical acts of lone-actor terror perpetrated on the far right have been directly influenced by Louis Beam. Nevertheless, as a principle, it has been widely seen in the most recent wave of far-right attacks. For example, Brenton Tarrant, the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch attack of March 2019 that killed 51 people, appears to have acted in isolation of any established groups, despite his alleged financial donation of €1500 to the Austrian branch of Generation Identity in 2018.37

This structure poses particular problems for law enforcement agencies as individual actors may be inspired by, although unconnected to, established groups38 and thus leave no trace of their intentions to commit an act of terror.39 However, recent research suggests that the increasingly online face of far-right terrorism may somewhat compromise the anonymity of this tactic, as actors may “leak” indications of their intent to act online before carrying out an attack40—as the Hanau shooter Rathjen did in uploading a video to YouTube five days before his attacke—which may create some opportunity for law enforcement to pre-empt terrorist threats.

Technological Change
Indeed, aspects of technological change have significantly impacted the face of far-right terrorism, with the radicalization period of lone actors believing to have decreased in line with the rate of technological change.41 As Graham Macklin recently argued in this publication, the digital ecosystem is fueling a “cumulative momentum” of far-right attacks, whereby individuals’ “thresholds” to violence decrease each time another act of violence occurs, wherever that happens to be in the world.42 Furthermore, recent studies from the Soufan Center43 and the George Washington University Program on Extremism44 have shown that the far right is increasingly operating transnationally, motivated by shared identities and common grievances formed and spread online. While the far right has always been “innovative”45 in its utilization of the internet, in recent years it has become embedded within online imageboard forums such as 4chan and 8kun (the successor to 8chan following its removal from the Clearnet), and encrypted social media platforms such as Telegram, which has been known to host hateful and violent content,46 and remains the preferred platform for a number of far-right movements.47 These sites, alongside the more mainstream platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, allow for a kind of diffuse form of radicalization, where individuals may become immersed within a sphere of “alternative influence,”48 isolated from less radical, or dissenting ideas.

A notable development in recent attacks, is that a number of perpetrators have attempted to livestream their atrocities, beginning with Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly was able to stream the first 17 minutes of his attack to Facebook. In his broadcast he told viewers, “Let’s get this party started,” before opening fire outside the first mosque.49 It is possible that John Earnest, the alleged Poway Synagogue shooter, also intended to livestream his attack, having posted a link to a Facebook page where he later allegedly intended to livestream the attack,50 in addition to being found with a GoPro camera in his vehicle following his arrest, which is believed to have malfunctioned.51 Philip Manshaus, the alleged attempted mosque shooter in the Oslo suburb of Bærum, was also unsuccessful in his attempt to livestream his alleged attack to Facebook.52 Only the alleged Halle synagogue attacker Balliet was able to replicate Tarrant’s success, streaming the entirety of his attack via the Amazon-owned company Twitch, which was viewed by 2,200 people before being removed.53

The essence of this copy-cat approach to terrorist tactics is also exemplified in the notion of the “gamification of mass violence,” which the investigative reporter Robert Evans suggests originated on 8chan’s ‘/pol/’ (politically incorrect) board, and highlights as one of the main “innovations” of global far-right terrorism.54 The sentiment refers to the practice within far-right online spaces where users challenge each other to “get the high score” by killing “as many people as possible” in acts of mass causality violence,55 continuously out-performing previous attackers, and thereby framing terrorism as a competitive act. Indeed, as Graham Macklin has noted in this publication, in the case of the El Paso shooting, one 8chan user wrote of the alleged El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius: “The new guy deserves some praise … he reached almost a third of the high score.”56 This dynamic may feed into the now common practice of far-right lone-actors uploading manifesto-style documents online directly before committing an attack, with some explicitly referencing those who have come before them, such as Patrick Crusius who allegedly praised Tarrant and cited his manifesto “The Great Replacement” as a direct influence.57 Such documents not only publicize the perpetrator’s intentions and ideology, but also enable them to garner attention from their immediate online communities and thus be emblemized as a “saint” by online extremists following their attack, as shooters like Tarrant, Earnest, and Crusius have been.58 Online communities, therefore, not only provide opportunities to consume extremist content, but may also incentivize violence as a way of generating subcultural status.59

The Far Right and Conspiracy Theories
Online culture has also long played host to conspiracy theory communities. While conspiratorial belief is not an inherently far-right concept, the ideological frameworks prevalent within the far right may be “uniquely receptive”60 to conspiracies, enabling their emergence as the movement’s “lingua franca.”61 Much of the appeal of conspiracies lies in their ability to explain complex events within the framework of a “titanic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil,”62 wherein seemingly unexplainable—often malicious—events are orchestrated by a wicked and inherently “othered” manipulative force.63 As the scholar Michael Barkun has explained, there are various levels of conspiracy belief. At the most isolated level, event conspiracies refer to a “limited, discrete event or set of events,” whereas systemic conspiracies have wider goals, conceived as “securing control over a country, a religion, or even the entire world.” At the broadest level, super-conspiracies are formed when “multiple [more isolated] conspiracies are believed to be linked together” in the construction of a far-reaching world-view.64 This mutually reinforcing, structured relation of conspiracies is evidenced in the compounding of anti-government sentiment within the far-right American militia movement in the late 20th century, which the scholar Mark Pitcavage has argued was enabled by the cumulative influence of a number of isolated incidents throughout the late 1990s, in particular, Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege, where multiple civilians were fatally shot by government agents, generating a sense of ambiguity and public distrust surrounding government’s intentions.65

This hierarchical structure of conspiracy belief is a fundamental component of the “red-pilling” ideology central to the alt-right. The term draws upon a trope from The Matrix film trilogy and is commonly used within the alt-right sphere as “a metaphorical description of attitudinal change,”66 as individuals become progressively more receptive to radical ideology. This indoctrination is gradual, as individuals become red-pilled by single issues—or event conspiracies.67 Red-pilling, therefore, relies on the notion that the truth of various situations is being deliberately concealed from the public—presumably by an all-powerful, secretive force.68

Inherent in the notion of red-pilling is the same paradoxical logic upon which conspiracy theories are grounded, wherein the fundamentally unfalsifiable nature of a narrative is perceived as further proof of its credibility. For example, rather than accepting a lack of proof as a sign that a theory may not be true, adherents of conspiracies may perceive this lack of evidence as a sign that the dark ‘reality’ of the matter has been covered up by secret (often government) forces, thereby strengthening their belief in the theory.69 Thus, although after being initially exposed to conspiracy belief, an individual’s interest and curiosity surrounding subsequent conspiracies may become heightened, Barkun’s model paradoxically shows that finding tangible evidence for these beliefs becomes decreasingly important to adherents.70 In short, belief in one conspiracy theory may predict belief in others. This dynamic has been described as a “monological belief system” wherein individuals reject knowledge that contradicts their worldview and instead use their current beliefs as evidence in support of other theories, making them more receptive to new conspiracies.71 After being exposed to one conspiracy theory, therefore, it is then easier to ‘snowball’ and become convinced by other conspiracies. In this vein, scholars Benjamin Warner and Ryan Neville-Shepard have suggested that the online sphere may be particularly conducive to the production of conspiracy belief via “echo-chambers,” where collective agreeance in the absence of dissenters frames illogical conspiracies as rational.72

Conspiracy theories have played an integral role in a number of recent attacks. This is evidenced by social media posts made by Robert Bowers on October 27, 2018, hours before he allegedly murdered 11 people in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, in which he suggested the Jewish America non-profit organization HIAS was orchestrating increased levels of non-white immigration into the United States in an attempt to sabotage the white race.73 Subsequent attackers have referenced other anti-Semitic conspiracies. For example, it has been reported that when introducing himself during a livestream of the Halle attack, Balliet stated “My name is Anon and I think the Holocaust never happened.”74 Here, the Halle shooter appears to have been alluding to the ‘Holohoax’ conspiracy theory prevalent within far-right communities, which generally regards the Holocaust as a “deliberate myth,” constructed by Jewish people “for their own exploitative aims.”75 Furthermore, in his manifesto, Earnest, the alleged Poway Synagogue shooter, references the “Jew-media,”76 appearing to channel the Cultural Marxism conspiracy, which holds that a number of Jewish elites control the global media in an attempt to establish ideological control over the white race.77

Yet, what connects each of these attacks (Pittsburgh, Halle, Poway as well as El Paso and Christchurch) more generally is the perpetrators’ shared adherence to the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy narrative,78 which reformulates a key tenet of historical far-right thinking. This is perhaps made most explicit by alleged Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant in his manifesto of that name,79 which perceives the cultural and biological integrity of the white race to be endangered by increased levels of (non-white) immigration and the stagnation of white birth rates.80 Subsequent alleged attackers also demonstrate adherence to this narrative. For example, John Earnest makes reference to non-white immigrants “replacing” white people in the United States.81 So too does Stephan Balliet reference “declining birth rates in the West” in an introductory section of his alleged livestream,82 while Patrick Crusius specifically emphasizes the “cultural and ethnic replacement [of white Americans] brought on by an invasion [of non-white people]” within his manifesto.83 Thus, many of the actors in this current wave of attacks reference key themes of the Great Replacement conspiracy as justification for their violent actions, implicitly or explicitly linking their attacks together with this theme. This overarching conspiracy unites these attacks in a shared ideological framework and is complementary to other, more isolated conspiracies expressed by individual lone actors.

Differentiating Features of Rathjen’s Ideology
It is in this regard that Rathjen’s attack must be differentiated from the current wave of lone-actor terrorism; while each attack in this way is, of course, idiosyncratic in some way, Rathjen’s ideological justification for violence differs somewhat notably from previous attackers. In the main document uploaded, Rathjen is explicit in his racist beliefs, stating that the only people he thinks should own a German passport must be “pure-bred and valuable,” and that non-German immigrants are “destructive in every respect” and pose an inherent risk to the German people.84 This sentiment echoes some of the ideas contained in Tarrant’s manifesto, however Rathjen does not reference the Great Replacement narrative by name. Instead, he frames his actions as a “double strike, against the secret organisation and against the degeneration of our people,”85 thus explicitly framing less-tangible conspiracies as a major motivation for his actions. From subsequent materials he uploaded, he was likely to have been deeply influenced by a range of niche conspiracies, in particular by several paranoid narratives relating to various disappearances of young children across the United States. In the English-language video Rathjen uploaded to YouTube, he outlines the “reality” of “Deep Underground Military Bases” in the United States, where members of “invisible secret societies … praise the devil himself [and] abuse, torture and kill little children.”86 Here, Rathjen refers to the Deep Underground Military Bases conspiracy theory perpetuated by the alleged former government structural engineer Philip Schneider in the 1970s87—known ironically as the D.U.M.B conspiracy—which stipulates that government elites are concealing the existence of military bunkers, often believed to be used for their own conspicuous purposes.88

In addition, Rathjen posted links to the CanAm Missing project, a site run by conspiracy theorist David Paulides, which claims to be comprised of “retired police officers, search and rescue experts (SAR) and other professionals”89 attempting to trace the disappearances of missing children across North America, and often perpetuating the unfounded notion that supernatural forces are behind these events.90 Rathjen also uploaded two testimonies from young women claiming to have been graphically abused as children at the hands of Free Masonry and as part of Project MK-Ultra’sf “Project Monarch”—a conspiracy first perpetuated in the 1970s, which claimed that children were being systemically abused by a secret CIA-run government ring.91 Despite being reinforced by little tangible proof, the narratives contained within these sources feed the notion of the systemic victimization of helpless children at the hands of secret government agencies.

Indeed, each of the conspiracies shared by Rathjen were markedly anti-establishment. He also referenced websites claiming to report UFO sightings and alien abductions, which hinted at a wider government cover-up of the truth, and advocated for the practice of ‘remote viewing,’—a mindfulness technique supposedly enabling him to observe events, past or present, regardless of their physical location—as corroborating proof of various government atrocities.92 These narratives indicate that Rathjen was deeply entrenched within online conspiracy communities. Drawing upon Barkun’s model of conspiracy belief, it is therefore possible to suggest that Rathjen was a supporter of a number of isolated conspiracy theories, which, when compounded, may have influenced his broader sense of paranoia and anti-establishment mindset. However, perhaps the most pervasive narrative throughout his manifesto—that he had been observed by a “secret service” organization since birth, which read his mind and influenced his ability to socialize—is indicative of a deeper paranoia and may signal underlying mental health problems.93

Nevertheless, these materials may also shed light on his radicalization trajectory. It is notable that both the narratives espoused by Rathjen and other conspiracies rely on the fundamental distrust of dominant explanations, such as those portrayed in mainstream media,94 and upon the demonization of the “other.” The researchers Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller identify this black-and-white style worldview as a feature of conspiracies that may act as a “spur to violent action,”95 inducing an inherently apocalyptic sense of doom, which frames violence as the only available option. It is notable that various narratives espoused by Rathjen have considerable overlap with the QAnon conspiracy theory, which now thrives amongst online communities such as 8kun, following its origination on 4chan in 2017.96 While QAnon broadly advocates for various unlikely conspiracies that envisage U.S. President Donald Trump as a “sleeper agent” working to uncover government corruption, one of the most prominent narratives within the community is that various members of the Democratic Party are covertly running a child sex-trafficking ring, echoing aspects of Rathjen’s own concerns. Indeed, these notions were closely linked to the “Pizzagate” conspiracy of 2016, which influenced 29-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to storm a restaurant in Washington, D.C., with a firearm, in an attempt to free young children he believed to be held there.97 Furthermore, it should be stressed that in a recent intelligence briefing by the FBI, QAnon was noted as a community with the potential to escalate into violence owing to the nature of these theories.98

This overlap with online conspiracy communities suggests that the influence of Rathjen’s attack may be felt in spheres beyond those traditionally associated with the far right. Indeed, within online far-right spaces, Rathjen’s attack has garnered a mixed response; at times, he is hailed as a “saint” and at other times with some degree of ambivalence. On Neinchan—a more extreme sibling site of 8chan—for example, extensive meme threads were created in his honor in the wake of his attack, akin to those created for Tarrant. However, within these threads, users also mockingly dubbed him a “schizo.”99 This ambivalence is perhaps indicative of the wider reaction throughout the online far right, where Rathjen’s attack itself and his general hostility to Western governments were celebrated, and the more niche conspiracies cited within his manifesto and videos were largely mocked.

Therefore, while it is premature to predict the long-term influence of the Hanau attack, and the reaction to Rathjen’s manifesto from within conspiracy communities is not immediately clear, it is possible that not only may Rathjen have been largely radicalized by ideas originating from spheres outside the online far right, but that his attack may potentially influence prospective actors in online communities not explicitly associated with far-right extremism. Indeed, researcher and journalist Elise Thomas shows that there is a “growing overlap” in the narratives espoused by the far right and more isolated conspiracy communities and that “their paranoia, aggression and propensity to violence are two sides of the same coin.”100 Thus, it may be that Rathjen exemplifies this joint proclivity for mobilization, meaning that his attack must be differentiated from previous incidents, and thus that the long-term implications of his actions may be somewhat different from other, more definitively far-right acts of violence.

While the long-term ramifications of Tobias Rathjen’s attack on the global far-right landscape remains to be seen, his actions should be somewhat differentiated from the recent string of far-right terror attacks that preceded it. The global far right may be perceived to be in a critical moment of flux as its structure becomes more inherently transnational, with an apparent emphasis on lone-actor attacks. While the model of lone-actor terrorism has been a key influence among the far right for some time, the increasing centrality of technology and social media to the modern-day far right’s rationale has bolstered its importance within the wider global movement.

In the most recent wave of far-right, lone-actor attacks, the conspiratorial Great Replacement theory has been foregrounded as a cohesive link between each incident, connecting apparently disparate attacks in a global network of ideologically connected acts of terrorism. Yet, in contrast, whereas Rathjen made reference to racial motivations for the attack, these racist overtones were somewhat overpowered by his continued preoccupation with conspiracy theories not directly connected to the broader far-right sphere. This ideological bifurcation signals a shift from many of the previous lone-actor far-right extremist attackers and may represent a fusing between modern, far-right, racist narratives and more insular online conspiracy communities.

Few studies have comprehensively explored the link between conspiracy theories and the emergence of violence—particularly attacks that are not directly connected to racist worldviews. Rathjen’s attack and his motivations signal the need for further research into the link between conspiracy theories, hostility toward the mainstream, and violence. While the racial component of this attack, therefore, cannot be discounted as a major motivational force, the nature of the conspiratorial beliefs cited by Rathjen problematizes its easy categorization as a purely far-right attack and raises the need for further investigation into the impact of conspiracies on terrorism.     CTC

This sentence was updated shortly after publication to make clear that the broad agreement that the “traditional ‘organized’ far right is at a weak moment in its history” refers to the situation in the United Kingdom rather than the overall global picture. 

Blyth Crawford is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, specializing in the far right, the alt-right, and the influence of the online social media eco-system on radicalization. She is also pursuing a PhD in War Studies at King’s College London. Follow @CrawfordBlyth

Florence Keen is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, focusing on far-right extremism and violence, and is studying for her PhD in War Studies at King’s College London. Previously, she worked as a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute where her work focussed on terrorist financing. Follow @FlorenceKeen

Substantive Notes

[a] For an examination of the March 2010 Christchurch attack in this publication, see Graham Macklin, “The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[b] On August 10, 2019, 21-year-old Philip Manshaus allegedly entered the Al-Noor Islamic Center in Bærum, Norway, carrying two firearms, and attempted to carry out a mass-casualty attack. Manshaus was quickly overpowered by one of the worshipers inside, while another called the police, and he was soon arrested. In the hours preceding his attack, Manshaus had allegedly posted to the imageboard forum ‘Endchan,’ publishing his intentions to carry out an attack inspired by Brenton Tarrant, the alleged Christchurch shooter, and allegedly attempted to set up a Facebook livestream of his actions, which malfunctioned and was ultimately unsuccessful. It was later reported that prior to traveling to the Islamic center, Manshaus had allegedly also shot his stepsister, Johanne Zhangjia Ihle-Hansen, three times, killing her. Ihle-Hansen had been adopted by Manshaus’ mother from China at two years old, and Norwegian authorities have confirmed that her murder was racially motivated. “Norway mosque attack suspect appears in court,” Guardian, August 12, 2019; “Norway mosque shooter Philip Manshaus killed stepsister over her ‘Chinese origin’, police say,” South China Morning Post, September 18, 2019.

[c] For example, Charles Lees has shown how the AfD’s ideology shifted as its leadership became successively more ‘hardline’ between 2015 and 2017, moving beyond Euroscepticism and into a more explicitly populist position that centered around opposition to Syrian refugees and other forms of immigration. See Charles Lees, “The ‘Alternative for Germany’: The rise of right-wing populism at the heart of Europe,” Politics 38:3 (2018): pp. 296-210. Kai Arzheimer’s analysis of the AfD’s 2014 manifesto located its politics within the far-right end of the political spectrum in Germany, due to its explicit nationalism, stance against state support for sexual diversity, and gender mainstreaming. See Kai Arzheimer, “The AfD: Finally a successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany?” West European Politics 38:3 (2015): pp. 535-556.

[d] The notion of a Leaderless Resistance parallels the work of the jihadi Abu Musab al-Suri, a principal architect of al-Qa`ida’s post-9/11 strategy, in his call for “Global Islamic Resistance,” published in 2004. In this, he argued that in order to survive, the movement should become decentralized, moving away from its traditional hierarchical (and more vulnerable) structure. See Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali, “Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:1 (2007).

[e] Rathjen also reportedly contacted the YouTuber ‘Bernd Gloggnitzer’ up to one month before the Hanau attack, asking for advice and sending him a copy of his manifesto. Gloggnitzer appears to own the YouTube channel ‘Remote-Viewing.TV’ where he hosts remote viewing sessions, offering tips to his subscribers, and promotes the remote viewing school he founded that offers online courses in the mindfulness technique. Gloggnitzer is not related to any far-right movement. Bernd Gloggnitzer “Stellungsnahme,” Remote-Viewing.TV, 2020.

[f] Project MK Ultra is the code name given to a series of experiments the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later reportedly carried out in the United States between 1953 and 1964. While the exact scope of these experiments remains unclear, they are reported to have involved psychedelic drug testing, sensory deprivation, and research into mind control. The project remains a key topic of discussion within online conspiracy communities. Jack Anderson, “Lawsuit forces CIA confession on MK-ULTRA,” Washington Post, August 28, 1982; Kim Zetter, “April 13, 1953: CIA Oks MK-Ultra Mind-Control Tests,” Wired, April 13, 2010.

[1] “Germany: Eleven dead in suspected far-right attack,” Deutsche Welle, February 20, 2020.

[2] “Tobias Rathjen,” Social Blade via YouTube, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tobias Rathjen, “Skript mit Bilder,” 2020

[5] Tobias Rathjen, “Anhang 1_DFB,” 2020; Tobias Rathjen, “Anhang 2_ Irak Afghanistan,” 2020.

[6] Rathjen, “Skript mit Bilder;” Tobias Rathjen, “Final Remarks,” 2020.

[7] Tobias Rathjen, “Links,” 2020.

[8] Daniel Koehler, “The Halle, Germany, Synagogue Attack and the Evolution of the Far-Right Terrorist Threat, CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[9] Nadine Schmidt, Sheena McKenzie, Rob Picheta, and Ivana Kottasova, “Nine killed at two shisha bars in Germany in suspected far-right attack,” CNN, February 23, 2020.

[10] “Germany Shootings: German president says ‘We won’t be intimidated,’” Deutsche Welle, February 20, 2020.

[11] “‘Racism is a poison’: Angela Merkel Reacts to Hanau Shisha Bar Murders,” Euronews, February 22, 2020.

[12] Brenton Tarrant, “The Great Replacement,” 2019.

[13] Patrick Crusius, “The Inconvenient Truth About Me,” 2019.

[14] Kate Connolly and Bethan McKernan, “Bar staff and pregnant woman reportedly among Hanau victims,” Guardian, February 20, 2020.

[15] David McHugh and Frank Jordans, “Suspect found dead at home after killing 9 in Germany city of Hanau,” Time, February 20, 2020.

[16] Will Partin, “What if Modern Conspiracy Theorists are Altogether too Media Literate?” Outline, January 8, 2020.

[17] Anthea Butler, “Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” Washington Post, June 18, 2015.

[18] Emily Corner and Paul Gill, “A False Dichotomy? Mental Illness and Lone-Actor Terrorism,” Law and Human Behavior 39:1 (2015): pp. 23-34.

[19] Edwin Bakker and Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, “Lone-Actor Terrorism: Definitional Workshop,” RUSI Countering Lone-Actor Terrorism, Series No. 2, 2015.

[20] Nick Lowles ed., “State of Hate 2020: Far Right Terrorism Goes Global,” Hope Not Hate, 2020; Cass Mudde, “History,” in The Far Right Today (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2019), p. 20.

[21] Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “Extreme-Right Violence and Terrosim: Concepts, Patterns and Responses,” ICCT Policy Brief, 2019, p. 3.

[22] “Germany’s AfD: How right-wing is nationalist Alternative for Germany?” BBC, February 11, 2020.

[23] Justin Huggler, “Suspect in murder of German politician was AfD campaign volunteer,” Telegraph, January 22, 2020; Philip Oltermann, “Germany slow to hear alarm bells in killing of Walter Lübcke,” Guardian, July 1, 2019.

[24] “Germany: Over 500 right-wing extremists suspected in Bundeswehr,” Deutsche Welle, January 26, 2020.

[25] Daniel Koehler, “A Threat from Within? Exploring the Link Between the Extreme Right and the Military,” ICCT Policy Brief, September 2019.

[26] “Germany bans neo-Nazi group Combat 18 amid rise in Antisemitism,” Jewish Chronicle, January 24, 2020.

[27] “When Far-Right Hatred Turns Into Terrorism,” Der Spiegel Online, February 21, 2020.

[28] McHugh and Jordans.

[29] Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Sofia Lygren, Lars Wibe Hagen, and Anders Ravik Jupskas, “RTV Trend Report 2019: Right Wing Terrorism and Violence in Western Europe, 1990-2018,” Center for Research on Extremism, 2019.

[30] Louis R. Beam, “Leaderless Resistance,” 1992.

[31] Jason Wilson, “Ruby Ridge, 1992: the day the American militia movement was born,” Guardian, August 26, 2017.

[32] Tara Isabella Burton, “The Waco tragedy, explained,” Vox, April 19, 2018.

[33] Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 55.

[34] Jeffrey Kaplan, “Leaderless Resistance,” Terrorism & Political Violence 9:3 (1999): p. 87.

[35] Matthew Sparke, “Outsides Inside Patriotism: The Oklahoma Bombing and the Displacement of Heartland Geopolitics” in Gearóid Ó Tuathail and Simon Dalby eds., Rethinking Geopolitics (New York: Taylor and Francis, 1998), pp. 198-223.

[36] Vincent Law, “Leaderless Resistance,” AltRight.com, 2017.

[37] “Austrian Far-Right Leader Denies Link to Christchurch Shooter,” Deutsche Welle, March 27, 2019.

[38] Paul Gill, Lone-Actor Terrorists, A Behavioural Analysis (London: Routledge, 2015).

[39] Edwin Bakker and Beatrice de Graaf, “Preventing Lone Wolf Terrorism: some CT Approaches Addressed,” Perspectives on Terrorism 5:5-6 (2011): p. 46.

[40] Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci, “Lone-Actor Terrorism: Policy paper 4: ‘Leakage’ and Interaction with Authorities,” RUSI, 2016, pp. 1-7.

[41] Tara McKelvey, “El Paso shooting: Has US neglected fight against white extremism?” BBC, August 5, 2019.

[42] Graham Macklin, “The El Paso Terrorist Attack: The Chain Reaction of Global Right-Wing Terror,” CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[43] “White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement,” Soufan Center, September 2019.

[44] Paul Jackson, “Transnational Neo-Nazism in the USA, United Kingdom and Australia,” Program on Extremism, George Washington University, February 2020.

[45] Manuela Caiani and Linda Parenti, “Extreme Right groups and the Internet: Construction of Identity and Source of Mobilization,” European and American Extreme Right Groups and the Internet (2013): 83-112, p. 108.

[46] Tess Owen, “How Telegram Become White Nationalists’ Go-To Messaging Platform,” Vice News, October 7, 2019.

[47] Nick Lowles, “A Nazi-satanist cult is fuelling far-right groups – overlooked by the UK authorities,” New Statesman, March 4, 2020.

[48] Rebecca Lewis, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube,” Data and Society (2018): pp. 3-43.

[49] Patrick Sawer, “’Let’s get this party started’: 17 minutes of terror as gunman coolly launched massacre that has rocked New Zealand to its core,” Telegraph, March 15, 2019.

[50] Robert Evans, “Ignore The Poway Synagogue Shooter’s Manifesto: Pay Attention To 8chan’s /pol/ Board,” Bellingcat, April 28, 2019; Bill Hutchinson, “Alleged San Diego synagogue shooter John Earnest had 50 rounds on him when arrested: Prosecutor,” ABC News, April 30, 2019.

[51] Pauline Repard, “’There was Chaos’: Witnesses in court hearing recall Poway synagogue shooting,” Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2019.

[52] Lizzie Dearden, “Man who stormed mosque ‘armed with shotguns’ was inspired by Christchurch and El Paso attackers, messaging board post suggests,” Independent, August 11, 2019.

[53] Sebastian Herrera and Sarah E. Needleman, “Live Stream of Germany Shooting Turns Spotlight to Amazon’s Twitch,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2019.

[54] Robert Evans, “The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror,” Bellingcat, August 4, 2020.

[55] Emmi Bevensee, “The Meme Politics of white Supremacy: How does Fascist Radicalisation Happen on the Internet?” The Big Q, May 23, 2019.

[56] Macklin, “The El Paso Terrorist Attack,” p. 3; Erin Ailworth, Georgia Wells, and Ian Lovett, “Lost in Life, El Paso Suspect Found a Dark World Online,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2019.

[57] “The Inconvenient Truth,” Patrick Crusius’ alleged manifesto, 2019.

[58] Michael Davis, Ze’ev Begin, and Yigal Carmon, “The Evolving White Supremacy Ideology and its Protagonists,” Memri, September 6, 2019; Michael Edison Hayden, “White Nationalists Praise El Paso Attack and Mock the Dead,” Southern Poverty Law Center, August 4, 2019; /pol/, 8chan, “Her name was Ebba Akerlund” thread, 2019.

[59] Linda Schlegel, “Points, Rankings & Raiding the Sorcerer’s Dungeon: Top-Down and Bottom-Up Gamification of Radicalisation and Extremist Violence,” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, February 17, 2020.

[60] Andrew Woods, “The Hydra of Suspicion: Conspiracy Theories and the Radical Right,” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, June 17, 2019.

[61] Andrew Wilson, “Fear-Filled Apocalypses: The Far-Right’s Use of Conspiracy Theories,” Oxford Research Group, March 27, 2020.

[62] Woods.

[63] Michael Barkun, “The Nature of Conspiracy Belief,” in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), p. 3.

[64] Ibid., p. 6.

[65] Mark Pitcavage, “Camouflage and Conspiracy: The Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Y2K,” American Behavioural Scientist 44:6 (2001): p. 959.

[66] Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner, “The Fringe Insurgency: Connectivity, Convergence and Mainstreaming of the Extreme Right,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2017, p. 4.

[67] Luke Munn, “Alt-Right Pipeline: Individual Journeys to Extremism Online,” First Monday, 2019.

[68] Barkun, “The Nature of Conspiracy Belief,” p. 3.

[69] Ibid., p. 6.

[70] Ibid., p. 7.

[71] Ted Goertzel, “Belief in Conspiracy Theories,” Political Psychology 15:4 (1994): p. 740.

[72] Benjamin Warner and Ryan Neville-Shepard, “Echoes of a Conspiracy: Birthers, Truthers, and the Cultivation of Extremism,” Communication Quarterly 62:1 (2014): p. 11.

[73] Alex Amend, “Analyzing a Terrorist’s Social Media Manifesto: the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter’s Posts on Gab,” Southern Poverty Law Center, October 28, 2018.

[74] Stephan Balliet, alleged livestream, 2019.

[75] Dan Cohn-Sherbok, “Neo-Nazim, Holocaust Denial and UK Law,” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 43:1 (2010): p. 113.

[76] John Earnest, “An Open Letter,” 2019, p. 3.

[77] Tanner Mirrless, “The Alt-Right’s Discourse of ‘Cultural Marxism,’: A Political instrument of Intersectional Hate,” Atlantis Journal 39:1 (2018): p. 54.

[78] Paul Stocker, “The Great Replacement Theory: A Historical Perspective,” Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, September 20, 2019; Davey and Ebner.

[79] Andreas Onnerfors, “The Great Replacement – Decoding The Christchurch Terrorist Manifesto,” Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, March 18, 2019.

[80] Eleanor Penny, “The Deadly Myth of the “Great Replacement,” New Statesman, August 9, 2019.

[81] John Earnest, “An Open Letter,” 2019, p. 6.

[82] Stephan Balliet, alleged livestream, 2019.

[83] Patrick Crusius, “The Inconvenient Truth About Me,” 2019, p. 1.

[84] Tobias Rathjen, “Skript mit Bilder,” 2020, p. 6.

[85] Ibid., p. 24.

[86] Tobias Rathjen, “Tobias Rathjen,” YouTube, 2020.

[87] Libtrian.Outlet, “Phil Schneider’s Controversial Life and Death,” Steemit, 2016.

[88] “What’s Really Happened at the Dulce Air Force Base?” Gaia, November 22, 2019.

[89] “About Us,” CanAM Missing Project, 2017.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Michael Barkun, “UFOs and the Search for Scapegoats 1: Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Masonry,” in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 2013), p. 133.

[92] Tobias Rathjen, “Schlussanmerkungen,” 2020.

[93] Tobias Rathjen, “Skript mit Bilder,” 2020.

[94] Michael Barkun, “The Nature of Conspiracy Belief,” p. 13.

[95] Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, “The Power of Unreason: Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Counter Terrorism,” DEMOS (2010): p. 29.

[96] Andrew Griffin, “What is QAnon? The Origins of Bizarre Conspiracy Theory Spreading Online,” Independent, March 29, 2019.

[97] Geneva Sands, “’Pizzagate’ shooter sentenced to 4 years in prison, judge describes ‘breathtaking’ recklessness,” ABC News, June 23, 2017.

[98] “Intelligence Bulletin,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2019.

[99] Neinchan, “Tobias Rathjen Meme Thread,” 2020.

[100] Elise Thomas, “Far-Right groups and conspiracy theories are being brought together through the internet,” ABC News, February 26, 2020.

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