Allegations against a Coast Guard lieutenant are a reminder that, by sharing the writings of terrorists, media outlets can amplify their impact.
FEB 26, 2019
Nearly eight years ago, the Norwegian extremist Anders Behring Breivik set the bar for what an individual terrorist could accomplish—detonating a truck bomb in Oslo that killed eight, then murdering 69 more, mostly teenagers, with semiautomatic weapons in another nearby location. All this was done in the name of a twisted ideology he had compiled largely from the internet, cobbled together into a sprawling, 1,518-page tract titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” in which he raged against multiculturalism, liberalism, and Muslims, while describing his attack preparations in considerable detail.
Breivik was not the first high-profile, lone-actor terrorist to publish his motivations at length—that distinction belongs to Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Breivik’s innovation was operational rather than ideological: the deadliest lone-actor terrorist attack in history. Breivik’s success was always destined to cast a long shadow, and its implications are now becoming depressingly clear.
The most recent manifestation came last week, with news that U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson was charged with planning a mass-casualty attack modeled in significant part on Breivik’s strategy, and bearing the marks of his belief system. The plot, first reported by George Washington University’s Project on Extremism, was only in its preparatory stages, but the indictment spells out how Hasson closely followed Breivik’s manifesto in amassing weapons and performance-enhancing drugs, and in creating a carefully categorized list of assassination targets. Hasson was influenced by others, to be sure, including the American neo-Nazi author Harold Covingtonand (as evidenced in his Google searches) the president of the United States, but Breivik appears to be the guiding force that shaped his specific plans.
Breivik’s growing popularity and impact among right-wing extremists is partly a symptom of neglect. After years of debate, leaders are finally focusing on countering terrorist propaganda, employing thousands and spending millions on this important work. But terrorist manifestos, a rarified form of propaganda, are still being spread by prominent institutions of the very society that their authors seek to topple.
Hasson is only the latest acolyte that Breivik has attracted in the years since his 2011 attack. Both terrorists and nonideological killers have attempted to emulate him directly, with deadly results. The Newtown shooter Adam Lanza reportedly collected news clippings on Breivik’s attack and other incidents of mass violence before he killed 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Other young men, such as the British college student Liam Lyburd, have been inspired to plan or carry out mass shootings based on their admiration for Breivik’s lethality, rather than his beliefs.
But for many others, Breivik has become an icon not simply of efficient violence but of ideological hate—for Muslims, immigrants, and their allies.
Even among extremists, Breivik’s status is contested. In online dialogues that I track as part of my work studying extremism, white nationalists and other extremists often argue bitterly over the value of his example. He has many detractors, some sincere, others contrived. Mealymouthed condemnations come from extremist ideologues who fear potential consequences when someone acts out the murderous fantasies they peddle. Strategic objectors paint such attacks as counterproductive, alienating to potential ideological sympathizers. Some complain about targeting—the fact that Breivik killed young Norwegians associated with the country’s ruling party, whose policies he rejected, rather than directing his rage at the Muslim immigrants he loathed and feared.
“I don’t agree with what Breivik did, but I could understand, my objection is what a waste thing to kill those young Nordics,” wrote one commenter on the neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer in 2015.
On Stormfront, a white-nationalist message board where Breivik initially posted his manifesto, substantive threads about the rightness or wrongness of Breivik’s actions are frequently (but inconsistently) deleted by moderators, likely due to the platform’s stated policy of discouraging posts that explicitly encourage violence or illegal action. One neo-Nazi posting a critique of Stormfront on the site itself wrote, “Breivik did nothing wrong (apart from posting on this website).”
On the far less circumspect VNN Forum, Breivik’s acts have been robustly debated virtually since the day of the attack.
“If some enterprising American fellow, went to a youth camp in the Catskills, Camp David, or Martha’s Vineyard, and ‘sprayed’ some young’uns belonging to our immigrant-loving [Jewish-occupied government], I dare say I might not lose a whole lot of sleep on account of it,” one VNN poster wrote just days after the attack. Others responding to the post at the time argued that the attack would only mobilize people against the movement, and suggested that Breivik’s acts were part of a Jewish conspiracy.
The author of the original post would soon be on the receiving end of such analysis: Frazier Glenn Cross, also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, a longtime white-nationalist activist, would go on to kill three people in a 2014 gun attack on Jewish community centers in Kansas.
This debate, and others like it, would break out repeatedly on VNN and other white-nationalist online platforms over the years, with the same basic points raised again and again, and little movement toward consensus.
But as nationalist movements in the United States and Europe have become more and more fearful of Muslim immigration, Breivik has acquired iconic status on the far right. Among anti-immigrant extremists who routinely feast on torrents of misinformation about migrant mobs and “no-go zones,” Breivik’s manifesto is seen as prophetic. For a relatively small number of extremely fervent supporters, he is known as “Commander Breivik” or “Saint Breivik.” Some describe a full commitment to the cause as “going Breivik” or “going full Breivik.”
The owner of the VNN Forum, an American neo-Nazi named Alex Linder, is one of Breivik’s most outspoken apologists, pointing to him as a model for the white-nationalist movement. “I believe the time for violence is here: Anders Breivik fired the starting gun for the Age of Killing the Enemy,” he wrote in 2017.
Others also see Breivik as an inspirational figure. “Anders Breivik is the John Brown of the upcoming European civil war,” wrote a commenter on Occidental Dissent, a white-nationalist blog, referring to the violent 19th-century abolitionist. “And if Europe’s elites find the mobs at their mansion doors with pitchforks and pikes, then they deserve nothing less for having sold out their own people.”
Many praise Breivik for what they perceive to be courage or heroism. “I wish it was possible to fight back somehow, but I’m not as brave as Breivik,” wrote another commenter on Occidental Dissent, on a separate occasion.
On the alt-right social platform Gab, the Florida white-nationalist militia leader Jordan Jereb posted a picture of Breivik with the caption, “This man is a hero. PERIOD.” Brett Stevens, a right-wing blogger who claims to be American and who was cited by Breivik in his manifesto, wrote a more fulsome tribute in 2016:
Anders Breivik is a hero. Instead of shooting minorities, he took the fight to the people responsible, which is white Leftists. He informed them that the choice to be a Leftist was not without consequences, which is why they are terrified of him. He did not fight their proxies—the human shields they create in minorities, women, gays, trans, etc.—but fought them directly. What an intellect, and what a man!
If all this fascination with Breivik had remained in the realm of talk, it would not amount to much, but Breivik has inspired a number of imitators. Some, such as Lanza and Lyburd, appear to fixate on the Norwegian primarily as a model mass shooter, a killer distinguished among killers. Others are stirred by the combination of his ready violence and his textual assignment of meaning to the act. Whether they closely study his lengthy anti-immigration tract or simply resonate with its gist, a number of men—almost always men—have unambiguously been inspired by Breivik to plot or undertake violent acts.
Christopher Hasson represents only the latest and clearest example. In some cases, as with Hasson, an online trail leads back to Breivik. In others, the similarities are striking but the direct influence obscure. There are also cases where parallels and links grow murky on closer examination. In addition to Cross, the VNN Forum poster, dozens of individuals with some fixation on Breivik have been arrested and charged for hate and terrorism, some for successful attacks, others for advanced plots.
The Munich mall shooter David Sonboly killed nine and injured 36 on the fifth anniversary of Breivik’s attack. Like many who followed in Breivik’s footsteps, Sonboly left a manifesto behind on his computer, although he did not post it online. The son of Iranian immigrants, he saw himself as “Aryan” and turned his hate against others with roots abroad—“‘foreign sub-humans’ with mostly ‘Turkish-Balkan roots,’”, according to German investigators. Sonboly reportedly researched mass murderers, including Breivik, but a copy of Breivik’s manifesto was not found on his computer.
In France, Muslim women and other minorities were attacked in multiple incidents; a subsequent press release claimed the attacks for a group called “Commando de défense du peuple et de la patrie française” (Defense Command of the French People and the Motherland), saying that they were inspired by Breivik. The attacks were eventually found to be the work of Logan Alexandre Nisin, who maintained an online shrine to Breivik, and posted about nationalist and anti-immigrant causes. Nisin and eight of his associateswere indicted for involvement with plotting radical right-wing violence and political assassinations.
Breivik is celebrated by members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, a North American organization tied to at least five murders in the United States. In the U.K., members of a British offshoot of Atomwaffen also posted content glorifying Breivik, resulting in the 2018 arrests of three young men who had called for Prince Harry to be shot. In an earlier, unrelated incident, a racist extremist named Mark Colborne, who compared himself to Breivik in his diary, was arrested for plotting to assassinate Prince Charles.
Several British extremists (including men and women) associated with National Action, a neo-Nazi organization, were arrested in 2017 and 2018. Members of the group reportedly admired Breivik, and at least one had a copy of Breivik’s manifesto on his phone (although he was later cleared of chargesrelated to possession of the document). Thomas Mair, a far-right British extremist who murdered MP Jo Cox in 2016, had collected newspaper clippings about Breivik.
While breivik had a presence in all these cases, some more strongly than others, he was almost never the only influence. In most cases, these would-be terrorists venerated a number of other violent figures, including the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But a notable theme emerges among their objects of adulation—more men with manifestos.
There is a potency in the combination of words and action, and lone-actor terrorists who write seek to lead their readers through the same process of self-education that led them to act (a phenomenon especially visible in Breivik’s heavily footnoted tract). McVeigh, although he did not leave a manifesto, pointed the world to the revelatory text that shaped him—the racist dystopian novel The Turner Diaries, a book that has inspired at least 200 murders (including 168 killed in the Oklahoma City bombing). Adding to their status, both men left behind tracts that are not only ideological, but instructional. They describe a process of mental awakening alongside practical physical preparations.
These works enjoy a wide reach in the online age, where self-education is a national pastime and internet sleuths race to decode the significance of violent events in real time. The discovery of a Rosetta stone opens the door to forbidden knowledge more swiftly than it can be shut. A gravity well that draws curiosity seekers into the mind of a killer, a manifesto shapes an explanatory narrative for actions that seem inexplicable, imposing meaning on violence that might otherwise be remembered as shapeless chaos.
Little surprise then that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, is enjoying his own online revival, decades after his terrorist mail-bomb campaign and the unprecedented publication of his manifesto by both The New York Times and The Washington Post in response to his demands—an act of hubris, abetted by the U.S. Department of Justice, that directly led to the author’s apprehension. Today, his manifesto is widely circulated online, and you can even buy it on Amazon. He is admired by extremists on both the right and the left.
The success and status enjoyed by figures such as Kaczynski and Breivik spawn imitators, not just of their terrorist actions, but of their authorial aspirations. Even when they are less ambitious in both plot and prose, the killers who leave manifestos are more influential and highly regarded than those who leave only a vacuum—mass murderers such as Wade Michael Pageand Stephen Paddock, who offered no explanations and are remembered solely for their body counts.
In leaving a record, killers seek to situate their actions as driven by purpose rather than madness. Such efforts do not always strike gold. The Columbine shooters left hundreds of pages of journals behind, but failed to tell a coherent story. Christopher Dorner, who in 2013 killed four as part of a guerilla war on police, left an 11-page mini-festo that found some traction among left-wing extremists but does not appear to have clearly inspired imitators, possibly because his motives were ultimately very personal. The Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s 1,800 words and 24 minutes of video were so inchoate that they stripped any veneer of meaning from his massacre.
There are many other such murder missives, long and short, mostly forgotten. But some endure. Among white nationalists who praise Breivik online, the Norwegian is often mentioned in the same breath as Dylann Roof, who killed nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015, posting a manifesto online before the killing and writing a second after, in jail. “The first whites have begun to fight back; Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof, to name two,” said Linder, the VNN Forum owner, in a 2016 interview with Daily Stormer. “We need tens of thousands of Dylann Roofs, and tens of thousands of Anders Breivik,” wrote a commenter on a Patriot movement blog. Last week, a Texas man arrested on child-pornography charges was revealed to be the subject of a domestic-terrorism investigation. He was allegedly obsessed with Roof, and investigators feared he was planning a similar act of mass violence.
Roof’s message resonated in part because it invoked a belief system already well established in the United States: the culture of white supremacy, perpetuated online by adherents who are deeply invested in its ideological history. Thousands of white-nationalist texts, some dating back more than a century, can be found in obsessively maintained archives scattered around the web—the British solider accused of possessing Breivik’s manifesto was a frequent visitor to one of them.
The case of Elliot Rodger is more disturbing. The 22-year-old Californian, who killed six and injured 14 in a 2014 gun-and-knife spree before killing himself, left behind a 141-page document describing his life and his motive—a retributive attack to punish a world that he blamed for his virginity. Most people were appalled and confused by his attempt to justify his actions as a response to sexual frustration, but for some, his words had deep meaning. They spread at gigabit speeds to some of the internet’s darkest corners, giving birth to the ideology and subculture known as “incel” (short for “involuntarily celibate”), a violent misogynist movement that has resulted in at least dozens of deaths in slightly less than five years, since his writings were published.
Elliot Rodger did not invent misogyny, just as Dylann Roof came late to racism, and Anders Breivik to religious bigotry. But the heady marriage of words to action makes old hatreds new again. These blood-infused manifestos are seeds that sprout twisted roots from which new mutations, such as the incel movement, eventually grow. Scattered by the winds of our ever-more-networked communities, some will land on fertile ground, and the process starts again. In a short, fictional essay posted to multiple white-supremacist forums, a user identified as “aryanh8” imagines himself walking along the same path as Christopher Hasson:
I continue supplementing my education with a more important education – that of racial awareness and the history of the world as faithfully represented in those old books lying in musty corners of university libraries as well as in electronic form on the internet printing them off and compiling my own library … I will download Anders Breivik’s Manifesto from the net which plans out a similar strike only in much greater detail, read this blueprint of his and relate it to my particular situation.
Neither murder nor manifestos are new to the human experience, but both have been enhanced by the emergence of new conditions and technologies that empower greater body counts and larger, more interactive audiences. Even so, Breivik was an outlier in both lethality and prolixity. It is not surprising that he has become an extremist icon, and an exceptionally effective one. But he will not be the last.
In an age of saturation news coverage, manifestos might contribute to the copycat effect, a well-supported theory that holds people will act out violence in patterns similar to the violence they see. A lengthy manifesto, such as Breivik’s, which melds operational and ideological elements, can produce a much longer and more intense news cycle than a mass killer who leaves no explanation behind. We have less to say about a “senseless” act of violence. A manifesto caters to our instinctive desire to seek the origin of such horrors, yet that quest for understanding might exacerbate the problem.
In contrast to media policies regarding the systematic messaging campaignsof the Islamic State and its ilk, there is no organized effort to limit access to murder manifestos. Quite the contrary: On the basis of their “news value,” they are widely distributed by the nation’s most prominent news sources. The New York Times’s national editor, Alison Mitchell, defended the paper’s publication of such documents in 2014, soon after it published Rodger’s manifesto online. “In every one of these cases, we think about it. It comes under a lot of discussion, and is not done reflexively,” she said.
Five years later, that same document has been implicated as inspiration for multiple cases of mass murder, and more deadly consequences are certain to follow. It is far past time to reconsider the standard for publishing such manifestos. That does not mean we should abandon the search for meaning. But manifestos are rarely simple confessional documents. They are works of propaganda, just like ISIS beheading videos and al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Like those publications, journalists should report on manifestos, but they should mediate their propagandistic intent instead of blindly amplifying it.
All the journalistic restraint in the world will not stop killers from memorializing their actions, and it will not stop extremists from fixating on those memoirs. But the success of terrorism is measured largely by its reach. The horrific act of Anders Breivik propelled his intended meaning to a global audience, where it has found purchase. Less deadly acts of violence by Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger have been elevated in the same way. We have only begun to suffer the cost of these writings, crafted with an intent no less lethal than their authors’ violent crimes. We must do better when we confront the next, inevitable outbreak.