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Christchurch remains extremist touchstone as investigators probe suspected El Paso manifesto

People leave flowers and messages near the shopping area in El Paso, Texas, where a gunman opened fire Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: August 6, 2019

In the days after a gunman killed 51 people in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, analysts warned the attack could become a rallying point for extremists.

It was a high-casualty attack, intended to be imitated by others, live-streamed on social media, accompanied by the release of a white supremacist manifesto decrying immigration and immigrants.

On Saturday, a similar manifesto appeared online, with similar grievances. The author opened by expressing "support" for "the Christchurch shooter." Within minutes, a gunman opened fire at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas, killing 20, seven of them Mexicans. Two more people died Monday after succumbing to their wounds.

Investigators believe the manifesto Saturday was written by El Paso shooting suspect Patrick Crusius. The author was the latest in a succession of extremists to refer to Christchurch as a touchstone event for more hate.

"That's exactly the reason people post manifestos," said Peter Neumann, a founding director of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. "They want to create the basis for something that will inspire others." The message they aim to send targets both their sympathizers and their declared enemies.

After a gunman killed a woman and wounded three others in April at a synagogue in Poway, California, investigators found an online justification allegedly published by the attacker that echoed the Christchurch shooter's words.

Christchurch became a line of inquiry in the Sri Lanka Easter bombings in April. Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka's state minister of defense, told reporters that the attacks on churches and tourist gathering places were "motivated" by the attack in New Zealand. No such link has been established and analysts have raised doubts, but they cautioned that future retaliatory attacks remain possible.

Politicians have used Christchurch to advance their own agendas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played footage of the attacks at campaign rallies this spring.

"This isn't an individual act, this is organized," he said.

The New Zealand government warned Erdogan's comments endangered its citizens; analysts rejected Erdogan's portrayal of the Christchurch shootings as part of a broader organized attack on Muslims.

Canadian conservative MP Michael Cooper faced a backlash this summer after he read excerpts from the Christchurch manifesto to a Muslim witness at a hearing. He later described it as "an ill-advised attempt to demonstrate that such acts are not linked to conservatism." Conservative leader Andrew Scheer removed Cooper from the committee, and it decided to clear the excerpts from the parliamentary record.

After the El Paso shooting, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told New Zealand television that such attacks were "connected, because they use each the other as inspiration and they refer to each other in the different manifestos."

The unifying thread, analysts say, is the so-called Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which maintains that global elites are intentionally replacing Europe's white majorities with immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

"The Great Replacement theory has become the master narrative for a vast number of far-right attacks," said Neumann, the terrorism researcher. "It's the narrative that connects them all."

Versions of the Great Replacement theory have existed for decades, but it was most recently popularized by Renaud Camus, the French writer who penned "Le Grand Remplacement" in 2012. Camus has denied any responsibility for the El Paso attack. But he maintains that immigration is still the real global menace.

Neumann compared the Great Replacement theory to the idea of the West being at war with Islam that has frequently been cited by Islamist militants to justify attacks — but has also become a rallying point for far-right retaliation. The Islamic State has expressed hope in its propaganda that its own attacks would trigger far-right responses such as the Christchurch shootings, which it said would help pit Muslims against nonbelievers.

Saturday's attack could signal an escalation. As the death toll still rose, commentators on the anonymous message board 8chan — where the suspect and other shooters appear to have been active — were discussing the attack in a way that appeared to compare it to prior shootings, according to screenshots captured by the online investigations site Bellingcat.

Neumann said such comments suggest that "a competition has started," centered on trying to "kill more people than the Christchurch attacker fatally shot."

Researchers have cautioned that online communities such as 8chan radicalize individuals by providing them with a support network that cheers them on.

The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue reported last month that more than half of the 240,000 tweets that came from an identifiable location and used the word "remigration" — a hallmark of the Great Replacement theory — came from France, where far-right politicians were among the first in Europe to subscribe to the conspiracy.

In 2018, far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged her supporters to read Jean Raspail's 1973 novel "The Camp of the Saints," which describes France as being destroyed by a migrant invasion and embroiled in a race war.

After the Christchurch attacks, right-wing parties in Europe largely reacted with silence — as they did again after El Paso.

But there have been no signs of them backing away from the Great Replacement theory. Only weeks after the Christchurch shooting, Austria's then-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said in an interview that fighting "population exchange" — or the idea of Muslims replacing Europe's supposed Judeo-Christian identity — would remain a party goal.

The remarks did not go unnoticed.

In an interview with The Washington Post, the Identitarian Movement - under investigation because the Christchurch attacker donated to it — applauded the remarks. Leader Martin Sellner said Strache's use of the term was a "political victory" for him and his group, and "a signal from the party to the base" that the vice chancellor's messaging would not change. (The government coalition fell apart weeks later, after videos emerged of Strache promising government contracts in return for politically motivated investments or donations.)

Such messaging, their critics argue, has to some extent legitimized extremists, even though far-right officials have not explicitly advocated for the use of violence and in many cases publicly condemned it.

The impact could be long-lasting, as the endurance of Christchurch as a rallying point appears to prove.

"I know no one in New Zealand would want the terrorist act that occurred here to inspire anything other than a sense of unity against acts of hatred, violence and terrorism," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said over the weekend.

The Washington Post's James McAuley contributed to this report.

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