What we can learn from terrorism manifestos

Another terrorist attack, another manifesto. Actually these documents are quite rare in the history of terrorism. Some terrorists will leave social media clues to the reasons behind their actions (FaceBook posts, Tweets). Others like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Islamist extremist behind the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, leave a short cellphone video outlining the rationale for their actions. Some give us no clues as in the case of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter in 2017.

When we get a detailed document we can mine it for some insight into why some people think it is ok, or in some cases divinely necessary, to kill innocents in cold blood. A prime example is that of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who killed 77 people back in 2011 and who bequeathed a 1,500-page screed that runs the gamut of history.

Terrorists do this as a sort of justification for their actions. They want to demonstrate that what they are doing is right and why we should not only understand but welcome their deeds. The case of the Australian who killed 49 Muslims at prayer in New Zealand is no different.

It is hard, however, for me to comment on the document as it has been removed from the Internet, at least as far as I can determine (I had access earlier today but it is no longer where it once was – ostensibly taken down to prevent others from reading it and drawing inspired by it).

What I was able to garner before it disappeared was that the perpetrator was angry at what he perceived is the supposed ‘takeover ‘ of Western society by immigrants, more specifically Muslims. The author rails against the changes in ‘white society’ and cites not only a litany of ‘crimes’ committed by immigrants in their new lands but also sings the praises of others who have sought to ‘rescue’ whites from this onslaught (the Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette is among the latter). The document itself is called “The Great Replacement” and is a take-off of an earlier French offering that claimed immigration was displacing white Europeans, in part through higher birth rates.

There is really nothing new here. We have seen these ideas time and time again among the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, neo-Nazi crowd. These myths are repeated and shared in the real and virtual worlds and serve as the backbone for movements and groups that want to put significant curbs on immigration. A few will go the nth degree and kill to make their point.

What terrorists want is to be noticed. They want to spread fear and panic (the ‘terror’ part of ‘terrorism ‘). And they want others to follow in their footsteps. Hence the decision to take the manifesto down before some other idiot thinks it is ok to kill innocent people.

I am of two minds on the removal of the document. No one wants to see the events of today repeated, possibly in part because someone gets a hold of the manifesto. Yet analysing it is important and not just for the subsequent court case. If we want to fully understand this phenomenon we need to know more about what is going on in the heads of the terrorists responsible for it. Reading the writings of the actor can help. True, these writings can be disjointed and hard to wade through, but they can give us a window on the dark souls of these people. Data collection on terrorism outside of security services and law enforcement agencies is usually a challenge at the best of times: here we have a useful document and it has been deemed out of bounds. The evidence we have open access to does not have to be complete or entirely reliable to be of use.

In the end we have yet another case of an individual angry at the world, full of hate, and who is ok with taking the lives of others. We have an opportunity to gain a little more understanding of why he did what he did. We really should take advantage of this chance.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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