Halle, Christchurch… a network of "lone wolves"

Ongoing investigations into the Halle attack have so far concluded that the right-wing extremist attacker acted alone. But "lone wolves" are anything but isolated. By Sandra Petersmann and Naomi Conrad

By Sandra Petersmann und Naomi Conrad

The camera on his helmet shows that Stephan B., the 27-year-old man who carried out a recent attack in the German city of Halle, was apparently on the move as a lone attacker. He broadcast his actions live for around 35 minutes via the game streaming platform "Twitch", which is owned by Amazon. Germany's public broadcaster Deutsche Welle viewed a copy of the video before it was deleted. In it, Stephan B. makes it absolutely clear that his intention is to kill. Jews. Foreigners. Women. Right at the start of the video he denies the Holocaust. He switches between English and German.  His language is xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist. When he speaks German, he uses terms of abuse common in the German neo-Nazi milieu.

He is breathing heavily, running, cursing whenever his homemade guns and explosives fail to go off and apologises in English to his presumed audience for not killing more people.  When he doesn't succeed in forcing his way into the synagogue in Halle, which is full of people on Yom Kippur, he looks for other targets close by. Initially out on the street, then in a Turkish kebab shop. His victims beg for mercy, but their pleading leaves him cold. He is in a homicidal rage. He returns once more to the crime scenes to make sure that the woman and the man he shot are dead.

Stephan B. sometimes appears nervous, but his actions nevertheless recall those of two other right-wing extremist attackers: Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people on 22 July 2011 in Norway – most of them young people attending a socialist holiday camp; and the man who attacked two mosques on 15 March in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand, shooting 51 people dead. Like Stephan B., both left written statements online using similar language and drawing on the same right-wing extremist body of thought.

A terrorist acting alone?

The investigations must determine whether or not Stephan B. did indeed act alone, with whom, when and how intensively he was in contact and whether anyone else was aware of his plans. In the case of the violent crimes committed by the right-wing extremist terror group the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU), it took German authorities years to reveal the full extent of the extremist terror network. Between the years 2000 and 2007, the NSU murdered 10 people and made 43 murder attempts. The trial began in May 2013; sentencing against one of the group's leaders Beate Zschaepe was pronounced in June 2018: she got life.

Right-wing attacker Stephan B. fires his homemade firearm on the street in Halle (photo: Reuters)
Vernetzt und aktiv im rechtsextremen Umfeld oder "Lone wolf attacker": Ob Stephan B. tatsächlich alleine gehandelt hat, mit wem er wann und wie intensiv in Kontakt stand, ob jemand in seine Pläne eingeweiht war, müssen die Ermittlungen zeigen. Auch bei den Gewalttaten der rechtsextremen Terrorgruppe "Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund" (NSU) taten sich die deutschen Behörden schwer damit, das Ausmaß des rechtsextremen Terrornetzwerks auszuleuchten.

Both Breivik and the Christchurch attacker are regularly described in the media as "lone wolves". As terrorists not following anyone's orders and with no evident support from any group. Scientific studies indicate that lone terrorists are part of a network and want to communicate. Few act spontaneously; most plan their actions over long periods of time.

In 2013, the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) at Pennsylvania State University analysed the profiles of 119 lone terrorists; almost all of whom were male. In two-thirds of the examined cases, family members, friends or acquaintances were aware of the perpetrator's commitment to a particular extremist ideology.

In 64 percent of cases, families and friends were "also aware of the individual's intention to engage in a terrorist-related activity, because the perpetrator had verbally told them."

Most of the 119 lone-actor terrorists examined in the study had "regularly engaged in a detectable and observable range of behaviours and activities with a wider pressure group, social movement or terrorist organization." Fifty-three percent were characterised as socially isolated; 35 percent had regular virtual contact with like-minded activists.

The right-wing network

The Internet is full of extremist online communities where isolated individuals can meet those who share their views. These virtual networks are real and dangerous. This is a place where extremists and conspiracy theorists incite one another, where violent fantasies are exchanged and played out, where supporters of the presumed lone actors celebrate their deeds. Especially popular are forums like "8Chan", where users post images and commentaries. There's little in the way of monitoring by site managers.


The live streaming video portal "Twitch", where Stephan B. uploaded his killing spree, is also a place where people come into contact who would presumably never have met without the Internet. "Twitch" is a gathering point for many gamers looking to indulge their passion for violent games. It is also a place where presumed lone actors could find a framework to supposedly legitimise murder and terror. In short: social networks facilitate open exchange between presumed lone actors beyond national borders.

"Lone wolf attackers" like Anders Breivik and the Christchurch terrorist were part of a globally-networked community. Investigations must determine whether, and to what extent, this applies to Stephan B.

The societal context

Within Germany too, suspected terrorists are not operating in a societal vacuum: figures from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution show that the number of right-wing extremist and xenophobic acts of violence in Germany has increased recently: from 774 in the year 2017 to 821 last year. What is more, the number of anti-Semitic acts of violence increased by more than 70 percent over the same period: from 28 in 2017 to 48 last year.

The eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the home of Stephan B., is affected by right-wing crime with particular frequency. In 2017 there were 101 violent crimes of this nature, and 91 last year.

The right-wing nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), many of whose supporters define the nation in terms of blood and soil, is now represented in the national parliament and in all 16 state assemblies. In the most recent state election in Saxony-Anhalt in 2016, the AfD secured 24.3 percent of the vote making it the second-largest party behind Angela Merkel's CDU, which won 32.5 percent. This is the societal environment in which Stephan B., supposedly a lone wolf, operated.

Sandra Petersmann and Naomi Conrad

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon