The World

The Cult of Breivik

The Norwegian mass murderer has emerged as an icon for a generation of white supremacist terrorists.

Anders Behring Breivik
Anders Behring Breivik is pictured in the Borgarting Court of Appeal at Telemark Prison in Skien, Norway, on Jan. 18, 2017.
Lise Aaserud/AFP/Getty Images

The manifesto of the terrorist responsible for the horrific attack at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday—a 78-page rambling text titled “The Great Replacement”—paid tribute to an array of racially motivated terrorists, including America’s Dylann Roof, Italy’s Luca Traini, Sweden’s Anton Lundin Pettersson, and Britain’s Darren Osborne. But the New Zealand attacker, a 28-year-old Australian named Brenton Harrison Tarrant, seemed to place Anders Behring Breivik in a separate category, at once a symbol to be revered but also as a call to action, a justification for political violence. Tarrant specifically mentioned Breivik as someone who, through his actions, was willing to “take a stand against ethnic and cultural genocide.” He also mentioned that while he read the writings of Dylann Roof “and many others,” he considered Breivik to be his only “true inspiration” for launching the attack, demonstrating just how significant the Norwegian terrorist’s impact was on Tarrant’s own willingness to act.

As more information emerges about the attack, one thing has become particularly clear—the perpetrator was heavily influenced by Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist responsible for killing 77 people at a summer camp in 2011.

The manifesto echoed themes in Breivik’s own pre-attack manifesto, titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” which railed against such themes as cultural Marxism and Muslim immigration. Breivik believed that his attack would awaken Europeans to what he saw as the evils of multiculturalism. He targeted a youth summer camp attended by the children of liberal Norwegian politicians as “revenge” for the Norwegian government’s embrace of Muslim immigrants. In his manifesto, Breivik lamented that Europe had drifted astray from what he viewed as the idyllic social norms of the 1950s, with strict gender roles and a homogenous ethnic population. Even years after his attack, Breivik has remained a staunch supporter of white supremacy, flashing the “Heil Hitler” sign in court appearances.

Breivik has become an inspiration for others on the fringes of right-wing ideology, labeled “Saint” and “Commander” by some of his followers. Tarrant even claimed to have made contact with Breivik, whom he praised with the honorific “Knight Justiciar,” in a nod to the reputation he has attained in white supremacist circles. (Norwegian attorneys have treated the claim with skepticism.) Breivik was also cited as an inspiration for the recently disrupted terrorist plot by U.S. Coast Guard member and avowed white supremacist Christopher Hasson.

Contrary to his own self-aggrandizing claims, Breivik was never the leader of an official or formal terrorist group. But since 2011, he has grown into something potentially more dangerous—a symbol, hero, and martyr for individuals and groups that fall under the broad tent of neo-Nazi ideology and white supremacy, particularly those that advocate for the use of violence against perceived adversaries: immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and any politicians deemed to have liberal leanings or who embrace multiculturalism or tolerance of other races, religions, and sects.

There is precedent for Breivik’s transformation. Many terrorist groups have appropriated the use of symbols to help drive cohesion, morale, fundraising, and recruitment by appealing to the cultlike status of the figurehead of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a terrorist group with ethno-nationalist motivations. This role was filled by member Bobby Sands, who died on a hunger strike while in prison. Throughout the 1980s, murals of Sands were splashed all over the sides of buildings from West Belfast to Derry, serving as a reminder of the dedication and commitment to fighting what many Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland viewed as a British occupation.

In Turkey, the long-imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan serves as an inspiration for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its legions of supporters. In Sri Lanka, Velupillai Prabhakaran led the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for more than three decades, affording him godlike status among Tamil militants. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas cultivates the image of suicide bombers as “martyrs,” whose surviving family members are feted and taken care of financially by the group’s leadership. The Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara became a well-known icon for leftist militants during the Cold War.

For all his infamy, the Norway killer led a remarkably unremarkable life, similar to many underachievers who go on to commit acts of right-wing terrorism. But his violent rampage and continued defiance have led his ideological allies to lionize Breivik as a defender of Christian civilization and a white male population that sees itself as under siege from liberal politicians, declining economic fortunes, and shifting demographic patterns.

For right-wing extremists and their supporters, Breivik is seen as prophetic, someone who was able to foresee the social and cultural challenges associated with absorbing a large influx of Muslim immigrants, which many European countries are now grappling with. In addition to the death toll in Norway, which brought even more notoriety to his crime, his ideas have resonated with the so-called outer ring of white nationalists, namely, those who support these ideas or are at least unwilling to speak out against them. His ideology is often inadvertently echoed by populist politicians railing against immigration to score political points, as has occurred in Hungary, Italy, and Poland. His manifesto fits the narrative that all of Europe’s social ills can be attributed to immigrants, who bring with them crime and terrorism.

Policymakers in New Zealand, Australia, the U.S., and Canada may be surprised at the resonance a 40-year-old Norwegian white supremacist could have with their own domestic populations. But similar to other forms of terrorism, especially in the modern era, symbols and figureheads transcend physical boundaries. As terrorism expert Daniel Byman recently described in Slate, right-wing terrorism has, like Salafist jihadi ideology, gone global.

Just as thousands of analysts became experts on al-Qaida through the Arabian Peninsula propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there needs to be a renewed focus on symbols like Breivik, and which right-wing groups seem most determined to strike. Funding for programs to counter violent extremism have been shortchanged under the Trump administration and on numerous occasions, the president has downplayed the threat posed by white nationalism. After the attacks in New Zealand, he remarked that “it’s a small group of people,” when asked whether the threat posed by white nationalists was growing.

Symbols and martyrs have always played a significant role in terrorist propaganda, but the internet adds a new dimension. With social media and a variety of web forums to choose from, not to mention the dark web, extremists and terrorists can use symbols to traverse generational divides, bridging the gap between the young and old guard in some movements. Right-wing extremists traffic in memes on websites like Gab and 8chan, sites that have been labeled as safe havens for neo-Nazis to interact and where praise for Hitler and the Nazis is disturbingly commonplace.

Individuals like Breivik can act as force multipliers, providing some semblance of coherence to a disparate group of individuals with seemingly inchoate worldviews, all existing along a spectrum that ranges from those who engage in trolling for irony to the hardcore true believers hovering on the precipice of political violence.