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Far-right extremists on the encrypted messaging app Telegram hailed the gunman who killed two people near a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Thursday as a “saint,” a title reserved for white nationalists who’ve carried out previous attacks.
Telegram users pored over the pictures and video footage starting to trickle in for confirmation that the shooter was, indeed, a white male. “I’m betting on a saint here,” one English-language channel wrote to its 1,300 subscribers. Users celebrated the shooting as a sign of the coming “boogaloo” — a word borrowed from anti-government extremists to refer to an impending civil war.
The gleeful reaction of white nationalists on Telegram provides yet another example of the international nature of the modern far right, who increasingly rely on Telegram and other unregulated online social marketplaces to build alliances around the world and inspire lone-wolf attacks.
And Telegram, specifically, is growing: A recent VICE News analysis of 150 far-right channels found that two-thirds on the platform were created in the first eight months of 2019. The app has provided a safe harbor for extremists who found themselves exiled from mainstream social media and adrift when 8chan was taken offline in June.
The gunman in Germany targeted a synagogue where around 70 to 80 people had gathered to observe Yom Kippur. He recorded the attack using a camera mounted on his helmet, and the footage was later uploaded to the video game platform Twitch. The video, which Twitch removed, shows him trying to shoot down the door of the synagogue. The door held, so he drove instead to a kebab restaurant where he opened fire and killed two people.
Extremists rely on multimedia, like video clips of previous attacks, images from the battlefield in Ukraine, and PDFs of shooters manifestos, to inspire future attacks — and Telegram allows users to upload unlimited amounts of those types of files.
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White nationalists on Telegram quickly cloned the shooter’s Twitch video before it was ultimately removed by the company and it on the platform. They also created GIFs of the most violent moments from the video and shared a clip showing the suspect speaking directly to the camera.
“Hi, my name is Anon,” he says in the clip, using a name that 4chan and 8chan users often call themselves. “I think the Holocaust never happened.” He also goes on to spout anti-Semitic and white nationalist conspiracy theories, for example blaming feminism for “declining birth rates in the West.” The video have also been widely shared on other far-right forums online.
While some far-right commentators on places like 4chan mocked the gunman for his “low score” — which extremists use to talk about the number of people killed in an individual attack — others defended him. One far-right Telegram channel even used the attack as a teachable moment to remind subscribers about how they should select targets and test security ahead of time.
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The far-right Telegram chatter surrounding the synagogue attack — such as wondering if the gunman was one of their own — was reminiscent of the way that ISIS channels parse details of apparent jihadi attacks to decide whether they should claim responsibility. ISIS has long relied on the encrypted app to orchestrate attacks and recruit new members from around the world. The burgeoning far-right and white nationalist Telegram community appear to be taking a page from the ISIS playbook.
The white nationalist who opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, live-streamed his attack on Facebook and shared a link to his manifesto on 8chan. The manifesto was full of references to far-right memes and ideas that transcended borders, acting as the glue to an increasingly global far right: The document was named “The Great Replacement,” which is a popular far-right conspiracy theory and the inspiration for the “You will not replace us” chant that was heard during the violent Charlottesville rally in August 2017.
Last month, the Soufan Center, a global security research organization, published a report looking at the transnational connections between far-right extremists — and found that Ukraine had become a “hub” for white supremacists. According to the report, at least 17,000 people from 50 countries have traveled to Ukraine since 2014 to fight there, often alongside a neo-Nazi-aligned regiment, and many of those fighters have since returned home with new paramilitary skills.
Cover image: Policemen stand with automatic weapons in front of the synagogue. According to initial findings, two people were killed in shots fired in Halle. (Photo by: Robert Michael/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)