Halle survivors create tool to track racist extremists
Deutsche Welle - Feature Story - Nazi Trials

Halle survivors create tool to track racist extremists

Survivors of Germany’s Halle synagogue attack are now tracking white supremacist extremists worldwide. Terrorists use online platforms like Twitch, which police are failing to monitor, they say.

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On August 3, 2019, a right-wing extremist shot dead 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He had just posted a “manifesto” on the online forum 8chan in which he declared his hatred of immigrants and Hispanic people.

On the same day, a man in eastern Germany signed up to the online platform Twitch, a streaming service mainly used by gamers to watch each other play video games. Two months later, the 27-year-old Stephan B.*, would use this service to live-stream footage from his helmet camera that showed his attempt to murder 52 Jewish people in a synagogue in the city of Halle.

Like the El Paso shooter, the young German also posted a “manifesto” on an online forum moments before the attack began. The synagogue attack failed, thwarted largely because the door to the courtyard outside the synagogue was locked — a necessary precaution on holidays for many Jewish communities around the world. In frustration, Stephan B. killed two non-Jewish Germans.

The two white supremacists didn’t know each other personally, and there is no evidence that they ever communicated directly. But they shared an ideology and frequented the same online forums and often unmoderated “imageboards,” where a globe-spanning network of young men regularly air racism and misogyny and feed each other’s anger and resentment about society.

The two men had also both publicly expressed their admiration for the mass-murderer of Christchurch, who had killed 51 people in a mosque a few months earlier, and who himself had been directly inspired by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people during an attack in 2011.

The sheer frequency of these otherwise “unconnected” attacks mean they are often lost in the ocean of daily news: In the two months between the El Paso shooting and the Halle attack alone, there were two more attacks by young men in Dayton, Ohio, and Baerum, Norway, which together left 10 more people dead.

And in Germany, the death toll in Halle has already been superseded by a more recent racist atrocity: this February another man attacked a cafe and a hookah bar in Hanau, western Germany, killing 10 people of immigrant background.

But recognizing the connections between these attacks is not being properly investigated by law enforcement, according to Talya Feldman, an art student from Colorado who was among the people in the Halle synagogue during the attack.

That’s why Feldman, with other survivors and activists and the support of anti-racism organization NSU Watch, has developed a new online project that allows users to trace on a “timemap” how one attack is being prepared while another is being carried out elsewhere in the world. For Feldman, paying attention to these connections could make future attackers visible before they carry out their attacks.

Beneath a banner that reads Global White Supremacist Terror, researchers can use the tool to correlate these uniquely 21st-century acts of terrorism— all carried out by isolated young men linked by a common ideology and an internet community.

Like with other online cultures, the key is self-promotion and reaching an audience. Members might not know each other, but they recognize common memes and symbols, and would-be perpetrators post selfies with their guns and manifestos moments before launching attacks. They also publish their plans, along with game-like “goals” to set themselves, expecting to be rated by others for their success or failure in murdering people.

“These attacks are coming from these communities that are built on this concept of the copycat, this meme culture — you take a picture and copy and copy it over again,” Feldman told DW. “That’s what we’re seeing happening.”

This became clear on the first day of the Halle trial when the attacker told the judge under questioning that setting up the Twitch live stream had been vital to his plans — in fact, it was “the whole point,” he told the judge. He wanted to encourage others just as he had been encouraged by the Christchurch mosque attack. He added that he had chosen Twitch because he had learned from the Christchurch attacker that Facebook would take the stream down too quickly.

But law enforcement has been slow to police these new online communities. In her closing statement to the court in early December, Feldman, as a co-plaintiff, delivered a scathing assessment of the German state institutions — judiciary and law enforcement alike. For Feldman, the trial showed that the German courts, the federal police, and the state prosecutors were at best ignorant of and at worst uninterested in exploring the global background of the crime.

“They saw no connection to Christchurch. It was clear they didn’t do a lot of investigating into what online radicalization is — what Twitch is,” says Feldman now. As co-plaintiff, she had access to all the investigative material and watched police officers give testimony. “There was evidence that the federal police didn’t even look at the imageboard where he posted a link to the live stream initially or any of the  right-wing networks that posted it after the attack via messaging apps like Telegram.”

Given how dependent these right-wing communities are on the internet, it’s likely that the next potential attacker would have found downloaded and watched the Halle video. But soon after the shooting, German public TV channel ZDF revealed it took the German police more than a week to ask operators of the imageboard Meguca, where Stephan B. had posted a link to the live stream and where the attack was celebrated, for IP addresses of users watching the attack — by which time they had been deleted by the system.

When questioned in court, many of the police officers said it simply wasn’t their job to investigate the background of the crime. After all, from a narrow legal point of view, this seemed reasonable. The case was clear: There was a confession and a video recording the act — why dig any deeper? “So often I heard them say: It’s not my job to understand the context,” said Feldman. “Which leads me to ask, well then whose job is it?”

That’s an important question, given that both the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the German domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, agree that far-right extremism currently represents the biggest domestic terrorist threat in their respective countries. According to a Reuters report, a DHS memo from August this year even identified white supremacists and other lone offenders with “personalized ideologies” as posing the greatest threat of deadly violence in the US.

Stephan B.’s trial, which has lasted 25 court days, is due to reach a verdict on Monday.