Shortly after the Friday shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that the primary suspect was an Australian citizen and denounced him as a right-wing “terrorist.” 

“We stand here and condemn absolutely the attack that occurred today by an extremist, right-wing, violent terrorist,” Morrison told a news conference.

Authorities in New Zealand arrested a suspect and charged him with murder. In a manifesto published online before the attack, the alleged gunman describes himself as “an ordinary white man, 28 years old. Born in Australia to a working class, low income family.”

Australian media reports have suggested that the man worked as a personal trainer in Grafton, a city in the state of New South Wales, after graduating from school in 2009 and before leaving to travel in Europe and Asia two years later. 

Australian Senator Pauline Hanson wore a burqa while expressing support for banning the garment. (Reuters)

It remains unclear whether he had established links to far-right groups, but such groups have been active in Australia for decades. Some experts say that anti-Muslim rhetoric has been normalized by mainstream right-wing news outlets, many of which are owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch.

These publications have fomented “the kind of Islamophobic culture which makes it easier for extremists to think that they are legitimized to enact their deadly fantasies,” said Ghassan Hage, a Lebanese Australian academic at the University of Melbourne.

But although Australia may be fertile ground for far-right radicalization, the suspect’s rhetoric — and, notably, the target — also suggests that the motivation for the attack was not traditional far-right nationalism, but a newer kind of international, Internet-
inspired extremism.

“The fact is that he chose New Zealand quite carefully,” said Aurelien Mondon, an expert on the far right at the University of Bath in Britain. “He wanted to make clear that Muslims weren’t safe anywhere.”

Australia has a history of far-right groups that have targeted immigrants and minorities. From the start of the 20th century, the country adopted a number of policies designed to exclude immigrants of non-European origin. These measures, known collectively as the White Australia policy, were fully abandoned only in 1973.

In the mid-1990s, far-right political parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation were able to draw on anti-immigrant sentiment against Asians to gain a small foothold in national politics. In recent years, One Nation and other right-wing groups have gained new political relevance by pivoting to the issue of Muslim immigration from the Middle East and South Asia.

Though most of those groups focus on Australian concerns, the manifesto released before Friday’s attack indicated the alleged gunman had moved to New Zealand specifically to carry it out, suggesting it would show that Muslims were not safe “even in the remotest areas of the world.”

In the manifesto and several videos of the attack, there was only fleeting mention of Australia. Instead, there were repeated references to far-right movements and incidents in other countries, including the United States, France, Norway and Serbia, as well as memes and in-jokes popular with online far-right groups.

Mondon said such references were indicative of a new generation of the Australian far right. “This kind of international alt-right, for want of a better term, are really Internet-based,” he said, adding that they were “much closer to what you’ve seen in the United States in recent years” and “more violent and less interested in the parliamentary game” than previous Australian far-right movements.

Established far-right parties such as Hanson’s One Nation have largely refrained from commenting on the Christchurch shooting so far. However, Fraser Anning, an independent senator from Queensland, released a message saying that Muslims “may have been the victims today,” but “usually they are the perpetrators.”

“The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” Anning said in his statement.

Mehreen Faruqi, Australia’s first female Muslim senator, accused Hanson and Anning of normalizing language used to target Muslims.

“This is the consequence of the Islamophobic and racist hate,” Faruqi wrote Friday on Twitter.

Noack reported from Berlin.