Bottom Line Up Front
- There are possible links between the recent New Zealand mosque shooter and a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist white supremacist paramilitary organization called the Azov Battalion.
- The Azov Battalion is emerging as a critical node in the transnational right-wing violent extremist (RWE) movement.
- Recruits from the U.S., Norway, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Sweden, and Australia, among others,have reportedly traveled to train with the Azov Battalion.
- The global nature of these groups is just one of several similarities between RWEs and Salafi-jihadists.
In the wake of the New Zealand mosque attacks, links have emerged between the shooter, Brenton Tarrant, and a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist, white supremacist paramilitary organization called the Azov Battalion. Tarrant’s manifesto alleges that he visited the country during his many travels abroad, and the flak jacket that Tarrant wore during the assault featured a symbol commonly used by the Azov Battalion. Tarrant’s transnational ties go beyond Ukraine, however. Tarrant claimed that he was in touch with Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist, and he took trips throughout Europe, including the Balkans, visiting sites that symbolized historical battles between Christians and Muslims. During the video of his attack he could be heard listening to a song that glorified Bosnian-Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic, and his gun featured racial messages and names of white supremacists from around the world.
The Azov Battalion is emerging as a critical node in the transnational right-wing violent extremist (RWE) network. This group maintains its own ‘Western Outreach Office’ to help recruit and attract foreign fighters that travel to train and connect with people from like-minded violent organizations from across the globe. Operatives from the outreach office travel around Europe to promote the organization and proselytize its mission of white supremacy. In July 2018, German-speaking fliers were distributed among the visitors at a right-wing rock festival in Thuringia, inviting them to be part of the Azov battalion: ‘join the ranks of the best’ to ‘save Europe from extinction.’ It has also established youth camps, sporting recreation centers, lecture halls, and far-right education programs, including some that teach children as young as 9 years old military tactics and far-right ideology. This aggressive approach to networking serves one of the Azov Battalion’s overarching objectives to transform areas under its control in Ukraine into the primary hub for transnational white supremacy.
Too often, the focus on foreign fighters has been relegated to Sunni jihadists, but in a globalized world, the foreign fighter phenomenon has deep roots across ideologies, from foreign fighters assisting the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, to Shi’a militants traveling from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Lebanon to join with Iranian-backed foreign fighter networks operating in Syria. It is now evident that RWE networks are also highly active in recruiting fighters worldwide to its cause, with the Azov Battalion and other ultra-nationalist organizations playing a significant role in the globalization of RWE violence. Indeed, the Azov Battalion is forging links with RWE groups, hosting visits from ultra-nationalist organizations such as members of the Rise Against Movement (R.A.M.) from the U.S. and the British National Action from the U.K., among other white supremacists from around the world. In the United States, several R.A.M. members (all American citizens) who spent time in Ukraine training with the Azov Battalion were recently indicted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) for their role in violently attacking counter-protestors during the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017.
Ironically, there are similarities in ideology, strategy and recruitment tactics between Salafi-Jihadist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, and RWE groups. Both types of violent groups seek to implement their own versions of what they consider to be a ‘pure’ society. There are striking resemblances between al-Qaeda’s Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) and the Azov Battalion’s ‘Western Outreach Office,’ both of which had the responsibility for promoting the cause and helping recruits reach the battlefield. Just as Afghanistan served as a sanctuary for jihadist organizations like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1980s, so too are parts of Ukraine becoming a safe haven for an array of right-wing violent extremist groups to congregate, train, and radicalize. And just like the path of jihadist groups, the goal of many of these members is to return to their countries of origin (or third-party countries) to wreak havoc and use acts of violence as a means to recruit new members to their cause. Unlike jihadis who are attempting to strike Western targets, though, radicalized white supremacists have the added advantage of being able to blend in seamlessly in the West, just as Tarrant was able to do.
The Christchurch shooter was not simply a lone actor, but the product of a broader network of right-wing violent extremists. If the evidence ultimately proves that Tarrant went to Ukraine to train with like-minded individuals, then the attack in New Zealand was possibly the first example of an act of terrorism committed by a white supremacist foreign fighter. And unless the international community recognizes the danger posed by these transnational networks, the New Zealand attack is unlikely to be the last.