Why White Nationalists Are the Extremists We Should Fear
There are about 100 active white power organizations in Canada.
While we still know very little about Alexandre Bissonnette, the university student accused of killing six people at a Quebec City mosque Sunday night, a picture of him has begun to emerge, and it's a picture that everyone on the internet is familiar with.
Bissonnette, 27, enrolled in social sciences at Laval university, was a vocal Trump supporter, according to acquaintances and classmates, who trolled a Facebook group for refugees and seemed to hold anti-women views; he reportedly employed the term "feminazi."
Éric Debroise described him to Journal de Québec, as an "ultra nationalist white supremacist," while Jean-Michel Allard Prus, who did his undergrad with Bissonnette told VICE the suspected terrorist was an aggressive troll online.
"He just wanted to say anything and start a fire," Allard Prus said. "He didn't have his arms open to immigrants you could say. He was against all gun control. He could have been a perfect Republican."
Bissonnette was reportedly inspired by French nationalist Marine Le Pen, who visited Quebec City last summer. Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, courted controversy over her 2010 remarks that compared Muslims praying on the street to a Nazi occupation—remarks that landed her in court for inciting racial hatred. A report in the Globe and Mail says Le Pen's visit prompted Bissonnette to express "extreme online activism."
As we wait for details about Bissonnette's motives to emerge, experts who study right-wing extremism say it was only a matter of time before an event like the shooting took place.
"I can't say it was completely unexpected," said Barbara Perry, a criminology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who authored a study on white supremacists in Canada published last year.
"I expected there would be murders, at the very least serious injuries and assaults given the uptick we've seen across North America and in Europe."
Perry's report defines right wing extremists as people who are fixated on a white power-based nationalism; they tend to be xenophobic and threatened by non-whites, immigrants, Jews, homosexuals, and feminists, and they perceive the government as being a pawn of these groups.
She tracked the movement across Canada, speaking with former extremists, members of communities impacted, law enforcement officials, and people combatting this type of ideology. She identified more than 100 groups in Canada, including Soldiers of Odin, the KKK, Blood and Honour, Combat 18, and the Hammerskins. Some of the groups consist of nothing more than "one guy with a laptop in the basement" said Perry, while more prominent skinhead groups in Quebec have 20 to 40 members.
Perry said the internet is where "those who are perpetuating the rhetoric or going in search of the rhetoric… live." But, while it sounds like Bissonnette expressed some right wing views, she said it's very difficult to predict when online rhetoric will turn into real world violence.
"The whole idea that we can predict is a myth that we need to get over," she said.
According to Perry's report, 9/11 made the public fear terrorism in a way they previously hadn't. But the attack drew attention away from the more common white domestic terrorists, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and instead put the focus on brown-skinned Muslim men.
In studying 30 years worth of violent incidents in Canada, however, Perry found around 120 events coming from white supremacists and related groups versus seven acts of violence coming from what the study refers to as Islamic extremism.
"It really puts it into perspective," she said.
Simon Fraser University PhD student Ryan Scrivens co-authored the report with Perry.
He told VICE that when racially-motivated violence did break out, law enforcement officials tended to write it off as isolated incidents.
"They didn't communicate, they just thought 'We have a couple skinheads in our city or town.' It was a broader problem," he said.
He pointed out Justin Bourque, the man who killed three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014, wasn't labelled as a terrorist but rather as a lone wolf with mental health issues.
Both Scrivens and Perry said populist rhetoric by politicians and, in the case of Donald Trump, an actual Muslim ban, are fuelling the tensions.
"Our worst fear is realized of what the impact of this rhetoric would be and it's not coincidence it happened on the same weekend that [Trump] invoked that executive order. It was a message that clearly said there are people who don't belong in this country."
In Canada, Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch was called out on Twitter after she expressed her condolences over the mosque shooting. Leitch has advocating for screening immigrants for "Canadian values," which many view as dog-whistle politics.
Perry said Leitch would be "foolish" not to reconsider her tactics. J.M. Berger, a fellow at The Hague International Centre for Counter-Terrorism said it's difficult to determine how rhetoric translates into violence. However, he explained that the US has seen a wave of hate crimes and harassment following Trump's election and there's good reason to think that trend will continue, similar to what happened in the UK following Brexit.
"There's no doubt that President Trump's campaign has profoundly emboldened white nationalists in the United States and abroad, in terms of organizing and promoting their message," he said.
According to Berger's studies, white nationalists are outperforming ISIS on Twitter and other websites. He said the two groups have some things in common—they divide the world into two categories of identity, with an "in group" and an "out group."
He said ISIS has "one of the most violent prescriptions for dealing with the out group," whereas neo-Nazis, while historically very violent, have been less able to mobilize their followers to carry out mass murders at a consistent pace in recent times.
In addition to bringing the people who commit crimes to justice, Perry said it's important to attempt to intervene when people express right-wing extremist views online.
She pointed to an initiative in the UK where social workers monitor chatter about white power on Facebook and Twitter and try to directly engage people in a dialogue. She also talked about how Google ads have been used to redirect someone searching for white power groups to sites with "alternative narratives."
"I think we really need to pay more attention to that than the punitive responses, which can be counterproductive," she said.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.