February 27, 2020   8 mins

Tobias Rathjen, the 43-year-old German, who murdered nine people in the Frankfurt suburb of Hanau last week before killing his mother and himself, seems to have had a tenuous grip on reality: in a rambling text on his personal website, he said that his thoughts and actions were controlled by mind-readers working for an “intelligence agency”.

The people he killed were all from immigrant backgrounds, although four had German nationality. Rathjen appeared to hate immigrants, railing against ethnic minorities and arguing that people from African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries should be “completely annihilated” from Germany. In other passages, this escalated to his calling for the genocide of half the peoples of the world, including entire countries such as Egypt and India; he spoke sweepingly and icily of “ethnic groups, races or cultures in our midst that are destructive in every respect”. He had never had a wife or girlfriend, he said, something that for the past 18 years he attributed to his perceived state of “being surveilled”.

He deliberately targeted an area with a high proportion of Muslim immigrants, leaving behind him a trail of innocent victims, one of whom, Mercedes Kierpacz, was a pregnant 35-year-old mother of two. It is likely that, had psychiatrists examined Rathjen prior to his rampage, they would have found him seriously mentally disturbed. Yet strands in his mania are immediately recognisable as ideologies that are not only highly recognisable in the outside world, but that appear to be growing in popularity. They include white supremacism, conspiracy theorising, and a desire either to heavily dominate and control women or avoid them entirely (in Rathjen’s case, the latter).

In her recent book Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, the author Julia Ebner describes how she infiltrated a number of extremist groups in order to understand from the inside what motivates and inspires their members. Whether Islamist or far-right, there are a striking number of similarities in their internal machinery. She describes how members are gradually radicalised in online forums and real-life meetings. Lines of argument or terminology that would be taboo in the wider world are regularly crossed and normalised. Meanwhile, the ‘secrecy’ of the group fosters a sense of belonging and special status: the feeling of being misunderstood and persecuted by the prevailing culture is constantly nourished.

An early chapter describes the chat on a white-power website, which is full of coded allusions and signifiers of Nazi sympathies: ‘88’ referring to the initials ‘HH’ (Heil Hitler); WP (White Power); or W.O.T.A.N. (Will of the Aryan Nation). Many users have an intense interest in their genetics, she says, and are seeking out DNA-testing firms such as 23andMe and Ancestry in order to bolster their historical sense of white identity.

As might be predicted, however, “white supremacists’ genetic ancestry test results don’t always match their own purity requirements, which can push them into profound identity crises”. Sometimes, unexpected DNA results might lead them to question their existing racial philosophy — but often instead they move into denial, reaching for “even more absurd conspiracy theories” to deny the validity of their test results, such as that Jews or ‘global elites’ are distorting the genetic tests as part of a plot to eradicate the white race. The ‘chat’ that Ebner describes is part-playful: a mélange of pseudo-irony, insider jokes and emojis, verbal ‘transgressions’ framed as wind-ups of the Left, surreally combined with brutal expressions of hatred such as “Gas the Kikes. Race war now”.

The chatroom she infiltrated is known as MAtR: a reference to Men Among the Ruins, a book by the Italian philosopher Julius Evola, who inspired Mussolini and worked for the SS. The goal of its leaders, the author writes, is to establish a white ethno-state, an Aryan nation. One means by which this might be achieved — as a chat forum member called Mr White describes — is by ‘red pilling,’ a reference to the Matrix films, in which the hero Neo takes the red pill and discovers that he is living inside a computer simulation designed by AI robots to enslave humanity. Alt-right recruits, says Ebner, use the film’s metaphor to “persuade sympathisers that they are caught up in an illusionary world created by ‘the global establishment’’’ to control the populace.

When white supremacists talk of ‘red pilling’ it refers to the practice of seeking ideological converts: the spreading of memes or news — often distorted — designed to ‘prove’ that the perceptions which the majority hold are comforting fictions. The author argues that “the ultimate red pill for white nationalists is the belief that the Holocaust never happened”.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is one belief that white supremacists hold in common with Islamists. But both ideologies also dangle before followers the vision of a struggle, supercharged with importance and meaning, which will draw the devotee away from the contemptible, safe banalities of ordinary life.

In a chapter called “Sisters Only” Ebner shifts her attention to Islamism, and describes taking part in the encrypted “small but international ‘Terror Agency Sister’ chatting group’’. One edict of the group is ‘situational estrangement’ (gurbah) which — according to one higher-ranking participant, Dahlia — involves gradual distancing from “anyone and anything that tries to stop you from Jihad even with arguments that sound Islamic”.

In an inversion of how wider society might see things, Dahlia describes how she heard the Shaytan (devil) whispering: “You are becoming extreme.” But the female jihadist in her warned that it was necessary to silence this inner voice, and remind herself that “you are only feeling what every true believer should feel: hatred of Kufr and all its people”.

Although the allure of Islamist sub-cultures is built on belonging, individual members are highly dispensable when necessary. Ebner describes how an ‘Indonesian sister’ reveals that intelligence officers have come to monitor her. The woman in question is immediately dropped from the chat circle: “If the risk and potential damage exceeds the value a member adds to the network, the verdict is usually expulsion.”

Along the way, some of the ‘Terror Sisters’ discuss their role as female jihadists: “What are your duties and responsibilities? How can you best support your husband in jihad?” For many ‘Isis women’ — in among trading grisly news of suicide bombings and jihadist actions — identity is partly forged in the zealous expression of submission to male authority.

That submission, at least, Ebner finds they have in common with US ‘Trad Wives’ or Red Pill Women, anti-feminist women who are constantly critically evaluating themselves through male eyes. They discuss their ‘SMV’ (sexual market value) and their ‘RMV’ (relationship market value) in matter-of-fact terms, try to practise the philosophy of STFU (‘Shut The Fuck Up’) to avoid irritating men, and submit to being verbally or even physically disciplined if they have displeased their husbands. Politically, the US Trad Wives movement is often linked to the alt-right (unlike the current UK version, which seems keener on 1950s dresses and Cath Kidston than political extremism).

Yet it is ‘Isis women’ who have made the most life-changing decisions, seemingly undeterred by ample evidence of Isis atrocities. In many cases, they left their homes — and, often, relatively comfortable lives in the West — to seek the chance to be the wives and mothers helping to build the new Caliphate.

Another book, Guest House for Young Widows, by the journalist Azadeh Moaveni, provides a more complex portrait of Isis women and their motivations. What often seemingly began in discontent and the desire to rebel or escape — from a stultifying home life, repressive parents, violent husbands or an authoritarian Arab secular state such as President Bourguiba’s Tunisia — took on a different shape once they entered the airless mixture of heavy ideology and physical hardship and cruelty of Islamic State. Some reacted by hardening their ideology yet further, others by attempting to flee from what they had once sought.

Discontent and injustices feed a desire to rebel: Moaveni tells the story of Nour, who grew up in Le Kram, Tunis, and for whom donning the face-veil was initially a form of rebellion which escalated into a stand-off with school. Early marriage followed, to a religiously devout husband, Karim, with a low-paid job. A move to Syria, with the promise of salaried employment, was seen as a way out of the cramped accommodation they shared with Nour’s parents. When Karim went to Syria first, Nour was detained and interrogated by the Tunisian police, with sexual violence in the atmosphere: at one point Nour was told that unless she talked about her husband’s activities, another woman in her cell would be stripped naked as humiliation. Nour didn’t talk, and four officers ripped off the girl’s clothes.

One feels, certainly, for Nour’s beleaguered parents, ordinary Tunisians on low incomes who somehow found the bribe needed to get her out of jail. Yet, when Moaveni meets Nour for the final time, her superficial appearance has changed but not her loyalties: once a political line has been crossed, it can be hard to go back. She is working in a shoe shop, perfectly made up, her hair uncovered, and elegantly dressed in Western-style clothes, but now feels that she is “living a lie”. The author asks Nour what she thought of the Paris attacks by Isis in 2015, which had killed 130 people in a concert-hall and cafés, including many Muslims. She supported them fully, Nour said: “They kill our people. They don’t play by the rules. Why should we?”

Taken together, Ebner and Moaveni’s books do much to illuminate the process of radicalisation, and the complex mechanisms by which extremist groups work. A common factor among them all is the reiteration of belonging by means of the perpetual denial of feeling for the ‘enemy’. To have an ‘us’ of such intensity, held passionately close, requires the non-stop evocation of a contemptible ‘them’.

The internet is the perfect forum for radicalisation, since it allows geographically distant ‘true believers’ to communicate closely and plan in secrecy; it also permits the constant bombardment and repetition of propaganda to create a potent ideological bouillon in the mind of the adherent, one which sometimes bubbles over into real-life violence.

In both Islamist and far-right narratives, the group rhetoric of persecution is so strong that adherents come fully to believe it: the ‘community’ presents itself as in a state of siege against some advancing, dominating source of moral and physical pollution. For Islamists, that is the non-Muslim ‘Kufr’ hordes of unbelievers, along with fellow-Muslims who are insufficiently fanatical. For white nationalists, it is Jews, Muslims and ethnic minorities.

When murderous attacks take place — such as the Christchurch mosque shooting by the white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, or the Isis attacks on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris — the vast majority of observers understand them clearly as obscene violence against the most vulnerable targets. In the minds of their perpetrators, however — entirely scrubbed of empathy — these are courageous defensive or retaliatory strikes in a global struggle, conducted on behalf of other group members. The Isis statement after the Bataclan, written in the grandiose, faux-historical voice which both sides intermittently favour, warned “France and all nations following its path” that “the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake of the crusader campaign”. Tarrant described himself as “a regular white man” who “decided to take a stand for the future of my people”.

What has evaporated from the killers’ thinking is any connection to a sense of common humanity: the awareness that the individuals they are murdering have feelings, accomplishments, histories, personal struggles and families who love them. Their victims are reduced to one-dimensional targets, representatives of an opposing force.

The adherents of extremist groups — arriving at their positions via tangled personal and political routes — have broadly rejected the rampant materialism of a consumer society. They often seem to yearn instead for rules, restrictions, direction, identity, comradeship and even hardships. But what their most fanatical adherents want above all is a dehumanised enemy and, beyond their own ranks, a pool of more passive support that may at some point also be radicalised.

In achieving these goals, Islamists and neo-Nazis require the presence of one another to galvanise their own support bases. They can, and do, frequently point to the most extreme, hate-filled representatives of the ‘other’ – a white Australian attacking a New Zealand mosque, or a young Muslim bombing a Manchester concert-hall – and claim that such individuals are the truest representatives of the whole. In this way, they readily fuel each other’s myths, implicitly endorse their own violence, and seek to ensure the mutual escalation of activity.

That activity comes at a tremendous, ongoing price, of course, for ordinary people suddenly caught up in their maelstrom of prejudice and violence. But — despite the constant, feverish reiteration of the language of ‘defending’ we hear in both these books — the spread of suffering has always seemed the very least of their concerns.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.