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Three terrorism trends converged in sickening New Zealand attacks

Updated 6:55 PM ET, Fri March 15, 2019

Editor's Note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.

(CNN) - While terrorist attacks and mass shootings are rare in New Zealand, the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday are not isolated incidents in the West, where the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric is often directed at Muslims.

The atrocities in New Zealand highlight three emerging trends in the West: Attacks against Muslim targets, the use of social media as a platform for terrorists to share livestream videos, and the violent targeting of houses of worship.

On January 29, 2017, anti-Muslim fanatic Alexandre Bissonnette killed six men at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. Bissonnette, who was sentenced to life in prison, told an investigator he carried out the attack after seeing reports that the Canadian government would welcome more refugees, according to CBC.

Six months later on June 19, 2017, far-right terrorist Darren Osborne killed one person in north London after he plowed a van into a group of Muslims near the Finsbury Park Mosque.

Prosecutors said, "Darren Osborne planned and carried out this attack because of his hatred of Muslims." Police reports also showed Osborne, who was sentenced to life in prison, researched far-right groups, exchanged messages with extremist leaders, and accessed American conspiracy theory site InfoWars in the weeks before the attacks.

On August 5, 2017, a bomb went off in a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota, as the faithful were gathering to pray. Luckily, no one was killed.

One of the three suspects told authorities he bombed the mosque to "scare" Muslims "out of the country" and show that they are "not welcome here."

And last year, three men planned to detonate four vehicles filled with explosives to level an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, that also contained a mosque. The complex was home to many Somali refugees, and the three men not only expressed hatred for them, but "Muslims in general and described in the most extreme and violent terms what they planned to do to them," US attorney Stephen McAllister said. The three men were sentenced earlier this year to at least 25 years in prison.

In the United States, Islamophobia -- whether it's in the form of a hate crime or an anti-Muslim statement made by elected officials -- has been more prevalent in the last three years, according to Robert McKenzie, the director of the Muslim Diaspora Initiative at the non-partisan think tank New America. McKenzie has carefully tracked these incidents and statements since 2012, and his research can be found at newamerica.org.

The use of social media for extremists to congregate, organize, and perpetuate toxic beliefs is another issue tech companies will have to contend with. On Friday, the suspected perpetrator of the New Zealand attacks appears to have shared a manifesto on social media before he streamed a live video of the attack on Facebook.

The manifesto is filled with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and white nationalist ideas.

The 17-minute live video, which shows part of the attacks from what appears to be a helmet camera, has since been taken down on Facebook, although clips and screenshots have been shared widely online.

This use of livestreaming isn't new. In June 2016, Larossi Abballa, an ISIS-inspired terrorist, killed a police official and his female partner in France. Immediately afterward, Abballa filmed himself live on Facebook and declared his allegiance to ISIS as the couple's terrified 3-year-old sat just behind him.

Terrorists once relied on conventional, mainstream media organizations to gain attention, publicize their attacks and spread the news of their responsibility. Now terrorists can do that themselves by utilizing social media to share live coverage of their own attacks.

Given that this trend is likely to continue, social media companies like Facebook or YouTube will have to face the challenges of preventing this disturbing material from being posted and shared.

The New Zealand terror attacks are also part of a broader trend in the West in which terrorists are targeting houses of worship, which were generally considered off-limits in the past.

In the United States, the October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, left 11 people dead. During the Charleston church shooting in 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans. In 2012, six people were killed during a mass shooting at a Sikh temple just south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There have been numerous other examples around the world.

In his manifesto, the New Zealand attacker said he had previously flirted with a number of ideologies including communism, anarchism, and libertarianism. Eventually, he settled on militant white nationalism.

This suggests that like many terrorists before him, he may have had unresolved grievances in his life and was shopping for an ideology that allowed him to act violently. Regardless, he is a product of these tumultuous times -- and certainly not the last of his kind.


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