By: Dr Orla Lynch – Head of Criminology at University College Cork, Ireland

Understanding terrorism is on the one hand about understanding the terrorist, but more importantly, it is about understanding the complex societal dynamics that made him possible, according to Dr Orla Lynch, Head of Criminology at University College Cork in Ireland.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, has become the latest right-wing extremist to carry out a major terrorist attack.

But this is not an isolated event – in the past 12 months, we have seen an increase in far-right killings and a rise in far-right extremism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Using a well-planned communications strategy, Tarrant live-streamed the attack on Facebook and released a manifesto entitled ‘The Great Replacement’.

The release of this material has led to a flurry of activity, aimed at conducting a psychological autopsy of the alleged terrorist; some media sources are crediting Tarrant’s childhood obesity for his descent into teenage isolation while others have attempted a more sophisticated analysis of his interactions with XRW (extreme right-wing) literature, groups and ideologues.

Everything from the scrawlings on the rifles used during the attack to the music played in the get-away vehicle, have formed part of the analysis.

Importantly, however, this autopsy will not provide us with what we ultimately seek, and that is the why. Why did he do it, what motivated him, how could he justify undertaking the attack?

Unfortunately, we may never truly know why someone carries out an attack like that witnessed in Christchurch. We can, of course, ask the individual involved, but we may not be satisfied with the answer, and in fact, the answer may change over time.

What we can do is understand how the perpetrator planned and carried out the attack, we can discover the antecedent behaviours, we can understand the social network supporting the person, and we can discover how chance and opportunity played a role in their involvement.

We can also understand how a supportive political climate emerged that allowed his views to go unchallenged and constructed a minority population as an existential threat to our way of life. We can account for how the language used in the public sphere others and dehumanises minority populations and constructs their presence in our society as an invasion.

Finally, we can understand how the poisonous rhetoric of the XRW has successfully crept into the mainstream and has manifest itself as publicly acceptable forms of racism. The language may not be overtly about race, it is more likely to be about culture and identity but have no doubt, this exclusionary rhetoric serves to legitimise the XRW as an extension of moderate right-wing views, and its capacity to seep into mainstream debate is one of the dangerous strengths of this increasingly prevalent ideological position.

While there are significant conceptual and behavioural leaps to be made to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action we must not underestimate the power of legitimising narratives and the role they play in bolstering and legitimising the identity position of individuals like Tarrant.

Individuals do not operate in a vacuum and Tarrant is a product of our time, mobilised into action through the intersection of grand political narratives, virtual communities, revered ideologues and personal need. Understanding terrorism is on the one hand about understanding the terrorist, but more importantly, it is about understanding the complex societal dynamics that made him possible.”

Dr Orla Lynch is currently the Head of Criminology at University College Cork, Ireland; her primary training is as a psychologist. Orla is a fellow with both Hedayah (GCTF UN) and the RESOLVE network (United States Institute of Peace) and a Board member of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), Europe. Orla’s research focuses on the perpetrators and victims of terrorism. To date, she has interviewed over 100 individuals convicted of involvement in terrorism and political violence and has worked with victims groups in both Ireland, the UK and Spain. Orla has researched individuals from the PIRA, UDA, UVF, ETA, Al Mujaharoun, the PKK, the Saved Sect, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the INLA and dissident republican groups. Orla is currently involved in a research project that looks at the crime-terror nexus and how it can be understood across the Island of Ireland. She is also supervising projects on ‘radicalisation amongst the extreme right-wing’, ‘The Case of the Disappeared in Northern Ireland’ and ‘desistance and disengagement from offending’. Her recent book Applying Psychology (2018) looks at how we can use existing psychological knowledge to understand terrorism and political violence.