In late July, a German-born eighteen-year-old, a child of parents of Iranian origin who came to the country seeking refuge in the early 1990s, carried out shootings in a fast-food restaurant and in a shopping mall in the city of Munich. As news first came in, the immediate response was to suggest that this incident was yet another example of an Islamic State-inspired or instigated act of terrorism. In the last few months, there been a spate of attacks, especially in France and Germany, and there was no reason to suggest this was anything less; that is, yet another example of radical Islamism leading to violent extremism. However, the reality was that the assailant did not feel comfortable in his own skin and killed others because of it. The killer, David Sonboly (born Ali Sonboly), alluded to a purer racial identity transcending that of his co-ethnic cultural, immigrant and minority background friends and relations. In this regard, Anders Breivik was his idol. Sonboly shot and killed Turkish, Hungarian, Greek and Kosovar teenagers because he bought into the idea of the need to eliminate differences in society – to minimise the risks associated with the dilution of racial heritage and ethnic nationalism, as he saw it. How did this state of affairs arise and what can we learn from the experience for the study of extremist violence and lone actor terrorism?
From all accounts, Sonboly had a torrid time at school. His fellow pupils, including individuals of Turkish origin, taunted him. This bullying, arguably, played a part in his lack of confidence and the lowering of his self-esteem vis-a-vis his ethnic and cultural identity. Therefore, any analysis of his psychological profile cannot omit this victimisation and harassment. Moreover, there are Iranians in the diaspora whose relationship with the Shia religion of Iran is tentative at best, and where there is a claim to an Aryan identity that transcends any kind of national identity with regards to being Iranian. As a way to project his frustrations, he idolised Anders Breivik. The fact that these shootings were carried out on the fifth anniversary of a massacre at the hands of Breivik that killed 77 young people is no accident. Sonboly also converted to Christianity and changed his name to David. Ultimately, Sonboly went on the rampage to target minority young people to cleanse differences seemingly thought to be overly pronounced in German society today.
What is so interesting about this particular episode are the twin issues of radicalisation and far right extremism in an individual who was born into a Shia Muslim household but subsequently rejected his past. While much of the media and political attention in the immediate aftermath focused on this being yet another example of Islamist extremism, the reality was that this was far right terrorism in its most obvious guise. That there were limited responses on the part of media and political elites to decry the horrible nature of this act of terrorism is indicative of the fact that there is often a much more negative focus on Muslim individuals implicated in such acts. This is a reflection of the inherent bias in news reporting on terrorism per se. However, this event also highlighted a new kind of reality. One that is politically uncomfortable and culturally unknown. What it should do is to remind analysts and thinkers working in this field that for most groups there are similar drivers in relation to the causes of radicalisation, which are more about alienation, dislocation and disenfranchisement rather than ideology that often come later in the process of justifying lone actor terrorism.
This event should remind us all that we are dealing with conceptually similar issues affecting young people at the margins of society. They are at the crossroads of various identity formations and self-realisation journeys. These young men enter into the theatre of violence due to emotional, psychological and sociological factors that are a function of the lived experience. Measures to target such acts of crime must recognise the multi-layered nature of the processes involved in radicalisation and to introduce more joined up policy instruments at a much earlier stage of the process. It is thus vital to fully understand the intersection of the paths to radicalisation that affect lone actor Islamists and far-right extremists in order to achieve the necessary impact on research, policy and practice.