5 Years After The Munich Shooting: Why It Should Be Remembered As Right-Wing Terrorism

It took years for the Munich shooting to be deemed a terrorist attack. It's important that it is accurately depicted in the history of right-wing extremism.
Condolences on the rampage in Munich on July 22nd, 2016. (Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

Condolences on the rampage in Munich on July 22nd, 2016. (Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

Co-written by Greta Jasser and Maik Fielitz

Greta Jasser is a research associate at the University of Hildesheim, and PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. She is a doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), and a founding member of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism (IRMS). She researches far-right and misogynist online networks, with an interest in technology, platforms, affordances and ideologies.

Maik Fielitz is a Researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

July 22, 2021, is the 10th anniversary of the Utøya-Massacre, when Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in a political holiday camp organized by the Norwegian Labour Party, as well as in the city of Oslo. It is also the 5th anniversary of one of the deadliest far-right attacks in Germany – the attack at a Mcdonald’s in the OEZ shopping-mall in Munich, which left nine people dead and many more injured.

The shooter targeted people he thought to be immigrants, Muslims and Sintis, after inviting mainly young Turkish-German men to the fast-food restaurant using a fake Facebook profile. After the initial shock about the attack died down, media attention quickly dwindled. The perpetrator, a young German-Iranian, did not meet the criteria that a far-right terrorist was assumed to fall under according to conventional wisdom. Yet, his attack was premeditated, and the shooter was engaging with various racist groups online.

The racist motivation of the attack was not adequately addressed in the initial inquiry, continuing a trend of shortcomings in the German justice system in this regard. The Munich shooter purposefully singled out his victims and targeted a specific group of people,  indicating his racist motivation. During the attack, he shouted racial slurs. Beforehand, he concerned himself with the terrorist acts of Utøya and Oslo.

While Breivik’s attack did not influence the modus operandi of far-right terrorism in general, it has been referenced by and inspired a number of lone-actor terrorists since. Including the attack in Munich. Ravndal and Berntzen, who conducted a study on how the far-right has responded to the  Utøya massacre over the past 10 years find that “[T]he German-Iranian teenager who killed nine people […] seems to have drawn considerable inspiration from Breivik. The perpetrator had[…] ‘concerned himself extensively’ with Breivik”.

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Just another rampage?

The Munich attack was first classified as a shooting rampage and largely attributed to the perpetrator’s personality disorder. As the main motive, police officers identified revenge for being bullied, while dismissing a political motive. In fact, the acts of harassment in school against him were so severe that his family had to move and the perpetrator assumed another name.

Studying school rampages in the US and Germany, the perpetrator was inspired by school shootings as well. Yet, for his attack he did not choose to take revenge on those who mobbed him but rather targeted youths with migrant background he did not know, sending a political message that goes far beyond an act of revenge.

Nevertheless, public authorities ruled out a terrorist act. Two indicators led them to this diagnosis. First, the perpetrator had seemingly no contact with (right-wing) terrorist organizations; second, no materials from the Islamic State were found among his belongings either. While the shooting was still ongoing, speculations about another Islamist terrorist attack were extensively made on social media. Europe had just witnessed  witnessed some of the most violent Islamist attacks in 2016. Yet, far-right violence has rarely been considered a serious threat for the security of western democracies (despite alarming statistics regarding  racist hate crimes).

The wave of right-wing terrorism with actors radicalizing via online subcultures has been a completely new phenomenon for authorities, researchers and civil society. This is mirrored in the classification of the event.

Shortly after the attack, a racist motive has been ruled out as well. His German-Iranian heritage likely played a part in this framing. Yet, a brief glimpse into his online activities suggests the opposite. The shooter used Breivik’s name, and a photo of him, in his WhatsApp profile, and had a history of anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish behavior. He understood himself as part of the Aryan  tradition and was active in a number of chat groups that glorified violence. These groups are often engaging in violent talk, that is “utterances by extremists who express an ideology and invoke the use of violence as part of those expressions.”

Talk in general, is one of the “most concrete manifestations of how adherents of an extremist movement communicate their culture to each other” and the general public face-to-face, as well as through the many-to-many communication the web enables. While violent talk does not translate one-to-one to violent action, and can even stand in for them, it can also “reinforce the value of violence and its importance as a cultural and political practice.”

Paying closer attention to far-right conversations online (and offline) can inform the classification of attacks. With increasingly frequent terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators, who often leave writing, chat-protocols or manifestos online – like in the case of the Christchurch massacre – the importance of online networks and their radicalization-potential is now being recognized. In 2016, this wasn’t the case.

(Not only) A question of definition

After the state police ruled out the political nature of the attack, the city of Munich commissioned expert opinions to classify the OEZ attack and to provide background details. Two of the three experts clearly attested that this attack ought to be classified as an act of terrorism based on the perpetrator holding a racist worldview. The question about the nature of the attack is not just a definitional problem. It is also connected with various forms of state compensations and the recognition that those killed were victims of a deadly political ideology rather than simply a misguided young man.

For the victims’ families, this made a serious difference. Finally, in 2019, three years after the attack, the State Police recognized the shooting as a political act. The attorney of the victims and their families, Onur Özata, underlined the importance of having the terrorist attack recognized as such. In an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung: “For the perpetrator, the victims were interchangeable, he was targeting immigrants. This means that other members of this group are being threatened. When the state recognizes that, it also recognizes its protective role for this minority.” (own translation).

Even after it was recognized as a right-wing terrorist act, there have been few initiatives from the state and civil society to support the families of the victims of this political crime. The inscription on the memorial for the victims was changed only recently from ‘Amoklauf’ – a shooting rampage, to ‘rassistisches Attentat’ – racist attack. With the 5th anniversary ahead, there is renewed interest in the case as the handling of politics and security forces is emblematic of the way the authorities deal with racist violence.

While Breivik’s massacre has caused tremendous attention and political consequences in Norway, the attack in Munich has barely remained in the collective memory and still has not found its position in the history of right-wing terrorism.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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Opinion // CARR / Extremism / Gemany / Radical Right / Terrorism