Why the accused New Zealand killer was fascinated with Serbia, Ottoman Empire

The 28-year-old accused of killing 50 people in two Christchurch mosques on Friday had written the names of Christian Serbian military leaders — in Cyrillic script — on his guns and ammunition.

Experts say gunman's apparent interest in Serbian history isn't standard for extremist far-right killers

A police official stands guard in front of the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The man accused of killing 50 people at two mosques in the city had a fascination with Serbia, which one expert says could stem from a belief in a 'clash of civilizations.' (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

Experts say it's part of the globalization of the extremist far-right: an alleged Australian white supremacist gunning down worshippers in New Zealand mosques to the soundtrack of Serbian nationalist music glorifying the exploits of a convicted war criminal. 

Brenton Tarrant, 28, accused of killing 50 people in two Christchurch mosques on Friday, had allegedly written the names of Christian Serbian military leaders — in Cyrillic script — on his guns and ammunition, including Milos Obilic and Bajo Pivljanin, who battled Ottoman Muslims centuries ago. 

The Serbian nationalist song that the accused killer played as he live streamed the attacks lionized Bosnian Serb Leader Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted of war crimes and genocide perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 war in the former Yugoslavia.

The song, an almost polka-like traditional Balkan folk jingle, uses wartime derogatory terms for Muslims. "Karadzic, lead your Serbs. Lead your Serbs. Everyone must see that they don't fear anyone."

This fascination with Serbia, and the Balkans more generally, is atypical but not unprecedented for white supremacists in Westernized countries, according to a former neo-Nazi and other analysts who study the far-right. 

The alleged killer's obsession with battles between Christian and Muslim armies stemming back to the Middle Ages also sheds light on the motivations of some 21st-century fascists, analysts said. 

'People look to history'

"The focus on Serbia is not uncommon," said Tony McAleer, a former member of the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance. "In the 1990s, at the height of the Balkan crisis, I knew of people who went over there to fight ... they were often ex-military. You had an extreme nationalism in the Balkans that manifested into conflict.

"Someone like him [Tarrant] might look to Serbia as they took whatever steps they thought were necessary to deal with Muslims in their backyard," McAleer said in a phone interview. "People look to history for inspiration." 

This photo of ammunition appeared on the now-deleted Twitter account of the alleged gunman. Those mentioned include Alexandre Bissonnette, who is serving life in prison for the massacre of six people at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, as well as nationalist historical figures and events symbolizing the fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and elsewhere. Some of the script is in Cyrillic. (Twitter/Reuters)

Glorification of Serbian symbols is far less dominant among neo-Nazis in the West than other types of imagery, such as Norse mythology and Viking regalia, said McAleer, who now counsels people who want to leave extremist movements through the group Life After Hate. 

In a manifesto posted online, the alleged killer laid out his white supremacist views, disdain for Islam and an obsession with Turkey and its historical predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. 

"We are coming for Constantinople," reads the 74-page document, referencing the historical name for Istanbul, Turkey's largest city and a site of repeated battles between Christian and Muslim armies hundreds of years ago.

"We will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city." 

An image taken from CCTV video obtained by the state-run Turkish broadcaster TRT World and released March 16, 2019, shows Brenton Tarrant, the man suspected in the New Zealand mosque attacks, as he arrives in March 2016 at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport. Tarrant's manifesto included references to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. (TRT World/Associated Press)

'Clash of civilizations'

Jackie Hogan, a professor at Bradley University in Illinois who studies far-right movements, said Serbia isn't frequently mentioned by Western white supremacists.

Part of the alleged killer's interest could stem from the Balkan wars, which "did seem to exemplify the clash of civilizations: the idea that Islam and Christianity are kind of incompatible and that will lead to violent clashes," she said, referencing a world view which she considers inaccurate. 

"It fits with this paranoia about 'Muslim invaders.' And Christians needing to rise up against the 'Muslim hordes' who are imagined to be pouring into the country," she said of a common view that unites much of the far-right, from Australia to the U.S., Canada and Europe. 

Muslims comprise about one per cent of New Zealand's population, according to local census data, although the small community has grown in recent years. 

Serbian minister weighs in

Following news of the Christchurch massacres and the alleged killer's fascination with Balkan military figures, Serbia's Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic denounced the attacker.

"I condemn these types of abuses; the man has nothing to do with Serbia," he told a news conference. "I do not know who can be his inspiration, but I saw names of other countries on that list too."

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic speaks during a press conference in Belgrade in 2018. He condemned the massacre and the alleged attacker, who, he said, 'has nothing to do with Serbia.' (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

Jennifer Zenovich, a San Francisco State University researcher who studies the former Yugoslavia, said small "pockets" of Serbian nationalists might sympathize with elements Tarrant's alleged manifesto and his use of the country's history to further anti-Muslim violence. 

"But that isn't the dominant ethos of what is happening in Serbia," she said. 

Authorities in Bulgaria, Turkey and Croatia have confirmed Tarrant visited their countries between 2016 and 2018. Hungarian counterterrorism authorities also suggested he visited the country and local media in Bosnia reported he made a trip there in 2017.

This sort of travel, especially to Muslim-majority nations such as Turkey, is not normal for white supremacists, McAleer said.

What's more, the alleged killer seems to have enjoyed himself in non-Western places.

"The varied cultures of the world greeted me with warmth and compassion, and I very much enjoyed nearly every moment I spent with them," he wrote in his online manifesto, published shortly before the systematic killing. 

Students hold candles as they gather for a vigil to commemorate victims of Friday's shooting, outside the Al-Noor mosque on Monday. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)


Chris Arsenault

Senior Writer

Chris Arsenault is a senior writer who joined CBC News in Toronto after a decade as a foreign correspondent with Al Jazeera and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in South America, Europe and the Middle East.

With files from The Associated Press