For a time on Wednesday, it felt as if Halle was under siege. There were reports of multiple gunmen on the loose in the German city. Police warned residents to stay indoors. Masked police armed with machine-guns were on the streets.
The body of a woman lay outside the synagogue, covered with a blue tarpaulin. Locals stood around in nervous groups, exchanging rumours while the sirens echoed in the distance. It felt like a major coordinated terror attack.
By evening, it was clear it was the work of a lone gunman, and that he had been captured. Stephan Balliet, a 27-year-old German loner and far-Right extremist who has since confessed responsibility, live-streamed his attempted killing spree on the internet.
He tried to break into the synagogue where 51 worshippers were marking Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. He told investigators he wanted to carry out a massacre. When he failed to get inside he turned his gun on two random bystanders.
This was not a meticulously planned terror attack. In a way, it was more frightening than that. From the initial police investigation, it appears Balliet, a self-confessed “loser” who spent most of his time online and had never been noticed by the security services, succeeded in building four homemade guns and 4kg of homemade explosives.
If the synagogue entrance had not been fortified with a grant from an international Jewish NGO a few years ago, the chances are he would have got inside and Germany would be mourning a bloodbath.
The German intelligence services have been warning of the danger from the far-Right for months, but this was not the scenario they were focused on. Only last week, eight members of an alleged neo-Nazi cell went on trial in Chemnitz, a city about an hour from Halle, accused of planning violent attacks to set off a political uprising.
In Halle itself, there is a well-known building used as a centre by the far-Right Identitarian movement. Police have been watching it for months. But it has not been linked to this week’s attack. Prosecutors say they are investigating the possibility that Balliet may have had accomplices, but that so far all the evidence suggests he was radicalised online and acted alone.
In fact, while anti-Semitic violence has particular resonance in Germany for obvious historical reasons, what has emerged so far suggests Balliet may have been inspired by extremists in other countries rather than any domestic far-Right network.
“This is the first-Right attack in Germany which was clearly based in an international rather than a German context,” Prof Peter Neumann of King’s College, London, told the German media this week.
“This was not a typical neo-Nazi, but clearly one more oriented towards Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and the attacks in New Zealand.”
Like Brenton Tarrant, the gunman who shot dead 51 people in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch earlier this year, Balliet filmed his killing spree and broadcast it live online. Like both Tarrant and Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, he published a “manifesto” about his killings on the internet.
There are also parallels with an attack on a synagogue in the Californian city of Poway, near San Diego, in April this year. John Timothy Earnest, the gunman in that attack, attempted to live-stream his attack and posted a manifesto online.
Balliet has reportedly told German interrogators he wanted to inspire copycats of his own to commit anti-Semitic violence. In his live-streamed footage, he speaks in English, not German. “Sorry guys,” he says at one point, apparently apologising for not killing more people.
It is clear he viewed himself as a member of an online community. According to experts, the live commentary he keeps up during the footage is peppered with language typically used by far-Right extremists on online message boards such as the now-banned 8chan. He rants against feminism and immigration, before going on to say: “The Jews are the root of all these problems”.
“In his world view, he blames others for his own misery, and that is ultimately the trigger for this action,” Balliet’s lawyer said this week.
“He was not at peace with himself or with the world, always blaming everyone else,” his father told Germany’s Bild newspaper. “The boy was always online.”
Balliet lived with his mother - his parents were divorced - and is said to have had no friends. Locals in the village say he didn’t even respond to greetings. His mother says he spent almost all his time locked up in his room.
He is described in German press accounts as “baby-faced” with an “unusually high voice”. Prosecutors are said to suspect he was an “incel” - one of those who identify themselves as “involuntarily celibate”.
In the live-streamed footage, he repeatedly calls himself a “loser”. “Once a loser, always a loser,” he says at one point. At another he describes his attempt to get into the synagogue as a “hundred per cent fail”. The image that emerges is one familiar from US mass shootings: a killer taking out his own frustrations in murderous violence.
A mass shooting would have been devastating enough, but given Germany’s history, the fact Balliet targetted a synagogue has sent a chill through the country.
Politicians including the interior minister, Horst Seehofer, have accused the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) of stoking an atmosphere of anti-Semitism.
The AfD has denied the accusation. But its critics have pointed to the statements of Björn Höcke, one of the party’s most prominent figures, who described the national Holocaust memorial as a “shameful monument” and called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s culture of atonement for the crimes of the Second World War.
The investigation into what happened in Halle this week continues. But if it concludes, as currently seems likely, that Balliet acted alone, Europe will face a new and disturbing reality: that in the 21st century, terrorists can be radicalised online, build their own weapons with plans available on the internet, and carry out a potentially devastating attack single-handed.