Oceania | Security | Oceania

Australia: Far-Right on the Rise as Intelligence Chief Warns of Terror Threat

Australia’s far-right have been growing undetected by authorities, but ASIO now warns of “probable” terror attack. 

Joshua Mcdonald
Australia: Far-Right on the Rise as Intelligence Chief Warns of Terror Threat

Members of various far-right organisations at a rally in Melbourne in 2018.

Credit: Joshia Mcdonald

During a speech at the opening of a new Australian War Memorial exhibition on Wednesday, deputy Liberal Party leader Josh Frydenberg said Holocaust denialism and far-right nationalism are on the rise in Australia and that “horrors are perpetrated when societies lapse into indifference.”

While attacks on Australia’s Jewish diaspora are less frequent than in the United States or across Europe, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported in September 2019 that there had been a 30 percent year-on-year increase in incidents of verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation, which “demonstrates that anti-Semites feel increasingly emboldened to behave in an aggressive, confrontational and menacing way towards Jews.”

Frydenberg also used his speech to praise the state of Victoria for its announcement earlier in the week that all secondary schools would be made to teach students about the Holocaust in a bid to tackle rising anti-Semitism. 

Frydenberg’s speech came just a few days after an annual threat assessment address was delivered in Canberra by the head of Australia’s domestic spy agency, in which he reiterated earlier security agency warnings of the mounting threats posed by far-right groups, and said that a terror attack in Australia is “probable.”

Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Mike Burgess said on Monday night that right-wing terrorism was real and growing and that the number of overall terrorism leads under investigation had doubled over the past year. 

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“Our view is that the threat of terrorism will remain a constant feature of the global security environment in 2020 and the threat to Australia and Australian interests will remain,” he told members of parliament, former intelligence chiefs and journalists. 

Burgess said that violent Islamist fundamentalism remains ASIO’s primary concern, but that the threat of rightwing extremism was “real and growing.”

“In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology,” he said.

“While we would expect any rightwing extremist-inspired attack in Australia to be low capability, i.e. a knife, gun or vehicle attack, more sophisticated attacks are possible.”

Burgess’ address comes almost one year after an Australian man massacred 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

The killer’s manifesto, published online before the attack, included hate speech against migrants, white supremacist rhetoric, and neo-Nazi symbols. He also cited various far-right figures from Australia and around the world as inspiration. 

He was later identified as a 28-year-old Australian citizen, whom security officials determined had begun planning the attack around the same time that he come into contact with various far-right organizations. He often commented on the social sites of the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, two of Australia’s most prominent far-right groups. 

Last December, a Melbourne man was found guilty of plotting terror attacks against “left wing” targets and for creating a handbook for would-be attackers. A year earlier, neo-Nazi Michael James Holt was convicted for threatening to carry out a mass shooting attack in Sydney. Both men allegedly acted on their own but were found to have had links to various far-right groups across the country. 

Australia has an array of far-right groups, but the Antipodean Resistance is the one that most concerns Australia’s security agencies. 

While the Antipodean Resistance denies inciting or promoting terrorism, they are known for their connections to the UK-based National Action, which is classed as a terrorist organization by the British government and has had many members charged for attempting to carry out attacks, as well as the Atomwaffen Division in the United States, whose members have been held responsible for several murders, and the Nordic Resistance Movement, whose members were convicted of carrying out several bombings across Scandinavia in 2016 and 2017. 

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The Antipodean Resistance has so far remained underground, mostly putting up hate posters and graffitiing religious and cultural sites with Nazi symbols, but the major threat is in the group’s propensity for violence and its connections with terrorist groups abroad, especially those who actively promote violence, including murder and terrorism. 

Globally, there has been a 320 percent increase in far-right terrorist attacks in the West over the past five years, according to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index. On Wednesday, the secretary general of Interpol warned of the dramatic increase in an interview with the Washington Post and urged countries to treat these incidents the same way as Islamist extremism.

In Australia, a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, a national survey published late last year found that 82 percent of Asian Australians, 81 percent of Australians of Middle Eastern descent and 71 percent of Indigenous Australians had experienced some form of discrimination. 

Intelligence also falls short on monitoring far-right activities and hate speech online. There is increasing evidence that those who wish harm to minorities are being inspired and their views reinforced online.

One example, as was reported by the Executive Council of Jewry, is a post on 4chan by someone claiming he was about to massacre Jews at a synagogue in Australia just moments after a shooter attacked a synagogue in the United States.

And within minutes of the Christchurch attack, readers on 4chan and other platforms came out in support of the killer’s actions, with some alluding to plans of their own. 

Another struggle in Australia’s ability to combat the rise of the far-right is that there is no centralized, national database of hate incidents. In most cases, hate crimes go unreported. At best, they are poorly documented and are investigated by low-level state police. 

Internal Victorian police data obtained by the ABC shows that there are approximately three offences flagged as possible hate crimes each day across the state. Despite this, only three people have ever been convicted under laws put in place to combat such crimes. 

In Queensland, also, only three people have ever been convicted, while no one has ever been convicted in New South Wales or South Australia and in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and in the Australian Capital Territory, racial vilification is not a criminal offence. 

In an interview published by Sydney University, a New South Wales Police officer said: “The biggest issue with NSW Police is we’re run by old white men. I think the direction in this organisation has always been to shut the minorities up.”

“Nothing changes until somebody dies…until the day a white supremacist walks into a mosque,” he told the papers author, two years before the Christchurch massacre. 

Some political observers also argue that Australia hasn’t been able to combat this hatred because the national political discourse has for decades been one of politicking and of dehumanising and scapegoating minority communities. 

Just hours after the Christchurch attack, Australian Senator Fraser Anning tweeted: “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?”

He doubled down on his tweet in a widely circulated statement in which he said: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”

Anning is also known to have fostered connections with high-profile members of the Australian far-right movement. Just weeks before the Christchurch attack, Anning attended a far-right nationalist event in Melbourne with leading figures of the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, the same groups the Christchurch killer often praised. 

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Australia’s far-right has also tried its luck with infiltrating political youth groups. 

Following an ABC investigation in October 2018, the Nationals party announced that they were investigating 18 members of the New South Wales Young Nationals for links to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Most of those under investigation quit the party shortly after it began and the supposed ringleader of the “branch-stacking” operation was cleared of any wrongdoing.