While Australia has been fortunate in not having experienced a right-wing terrorist attack in recent times, a string of arrests, the emergence of several neo-Nazi groups, and the experience of other countries all suggest that this threat should be taken far more seriously. Australia’s stringent gun laws, relatively moderate political culture, and the professionalism of its intelligence and counterterrorism services may alone be insufficient to prevent an attack.
Writing in the Saturday Paper, Drew Rooke outlined the disturbing case of Joshua Lucas, a 21-year old Nowra man who was arrested in mid-March on one count of acts done in preparation for, or planning, terrorist actions. New South Wales police allege that Lucas had neo-Nazi, anti-government, and anti-indigenous views, and that he was attempting to acquire military weapons and items capable of making improvised explosive devices. In December 2019 Phillip Galea, a 35-year old Melbourne man, was found guilty of plotting to use chemical bombs to target “left wing” rallies and associated targets like the Victorian Trades Hall. These arrests came after ABC News reported in April 2019 that at least five Australians had traveled to fight alongside far-right Russian ultranationalist groups in Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine.
The perpetrator of the horrific Christchurch mosque shootings, Brenton Tarrant, was also an Australian. While the attacks were perpetrated in New Zealand, Tarrant was radicalized while based in Australia through a curious combination of overseas travel and immersion in online forums like 8chan – an imageboard website frequently linked to white supremacy. By 2017, Tarrant was radicalized to the extent that he moved to New Zealand to “train” for an attack on Muslims – quite possibly in Australia. It was not until Tarrant arrived in New Zealand that he realized that ample targets also existed in New Zealand.
Developments in other Anglosphere countries give further cause for Australia to be worried. In the U.K., seven out of 22 terrorist plots since 2017 have been attributed to far-right groups. The murder of Labor Party politician Jo Cox and the 2017 Finsbury Park attack, which killed one man, were both perpetrated by right-wing terrorists. Canada has experienced at least one deadly attack, when a suspected far-right extremist, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, killed six people at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center in 2017. The United States has seen a series of mass killings perpetrated by right-wing extremists, including the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue and 2019 El Paso shootings. Since 9/11, far-right attacks have claimed more victims in the United States than Islamic extremist attacks – 107 compared to 104.
It is clear that right-wing terrorism – much like its Islamist counterpart – has now become a transnational phenomenon. Tarrant, for one, was known to be in contact with at least one far-right figure in Austria. The Christchurch attacker’s manifesto praised the actions of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and drew inspiration from anti-immigration French intellectuals. This is not an isolated case. The European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center has identified complex transnational far-right recruitment, financing, and propaganda networks stretching across the West. While there is no definitive evidence to suggest that Tarrant or others received financing or training from overseas, clear potential exists for this to occur.
All of this begs the question as to whether or not Australia is taking this threat sufficiently seriously. Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) Director General Mike Burgess’ warning – previously covered in The Diplomat – that the threat of right-wing extremism was “real and growing” would ostensibly suggest so.
Yet the subsequent reaction of senior government officials gives reason to doubt an optimistic assessment. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose gargantuan ministry portfolio oversees ASIO, reacted to Burgess’ comments by warning of the equal danger posed by “left-wing lunatics.” In a later phone call with a member of the public, one of Dutton’s advisors listed climate activist group Extinction Rebellion as an apparent example of an equally threatening left-wing terrorist group. Dutton’s Liberal counterpart, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, went further in publicly urging Burgess to be “very careful” of the use of the word “right-wing,” warning that it could offend conservatives.
More significant than any comments is the fact that Australia lags behind Canada, the United States, and the U.K. in listing violent far-right organizations as terrorist groups. Of course, this could be because none of the array of groups operating in Australia are sufficiently violent or radical. Certainly however, this is not a view that is unanimously held. Burgess’ own warning that right-wing extremists were meeting to “inspect weapons” and “train in combat” would also suggest otherwise. Perhaps tellingly, the ultimate decision whether to list these organizations as terrorist groups lies with Dutton.
There are several probable reasons as to why both ASIO and successive governments have failed to take the threat of right-wing terrorism sufficiently seriously. One obvious reason is that, as Burgess argued, Islamic terrorism is still a larger threat. The emergence of right-wing extremism is a relevantly recent phenomenon and one that the post-9/11 generation of national security experts and officials are still adjusting to.
However, deeper reasons of politics and political psychology appear to be at play. Cracking down on right-wing terrorism – especially in contrast to its Islamist counterpart – is not always a vote winner. As Fierravanti-Wells suggested, it could quite possibly “offend” people who may have similarly negative views on multiculturalism and immigration – even if not openly advocating violence. Unlike Islamist terrorism, which hypothetically threatens almost all Australians, right-wing terrorism has a smaller remit and primarily targets minorities – historically Jews but now increasingly, Muslims – LGBTQI people, and left-wing activists. Without the type of mass fear that produced votes in combating and indeed exaggerating the threat of Islamic terrorism, politicians have less motivation to act. It is worth noting that none of these targeted communities have traditionally had a particularly strong voice within the Liberal Party. This is deeply unfortunate, as ironically, the current government’s conservative credentials mean that it is better placed than the center-left opposition Labor Party to tackle this threat and absorb the inevitable backlash.
If the Liberal Party will not act, there are several steps that a future Labor government should take. Listing appropriate groups as terrorist entities will give law enforcement enhanced powers to pursue far-right extremists. To this end, Labor has already signaled its intention to review Australia’s terrorism list. Given the transnational and predominantly Western character of far-right extremism, Australia should also encourage the Five Eyes intelligence group to play a more active role in building capacity and sharing intelligence on this issue. Finally, the merits of establishing a special right-wing terrorism taskforce within ASIO – much like the bespoke Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce – should also be explored. Absent considered and proactive steps, one feels that Australia is still at considerable risk of Christchurch-style attack occurring within its borders.
Henry Storey holds a Master of International Relations degree from Melbourne University. He is an editor at Foreign Brief and currently works as an analyst for a political risk consultancy in Melbourne.
A previous version of this piece misstated the name of the Christchurch attacker.