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‘They watch a video or join a forum, then go and commit an act of terror’

Anne Aly
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Published: 18 March 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ANNE ALY: Today’s extremists are often individuals who are triggered by propaganda. The government needs to outlaw pamphlets and live-streaming content that sets them off

IN 1912, THE Reverend George Brown, a prominent missionary, captivated a Melbourne audience with an address titled The Moslem Menace. Brown urged his listeners to heed his warnings about Australia falling under Islamic control.

For this menace to be fully understood, Brown said, Melbourne should experience Islamic domination for 24 hours to “realise the danger of wife or sisters going in the streets unattended or unguarded”.

An attack on Muslims was unusual for the time. With an Asian invasion dominating Australian concerns about unwanted “others”, the “Moslem menace” was hard to present as a risk to Australia.

When seen against this backdrop and a history marked by the White Australia policy, xenophobia, discrimination and racism, the rise of far-right extremism in this country should not be surprising.

The ideological impetus for its current resurgence owes much to an American, David Lane, who has been described as the Renaissance man of late 20th-century white nationalism.

He is best known among far-right adherents for coining the “14 words” that are the creed for contemporary white nationalists and neo-Nazis: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Those words continue to inspire adherents of far-right ideology and are one half of the popular hate symbol 14-88 (88 stands for “Heil Hitler”).

Lane died in 2007 in a US prison where he was serving a 190-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy and for his role in the murder of radio talk-show host Alan Berg, who was killed in his driveway by members of a group variously known as Brüders Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood) and The Order.  

There are no training camps to destroy, no identifiable central figureheads to target and no money trail to follow. These individuals are communicating in the dark spaces of the internet.

After Lane’s death, his ashes were divided into 14 pyramid shaped urns and dispersed around the world to 14 “white homelands” as per Lane’s wishes. Among the countries to receive an urn was Australia.

Lane’s ashes found a home in the sleepy suburbs of Perth where they are housed in a tabernacle that has become a gathering place for neo-Nazi adherents to meet on a regular basis and commemorate his teachings.

While the ideological roots of far-right extremism in Australia date back to the early 1900s, the emergence and re-emergence of far-right groups has kept those ideological foundations alive. For the most part, these groups have been short-lived, dispersed and disorganised. They have emerged and then either disbanded or morphed into other groups because of internal disagreements.

Neo-Nazi group in the Grampians, January 2021 (SMH/Age)
Neo-Nazi group in the Grampians, January 2021 (SMH/Age)

They have, however, maintained a presence and have been directly involved in acts of violence or have demonstrated a proclivity to commit acts of violence.

These groups include:

Southern Cross Hammerskins

Blood And Honour

Combat 18

Women of the Southern Legion

Aryan Nations and Aryan Strikeforce

Australian Defence League

Right Wing Resistance

Reclaim Australia

United Patriots Front

True Blue Crew

Antipodean Resistance

Proud Boys

Lads Society

Soldiers of Odin

the Ku Klux Klan

Nationalist Australian Alternative

Identity Australia

Australian Liberty Alliance

New National Action

the Patriotic Youth League

The Base

The Order of Nine Angles (a neo-Nazi satanic group affiliated to the Attomwaffen Division, which has been designated a terrorist group by the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries)

In 2010, two members of Combat 18 were arrested and charged with shooting at ma Mosque in Perth’s southern suburbs. They were not charged with terrorism related offences.

In 2016 Phillip Galea, who had been plotting to attacking left-wing political opponents and businesses in Melbourne, became the first Australian right-wing extremist to be charged with terrorism. Galea also had links to Combat 18 and the United Patriots Front.

In 2017, neo-Nazi Michael James Holt was jailed for weapons and child pornography offences. In 2019, an Australian terrorist murdered 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch. He had expressed support for Australian-based United Patriots Front and True Blue Crew and continues to be heavily praised by far-right adherents in Australia.

With ASIO revealing that close to half of its counterterrorism case load now involves far-right extremism, Australia lags behind the rest of the world in taking seriously the threat of far-right violence.

In 2021, police raided the homes of several men associated with the National Socialist Network and arrested one man on possession of an improvised explosive device and instructions for manufacturing prohibited weapons and another for possession of extremist material.

Considering the proliferation of far-right groups in Australia, with ASIO revealing that close to half of its counterterrorism case load now involves far-right extremism, the most obvious conclusion is that Australia lags behind the rest of the world in taking seriously the threat of far-right violence.

It was only in August 2021 that the government, for the first time, listed a far-right extremist group, Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD) as a terrorist organisation. It followed by listing The Base in December and Nasional Socialist Order in February this year.

SKD, along with, Feuerkrieg Division, National Action and The Base are among far-right organisations listed in the UK. Canada also lists Aryan Strikeforce, Blood and Honour, Combat 18 and Proud Boys.

In the wake of the Christchurch attack, New Zealand took the unprecedented step of proscribing the attacker as a terrorist entity.  He joins the likes of ISIS and other high profile terrorist groups.

The designation means that it is illegal for any person to participate in or support his activities in any way - that includes distributing the terrorist’s manifesto and images of the attack.

It’s a smart move and, importantly, one that addresses the current dilemma for counterterrorism. That dilemma is about dealing with the threats posed by a form of terrorism that is not coordinated from a centralised base.

There are no training camps to destroy, no identifiable central figureheads like bin Laden or Baghdadi to target, and no money trail to follow. Instead, we are dealing with individuals communicating and operating in the dark spaces of the internet.

Proscribing individuals and materials would no doubt provoke a counterargument around freedom of speech. But that is a moot argument when it comes to national security.

Their affiliation to a formal group may not even exist, let alone be identifiable. They watch a video, read a manifesto, join an online discussion forum and then go out and commit an act of terror.

Proscribing some of these far-right extremists as terrorist organisations is a substantial move in drawing a line and following the example of our Five Eyes partners.

But going further and proscribing individuals, materials such as pamphlets or how-to-guides, and live-streaming terrorist and extreme violent content online, would mean that our security agencies can respond with more agility to current threats. 

No doubt that would provoke a counterargument around freedom of speech and censorship. But that is a moot argument when it comes to national security. The war on terrorism has long been a battle for hearts and minds. That has not changed.

Banning and making it illegal to possess or distribute terrorist propaganda has already been part of our comprehensive counterterrorism response. It should continue to be, but the response should reflect the fact that terrorist propaganda now plays a more central role in the mobilisation of terrorism.

Photo: Right-wing rally in Melbourne, January 2020 (AAP)

About the author

Anne Aly

Dr Anne Aly has been the Federal Member for Cowan since 2016, and is currently the Deputy Chair of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Law Enforcement, and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security. Before entering Parliament Anne was an academic specialising in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. She was an advisor to the UN Security Council Counterterrorism Directorate.

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