As the first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attacks approaches, two international extremism trackers say authorities need to do more to stop the “potential” for a right-wing terror attack in Australia.
Former undercover Arizona police officer and expert in white supremacist activity Matt Browning founded the Skinhead Intelligence Network (SIN) to share information about right-wing extremism across national borders – a necessity in the age of social media.
“First of all, you need to admit that you have a problem … Australia is no different to the [United] States and the reason why is online activity,” he told SBS News.
The first anniversary of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand will be marked on Sunday. Australian man Brenton Tarrant has pleaded not guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one charge of terrorism.
Australia needs to “dedicate the resources and manpower to fight the problem,” Mr Browning said.
“The guys in the States are communicating with the guys in Australia and everybody is feeding off each other. That’s why it’s a global problem.” Mr Browning was invited by the NSW Police Force to address a Sydney law enforcement conference in 2016 where he shared a similar message.
In the 2018-19 financial year, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) spent $27,416,195 on counter-terrorism operations according to data released under Freedom of Information, but refused to disclose how much of it was directed towards countering right-wing threats. “Law enforcement, in general, is missing the boat,” Mr Browning said.
“You can’t just stick your head in the ground and think ‘oh, well, you know, that swastika sign is going to go away’ or ‘that carload of white guys driving past the synagogue yelling things is going to go away’, because it’s not.”
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is aware of the potential for right-wing violence on Australian shores, according to an analytical briefing reportedly obtained by The Saturday Paper. According to the article, published on Wednesday, the ASIO document was prepared after the Christchurch massacre and said a right-wing attack in Australia was “plausible” over the following 12 to 18 months.
Addressing the public in February, ASIO chief Mike Burgess said the “extreme right-wing threat was real and growing”, describing small groups that regularly meet in suburban areas across Australia to “salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology”.
But for experts involved in tracking such groups, the bigger threat comes from “lone wolves” who have been indoctrinated on the internet.
An Australian member of SIN, who did not wish to be named, told SBS News there was the “potential” for a right-wing terror attack in Australia, similar to Christchurch-inspired shootings in the United States and Europe, but says it likely won’t be by a member of known white supremacist groups.
“From what I am seeing in the online space, there are a lot of angry, disenfranchised young people out there who are open to extremist messages,” they told SBS News. There are also some “very intelligent, very bright, and very motivated people” in Australia’s right-wing community, and they are largely hidden from mainstream society, they said.
“They’re not some bogan who walks around with an Australian flag on their shoulders screaming ‘Muslims go home’, or whatever.” “In the old days you could track and monitor groups, now in the 21st century you’re trying to track and monitor individuals on the internet and it’s an impossible task.”
The SIN member, who has been working with the group for several years, said not enough resources are going towards mitigating right-wing terrorism because Australia is in “denial panic mode” following the Christchurch attacks. The attacks, which were live-streamed on social media, were a “game-changer”, they said.
“That interactive video game sort of environment has resonated with a younger generation of extremist. “There has been a schism in that community now … much of the younger generation who are technology savvy have been drawn to the darker side, where it’s about action. Talk doesn’t work any more.”
Earlier this month, police in Christchurch raided the home of a man they believe could be linked to a threat made against one of the mosques involved in last year’s terror attacks.
An ASIO spokesperson would not disclose whether they believed there was an increased risk of right-wing violence in Australia in the lead up to the Christchurch anniversary but told SBS News the terrorist threat in Australia, encompassing all ideologies, remained “probable”.
The spokesperson also said Islamic extremism remained the group’s “greatest concern” but added that “extreme right-wing groups and individuals represent a serious, increasing and evolving threat to security”. “The extreme right-wing has been in ASIO’s sights for many decades and we have maintained continuous and dedicated resources to this area,” they said.
Muslim communities in Australia are holding commemorative events in the lead-up to the anniversary. Ahmad Malas from the Lebanese Muslim Association said while security precautions are now factored into worshippers’ day-to-day routines, their focus will be on the victims and their families. “We’re all one family at the end of the day. Any sort of violence or hate crimes needs to be rejected and made clear that it’s rejected,” he said.
“The things that bring us together are greater than those that divide us.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the AFP said it is “aware that the sources of politically motivated violence in Australia are diverse – encompassing anyone who believes that violence is a justified means to further their political interests, which can include extreme right-wing ideologies.” The AFP “takes all extremist groups seriously, targeting criminality regardless of the background of the perpetrator“, they said, but does not comment on specific individuals or groups.
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