Right-wing extremists ‘hiding in plain sight’
23 Oct 2020|

Right-wing extremists in Australia are ‘hiding in plain sight’, was the assessment Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally gave at a recent ASPI counterterrorism dialogue.

Joining Keneally last month to discuss current and emerging threats posed by extremist groups were Associate Professor Debra Smith from Victoria University and Deputy Commissioner of Victoria Police Ross Guenther, both experienced practitioners who have been deeply involved in researching and working with community groups to improve counterterrorism strategies in Australia.

Discussions like this are more important than ever as security threats from various groups continue to grow and the rhetoric of violence merges with the voices of those fearing the changes and uncertainty nations are experiencing. The threat of terrorism globally hasn’t diminished and is likely heightened by Covid-19 and the increasing influence of online platforms.

Since 2014, when Australia’s threat level was raised to ‘probable’, the nation has suffered seven terrorist attacks. Eighteen planned attacks were disrupted, including two plots by alleged right-wing extremists. Around 250 people travelled from Australia to join Islamic State, and more than 100 of those fighters died. A further 250 people had their Australian passports cancelled and were stopped from travelling to the Middle East.

Covid-19 has reduced the ability of terrorists to travel globally and regionally but, despite IS’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, about 18,000 foreign fighters remain in that region. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has assessed that a high threat level is still posed within Australia and Southeast Asia by people continuing to support IS’s cause.

Across Western democracies, racism and xenophobia are becoming normalised as populist right-wing and extreme far-right discourses become more mainstream. This, coupled with an increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories and counter-government narratives, is uniting fringe groups with more established right-wing movements under a common agenda in rallying against government measures.

The pandemic is also offering opportunities for political exploitation. Legitimate government measures to stop the spread of the virus (such as enforced quarantine, self-isolation and border closures) are playing into the hands of groups that promote anti-government sentiment, ethnic segregation and extreme restrictions on immigration.

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess highlighted the increase in extremist activity in his annual threat assessment in February and again at Senate estimates this week. He noted that more than a third of ASIO’s terrorism investigations relate to right-wing extremism, up significantly since the Christchurch mosque attacks in March 2019. With strongly visible nationalist extremist groups and movements globally, such as fascists, neo-Nazis and Covid-19 conspiracy theorists, there are increasing concerns about the potential threat of violence by individuals or groups inspired by them.

All speakers at the ASPI forum agreed that the threat of terrorism remains high. Deaths due to terrorism have decreased globally, but unaffiliated attacks are increasing, including by right-wing extremists. Smith argued that Covid-19 has provided a fertile environment for radicalisation with two emerging threats: the erosion of democratic principles and the risk of violent acts. Guenther said that the environment is highly volatile and an attack in Western countries could energise movements in Australia.

Conspiracy theories, highly amorphous fringe groups and new levels of cohesion between them are indications that terrorism is multiplying in new and perplexing ways. All speakers agreed that efforts to prevent and deter people from terrorist actions need to be boosted in several key areas, including countering the terrorist narrative, investing in preventive programs and engaging with communities.

Two prominent community members, Imam Moustapha Sarakibi from the Victorian Board of Imams, and Dr Bulent (Haas) Dellal, executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, discussed their experiences of working with Australian Muslim communities in prevention and engagement programs. Both stressed that counterterrorism practitioners need to revisit the way they talk about terrorism and clearly define what it is and isn’t. Language used by politicians and leaders is also important as its misuse may legitimise the views of fringe groups or divide communities.

Sarakibi and Dellal noted that the experiences of the Australian Muslim community provide valuable insights on structuring and designing programs and initiatives to counter violent extremism and address right-wing extremism, particularly in the crafting of narratives and preventive strategies. Communities and families need to be educated and supported with the right tools to work with young people in discussing extremist rhetoric, countering misinformation and navigating social media.

The role of technology and the ability for individuals to be radicalised and undertake violent actions in the name of their cause was discussed at length. Social media has become more influential, increasing people’s ability to express and share extremist views. Guenther spoke of operational challenges in monitoring online platforms and said the human element in countering violent extremism remains critical.

Recent actions by mainstream social media and technology companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook to take down sites, block posts and remove accounts containing memes or threads of messages designed to incite hatred and violence are important. However, the quantity of this material is vast and the ability to intervene is limited. Often, as soon as a post is taken down or an account blocked, it is quickly reinstated or restructured.

To address these issues, Kenneally offered ‘five p’s’ to combat terrorism:

  • proscription of right-wing extremist groups or individuals on the terrorist entity list, as the New Zealand government has done with the terrorist convicted of the Christchurch attacks
  • prevention through improved programs to counter violent extremism that are designed to address all forms of terrorism
  • protection by working with providers of online platforms to improve strategies to remove extremist content
  • pronouncing behaviours, by calling the problem out and addressing it, particularly when it comes to extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories proliferating on the internet
  • positive reinforcement of Australia’s values as a multicultural community and implementation of an anti-racism strategy and campaign.

Finally, everyone agreed that communities should be actively engaged in the prevention of violent extremism. More investment is needed in prevention, and partnerships between government and communities remain critical to effectively combat the threat of terrorism.