The transnational element of right-wing extremism in Australia
19 May 2022|

Right-wing violent extremist ideas burst to the forefront of public attention in flashes of violence. Shootings and vehicular attacks perpetrated by individuals motivated by hateful views stun the public. They have also sharpened government attention to and galvanised action on addressing such violence. For example, the Christchurch Mosque attack in 2019 prompted the New Zealand government to launch an inquiry as well as the international community’s Christchurch Call, ‘a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online’.

The growing threat of right-wing extremism (RWE) comes alongside unsettling trends towards illiberalism and attacks on democratic institutions. The 6 January 2021 Capitol riot in Washington DC is a prime example of political violence erupting, fuelled by, among other factors, a wide array of RWE ideas. The ferocity and impact of the violence highlighted RWE as a major domestic security threat in the US, prompting President Joe Biden’s administration to develop a national strategy for countering domestic terrorism in 2021.

As I explain in a new ASPI report, released today, these disturbing trends call for renewed vigilance in confronting RWE—which the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has classified as ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism’, or IMVE—in Australia’s security agencies’ policy and law enforcement responses. As governments respond to IMVE, it is important to nuance how they conceptualise the challenges posed by RWE and, therefore, scope their solutions.

RWE and the broader category ASIO classifies it within, IMVE, encompass different but related and overlapping ideologies, often linked by hatred, fear, anger and hostility towards an ‘other’ or perceived outgroup. RWE is an umbrella term; its ideologies can be grouped along several axes. Key categories include xenophobic and racially driven violence, gender-driven violence and anti-authority violence.

RWE does not only threaten physical violence. RWE touches on consequential issues at the forefront of public discussion, especially disinformation and misinformation, angry divisions within societies, and democratic resilience. This overlap exists because some RWE beliefs are rooted in conspiracy theories, rebukes of common truths and facts, and distrust in public institutions, and they can be virally self-reinforcing. RWE also often taps into hate and denigrates others’ membership in society.

RWE beliefs can involve rejections of the basic human dignity of fellow citizens, which makes the path to violence against those ‘others’ easier—as we see repeatedly in the context of war, war crimes and genocide. As such, the fabric and character of democracy—especially that of the multicultural and multiethnic democracies that are the focus of my report—are put under stress by the rise of RWE.

The report looks at four case studies, qualitative interviews and expert literature to highlight important transnational dimensions of RWE, as well as expand the way governments understand the RWE threat and craft policy responses to it.

The result shows a clear need for governments to use a broader lens when seeking to understand and respond to RWE. While governments may conventionally see terrorism in ‘domestic’ versus ‘international’ terms, RWE attackers and their sources and legacies of inspiration are not bound by national borders. Efforts to address RWE should take into account these transnational dimensions while examining the challenge at hand and developing and implementing solutions.

The report’s recommendations point to early steps Australia can take to improve international collaboration and coordination on countering RWE. For example, politicians can shape the information space by steadfastly rejecting RWE ideas. Governments can converge on norms and expectations. Together, they can more effectively engage the private sector, align policy and address the gaps across geographical jurisdictions and online platforms.

Augmented efforts should also avoid focusing narrowly on the physical violence RWE threatens. The hate that powers many RWE ideas, for example, contributes to environments that are more conducive to violent extremism and thus exacerbate the RWE threat. Efforts to address RWE can be complementary to addressing mis- and disinformation and in bolstering democratic resilience. RWE’s harms aren’t just violence and criminality. Rather, RWE destabilises democracy itself.

Our approaches and solutions must recognise this threat to democracy and include efforts to bolster resilience in democratic institutions and processes. Public trust and confidence in these institutions and processes constitute a critical element of this resilience to mis- and disinformation broadly and the violent extremism it enables. My report shows that it’s not only important for governments to take RWE seriously; it matters how they do so.

Democracies must be accountable and must respect fundamental rights and freedoms. In particular, addressing RWE means striking difficult balances between appropriate restrictions and preservations of freedoms––and doing so repeatedly. Therefore, it’s important that governments consult and communicate when making those decisions.

Governments must also be open to revision—and to explaining those revisions to the public. This is because the threat is unlikely to stay constant, so we must re-examine our analysis and responses too. It’s also because governments can get things wrong. The deliberate choice to regularly reflect on the nature of the threat, how policy meets those challenges and the shortcomings of policy helps to refine and update policy responses. Communicating this information to the public helps governments maintain legitimacy and accountability.

Not only is the current political moment conducive to reinvigorated action to counter RWE, but these efforts may be a necessary part of our recovery from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has seen an ugly, combustible mix of right-wing narratives, information manipulation, conspiracy theories and hateful harassment of Asian people in Australia, Canada and the US. A healthy, robust recovery will certainly centre on public health. But it will also benefit from attention to information environments, public political discourse and democratic resilience.

Governments need to meet the moment. Taking up the RWE challenge should not be a narrow exercise in tackling the physical violence that RWE threatens. Rather, it requires governments to seriously address the more insidious harms of RWE that ultimately culminate in physical violence. This must be done through the larger core mission for governments: representing and enabling inclusive and resilient democracies.

This important topic is a key part of the discussion accompanying the upcoming release of ASPI’s 2022 counterterrorism yearbook.