Caitlin Grant, Foreign Affairs, Defence
Right-wing extremism has existed in Australia for many decades, with groups coming and going over time. Recently, there has been a notable rise in the public awareness of these groups and the risk they pose to the Australian community and security. The rise of the internet and the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the security landscape in Australia when it comes to these groups and their potential to do harm.
Right-wing or ‘far right’ extremism is not a new
phenomenon, in Australia or internationally, but in recent years has re-emerged
to become more visible and a growing threat to national security.
Right-wing extremism is an overarching term defined
by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) as ‘the support
for violence to achieve political outcomes relating to ideologies, including
but not limited to, white supremacism and Neo-Nazism’. The
Institute for Economics and Peace describes a number of components that make
up a right-wing ideology: ‘strident nationalism (usually racial or exclusivist
in some fashion), fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, chauvinism,
nativism, and xenophobia’ (p. 45). These groups are also known for conspiracy
theories and anti-government sentiment that can often be linked back to these
racist and xenophobic roots.
It is important to note that right-wing extremism does
not always involve violent extremist movements. Groups exist in small pockets
and echo chambers that internalise hateful messaging and may promote violence. The
New Zealand Royal Commission into the Christchurch attack noted that there are
boundaries’ between hate crimes and right-wing terrorism.
While it is important to note that in a balanced
democracy all opinions are represented, this article deals with those right-wing opinions and ideology that focus on harming others and support violence in order to achieve political and ideological goals.
The overall terrorist
threat in Australia is currently ‘probable’, which means that ‘credible
intelligence, assessed by [Australian] security agencies, indicates that
individuals or groups have the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist
attack in Australia’. The ASIO Director-General, Mike Burgess,
notes in the annual
threat assessment for 2022 that during the past 12 months this threat emanates
more from a potential lone actor than groups. In
a previous threat assessment the Director-General observed that right-wing
extremists are generally motivated by some perceived notion of social or
economic hardship, are much harder to identify and tend to be middle class and
educated rather than the stereotype of poor and uneducated.
Since becoming Director-General in 2019, Mr Burgess
has stated in every annual
threat assessment that ASIO has seen an increase in the threat from
right-wing extremists. A particular trend identified by ASIO, starting with the
assessment, is the young age at which people are being radicalised in
extremism. In 2021 minors accounted for 15% of ASIO’s counter-terrorism
investigations, a marked increase compared with only a few years before. In 2022 the Director-General identified that the Australians being
radicalised are younger than ever, with the number of minors increasing and the
age at which they are becoming radicalised decreasing.
The year 2020 saw a number of firsts for countering
right-wing extremism, including a person being charged under Commonwealth
terrorism legislation and a passport cancellation preventing a person
travelling to fight with right-wing groups internationally. Additionally, a
second terrorism threat linked to extreme right-wing groups was disrupted.
In early 2021
ASIO decided to change how terrorism threats are categorised and understood.
While previously, terms such as ‘far-right extremism’ or ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic
terrorism’ had been used, more overarching terminology was introduced to
refocus intelligence efforts. The new terms
are ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism’ and ‘religiously motivated
violent extremism’. In announcing the change in terminology ASIO explained that
this enables ASIO to be more flexible by focusing on the threat of violence
rather than the specific political or religious motivation. Of course, there
are times when specific labels may be necessary to understand the nature of a
group or individual.
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence
and Security Inquiry
The PJCIS began its inquiry into ‘Extremist
Movements and Radicalism in Australia’ in December 2020 on
referral from the Minister for Home Affairs. The terms
of reference tasked the committee with examining the threat and nature of
extremist groups in Australia, where they are located and any changes that may
need to be made at the Commonwealth level to address any issues found. The committee
received submissions from state and federal agencies, as well as the private
sector and state governments. Two public hearings were held and all invited witnesses
submission noted that extreme right-wing groups have been ‘in ASIO’s
sights for many decades’ (p. 3), but that these groups are
more security conscious and organised than before. During the hearings
for the inquiry, the Director-General confirmed that investigations into ideologically
motivated violent extremism now make up roughly 40% of all
ASIO cases, in part because ASIO recognises the seriousness of the threat and
has decided to dedicate more resources to countering it.
The evidence provided to the committee showed that
the threat of violent extremism in Australia is very real and has increased in
recent years. Many submissions mentioned the use of Countering Violent
Extremism (CVE) measures that aim to identify and intervene with those who
might be vulnerable to radicalisation.
The PJCIS tabled
an interim report on 1 April 2022, with the inquiry lapsing at the end of
the 46th Parliament on 11 April 2022. In the interim report the committee
recommended that new terms of reference and a new inquiry be referred to the
PJCIS in the 47th Parliament. The interim report also noted the ASIO
Director-General’s threat assessments of 2021 and 2022, particularly the comments
relating to the young age of Australians being radicalised, the use of online technologies,
and the rise that ASIO has seen in extremist movements in Australia.
Right-wing extremism and COVID-19
During the COVID-19 pandemic there has been an
increase in public protests against governments and policies such as lockdowns
and vaccination mandates. In the 2021
ASIO threat assessment, the Director-General noted the way in which right-wing groups were
able to use COVID-19 restrictions as propaganda to further embed
anti-government sentiment by portraying the government as overreaching and ‘globalisation,
multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing’. By
2022 he observed:
The behaviours we are seeing in response to
COVID lockdowns and vaccinations are not specifically left or
right wing. They are a cocktail of views, fears, frustrations and conspiracies.
Individuals who hold these views, and are willing to support violence to
further them, are best and most accurately described as ideologically motivated
In a May
2020 position paper, not-for-profit charity and self-described ‘racial
equity organisation’, All Together Now,
noted that as a way of managing the pandemic, many young people were seeking
belonging and community during periods of isolation and that right-wing groups were
increasingly targeting these young people using online forums and websites
where they can express their views.
In Victoria during the lockdowns of 2021, peaceful
protests by construction workers against government restrictions were
hijacked by members of the far-right in an attempt to draw attention to and
further their cause while painting the Victorian Government as oppressive and
unreasonable. Some protests turned violent, eliciting a strong response from
the Victorian Government and Victoria Police. In an article in the
Atlantic, Australian National University academic Simon Copland
notes that the extreme right was able to infiltrate these protests with ease,
in part because of the nature of the Victorian Government’s
response, and continue to play on negative feelings about the Government in the
broader community. By capitalising on a particular fear these groups let those
who feel alienated know they have
somewhere to go and over time opened a space for dialogue and the sharing
of other parts of their ideology.
Following the official declaration of the pandemic in
March 2020, there were a number of academic studies in Australia examining the exploitation
of the pandemic to bolster and further extremist ideology. Campion,
Ferrill and Milligan found that extremist groups were integrating
the pandemic into their existing ideology to reinforce their beliefs and
engage with new audiences, particularly in online forums. They also found that
groups were expanding the base of their ideology, including, in some cases,
with ideas that conflicted with their previous stances- effectively taking on
the ideas of others as they interacted. There was also evidence of groups bringing
in specific conspiratorial narratives, particularly those around 5G networks,
which seemingly had no relation to the ideologies these groups had previously
espoused. Campion et al. concluded that these changes, particularly the
adoption of new ideas and leadership, has complicated the
national security environment because it has the potential to make it harder
for the security and law enforcement agencies to identify distinct groups, due
to the overlapping nature of their beliefs.
The right-wing online
As with many things in the 21st century the online environment
has become not only somewhere for right-wing extremists to meet and share ideas,
but also to recruit. The online
operations of these groups have become quite sophisticated.
The rise of social media, both mainstream and
alternative, as well as encrypted messaging services, has allowed groups and
individuals to share ideas and build community with like-minded people. Groups have
been able to connect with individuals, particularly young people who felt physically
and socially isolated, perhaps bonding over one shared grievance before drawing
in further beliefs. The joint
submission to the PJCIS inquiry by the departments of Home Affairs, Foreign
Affairs and Trade, and Attorney-General’s echoes others’ observations about
extremist groups using social media to recruit young people and expand their reach
to new audiences.
the same submission, the departments outline how the dark web and
‘anonymising technology’ is increasingly being used by extremist movements. These
technologies, including bespoke encrypted devices, enable extremists to share
information and operate across jurisdictions with ease. The use of this kind of
encrypted technology is problematic
for law enforcement as groups are more easily able to hide their
Police noted in its submission to the PJCIS inquiry that social media sites
that are based overseas also make it difficult for law enforcement to access
material that may be used as evidence.
As extremists turn to the online environment to
connect and share their message, there has been some talk of ‘deplatforming’.
In practice, this means to remove the accounts of people and groups who promote
or share extremist messaging. In her parliamentary
submission, academic and researcher, Lydia Khalil, discussed the recent
efforts of some platforms to remove accounts and pages that share extremist
content. As yet, there is no telling if this is a long-term solution, with
debate online as to whether taking down these pages and community spaces
actually disrupts extremist activities or encourages
movement to alt-tech platforms that are more challenging to monitor. Academic
Maura Conway has pondered the difficulties in deplatforming right-wing
extremists compared to Islamic State, noting that right-wing extremism is an ideology
with any number of groups and no clear structure, unlike Islamic State, which
is a single group with a clear leadership structure.
While deplatforming and similar efforts may well
assist in disrupting the online activities of right-wing extremists and associated
groups, any move
to alternative sites by these groups and individuals risks fuelling ‘othering’
(the perception and stigmatisation of difference) and enhancing their efforts
to build right-wing communities.
Recent policy initiatives and announcements
Countering Violent Extremism is central to
Australia’s approach to the prevention of terrorism and violent extremist
actions. CVE is a joint
initiative of all Australian governments, state and federal, overseen by
the Department of Home Affairs. The CVE initiative centres on working with
communities to ‘build resistance’ to extremist ideologies, and works by
engaging with communities to support diversion, build resistance against
radicalisation, and rehabilitate and reintegrate those who have left violent
extremist groups. The
Department of Home Affairs estimates that $120 million has been spent on CVE
programs since 2013 (as at February 2022).
Part of the CVE effort is the ‘Living Safe Together’ initiative,
a website that provides information for communities and individuals in order to
build resilient communities. The website has information about what extremism
is, how to recognise the signs a person is being radicalised and what
individuals and communities can do if they think someone is being radicalised.
There is also information on government programs and a facility to report
potential cases of radicalisation. The initiative has produced a number of fact sheets
is Violent Extremism?’ and ‘What
of terrorist organisations is a process that was enabled when terrorism
offences were inserted into the Criminal Code in the wake of the September 11
attacks in 2001. Terrorist organisations can be proscribed under Division
102 of the Criminal Code Act 1995. In March 2021, following
campaigning by the Labor Opposition – in particular, the Shadow
Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally – a right-wing group, Sonnenkrieg
Division, was listed as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code
for the first time. In November 2021 a second right-wing group, The
Base, was listed. The listing
of these organisations enables all terrorist offences and associated
penalties to be applied to them.
Kristy Campion, Chasing Shadows: The Untold and Deadly Story of Terrorism in Australia, (Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2022).
Mario Peuker and Debra Smith, The Far-Right in Contemporary Australia,(Germany: Springer Singapore, 2019).
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