Guest post: Muhammad Iqbal on the EDL and Woolwich

My colleague Muhammad Iqbal shows how the EDL’s actions following the Woolwich attack follow its traditional method of mobilising support.

 

The brutal murder of a British soldier in Woolwich on Thursday sparked immediate reaction by the far-right English Defence League (EDL), with 250 members of the group taking to the streets in protest.

This development should not be surprising, as from its beginnings the EDL mobilised support by preying on citizens’ fears of Muslim extremists.

EDL’s origins

The EDL can trace its roots to the an incident on March, 2009, where a group of Muslim radicals, collectively known at the time as Ahle Sunnah al Jamah, staged a protest and shouted abusive phrases at soldiers returning from active duty in Afghanistan.

Also at the incident was anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who is now more commonly known as Tommy Robinson. Prior to this incident, Robinson claims to have been active in protesting what he describes as the Islamisation of Luton, going back all the way to 2004 when he and other individuals held up banners saying “Ban the Luton Taliban”.

However, after the incident with the returning troops, and similar protests in other parts of the country, Robinson felt that his struggle should be taken to the national level. He did this through establishing the English Defence League.

From its formation, the EDL gained strength from the activities of Muslim extremists. This is exemplified through both the EDL’s real-world and online activities.

EDL’s online presence

While the EDL does not have an official YouTube account, many of its followers have uploaded videos of EDL related activities or created whole channels dedicated to the group.

This was examined in research I presented at last year’s GTReC conference. As one example, I found that out of 155 videos on one unofficial EDL account, 23% specifically mentioned the Ahle Sunnah al Jamah, one of its successors, or members of these groups. A further 45% of the videos have as its main focus, the supposed dangers of Islam, Muslims and/or Shariah law. Only 32% of these videos did not mention a perceived Muslim threat.

Further analysis of the contents of these videos show that they can also encourage its viewers to demonstrate or rally against the actions of Muslims that were perceived to be “Islamising” Britain.

One such example of this was a string of videos that was in direct response to the launch of a “Shariah Controlled Zone” campaign that was initiated by a group called al-Muhajiroun, the successors of Ahle Sunnah al Jamah. The YouTube videos urged its viewers to attend demonstrations protesting the establishment of such zones, which sometimes drew large numbers.

Such demonstrations have in the past degenerated into violent skirmishes with the police or counter-protest rallies.

The EDL today

In recent years, the EDL have seen a decline in popularity. Whereas its rallies used to attract people in the thousands, the past year or so have seen events attended by only hundreds of people.

However, terror attacks such as the brutal slaying of Lee Rigby can provide the far-right group with a platform through which they can revive their divisive and destructive activities. The surge of new followers on their twitter account, and the fact that their Facebook account boasts more than 100,000 “likes” since the attack, shows that they are well poised to exploit such tragedies. So far, this has also translated to a spike in attendance of EDL rallies, with a rally in Newcastle attracting between 1500 to 2000 supporters. This was then followed by a march through London, which attracted around 1000 people.

The actions of the EDL will do nothing but further fuel this cycle of hatred, and in the face of such tragedy, cooler heads need to prevail.

 

Muhammad Iqbal is a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC). He is a graduate of Monash University’s Master of International Relations, completing a dissertation on the historical development of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. His interests include radical movements in Indonesia and Australia, as well as progressive Islamic thought and movements in Indonesia.

A table on what people mean by “lone wolves” and other terms

The recent terror attacks in Boston and London have re-ignited a lot of discussion over “self-radicalisation” and “lone wolves”. Unfortunately, these terms are used in lots of different ways, just as “terrorism”, “radicalisation”, “jihadism” and “homegrown terrorism” are, leading to lots of confused discussion.

This is not just in the media. Among scholars there are loads of different terms used to describe the size and structure of terrorist cells and their relationships with wider extremist movements.

To help make sense of this, I’ve made this table that breaks down the defining characteristics of the terms used by scholars in this field.

The left hand column describes five different variations that terror plots may have in their relationship with other extremist organisations or individuals.  The middle column presents the terms used to describe these variations in attacks carried out by two or more people (a cell). The right hand column presents the terms used to describe these variations in attacks that are carried out by a single person.

Cell: two or more individuals Individual
Directed:

Attack directly controlled by an established group such as al-Qaeda.

Directed cell.

“Chain of command” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Command and control” (Silber)

“Core” or “affiliated” (Sageman, depending on whether the organisation was al-Qaeda central)

Example: 9/11 cell.

Directed individual.

“Top-down solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone attacker” (Pantucci)

Example: Richard Reid.

Guided:

Attacks which are directly supported but not controlled or instigated by an established group.

Guided cell.

“Guided”  (Neumann and Rogers)

“Suggested/endorsed” (Silber)

“Core” or “affiliated” (Sageman, depending on whether the organisation was al-Qaeda central)

Example: Millennium plot cell.

Guided individual.

“Top-down solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone attacker” (Pantucci)

Self-starting:

Attacks which may involve people connected to other violent extremist groups and individuals (one person may have trained overseas, another may have had a friend in an earlier cell) but the initiative and planning only involves the individual or cell, with no direct external support.

Self-starting cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Example: Pendennis cells.

Self-starting individual.

“Bottom-up solo terrorist” (Nesser)

“Lone wolf” (Pantucci)

Self-starting cleanskin:

Attacks from a group or individual that had no previous significant interaction with other violent extremists, but may have had ties to likeminded-but-not-actually-violent extremists.

Self-starting cleanskin cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Example: Boston bombers (for now).

Self-starting cleanskin individual.

“Lone wolf” (Nesser)

“Lone wolf” or “loner” (not sure which of Pantucci’s categories apply here)

“Lone wolf” (Spaaij)

Example: Breivik.

Self-starting self-radicalised:

The individual or cell has no interaction with likeminded extremists of any sort, though they might read, watch and listen to extremist propaganda.

Self-starting self-radicalised cell.

“Self-starter” (Neumann and Rogers)

“Inspired” (Silber)

“Autonomous” (Sageman)

“Lone wolf pack” (Pantucci)

Self-starting self-radicalised individual.

“Lone wolf” (Nesser)

“Loner” (Pantucci)

“Lone wolf” (Spaaij)

Example: Roshonara Choudhry.

Note that the terms used by Sageman, Silber and Neumann and Rogers can apply to both cells and individuals, but I’ve chosen not to put them in the “individual” column to avoid clutter.

Feel free to make suggestions. Also let me know if you have any idea why WordPress is not displaying the vertical lines.

Romper Stomper revisited

I recently watched Romper Stomper for the first time in years. Romper Stomper is a 20 year old movie about a fictional neo-Nazi skinhead* gang in Melbourne (see the trailer here).

As I’ve become very interested in far-right extremism over the past six months or so, I decided to write a post on how this movie relates to the reality of extreme right activities in Australia at the time.

Romper Stomper is about the exploits and collapse of a skinhead gang in Melbourne. The story (which I won’t go into) centres on the gang’s leader Hando (Russell Crowe), his best mate Davey (the late Daniel Pollock), and Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie) who is initially a love interest for Hando.

The gang prowl the streets of Footscray assaulting Vietnamese-Australians, perceiving them as invaders. They squat in disused factories and warehouses (it was set during the recession), venturing out to engage in violence against “gooks” in what Hando views as valiant struggle to defend what’s rightfully theirs.

The movie is fictional, but is drawn from some real incidents. The most well-known example is neo-Nazi Dane Sweetman, who was tried and convicted for murder shortly before Romper Stomper was made.  Sweetman and his gang had carried out violence against Jews, Asians and homosexuals in Melbourne during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While on bail for a pre-meditated bashing of someone he suspected was gay, Sweetman got into an argument with a fellow skinhead named David Noble during a party held on Hitler’s birthday. So he murdered Noble, before cutting his legs off with an axe to fit the body into a car boot. Sweetman’s inspiration is openly acknowledged through a scene where Hando holds an axe to two hippies and threatens them by saying “I’ll chop your legs off.”

Director Geoffrey Wright has pointed to some other inspirations for the movie:

Well, Dane Sweetman was something that we looked at, but it probably didn’t begin with him. It began earlier, we just noticed a shift in some of the street gangs. Some of the street thugs had taken on certain political ideas and drew inspiration from their counterparts in Europe, and we saw it happening here in Melbourne. We thought this was interesting. We started doing a lot of interviews. I’ve still to this day got a box full of 1/4″ tape, of dozens and dozens and dozens of these characters that we spoke to, who were either on their way into it or on their way out. We were very rarely able to speak to people who were in the cutting edge of it in that moment. Of course, the ones who were into it, were either on the run, or didn’t want to talk to us or were suspicious of us, or what have you. But Dane Sweetman’s story became known to us, and we met people who knew him. So that got rolled up into the general research of the thing, but I wouldn’t say that the Dane Sweetman story was the sole inspired to make the film, it was a number of things.

In his commentary on the 20th anniversary DVD release, Wright states that Romper Stomper was loosely based on ten or so real incidents that involved several different gangs, over the space of a few years, across multiple Australian states. For the sake of an engaging movie, these incidents are all compacted and are carried out by a single gang, over the space of a week, all in Footscray.

This created the impression of a bigger neo-Nazi problem than actually existed, which was unfortunate for Footscray’s inhabitants. The Age reported on the local reaction at the time:

In the film, the area is turned into a battleground for rival gangs of skinheads and Vietnamese-Australians, prompting one councillor to threaten legal action against its makers.

The rest of the council take a different line. The Mayor, Councillor Bert Jessup, said his only regret was to have to give further publicity to a film he described as “almost puerile”.

Footscray police agree. They said yesterday that they were tired of answering calls from concerned citizens seeking advice on how to deal with skinhead gangs that do not exist.

“We would be wrong to say that some of the violent behavior didn’t occur, but it is not common to Footscray. It’s all over Australia,” said Councillor Jessup.

He said a woman reported seeing a skinhead in a shopping centre, but no one had to dodge gangs of skinheads in supermarkets. “Racism is not prevalent. We are one of the most multicultural cities in the world.” A local youth worker, Mr Les Twentyman, said two skinheads once lived in Footscray, but they had moved on several months ago. “The movie was a whole lot of crap. It’s all right for arty-farty film-makers to come out here, but they have no regard for the consequences,” he said.

The movie gave the impression that neo-Nazism was far more prevalent in Australia than it was, but by being loosely based on real incidents, it still portrayed a problem that genuinely existed.

Romper Stomper’s portrayal of the neo-Nazi skinheads’ lifestyle was also partially accurate. The skinhead gang is portrayed as bunch of jobless, homeless, directionless, alcohol-driven hooligans, driven more by adrenaline, adventure and camaraderie than by ideological commitment.

Their leader, Hando, is the only one who actually reads Nazi literature and discusses the ideas involved. Other members wear Nazi symbols, purchase memorabilia and are of course overtly racist, but are committed to neo-Nazism more as an attitude than an ideology. The characters are not methodical in their violence, nor do they carry out actual political activism.

This misses out part of what was actually occurring at the time. Some neo-Nazi skinheads throughout Australia attended demonstrations, distributed leaflets, posted stickers, formed bands, organised concerts or were affiliated with formal organisations, sometimes acting as enforcers. This sort of activity does not feature in Romper Stomper.

Yet the movie’s portrayal of them as primarily disorganised thugs still has a lot of truth to it. Members of formal organisations have spoken of facing difficulty when trying to organise skinheads into any kind of coherent force. For example, Jim Saleam, who led the far-right extremist organisation National Action (NA), has written that:

Simon Dinsbergs, WAR[White Aryan Resistance]’s director, said that the film Romper Stomper “reasonably accurately” portrayed Skinhead life and its alcohol and racial-violence mores.[217]  The ANSM [Australian National Socialist Movement] frustratedly characterized many Skinheads as

… a bunch of drugged out pisspots, backstabbers, traitors, cowards, time wasters, fantasizers, big mouths and in general anarchists … who refuse to take orders.[218]

Another organisation was Jack van Tongeren’s Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM), whose members were responsible for a terror campaign in Perth during the late 1980s, including firebombings, bashings, robberies, a bombing and a murder.  The ANM found skinheads somewhat useful but still looked down on them.

In a submission to the 1991 National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, one ANM member spoke of skinheads who were assaulting anyone who tried to tear down the ANM’s “Asians Out or Racial War” posters.** He stated that:

They are ratbags, purely bigots and terrorists in my opinion. However, they do have one useful function. They ‘bodyguard’ a lot of our gear, including the posters, which cost seventeen cents each.

Similar tensions existed between skinheads and organised far-right groups across the world, but the Australian scene was particularly dysfunctional. By contrast, the UK’s National Front managed to organise skinheads on a scale never remotely achieved here.

A colleague of mine spoke to former neo-Nazis in Germany, who told an anecdote about how disappointed they were when they invited Australian skinheads to Germany in the mid-1990s. The Australian Nazis just wanted to get drunk and bash people rather than discuss the finer points of Mein Kampf.

This is consistent with Geoffrey Wright’s earlier point that “some of the street thugs had taken on certain political ideas and drew inspiration from their counterparts in Europe, and we saw it happening here in Melbourne.” A lot of the skinheads were not people who had become committed to neo-Nazi ideology and engaged in violence as a result, they were already violent thugs who then adopted neo-Nazism.

This makes Romper Stomper’s characterisation of its protagonists, as thrill-seeking and lacking organisation and political engagement, largely accurate. While the movie leaves out the organised activity that was occurring, it still captures a broad truth about Australia’s neo-Nazi skinhead scene at the time.

Something else that rang true was Wright’s portrayal of the gang’s disintegration following internal rifts and external pressure.

For Romper Stomper’s first thirty minutes the gang seems unstoppable. They carry out crimes with impunity, attract new members (Gabrielle and a group of skinheads from Canberra), and just party. But after they encounter some people who fight back, everything goes downhill for them, ending in fratricidal violence.

Most of Australia’s far-right extremist groups have comparable stories, particularly of internal conflict.

For example, after the Australian Nationalist Movement’s leading figures were arrested in Perth in 1989, two members murdered fellow activist David Locke who they wrongly suspected of being an informer.

On April 1991, while National Action leader Jim Saleam was on trial over a shotgun attack against the leader of the African National Congress in Sydney, one NA member murdered another member (ASIO listening devices installed in NA’s headquarters, where the murder occurred, helped secure the killer’s conviction).

The informal gangs also experienced this sort of violence. On April 1990 Dane Sweetman murdered a skinhead in Melbourne in the incident mentioned at beginning of this post. On December 1990 a skinhead in Perth was murdered, and police suspected the killer was another skinhead, named Colin Irvine, who they shot and killed on a house raid the next month.***

So Romper Stomper tells a plausible story of the violence, dysfunction and downfall of a  neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Australia at the time.

Romper Stomper remains a work of fiction, but it’s a valuable one for anyone interested in far-right extremism or in racist violence in Australia. It tells a story of the most extreme and violent, but least organised or ideologically-engaged, subset of Australia’s far-right fringe.

As this post has shown, the movie has parallels with many real-life examples of such groups. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an outbreak of far-right terror that Australia has not come close to seeing since (there was an attempt by the ANM to relaunch their violence in 2004, but it was foiled).

Many of the people involved in the violent far-right groups ended up dead, imprisoned or disillusioned, following a similar trajectory as portrayed in Romper Stomper. Their activities disappeared from public consciousness in the following two decades, and consequently this movie is remembered more than the real incidents on which it is loosely based.

Notes

* When I refer to skinheads in this post I’m talking about the neo-Nazi ones, even though most skinheads are not neo-Nazis.

** The ANM member didn’t state in the report that these individuals were necessarily skinheads, but other sources (media reports from the time and Tongeren’s autobiography) indicate that the ANM largely used skinheads for these footsoldier type tasks.

*** Another possibly similar incident occurred on September 1991, when police discovered the body of a Sydney man who had reportedly been involved with both National Action and a skinhead ganged that bashed gay men. His brother was accused of murdering him and was charged, but I can’t find many sources on this incident and don’t know if the brother was also part of the skinhead scene, or if he was convicted.

 

Update March 2017: Most of the links seem to have gone dead. I’ll update this post sometime soon with lots more sources.

Resources: three new reports on national security, intelligence and terrorism in Australia

Just a quick post presenting three very interesting reports tabled in parliament over the past two days.

Independent National Security Legislation Monitor – declassified annual report 20th December 2012
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
14 May 2013

Council of Australian Governments review of counter-terrorism legislation
Council of Australian Governments
14 May 2013

Inquiry into the gathering and use of criminal intelligence
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement
15 May 2013

Enjoy.

A critique of Ben Saul’s article on Australians fighting in Syria

Yesterday The Age published a strange article by Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney. The article argued that, by trying to prevent Australians from fighting in the Syrian insurgency, the Australian government is complicit in the Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutality. This post discusses some problems with the article.

 

The article’s key argument was that: “…while our government opposes Assad’s terror, Australian law paradoxically criminalises anyone who fights for the rebels – yet allows Australians to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.”

It ended with: “… we should not actively assist Assad by criminalising those who legitimately try to get rid of him, and by giving a free pass to those who fight for him.”

However, this “free pass” claim is false. It is illegal for Australians to fight for either side in Syrian conflict. Australians who fight for Assad face prosecution just as those who fight against him do, though not necessarily under the same laws.

In normal circumstances Australians can legally serve in a foreign military, but in this case it’s illegal because we have sanctions on Syria. Both the Federal Police and the Attorney-General’s Department have released official statements declaring that it is illegal for Australians to fight for either side. So the article’s underlying premise is simply wrong.

 

Unfortunately, there were other incorrect statements in the article. It argued that “… our federal terrorism law criminalises anyone who uses political violence against any foreign government. This includes violence limited to military attacks on military targets in a civil war and which does not target innocent civilians, and which may precisely aim to stop government attacks on civilians.”

This is again false. It is next to impossible to convict an Australian under federal terrorism laws for supporting a foreign insurgent organisation unless that organisation is one of the (currently) 17 proscribed by the Attorney-General.

This was demonstrated from 2007-2009 when an attempt use terrorism laws to prosecute three Victorian Tamil Tiger supporters fell apart. After the terrorism charges failed, the three men were charged and convicted under older legislation, Section 21 of the Charter of the United Nations Act 1945. Similarly, late last year a Melbourne man accused of trying to join Papuan insurgents was charged under old legislation, the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978. Our terrorism laws do not cover these situations.

 

Of these laws, the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978 is the most relevant for Australians fighting against Assad, as it criminalises participation in foreign insurgencies.

Saul considers this law problematic, but it is a necessary law. Australia has an international obligation to prevent its territory being used as a base for violence against other countries, regardless of the nature of the regimes in those countries.

If a state allows its citizens to engage in private warfare against foreign countries, then that state itself is in effect engaging in warfare against that country. Whether Australia should be at war with another state is a decision for an elected government, not random citizens.

So preventing its citizens from engaging in hostile acts against other countries is a legitimate prerogative of the state. Australians don’t have a “right” to grab a gun and go shoot people overseas, and there are a hundred better ways to help people than joining a foreign insurgency.

 

This leads to the biggest problem with the article, the assumption that Australians joining the insurgency will help achieve democracy and human rights in Syria.

This is extremely doubtful. Let’s assume, dubiously, that a Free Syrian Army (FSA) victory will automatically produce a democratic regime that respects human rights. Even then, it’s unclear how a bunch of untrained foreigners turning up in their ranks will help.

The FSA itself is under no illusions that much good will come from overseas volunteers, particularly when the regime is trying to portray the rebellion as foreign-inspired. Just a fortnight ago the FSA’s political and media coordinator stated “we reject any presence of foreign fighters, regardless of where they are from. We have said that what we are missing in Syria is weapons, not men.” The Assad regime is more pleased about foreigners joining the insurgency than the insurgents are (though the extremist factions of the insurgency are very happy to receive foreign fighters).

Even if foreign fighters meaningfully contribute to an FSA military victory, we can’t assume that will achieve a humanitarian outcome. As Saul himself acknowledges, “even the mainstream rebel groups have the blood of innocents on their hands.” While the horrors of Assad’s regime are beyond doubt, the violence and chaos in Iraq after America deposed Saddam Hussein show that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about what will happen when Assad is gone.

 

Also, the article doesn’t address the national security based concerns about Australians fighting in Syria, which is surely relevant in a discussion of whether the government has right to prevent its citizens from taking part. Nor did it mention the government’s sanctions against Syria, which undermine the claim of complicity in the regime’s brutality. Admittedly an 800 word op-ed can’t address every angle, but those are big things to leave out.

 

However, on one point I partly agree with Saul. In a recent article I did implicitly suggest that it would not be wise or necessary for the government to prosecute all returning fighters and that they should take a highly discriminate approach, focusing specifically on threats to Australia. Most of the returned fighters will pose no domestic threat, and some might even prove willing and well-positioned informants.

But that’s entirely different to arguing that the government has no right to prosecute them, or that doing so makes us complicit in Assad’s brutality. That argument is as absurd as claiming that opposing Assad’s regime makes someone complicit in terrorism.

 

Update 1:

Ben Saul has provided a thoughtful response in the comments below, which is most welcome.

With regards to his second paragraph, I’m not convinced our federal terrorism law functions in the way he describes, but will look into it a bit more before responding.

Also, two major reviews of counter-terrorism legislation are being tabled in Parliament today. They will likely be very valuable reports that shed a lot of light on how our counter-terrorism laws function, but will probably be overshadowed by the Budget.