Far-right violent extremism in Australia: what’s new?

Yesterday, an alleged terrorist had a hearing at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. He had been arrested in a Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team raid on 6 August. Counter-terrorism raids in Australia are usually directed against suspected jihadists, but this time the suspect was on the extreme right. Investigators said he had been:

linked to the far-right groups Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Patriots Defence League Australia, the True Blue Crew and a ‘neo-Nazi, self-confessed militant group’ called Combat 18.

He allegedly planned to make improvised explosive devices and targeted left-wing activists. He was charged with Commonwealth terrorism offences and the allegations will all be tested in court.

After he was arrested, Justice Minister Michael Keenan noted that this was the first time terror charges had been used against someone on the extreme right.

I want to disentangle what is, and is not, new about this.

The alleged plot, if proven, would not be the first case of far-right violent extremism in Australia. To choose some recent examples, in 2010 self-described Combat 18 members fired shots at a mosque in Perth. In 2012 two Melbourne neo-Nazi skinheads were sentenced to jail for brutally assaulting a Vietnamese student.  In 2013 a former soldier and self-described neo-Nazi was jailed for weapons and explosives offences. Most recently, a reported white supremacist was charged for allegedly setting fire to a church, though again it’s important to presume innocence and wait to see what comes out in court.

However, what’s unusual about the arrest is that far-right violence in Australia doesn’t usually reach a threshold where terrorism legislation can clearly be applied. Someone with particular beliefs engaging in violence does not automatically become terrorism under Australian law. The law is quite specific and makes it hard to prove a terrorist act (or planning or preparation for one) because it depends on intentions.

In terrorism cases, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

(b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause;

They must also prove that:

(c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

(i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

(ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public.

A subsection then states that an act does not count as terrorism if it:

(a)  is advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action; and

(b)  is not intended:

(i)  to cause serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or

(ii)  to cause a person’s death; or

(iii)  to endanger the life of a person, other than the person taking the action; or

(iv)  to create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.

So proving a terrorist act doesn’t only require evidence of someone’s actions but a lot of evidence about their intentions. This often requires the prosecution to present recordings of conversations between suspects, intercepted during long pro-active investigations.

The current case appears to be the first time, since terrorism offences were introduced in 2002, that authorities had the sort of evidence against a suspected far-right violent extremist that would enable terrorism charges. Usually they have been dealt with through other laws such as assault, weapons possession, and criminal damage.

In that sense, this is a new development. But this does not mean that the alleged plot, if proven, should be regarded as the first case of far-right terrorism in Australia.

First, there are many definitions of terrorism and there is no intellectual obligation to stick to purely legal definitions. There will always be political debate over what is and isn’t terrorism.

Second, some cases of far-right violent extremism before 2002 amounted to terrorism even though we did not have specific terrorism legislation at the time. For example, the first fatal terrorist attack in Australia this century was Peter James Knight’s attempted anti-abortion massacre in 2001. There was also the Australian Nationalists Movement’s wave of violence in Perth in the late 1980s, for which the judge said when sentencing:

It is, in my view, no overstatement or exaggeration to term your campaign of those months a terrorist campaign and again it is no exaggeration to say that in that period you waged a guerilla war against the public.

Another issue also makes the current case less of a remarkable development. The potential for renewed far-right terrorism in Australia had been apparent for a while, particularly as such activity had increased elsewhere.

In the early 2010s, far-right terrorism became a bigger issue in Europe. Prominent incidents included the murders of 69 people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, alleged Breivik-copycat attempts in Poland and the Czech Republic, the murder of two Senegalese street vendors in Italy by someone linked the far-right CasaPound. There was also the exposure of the National Socialist Underground, responsible for a murder spree across Germany from 2000 to 2007. In the UK, far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn murdered a Muslim man and bombed several mosques in 2013, and there was a reported extreme-right connection to the recent murder of popular MP Jo Cox.

There was a similar surge in the United States, with the most visible examples being the murders of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by a member of the neo-Nazi Hammerskins in 2012, of three people at a Kansas Jewish centre by a white supremacist in 2014, and of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. In October of this year, the FBI foiled an alleged terror plot by self-styled “Crusaders” to murder Somali immigrants.

Australia has traditionally experienced much less of this, but as such violence became more prominent in Europe and America, agencies expressed concern about the situation here. The ASIO annual report for 2010-2011 noted:

There has been a persistent but small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves…. Local racist and nationalist extremists maintain links and draw inspiration from like-minded overseas extremists, and much of their rhetoric and activity is derivative, heavily influenced by developments overseas.

Of course, developments in Australia do not necessarily follow those abroad. ASIO’s next annual report concluded that:

Over the reporting period, the rise in right wing extremism in parts of Europe was not reflected, nor did it gain large-scale support, in Australia.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to hold true. In the most recent Senate Estimates hearings, ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis made that clear:

Senator  McKim: Mr  Lewis,  I  just  want  to  follow  up  on  my  last  question.  Would you say that the threat to national security from radical anti-Islamic groups in Australia is growing at the moment?

Mr Lewis: Yes, off a very low base. It has come off a low base. But it has presented, really, probably in the last 18 months or so. So, yes, it is, but I would not describe it as going up in any vertical way. But it has come off a low base and it is now more present than it was.

By “threat to national security” they would be referring to violence or the potential for violence (non-violent protest is not a national security concern under ASIO’s charter, and they are obviously not referring to national security threats like espionage).  This suggests that ASIO’s view is that the far-right violent extremist threat is not large but has recently become larger than it was.

What does all this tell us about this significance of this counter-terrorism prosecution?

Mainly, that it is only a new development in one sense. The use of Commonwealth terrorism offences against an Australian extreme-right activist is unprecedented.

However, terrorism legislation only covers a specific subset of violent extremism; usually that for which the authorities have enough evidence to prove a plan for life-threatening violence intended to intimidate a wider audience to further a political cause. That the legislation was never used before against anyone on the extreme right did not mean there was no potential threat.

Australia had experienced far-right violent extremism before, including quite recently. We experienced more of it, sometimes amounting to terrorism, further in the past. Far-right violence had escalated in Europe and America and many, including security agencies, were concerned it could escalate here.

For these reasons, while an Australian counter-terrorism prosecution against a suspected far-right extremist is a new development, it should not be a surprising one.