The image of the Australian flag being flown in the midst of the Capitol Riot confused Australians, adding to the shock of the most significant attack on the Capitol Building in modern US history. How could the growing momentum of the far-right extremist movement in the United States, from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to the plotted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, be tied to Australia? Although Australia has not seen these high-profile and at times violent events, there has been a significant rise in far-right extremist activity.
Based on data from the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), far-right violence in the West increased from 14 per cent of all attacks between 2002-2014 to 46 per cent in 2019. The United States recorded the highest number of deaths from far-right terrorism of any Western state since 2002 and it is the only country to have experienced multiple far-right attacks resulting in more than 10 deaths. This dataset does not extend beyond 2019, but the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Handbook predicts this trend will continue to increase, worsened by factors such as COVID-19 and economic instability.
Far-right extremism in Australia
There are lessons Australia needs to learn from the experience of the United States. First and foremost, it needs to avoid complacency when it comes to ideological extremist behaviour, particularly from the far-right. ASIO’s caseload now approaches a 50 per cent focus on far-right ideological extremism, feeding into Australia’s consistent ‘probable’ threat of terrorism. In April 2021, ASIO Director-General of Security Mark Burgess told a Senate estimates hearing that ASIO is predicting a domestic terrorist attack to occur within the next 12 months, made more likely by a substantial increase of ideological extremist activity.
To properly secure against this rising threat of domestic extremism, Australia needs both structural and policy change. This change must explicitly acknowledge the threat environment has shifted and far-right ideological extremism poses a significant risk. Australia has a long history of racist, white supremacist and misogynistic narratives, which have emerged in response to periods of high immigration, social instability, and major national security threats. Similarly, to the United States, Australians share a strong sense of geographic connection to this country, which invokes a sense of belonging and pride in Australian identity. Yet inherent in this is a sense of nationalism which, if left unchecked, can morph into racially and religiously exclusionary ideas about who belongs in Australian society.
Australia witnesses severe consequences of the physical manifestation of white supremacism. The perpetrator of the Christchurch attack was an Australian influenced both by domestic white nationalist organisations in Australia, but also through online white supremacist communities. His manifesto and live-streaming of the attack inspired a number of far-right ideological extremists across the internet, some of which have manifested into physical attacks in Europe and the United States. Although the vast majority of Australians do not agree with the ideologies of the Christchurch attacker, Australia’s role in this event must be acknowledged and encourage a greater focus on understanding and monitoring far-right ideological extremism on a domestic level.
Drivers of far-right extremism: Space and place
Far-right extremism, in its most current form, is often decentralised and draws on a range of political and/or religious ideologies, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Both established groups, such as the Proud Boys and III Percenters (III%), as well as ‘lone actors’ who operate around the periphery of such groups, combine aspects of differing ideologies into their own world view which can lead to violent extremism. These actors operate in both online and physical spaces, making it difficult to ascertain how active extremist groups are as well as the extent to which individuals engage with these groups and their ideologies. This complicates the ability to map these networks, and in particular makes it difficult to identify lone actors who operate anonymously in physical or online spaces, without pledging a public allegiance to any one group.
The online spaces in which extremists are radicalised and communicate can also transform what may be specific contextual grievances in the United States or Europe, for example, and globalise them in a way that is relatable for other Western states such as Australia. Online spaces also appeal to younger audiences, particularly male, who respond positively to meme and trolling culture, which far-right and extremist groups, such as the Boogaloo Boys, specialise in. Memes and online discourse can gradually escalate, initially engaging those on the fringe of these movements with less explicit content, while slowly increasing in extremity and violence over time. Due to this escalation, those who have been radicalised over time may be desensitised to the toxicity or violence of these forums. The challenge then becomes balancing the censorship of discriminatory or extremist content without significantly strangling free speech or increasing the power of far-right groups claiming to protect this right.
When dealing with such an incredibly complex issue, there are no simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. Australia’s intelligence community is already cognisant of, and anticipating substantial activity from, far-right ideological organisations and actors. However, this needs to be matched by Australia’s politicians and greater society, in calling out and recognising far-right rhetoric and behaviour for what it is, and what it can come to mean. This could be in the form of a national strategy for countering ideological extremism, such as the one recently developed by the United States. Although Australia has far more restrictive gun laws than the United States, reducing the likelihood of mass casualty events, this has been evaded through conducting attacks overseas or through the use of both knives and cars as accessible weapons. This highlights the possibility of far-right ideological extremism manifesting in a physical attack within Australia. Combining this with increasing far-right behaviour in both the United States and Europe, it is unwise to underestimate the danger these groups or individuals can pose or ignore the likelihood of a similar event happening in Australia, especially during the challenges of pandemic recovery.
While it may contradict Australians’ understanding of what constitutes violent extremism, the reality is anti-immigration, misogynistic and white supremacist ideologies are active amongst certain parts of the Australian population and can be easily encouraged by political rhetoric or media reporting. In preventing US or Europe-style events from occurring here then, Australians all have a responsibility and role to play: one that avoids complacency and condemns divisiveness.