Terrifying rise of far-right groups in Aus
The brazen and unprovoked alleged attack on a Channel 9 security guard this week has highlighted the "dangerous" and alarming rise of the far-right movement across Australia.
The speed at which neo-Nazi leader Thomas Sewell allegedly escalated to violence sent shivers down the spine of civil rights activists who have been monitoring the behaviour of these individuals over recent years.
Far-right groups - spurred on by the dream of an "Australian Hitler" - have dramatically increased their activities on Australian soil in recent years as new cells pop up.
The Grampians, the National Museum in Canberra, the Story Bridge in Brisbane, Swinburne University and the Brisbane Synagogue are some of the places where these groups have congregated to spread their message of hate, white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology.
A relatively new group to Australia - the National Socialist Network - claims to have an active footprint in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth and a number of regional cities.
The nation's spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, says increasing numbers of young Australians - some just 14 years old - are being radicalised by both extreme right wing and Islamist groups.
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess told a parliamentary committee last year that right-wing extremists now represented between 30 and 40 per cent of the agency's priority caseload.
"Many of these individuals and groups have seized on COVID-19 as proof of their ideology, and are using the pandemic to amplify their messages of hate online," he said.
"We are seeing young Australians - some just 14 years old - being radicalised."
Anti-Defamation Commission chairman Dvir Abramovich, one of the nation's leading anti-hate campaigners, said far-right extremist groups had "weaponised the internet".
"They are using it now to reach out to young, disaffected white men to try and recruit them," he said.
Dr Abramovich said the government needed to reach some kind of agreement with social media companies and tech giants to stop access to extremist ideologies.
"Today with a click or a swipe you can find horrifying anti-Semitism, neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology that would make those Nazis proud," he said.
"In the same way you withdraw a deceptive product from the shelf, (social media companies) need to stop these neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they need to withdraw accessibility to those platforms.
"They also need to include more human monitoring, because if they read some of the stuff that is being posted, surely they would realise that they are violating community guidelines."
It comes as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton this week revealed UK-based neo-Nazi group Sonnenkrieg Division would become the first far-right group formally listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
A parliamentary committee in Victoria also recommended outlawing the Nazi swastika symbol in the state, which Premier Daniel Andrews indicated the government would support.
There are calls for other extreme far-right groups to be banned in Australia too, including the National Socialist Network and Proud Boys.
Dr Abramovich said it would allow the full weight of law enforcement agencies to be brought in to combat the threat.
"It allows them to suspend bank accounts and seize property but it also makes any activity they are involved in illegal," he told NCA NewsWire.
"By classifying them as a terrorist organisation it provides law enforcement with the tools, resources and reach to actually deal with the national threat."
Mr Dutton also asked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to look into the influence of extremist groups that fell short of the legislative thresholds for proscription and advise on changes to listing laws to ensure they addressed all threats.
"Whether a particular group is listed or not, our laws focus on threat and criminality, and we will act against those who advocate violence," a spokeswoman for Mr Dutton said.
There are 27 organisations listed as terrorist organisations under the Criminal Code.
Dr Abramovich said Brenton Tarrant, the Australian terrorist who carried out the March 2019 Christchurch mosque attack that killed 51 people, self-radicalised online before committing the massacre.
He said Tarrant frequented social media platforms and was sharing ideas with Australian extremist groups online.
"We can't ignore this form of extremism, you only need one lone individual to actually believe the white race is under threat and that they need to act," Dr Abramovich said.
"They dream of a Fourth Reich with an Australia Hitler at the helm.
"We don't need to wait for a Christchurch in our cities to act. The danger that they are spewing can easily cross the line into real world lethal attacks, especially because these groups and these individuals are inspired heroes or martyrs who have carried out massacres, people like Brenton Tarrant.
"I'm glad Minister Dutton has already begun the process of classifying one white supremacist group as a terrorist organisation and I hope he is going to extend these classifications to other local groups."
Alfred Deakin Institute terrorism and radicalisation expert Professor Michele Grossman told NCA NewsWire the capacity of far-right groups to mobilise and get people to do things had increased over the past three years.
"There certainly has been an increase in what you might call far-right extremist narratives that has been primarily enabled by online environments," she said.
"They didn't just start with Christchurch, but what has changed is this capacity to mobilise, better organise and because of social media and the broader media environment, their capacity to inspire people to go off and conduct lone actor attacks has increased.
"What they do is reinforce particular ways of seeing the world and particular solutions to problems and it's especially concerning when those solutions are taken offline and out into the physical world, in terms of things like conducting violence, then we really have to worry."
Professor Grossman said proscription was useful in enabling governments to respond and manage threats but could also have the "unintended halo effect" of increasing the status of a particular group that could generate further support.
"We will never be able to completely eliminate harmful material in digital environments, instead what we need to do is try to tackle it through building resilience to what people may encounter online," she said.
"You need to build people's ability to be critical about what they see and what they're reading and build their resilience to toxic messages that seek to get them thinking about harming others or the community in general as a way of addressing their grievances."
Sewell, 27, was arrested and charged by counter-terrorism police with affray, recklessly causing injury and unlawful assault after Monday's incident but has already been spruiking his "white replacement" conspiracy views over encrypted messaging after being released on bail.
He has also appealed for donations to fund his defence in court.
"They're alleging a crime was committed, we're obviously going to fight that in court," he told his followers.
"They've been monitoring us for years and they've never once raided me personally or our HQ … we have as an organisation committed no crimes."
Most members of the Australian neo-Nazi groups hide their identities by wearing face coverings in photos, but Jacob Hersant of the National Socialist Network is one who has revealed himself.
He told NCA NewsWire his group sought to spread the message and creed of national socialism to as many people as possible and, "ultimately survive as a free and distinct nation".
"This means strengthening our community, increasing in numbers and building understanding on National Socialism and the importance of national and racial survival," he said.
In a statement, ASIO said the agency had been dedicating additional resources to the evolving far-right threat and primarily investigated individuals or groups based on their use or advocacy of violence.
Originally published as Terrifying rise of far-right groups in Aus