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Inside the fractured groupings and white power fantasies of Australia’s far right, an alleged terrorist plot was forming. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

How Reclaim Australia hid a ‘terrorist’

Phillip Galea (left) depicted in a montage shared on Facebook.
Credit: Facebook

This week, tactical police and counterterror teams stormed into Phillip Galea’s modest bungalow in Braybrook, west of Melbourne. It was a dawn raid – they almost always are – conducted when Galea was sleeping, his acuity a few steps behind that of police.

Galea, a far-right activist, is a large man with a wild beard. He was dragged by masked officers to a waiting vehicle. Police had intercepted his phone months ago, and were now laying terror charges – specifically, that he was planning political violence. A member of the True Blue Crew and Reclaim Australia, there is speculation as to who or what that alleged target might have been – an Islamic site or leader, or a member of the far right’s avowed enemies, the socialists? Left activists suggest the latter – earlier this year Galea had threatened Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly and his family in a vicious online post. 

Galea was a long-time member of the so-called patriot movement, a messy weave of neo-Nazis, nationalists, anti-immigrationists and haters of Islam. There are many groups, and their formations are liquid – subject to political cannibalism and state surveillance. Some groups comprise almost entirely Facebook polemics; others meet regularly and plot strategies and rallies. Some co-operate with others, while some remain bitter and suspicious rivals. Enmity and ambition is constantly re-arranging the make-up of these groups, and authorities are grateful for their inherent divisiveness.

Appearing before court this week, Galea alleged police brutality. He said that he had been suffering auditory hallucinations as a result of a stun grenade that detonated beside his head, and complained of cuts to his arm when police maliciously hauled him from a window framed by broken glass. It’s an ironic and common complaint of white nationalists when arrested – that they are victims of a jackbooted state, even as they dream of Hitler.

Reclaim Australia, a movement begun online by Shermon Burgess, also known as the Great Aussie Patriot, sponsored multiple rallies across the country before the coalition of the aggrieved began splintering. Federal MP George Christensen has spoken at these rallies, and said this following Galea’s arrest: “There is no leader of Reclaim Australia. It was not an incorporated group but an organic movement that’s since dissipated. This clown you talk of is no better than the terrorists I oppose who kill in the name of Islam. Anyone who seeks to harm someone to further a cause is to be condemned.”

Police surveillance of groups

Like many movements of supreme intolerance, there is a fondness in the patriot movement for the language of epidemiology – filth, disease, contamination. The popular metaphor is of a healthy body threatened by foreign bacteria. It is the language of battle. Extinction. 

Many serious members are paranoid: about the erosion of white culture, the spectre of a caliphate. But the most intense paranoia is of each other. Patriot groups are surveilled, infiltrated and splintered by defections. To some, this burnishes their sense of importance and stokes excitement. Others are frightened of betrayal and public exposure. This fretful caution is interpreted as a consequence of an authoritarian state, even if the most vocal advocate for this conspiracy – United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell – has suggested a portrait of Hitler should hang in every classroom in Australia and his book Mein Kampf be given to students annually.

Police surveil the more extreme groups. They take photos, analyse social media forums, build personality profiles. They map a group’s hierarchy. They receive intelligence from disenchanted members; in some cases they use undercover officers. When evidence is sufficient, mobile phones may be intercepted.

Authorities whose job this is have told me that such groups’ youngest members are impressionable, enthusiastically violent, and crave the definition of a group. Many are apolitical and ignorant of geopolitics, but happy to offer lip-service to the bromides of nationalism or white supremacy as the cost of their membership. In this way, antisocial pathologies gather beneath a banner, in a manner identical to the young irreligious jihadists in our suburbs. In footage of a melee in Coburg in June – a violent conflation of an anti-racism and pro-nationalist rallies in Melbourne’s inner north – a young member of the True Blue Crew pulls his face mask down and explains to the camera his motivation to attend: “I just come here for a fight, to be honest, like most blokes do. Just use it as an excuse.”

After Coburg, social media sites – both public and private – lit up with excited descriptions of the brawling. Scuffles were elevated to heroism. “We are warriors!” It’s a neat trick if you’re ignorant enough to pull it off: to transform vulgarity into nobility.

I’ve been told that some leaders have sufficient cunning to cultivate raw egos. They offer blankets to those with a sense of inferiority, and bend their anger into loyalty. The subjects of these manipulations become the foot soldiers.

But that camaraderie is perpetually threatened by paranoia and ambition. In online forums, older, anti-authoritarian members appear pained by formal organisation, an emulation of the very structures they abhor. Some resent the ambitious vanities of their leaders. Shermon Burgess, who lays claim to founding the Reclaim Australia movement, built a public profile almost entirely off the back of online videos. A tireless chronicler of his “crusade”, Burgess published vainglorious monologues on his Facebook page, before internal ructions led to him splitting and heading the United Patriots Front. But the political cannibalism continued. In a widely shared video parodying Burgess’s clips, the Great Aussie Patriot was subject to ridicule and he quit. Naturally, he announced his resignation in a video. “I’m handing full leadership of UPF over to Blair Cottrell,” he said. “It’s not because of media or death threats from Islam – even though I’ve received plenty of those – it’s because of dumb fuck patriots… When your own fucking people start turning against you and having a laugh, and spreading left-wing shit, after all the sacrifices you made for them, that’s where I draw the fucking line and I’m done. I’m fucking done.”

Others are disgusted for contrary reasons: that the face of the patriot movement comprises profane “bogans” who lack the discipline or intelligence to offer respectability. An ally of the movement wrote on True Blue Crew’s Facebook page this week: “Let’s be honest, you watch many of these videos from patriots and if you do not sit there and agree they are bogans then you are blind, one guy cannot make a video without swearing every second word and acting like a total drop kick, another comes across as a hardcore Nazi, another wears his wife beater and has a need to consume alcohol on his video as he curses and swears… far too many of these so-called patriots are more about their Facebook fame than they are anything else.”

Which is true. There is rarely a base level of care or sophistication to disguise contradiction. The founder of the True Blue Crew, Kane Miller, said this to Channel Seven when asked about the arrest of Phillip Galea on terror charges: “Anyone to think an act of terrorism or to hurt innocent people is the right way to go about either fixing things or creating awareness is an absolute idiot.”

Three months prior, Miller led his boys into what they dreamt of as The Battle of Coburg. Held at a police line, a squinting Miller – he had been hit with capsicum spray – was apoplectic. Veins bulged in his neck. A livid pit bull, wiping poison from his eyes, he started a defiant call-and-response: “How do we fucking do it, TBC?” he screamed. “Smash cunts!” was his reply. There was little doubt he meant it. The video is available online.

Van Tongeren’s ANM

Patriot is a self-aggrandising term. It reinforces a sense of legitimacy. That legitimacy is only loosely felt in some, while others fiercely believe in their own rectitude. The value of wearing the word “patriot” as a talisman is that it might ward off anomie. It also allows you to denounce opposition as treachery.

Arguably the most disturbed and destructive example of the patriot movement was Jack van Tongeren, a Belgium-born son of a Javanese father, who after returning from the Vietnam War began transposing fever dreams of racial conspiracy into a terror campaign. In the 1980s, van Tongeren established the Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM), and their signature crime was the firebombing of Chinese restaurants in Perth. His intention was to intimidate Asian-Australians from the country, and he was insistent in declaring patriotism as the moral ground from which he did so. “He who defends his nation,” van Tongeren often said, paraphrasing Napoleon, “cannot break the law.”

There are echoes with today. Van Tongeren led a group of mostly young men on a campaign of bombings, bashings and the posting of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Asian posters across the city. They loved the excitement. They established safe houses and a crude guerilla training camp in the country. They had rifles, codenames and fake numberplates. They forged cheques to fund their criminality: modern Robin Hoods, they told themselves. To attract media attention, they staged an assassination attempt on their leader. Patriots, outlaws, adventurers. Desperate for attention. They also found themselves a martyr.

In van Tongeren’s jail-penned and self-glorifying memoir, he tells us he found a young man willing to die for him. His self-published book is dedicated to Andrew, a man its author tells us “threatened to kill himself if I was not released [from prison] in two weeks. In two weeks he did kill himself. No law on earth or other man-made threat can prevent such fanatical idealism; that is why fanaticism guided by genius is invincible.”

Andrew’s death was unmediated by remorse. Van Tongeren would serve 13 years in prison until his release in 2002. The censure, the conviction, the sustained isolation, did not seem to diminish his sense of righteousness. Nor did it ask him to consider the suicide of his protégé. He was right about the stamina of fanaticism.

But the patriot movement – so enlivened by their belief that they alone are brave enough to speak the “truth” of white genocide – might note a disturbing absence from their godfather’s memoir. At a fat and repetitive 232 pages, van Tongeren could not find space for the murder of his friend and colleague Dave Locke at the hands of ANM members.

Locke was 21 and entrenched in the group, a young man frequently piling into the Kombi van on missions of arson or crude propaganda. “He was to prove to be a staunch valuable activist in the campaign ahead,” van Tongeren wrote from his cell. “Lord knows how many wet nights Dave Locke, John McGuaig and I spent cruising around the quiet streets till the dawn broke through.” Locke had, just weeks before his death, lived with van Tongeren.

On a Friday night at a local pub, close to ANM headquarters, Locke bumped into Wayne Napier and William Monaghan. Monaghan was an ANM member. Both were in their early 20s. Suspecting Locke had become a police informant, the two lured him from the pub to a nearby park. They bashed his head with an iron bar, before dragging him down to a creek. There, Monaghan slit his throat and dumped him in the water. An 11-year-old boy found Locke’s body the next morning.

Here was the result of paranoia and easy violence. Here were the ashes of an empty camaraderie. The judge declared the murder “cowardly and brutal” and sentenced both men to a minimum of 20 years. Van Tongeren never publicly acknowledged it.

There are other echoes with today’s patriot movement: pride in provocation, an enduring sense of victimhood, and a comical, hyper-inflated masculinity. There is little self-awareness – opposition is always the result of ignorance or mendacity. They are the pure ones. True patriots.

Anti-authoritarian rhetoric

If online groups are meaningful – in other words, if people’s racial anxieties expressed online might portend behaviour in the “real world” – then Islamic hate and nationalism is increasing rapidly in this country. It aligns with rising anti-authoritarian movements across the West. Frighteningly, the latent right-wing assassins and terrorists were emboldened this week by an astonishingly reckless comment from Donald Trump. Addressing a rally, the Republican presidential candidate said of his opponent: “Hillary wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges – nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Trump said this just weeks after British Labour MP Jo Cox was gunned down in the street by a far-right fanatic, and five years after US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by Jared Loughner. Giffords survived, but six others did not.

Trump’s words matter. He speaks as a candidate for the most powerful office in the world, in a country with a terrible history of shooting dead its political leaders. The patriot movement thrives off this rhetoric – rhetoric that reinforces and ennobles hate and political violence.

Back in Australia, the monitoring of both radicalised Islamic kids and their counterparts in the far-right continues. Authorities will be bracing for the next Melbourne patriot rally – the first since Coburg – in two weeks. It will be, promises UPF leader Blair Cottrell, another “public demonstration of force. This force … is absolutely necessary towards achieving our goal of protecting our country. Why? Because if you can’t prove how dangerous you are, you have nothing to barter with. Think about it. All of the legitimate methods – referendums, voting systems, legal avenues – it never gets you anywhere. It’s as if it’s all an illusion.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "How Reclaim hid a ‘terrorist’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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