The arrest of a NSW man following a Joint Counter Terrorism Team investigation highlights the rising threat of right-wing extremism in Australia and the bias in the way the country has been classifying terrorism. By Drew Rooke.

Right-wing terrorism on the rise in Australia

The director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess.
The director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

When detectives raided the nondescript one-storey brick house in Sanctuary Point on the New South Wales south coast last Saturday, locals were perplexed. No one was told what was happening and, as the detectives continued searching the property the following day, the mystery grew. A rumour began to spread on social media that an 18-year-old man had been murdered by his brother.

The truth was even more disturbing. On Monday, news broke that police had arrested and charged a 21-year-old man who lived at the property with one count of acts done in preparation for, or planning, terrorist acts.

Police seized a number of electronic devices, tactical equipment and three paintball guns from his home, plus four registered firearms from a nearby property of one of his associates. They allege he was attempting to acquire military weapons and items capable of making improvised explosive devices – possibly to use in an attack against a local electrical substation.

Police also allege the accused, Joshua Lucas, is a far-right extremist. “What we know is this person had anti-government sentiment, he was anti-Semitic, he has neo-Nazi interests and he has anti-Indigenous interests,” NSW Police Force assistant commissioner Mark Walton said.

Lucas was unknown to authorities until a tipoff in February this year about disturbing material he was posting and sharing online. The NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) – comprising members of the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police Force, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the NSW Crime Commission – immediately began investigating.

The investigation progressed rapidly, leading to Lucas’s arrest last weekend. “The decision to execute these warrants and charge a man was made to mitigate any immediate threat, ensure the ongoing safety of the community,” AFP assistant commissioner Scott Lee said, explaining why the JCTT moved so quickly, “and prevent further planning or preparations that could have resulted in a terrorist attack in Australia.”

The timing of Lucas’s arrest – the day before the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch attack in which a 28-year-old Australian far-right terrorist opened fire in two mosques, killing 51 people – was especially notable. Lee said the anniversary and the “alignment” of Lucas’s ideology to that of the Christchurch terrorist was “one of the factors” police took into account in arresting him when they did.

Lucas did not apply for bail when he appeared in Nowra Local Court on Monday. His case was adjourned until May but investigations into his links with online and offline associates are ongoing.

Stijn Denayer says he wasn’t surprised to hear police had foiled a potential far-right terrorist attack in Australia. Although he had never heard of Lucas before, as the manager of All Together Now’s Community Action for Preventing Extremism (CAPE) project Denayer is keenly aware of the growing threat of far-right extremism in Australia.

The CAPE project was established in 2012 and is aimed at reducing the risk of young people becoming involved with far-right groups or ideologies. Denayer spends much of his time speaking with former white nationalists and researching the trends and activities among far-right groups and individuals. “After Christchurch, and the way we are seeing things moving online and offline in terms of far-right extremism in Australia,” he says, “it’s more a matter of when rather than if a violent attack occurs here.”

ASIO agrees. Last month, the security organisation’s director-general, Mike Burgess, said the extreme right-wing threat in Australia “is real and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”

Sometimes this happens in full public view. In January, for example, a couple sparked outrage after flying a Nazi flag in their backyard in the small town of Beulah in Victoria’s north-west.

A classified ASIO intelligence report, which The Saturday Paper recently obtained, expanded on Burgess’s public remarks. It stated that an extreme right-wing attack is “plausible” in Australia in the next 12 to 18 months. It said the Christchurch attacks will have an “enduring impact” on the extreme right-wing community in Australia by contributing to the “radicalisation and inspiration of future attackers for at least the next 10 years”.

This problem of right-wing extremism isn’t confined to Australia. In fact, it is growing across the Western world.

In Britain, a quarter of terrorism arrests in the past year had links to far-right violence and, since March 2017, British counterterrorism officers have stopped eight far-right terrorist plots.

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, almost all the 50 terrorism-related deaths in the United States in 2018 involved far-right extremism, including the 11 people killed in the fatal anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Just last month in Germany, a 43-year-old far-right extremist went on a shooting spree in the German town of Hanau. He targeted two separate shisha bars, killing nine people – all of whom had immigrant backgrounds. This followed a similar attack at a Quebec City mosque in Canada in 2017 that killed six people.

Several countries have outlawed extreme far-right organisations in an attempt to mitigate the threat they pose to national security and public safety. In June 2019, for example, the Canadian government added two international neo-Nazi groups – Blood & Honour and its armed branch, Combat 18 – to its list of terrorist organisations. These are the first far-right extremism groups to be included on Canada’s terror list.

Britain has taken similar steps. Last month, the British home secretary, Priti Patel, announced that the far-right Sonnenkrieg Division would be banned as a terrorist organisation in Britain. It was the second group of its kind deemed to be a terrorist organisation. In December 2016, National Action – which the British Home Office says is “virulently racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic” – became the first.

At present, however, there are no far-right groups in Australia that are listed as terrorist organisations. Almost all of those listed are Islamic extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State or Daesh.

According to counterterrorism expert Professor Greg Barton, this reflects a “bias” in the way Australia understands the problem of terrorism. He acknowledges this bias has been framed by historical needs but says a review of the criteria of what constitutes a terrorist organisation would help address the growing threat of far-right extremism.

Labor has also thrown its weight behind this call. On the day Lucas was arrested in Nowra, shadow Home Affairs minister Kristina Keneally told Nine newspapers that Australia’s register of terrorist groups should be sent to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security for urgent review, citing the fact it currently lists no far-right groups.

But Barton is going a step further – advocating the creation of a national centralised database of hate crimes. He says this would help authorities “see the bigger picture” of far-right extremism and be better able to anticipate and prevent an attack. Without one, as is currently the case, police are reactive to far-right criminal activity. Or, as Barton puts it, they are “flying blind”.

To help address the threat of far-right violence, Stijn Denayer from All Together Now also believes more financial support is needed for community-based programs focused on educating front-line workers about the warning signs of far-right extremism and preventing young people – especially young men – from becoming involved with far-right groups or ideologies in the first place.

“It is all about a journey for some of these young people,” he says. “And the sooner we are able to pick up the problem and intervene, the more chance we have of preventing new attacks and more violence.”

The swift arrest of Lucas last weekend is a promising sign, according to Denayer. “You can see that authorities are taking the threat of far-right extremism really seriously. We are definitely pleased to see they acted promptly.”

Yet the focus of some politicians remains elsewhere.

Following Mike Burgess’s speech about the threat of right-wing extremism, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton insisted there was also a need to deal with “left-wing lunatics”, while his Liberal colleague Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells lectured the ASIO director-general during a recent senate estimates hearing about his use of the word “right”.

She warned him to be “very careful” with the terminology he used “so that ordinary Australians, particularly those of conservative background, are not offended”.

With the rapid rise of far-right extremism, however, ordinary Australians might have bigger things to worry about.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Right turns".

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