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Following the killing of 50 Muslims by an Australian terrorist, local security agencies face questions of whether they overlooked the threat posed by white extremists. By Karen Middleton.

After Christchurch

Christchurch residents comfort each other after leaving flowers in tribute to victims of the mosque massacre.
Credit: Anthony Wallace / AFP / Getty Images

In the places Australian extremists gather online, some of those defending and even celebrating what happened last week in Christchurch mock the widespread disbelief that such a peaceful little city could be chosen for mass murder.

In posts, they taunt: Build mosques in a place called Christchurch and what do you expect? On websites championing what users claim to be free speech, purported excuses for the Christchurch attack are swirling amid an incoherent jumble of bizarre conspiracy theories and attempts to rationalise this act of racist violence.

Across the wider community, though, and especially among Australian Muslims, different questions are being asked. In prioritising Muslim radicalisation, have governments given other extremist threats enough attention? Does this attack represent a specific intelligence failure?

The president of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, Phil Kowalick, answers “no” to both questions.

“I think agencies in Australia are focused on extremism as a problem, not on any one community,” Kowalick tells The Saturday Paper.

“We are looking at extremist groups, we are looking at politically motivated violence, we are looking at terrorism. The emphasis [has been] on small pockets of the Islamic community but that’s not to say that’s the only place that extremism is going to come from.”

But Kowalick says those leading public debate tend to emphasise only one threat. “I think our messaging is in some ways problematic because the rhetoric is often about Islamic extremism and that paints the whole Islamic community [when] there are only small pockets that are a problem,” he says.

“I think we need to talk about extremism more generally, not limit it to certain groups … It’s got to start at the leadership level. There’s a big role for the media as well.”

He warns that the nature of public debate has hampered efforts to deal with extremism generally. “It’s difficult to have an educated, adult debate about some of these things without being labelled racist and that’s disappointing,” he says. “These are the things we need to have an open and honest conversation about.”

On the issue of whether Australian security agencies should have detected the alleged Christchurch shooter before his attack, Kowalick says it is “extremely easy to join the dots after an incident, but it’s incredibly difficult to predict”.

He says agencies are very well equipped but “there is a question about co-ordination”, one the new Office of National Intelligence structure goes some way to resolving.

Kowalick is advocating for more co-operation – including between federal agencies – and the adoption of an international professional intelligence standard to foster better-quality strategic intelligence and predictive analysis.

He says that in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, security agencies will be reviewing their priorities. They are also reviewing the intelligence itself in light of what is now known about the alleged perpetrator, including tracing his movements during seven years of world travel, apparently funded through an inheritance from his father.

The Saturday Paper understands agencies are likely to take a particular interest in his travel through eastern and central Europe, where right-wing extremism is flourishing. They will look for anything that might have been missed, including people with whom the alleged shooter had contact, seeking anyone else who may have been involved and any sign further actions could be planned.

The Islamic Council of Victoria is among the Muslim organisations that have warned for some time of the escalating threat from right-wing extremists.

Spokesman Adel Salman believes not enough is being done. “We’re not confident they’re taking the threat of far-right extremism as seriously as they do – and I’ll use their terminology, though I don’t like it – Islamist-based or jihadist terrorism,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “This is a very, very toxic form of white nationalist and white extremist ideology.”

He is urging governments to make stronger public statements condemning Islamophobia. “It’s about time that our authorities … do it seriously,” he says. “They may be doing it behind the scenes, but they need to be taking it up publicly.”

Security experts say while agencies have been focused on white supremacists, it is the co-ordination, capacity and reach of Muslim extremist organisations that sets them apart from these and other right-wing groups. While both seek to pervert religious doctrine, and last week is more evidence of what an individual can do, the scale of one compared with the other is what has directed the priorities.

 

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on the day before the Christchurch shootings, Home Affairs Department secretary Michael Pezzullo outlined what he called the seven greatest security threats to Australia in the next decade, describing them as “gathering storms”. All were on a global scale, with number six being “radical extremist Islamist terrorism”.

Pezzullo did not mention white supremacist or other extremist groups, including those on the left in the anti-fascist, or Antifa, and ecoterrorism movements, which are also on agencies’ radar. He warned: “If … we take the path of neglect and apathy, if those so charged fail in the discharge of their duties, if the nation does not engage purposively and in good time, then I do fear that one or more of those storms will break savagely upon an unsuspecting and unprepared populace. Were that to happen – and I refuse to believe that those of us who are charged with acting would so wantonly fail in our duty … then I fear also that the calamity would be too great to bear and there would follow significant social and economic dislocation.”

The Saturday Paper asked the Home Affairs Department if the Christchurch attack had changed the secretary’s list.

A spokeswoman said it had not. “It is a long-term framework, which does not reflect shorter-term, predictive factors,” she said in a written statement. “Risk management is however a dynamic discipline and risk factors need to be kept under constant review. The attack in Christchurch was horrific. The risks that we face in the 2020s are regrettably worse still and require even more attention and proactive management. That said, our agencies have been long alive to the threat posed by extreme right-wing groups and are now especially alert to the threat of copycat or retaliatory attacks.”

The response did not address whether the Christchurch attack constituted “wanton” failure on the part of any agency. But on Thursday in an internal message to departmental staff to mark Harmony Day, the Home Affairs secretary offered his views on white supremacy and the danger it poses.

“It falls to all in positions of authority and influence to call out and reject the vile and odious ideology of extremist white supremacist nationalism,” he wrote. Pezzullo reminded his staff that European fascism didn’t rise out of apathy but by tapping racism and other grievances “in plain sight”.

He warned against allowing similar grievances to gain political support and herald “a revival of fascism”.

“We owe it to the victims of last week’s attack to redouble our efforts against the proponents of this ideology here and abroad.”

 

In the wake of the shootings, police and Muslim organisations are increasing their co-operation, and the Islamic Council of Victoria is planning to meet with Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin to discuss the situation.

Adel Salman says he is pleased that political rhetoric has shifted since the attack but he still urges leaders to change their assessment of the threat of white supremacists, along with their language.

“They assess them as not being as well organised as jihadist-based extremists,” he says. “They assess them as not being as great a threat … That’s what we want to challenge … that might have been the case at a particular time, but we’ve moved well beyond that.”

He says the evidence of extremists “flipping from online warriors into becoming actual killers” warranted elevating that threat to the same level as that of radicalised Muslim extremists.

“We don’t want two different approaches because I think now the threat is equal and serious, in our view.”

The head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, John Blaxland, agrees a reprioritisation of efforts may be required. But he warns that attackers such as the alleged Christchurch perpetrator are extremely difficult to spot. “It’s got harder and harder to pre-emptively detect anything major like this,” Blaxland says, acknowledging the pressure is mounting.

“It was hard enough when it was just [Lindt cafe siege perpetrator] Man Haron Monis, who had nothing like the firepower that this guy had.”

New Zealand’s gun laws allowed the accumulation of that arsenal. They were tightened dramatically on Thursday amid criticisms that NZ intelligence agencies were under-resourced and a long way behind on the white supremacist threat.

Blaxland also points to political permissiveness. “Words matter,” he says. “… Even when somebody’s word in and of itself appears to be relatively anodyne, the cumulative effect of the snide remarks, the derogatory comments, the ‘it’s alright to be white’ type of view of the world generates the space for this to happen in.”

However, he cautions against becoming “a repressive state of compliance, of group think where you’re not allowed to express dissent from political orthodoxy”.

Phil Kowalick doubts agencies could reasonably have detected the alleged Christchurch attacker before he struck because there were no links with known groups. Kowalick and others point to the nature of extremist activity online, involving posting huge volumes of hate-filled material – often self-described as “shitposting” – and boosting each other in search of notoriety.

Online, the targets for this extreme vitriol vary and most commonly include Muslims, Jews, people of colour, the LGBTQIA community and women.

The chaotic discourse makes it difficult to tell which, if any, of the hate proponents are likely to shift from rhetoric to action. By all accounts, the alleged Christchurch shooter gave no discernible sign.

Like many others, he was active on Twitter and Facebook – where he live-streamed 17 minutes of his shooting rampage – and on other messaging sites. But he had not been red-flagged.

His Twitter profile bore a photograph of the covered body of a young victim of the 2016 truck attack in Nice, France, lying in the street.

Along with his Facebook page, that profile has now been removed from view.

The Saturday Paper has examined posts on the message-board site 4chan – whose members are anonymous – in the wake of the shootings. On the site, some users are circulating a screenshot message that appears to belong to the alleged attacker. In it, the anonymous writer foreshadows a general intent – minus details or time frame. He says it is time to “stop shitposting” and make a “real life effort”, saying he intended to attack “the invaders” and live-stream it on Facebook.

The poster farewells the “lads” in case he did not survive and provided links, including to a manifesto that was also emailed to a range of public figures minutes before the shooting began.

General access to some popular extremist sites has been blocked in both New Zealand and Australia following the attack. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is urging the G20 countries to further regulate social media companies to prevent such live-stream broadcasts in future and crack down on hate speech.

This week, the former leader of Australia’s United Patriots Front Blair Cottrell was banned permanently from Twitter for comments he made about the New Zealand murders. Both he and Neil Erikson moved to the social media platform Gab, which advertises itself as preserving liberty and free speech. On Gab, Cottrell posted a link to a YouTube video in which he distanced himself from the Christchurch attacks and discouraged people from committing violent acts, suggesting they would engender sympathy for Muslims. YouTube has blocked access to the video.

Cottrell and Erikson were among those in attendance this week for independent Senator Fraser Anning’s speech in Melbourne expounding his view that Muslims should not be in New Zealand or Australia and immigration was the real cause of the attacks.

A 17-year-old onlooker slammed an egg on Anning’s head, prompting the senator to retaliate, before bystanders, including Erikson, grabbed the teenager and dragged him to the floor in a headlock. Police are investigating.

Federal parliament is set to pass a bipartisan censure motion against Anning when it resumes on April 2. One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has said she will abstain. But Anning’s preparedness to espouse such views publicly reflects a wider trend among emboldened purveyors of extreme views worldwide.

The White Rose Society, which tracks such extremists globally, has detected an upswing in their activities, including in Australia. Founder Micah David Naziri told The Saturday Paper the increase looked to have occurred without co-ordinated effort.

“This, however, is far from the case,” Naziri says. “White supremacist terror groups have been working behind the scenes for decades to make the moves we have seen over the past few years. Once the momentum built, it appeared that everything was happening by itself – because since then it truly has been. But this snowball effect was not accidental, nor happenstance. It was the deliberate work of these groups, who are making their move for global dominance as we speak.”

Naziri’s organisation insists this threat is now surpassing that posed by Muslim extremist terrorist groups because the latter are under immense scrutiny. “White supremacists, by comparison, have been left almost entirely unchecked by law enforcement, intelligence agencies and society at large,” he says.

“General ‘white’ society has only recently begun to pay attention to the threat of white supremacist terror groups, and even still, the reality of that threat is being severely underestimated.

“This is a make-it-or-break-it moment for the Western world as a whole. Either this cancer is excised from society or it will destroy it.”

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.