Far-right extremism has been on the rise in the past year in response to federal and state governments' handling of the coronavirus pandemic, one expert says.

In a piece for The Conversation, Kaz Ross of the University of Tasmania noted that Australia's national security agency ASIO has warned that far-right groups were exploiting the pandemic to expand their operations.

In September, ASIO revealed that up to 40 per cent of its counter-terrorism efforts were now directed at far-right extremist activities, an increase from 10 to 15 per cent before 2016.

"New groups have emerged and existing groups have become more radicalised and increased their memberships," Dr Ross noted.

This includes the group, the Proud Boys, which received what seemed like an endorsement this year from US President Donald Trump.

Mr Trump infamously told the group they should "stand back and stand by" after being asked to condemn white supremacist and militia groups during the first presidential debate in September.

"The group has also been growing in Australia this year. Its vetting channel on the encrypted app Telegram has been increasingly active, with a steady stream of new applicants. And members have participated in protests throughout the year," Dr Ross wrote.

The group appeared at the Melbourne Invasion Day rally at Flinders Street Station wearing T-shirts that said: "Governor Arthur Phillip did nothing wrong", but left before the rally began.

Then in November, they appeared at an anti-lockdown protest at Victoria's Parliament House, wearing their unofficial uniform - signature Fred Perry polo shirts - and scuffled with police before being pepper-sprayed, arrested and fined.

The Proud Boys are a self-described "Western chauvinist" street-fighting gang for men. They say they are non-racist, but members must take an oath upholding Western civilisation as supreme. Becoming a member involves violence against each other and against anti-fascists or "Antifa".

RELATED: Far-right extremist groups clash with counter-protesters in US

 

 

In America the group has become increasingly visible, often wearing military body armour and carrying high-powered weapons, and members have been arrested for assault, street brawls and weapons offences.

"The increased visibility of Proud Boys at demonstrations is concerning if it signals a new strategy by the group to engage in street violence either with police or left-wing protesters," Dr Ross said.

 

GROUPS EMERGING IN AUSTRALIA

In Australia, relatively new right-wing groups are also benefiting from public anger to the government's coronavirus responses.

Dr Ross said groups such as Townsville Free Corps and the National Socialist Network, which is an offshoot of the Lads Society and incorporating ex-Antipodean Resistance members, have stepped up their recruitment and propaganda activities in Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland over the past year.

She said the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US, which tracks far-right extremist groups, revealed in August that the white supremacist terror group The Base had also interviewed potential Australian members using its Perth-based recruiter to set up cells. By late 2019, at least a dozen Australian men had applied to join The Base.

One potential member had been a former political candidate for One Nation, the SPLC reported.

 

 

Dr Ross said many of these far-right groups believed in the same "great replacement theory" that white Europeans are threatened by increasing non-white immigration and are therefore facing "white genocide".

It is the same theory that motivated the Christchurch killer, who gunned down 51 people in mosques in New Zealand.

A royal commission report into the attack revealed this week that the man had been active in Australian extremist groups before moving to New Zealand.

It said New Zealand security and intelligence services had mistakenly ignored the potential of far-right groups to commit acts of terrorism due to an overwhelming focus on Islamist threats.

In contrast, the group The Base follows an "accelerationist" ideology, which aims to bring about societal collapse as a way of "winning the race war" for whites.

 

LONE ACTORS ARE A PROBLEM

Thomas Sewell, the leader of the National Socialist Network, specifically targets young, white, "disgruntled" men using the "great replacement theory". It has more than 2000 members on Telegram.

Last week, it issued a statement via an encrypted app claiming that Tyler Jakovac, an 18-year-old man arrested in his East Albury home hours after he allegedly made online comments suggesting he was willing to be involved in a "mass casualty event", was not a member.

Mr Jakovac has been charged for urging violence against members or groups and advocating terrorism and now faces a maximum combined term of 12 years' jail.

NSW police assistant commissioner Mark Walton said police would allege Mr Jakovac hated anyone who did not look like him and was specifically opposed to Jews, Muslims and immigrants.

Without commenting on the Jakovac case, Dr Ross said the Christchurch killer had also been invited to join an earlier version of Mr Sewell's group but he declined and went on to act alone.

"This raises a problem: extremist groups with a public propaganda strategy are easier to identify, but as the inquiry into the Christchurch attack noted, lone actors can be almost invisible to authorities," Dr Ross said.

"There are communities on gaming platforms, message boards and in encrypted apps that share racist, anti-Semitic and hateful material every day.

"By 'weaponising' irony, users can hide behind plausible deniability ('it's just a joke') when challenged about the violence stated in their posts. But to outsiders, the language used can be confronting."

 

An 18-year-old man from Albury was arrested on terrorism charges last week.
An 18-year-old man from Albury was arrested on terrorism charges last week.

However, Dr Ross said it was often insiders who had a more finely tuned sense of when someone was crossing over from sharing memes to something more sinister.

"We need to educate and support internet users to follow their hunches by identifying and reporting other users who are edging toward violent action," she wrote.

"The Christchurch murderer was reported to police in 2016 for threatening someone with retribution on the 'day of the rope', according to the inquiry report. This is neo-Nazi shorthand for the mass murder of race traitors.

"Unfortunately, no police action was taken.

"There are thousands of references to the 'day of the rope' in online groups - knowing when to step in is the challenge.

"Disruptive pre-emptive action is essential to reduce the risk of another mass murder."

 

Originally published as Far-right groups expanding in Australia



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