How counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right, with Lydia Khalil

Jan 12, 2023 •

Australia’s domestic security agency, ASIO, says right-wing extremism now makes up half of its priority cases. So just how big a risk is this movement today? And how did we allow this discredited and dangerous ideology to get a foothold once again?

Today, author Lydia Khalil on how counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right and how we all need to solve that problem.



How counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right, with Lydia Khalil

865 • Jan 12, 2023

How counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right, with Lydia Khalil

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Hey there, I’m Ruby Jones, welcome to 7am’s summer series: an exploration of big ideas with some of our favourite contributors and thinkers.

Australia’s domestic security agency, ASIO, says right-wing extremism now makes up half of its priority cases. And the far-right, while still fringe, has capitalised on division and social media to push its message during the pandemic.

Of course, the world has already seen one great rise in the far-right movement, in the 1930s.

Deteriorating economies, poverty and plague were the precursors to the rise of fascist parties across the world back then. So just how big a risk is this movement today? And how did we allow this discredited and dangerous ideology to get a foothold once again?

Today, author Lydia Khalil, on how counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far-right and how we all need to solve that problem.

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So Lydia, let's start by talking a bit about Far-Right extremism here in Australia. It's not something that we tend to speak about much, but one of the deadliest terror attacks in recent history was committed by an Australian man in Christchurch in New Zealand. We've also seen the emergence of small neo-Nazi groups more recently who've been attending protest rallies in Australia. So could you just paint a bit of a portrait for me of what we're seeing in terms of Far-Right extremism right now?


Sure. It's a good question, because on one hand, it has been something that's been brought up in the news over recent years. But at the same time, we haven't really had so much of a robust discussion about its presence in the Australian context, as you say.

I think it's important to say, first of all, that you know these movements, because they are extremist movements that do espouse violence almost by definition they are fringe.

So it is a fringe segment of a society, but one that's presenting a growing threat to Australian society, a growing concern for security agencies. And it's also important to say too, that while in the Australian context it might be relatively limited, this is a movement that's global, that's transnational, that it has different manifestations outside of Australia and they're linked in a lot of ways.

And the international far right community and right wing extremist community pays attention to what's happening in Australia. Influencers and leaders within the Australian right wing extremist movements are influential overseas and have a presence overseas as well. So I think it's important also to tease out that international profile of Australian right wing extremists.


Can you tell me more a bit more about that, Lydia - who are those Australian right wing extremist and how are they connected to a more global far-right movement?


Sure. One of the things that we're really picking up on in terms of people who pay attention to these movements, is that how much more it's becoming a transnational movement.

We see, you know, right wing extremist influencers in the Australian context and I don't like to name them because I don't want to give them a platform particularly, you know, there's no need to increase their influence, so to speak. But they have many followers, for example, online. They have these online influencer personas where people pay attention to what they're saying.

Archival tape -- Owen Shroyer:

“Australia, which has experienced some of the most extreme lockdowns up to this point. Is going in to yet more extreme lockdowns. This proves what I was saying earlier.”


So you'd have Infowars, for example, out of the United States, kind of a notorious conspiracy minded, far right media network that would have figures from Australia on their show talking about all sorts of different things so people pay attention to what’s been going on in Australia, particularly during the pandemic context, but also the online presence of a lot of right wing extremist influencers is strong.

Archival tape -- Alex Jones:

“National television in Australia. They've been doing a pretty good job in Australia exposing the covid came out of Wuhan, exposing this though their government's been very oppressive.”


And from that they're getting a lot of exposure globally.


It's clear that events during the pandemic have really accelerated this type of thinking, among some people. But when we talk about right extremism - these types of groups they’ve been around for a long time haven’t they? They might have morphed, they might have been influenced by the pandemic - but they aren’t new, are they?


People might not remember, but before the 911 attacks, the biggest threat really was coming from right wing extremist groups, particularly in the U.S. context. Before the 911 attacks, the biggest mass casualty terrorist attack was from a white nationalist, white supremacist, Timothy McVeigh, on the Oklahoma City bombings.

In the 911 era, after the September 11th attacks, counterterrorism became really the main national security priority. In the United States, in countries like Australia and elsewhere. And a lot of that counterterrorism effort was focussed on the jihadist threat.

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“The American people deserve to know the truth about President Obama's campaign to defeat the jihad. And the truth is, there is no campaign.”

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:

“We told you about a number of home-grown jihadist plots and acts of violence in America.”

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:

“Last month, more than 6,000 men joined the jihadists, some of them from Western nations. And it's not just adults. The extremists don't mind having the young fight for them, too, like this 13 year old Belgian boy.”


Then we saw the expansion of the jihadist threat after the Iraq war, certainly after the Syrian conflict, and with the flow of foreign fighters and then the return of foreign fighters or people inspired by Islamic State to commit attacks.

And so a lot of our attention was paid to countering…Violent jihadism. And in so doing, I think we took our eyes off the ball of a threat that has always been there from right wing extremist groups.

I mean, one of the most blatant examples of that is something that I write about in my recent book and I open with this anecdote is that around 2010 I want to say there was an individual in the United States who got into his little single engine plane. In Austin, Texas. Took off, flew it and slammed it right into a government building. And he wrote a manifesto and he said that he was doing this because he was opposed to the government and he was an anti-tax protester that was part of this broader patriot movement that was manifesting in the United States. And at the time, even though he conducted an attack almost exactly similar to the September 11th attacks, nobody called that terrorism. They said, oh, well, he was just a disturbed individual or he had a grudge against the IRS, it just totally obscured the fact that, no, this was a violent act meant to mobilise future violence that was done for a political and ideological goal, which is the textbook definition of terrorism. And so that's the clearest example that I can point to of the ways in which the threat from right wing extremist extremism was obscured. Perhaps not taken as seriously as it should have. Certainly they were experts and some within various governments around the world who were paying attention to it and who were warning. But overall, I would say that the machinery of governments, particularly in Western democracies, Australia included, had taken its eyes off of that particular threat of right wing extremism in that period. And now we're playing catch up.

These are not new ideas or movements, but we've tended to study them and to look at them or to understand them more as national manifestations or local, like they kind of act locally within their own national contexts. I think that's not correct anymore, and I don't think it was correct even in the past as well.


So what do you mean by that? Are there significant similarities between these types of extremist groups that we see in different countries? And should we think of them more as a connected network rather than as individual groups?


There's a lot of writing on the linkages between, say, the Hindutva movement, which is an extreme Hindu supremacist movement arisen out of India and is gaining more prominence for example.

You wouldn't think that they would have a lot in common, say, with a white supremacist group. But they have a commonality in their belief in some sort of ethnic or racial superiority over one group over another.
Now with the uptake of digital communications, increasing globalisation, there's more of those transnational linkages between right wing extremist movements on the globe.

And I think more importantly and concerningly we can see the connections between various right wing extremists groups in terms of their ideas how they think about the world and how they think about other people and our shared humanity in terms of the ways that they reject it.


We'll be back after this.



Can we unpack some of the similarities between these different movements in different countries? Taking perhaps Hindu extremism, what does that have in common with what you might see here in Australia? Is it an extension of the same ideas? Are borrowing from the same playbook? Is it the rhetoric? What is it that you think links them?


Well, I think we have to go back to definitions. And I like to use a definition that was put forward by a scholar called Elizabeth Carter. And she says that right wing extremism is a manifestation of an anti-democratic opposition to equality. So it means that these movements are inherently anti-democratic, they're authoritarian and fascist in nature, and they're also opposed to equality, meaning that they believe in hierarchies amongst individuals, in groups and outgroups, that there is an in-group that they are a part of that's inherently better or superior to another group. And a lot of times that manifests itself in terms of hatred or violence or vilification. Very common groups that are often the targets or the enemies of right wing extremists globally Muslims, feminists, LGBTQI, other minority groups, depending on the context of the nation. But certainly Islamophobia is one of the big things that unites a lot of right wing movements across the globe. Anti-Semitism is a huge one, and they also tend to believe in similar conspiracy theories as well.

Archival tape -- New World Order Vice:

“On the face of it Qanon is a Trump era conspiracy theory. It's basically an ever expanding web of madness designed to make Trump look as if he's fighting a secret global movement of evil child killers.”


One of the main ones is this type of New World Order type of conspiracy, where they believe there's this global elite, a global cabal that kind of controls all the mechanisms of politics and power throughout the world.

Archival tape -- Right wing watch:

“These bunch of sex trafficking mongrels are about to be exposed.”

Archival tape -- Right wing watch:

“People in our government who are working towards a deep state, who are trying to keep us controlled”

Archival tape -- Right wing watch:

“Children are being harvested, children are being farmed for adrenochrome by celebrities and politicians.”

Archival tape -- Conspiracy believers:

“It was easier to believe that there was someone, something out there to get you. And that's why my life was as bad as it was.”


They are seeking to subjugate the majority ethnic group of the particular country. And so they believe in these similar type of conspiracy theories that animate their narratives and their recruitment strategies and their political programmes.


And when we talk about the transnational far right, can we speak a bit more about the political conditions that have allowed this to be something that is appearing right now?


Absolutely. It's one of those things that I'm really concerned about and is kind of the focus of a lot of my work in that, yes, we do need to understand these as extreme and fringe movements, but they're both a cause and a symptom of this global democratic decline that we're seeing.

Australia in a lot of ways is insulated from this but at the same time we're not completely isolated from those dynamics. You're starting to see this democratic decline not only in kind of emerging democracies, but also in what political scientists call consolidated democracies. Chief example is what's happening in the United States right now with that increased polarisation.

Archival tape -- Reporter 4:

“This increasingly dark view of the opposition has now become a dominant feature of the American political landscape.”


The Trump presidency, the belief in the big lie that the elections were stolen.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

“If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”


We're seeing a lack of trust in democracy amongst citizens,

Archival tape -- Reporter 5:

“Amongst Americans born in the 1930s, 72% said that living in a democracy was essential. Amongst those born in the 1980s, the number is 30%.”


Competition between democracies and authoritarian states in the geo-strategic environment. And when we're talking about it in the political context, they're seeing getting a lot of legitimisation from the populist far right political leaders. So I say that is the bridge between these violent and radical revolutionary groups and the broader democratic decline. That bridge is the populist far right from leaders that we've recently seen elected, like in Italian elections. The incoming prime minister, Meloni, for example, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or a president like Trump.


And these are figures who have been democratically elected. But is the goal of the fringe far right to erode democracy altogether?


They're very happy to participate in democratic processes to gain power, but they don't have a commitment to what we would call liberal democracy in that they are happy to use elections to come to power, but they don't have the ethos of liberalism the way that it's classically understood. They don't have those values. So Orbán in Hungary is a great example of this dynamic. He was elected to come into power. He's maintained his power through elections, but he's eroded the democratic institutions, of Hungary, to the point now where the EU has said that Hungary is not even a democracy.

It just shows us that elections are not enough. We have to have the commitment to democratic principles and norms as well.


That shows what’s at stake though.



And so we have to expand our thinking in ways that this is not just about counterterrorism operations. It's not just about disrupting plots or disrupting particular cells. This is a broader societal issue that we need to tackle with broader understanding, greater commitment to egalitarianism and democratic governance, multiculturalism, historical education, all sorts of things like that.


Lydia, thank you so much for your time.


I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Australia’s domestic security agency, ASIO, says right-wing extremism now makes up half of its priority cases. And the far right, while still fringe, has capitalised on division and social media to push its message during the pandemic.

So just how big a risk is this movement today? And how did we allow this discredited and dangerous ideology to get a foothold once again?

Author Lydia Khalil discusses how counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right and how we all need to solve that problem.

Guest: Author Lydia Khalil.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Alex Gow, Alex Tighe, and Zoltan Fecso.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

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865: How counter-terrorism turned a blind eye to the far right, with Lydia Khalil