White terror, part two: The dossier
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am.
After the Christchurch terrorist attack, intelligence agencies around the world are issuing serious warnings about the threat of far-right terrorism.
In Australia, politicians have been criticised for not taking right-wing extremism seriously enough - for trivialising it and framing it around politics.
Today, in the second part of our series, the secret government document that outlines the risks Australia faces from those who believe in an impending “race war”.
This is Episode Two: The dossier
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Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader 1:
At a Walmart in east central El Paso, a man used a semi automatic rifle to murder 22 people
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The shots were going, do do do do, and then he said ‘is that gunshots’ and I said ‘yes’ and people were running inside saying there was a shooter.>
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A place of worship, now a crime scene. 60 year old Laurie K was killed in the Habad synagogue.
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Tonight police are investigating the attack on a Norway mosque as an attempted terrorist attack.
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There are reports that the suspect praised the gunman who killed more than 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand back in March.
Over the past year, there have been attacks all over the world mirroring the Christchurch massacre, targeting mosques, synagogues and migrant groups. These attacks, directly inspired by Brenton Tarrant, have killed dozens of people and they keep happening.
Throughout that time, I’ve often thought: what’s the situation here, in Australia?
A little while ago, I got a hold of a leaked document. It’s a file prepared by ASIO, Australia’s national spy agency, assessing the risk of a far-right terrorist attack in Australia.
The document is classified and there are legal restrictions on reporting what it says.
This is the first time these kinds of details about ASIO’s investigations into the far-right have been made public. And it says some extraordinary things.
It says that the risk of an extreme right-wing attack in Australia is quote “plausible in the next 12-18 months”.
It also says that in the next 12 months, the far-right groups active in Australia are likely to splinter, and that these splintered groups will be more extreme than their predecessors.
One key concern highlighted in the ASIO dossier is that some individuals or groups quote, “frustrated by a lack of progress towards long-term ideological goals may become motivated to conduct a terrorist attack in an attempt to accelerate the race war”.
Those are the words used by ASIO.And it links all of this to the white supremacist massacre in Christchurch on March 15, last year.
The document says the Christchurch attack has raised expectations within the far-right community of future attacks, both of their sophistication and how many people they will kill. It says, quote: “The Christchurch attacks will continue to resonate in the extreme right-wing community in Australia and internationally, and will inspire future extreme right-wing attackers for at least the next 10 years.”
I was really shocked by some of what I read in this document. It seemed to be going further than anything I’d read before in terms of the capabilities of the far right here in Australia. I wanted to speak to someone who’d been studying this stuff closely. So I decided to speak to Greg Barton. He’s a professor at Deakin University, who’s been researching extremist movement for the past two decades.
Greg, how significant are the issues that have been outlined in this ASIO dossier?
In the context of what we know about global developments and the background of the Christchurch attack, these are very significant.
For years we've heard from ASIO and others state police about concerns about right wing extremism, but it's always been somebody else's problem, over the horizon where we don't have coordination and leadership in Australia to make it an immediate concern. This, I think, shows how the ground has shifted.
Is it fair to say that, these detailed references to the far-right, are pretty significant step away from the past for ASIO?
Yeah, it's much more immediate. I mean, in the past, they've acknowledged that it's far-right extremism, including lethal terrorism, has been a very big problem in the US, not as big a problem in the UK and Europe, but a small cloud on a distant horizon for Australia.
And what we’re seeing now is a recognition that is quite immediate and quite significant. It’s still not as big a day to day problem as people being inspired by the likes of Islamic State or al-Qaeda for reasons that we can well understand. But it's a much more immediate and higher level risk than ever before.
So Greg, we’ve been talking about this classified ASIO dossier. But two weeks ago, Mike Burgess, the new head of ASIO delivered the organisation’s annual threat assessment, publicly laying out the security challenges Australia faces. Did he give an indication that ASIO was taking the far-right seriously?
Look I think the address by Mike Burgess is pretty important.
Archival Tape -- Mike Burgess:
‘...intolerance based on race, gender and identity and the extreme political views that intolerance inspires is on the rise across the western world in particular.’
This speech was very carefully crafted, setting out why we have real threats.
Archival Tape -- Mike Burgess:
‘We continue to see Australian extremists seeking to connect with like minded individuals in other parts of the world, sometimes in person...’
Terrorism and foreign interference were the big things. And of terrorism, apart from the predictable ongoing problem with Salafi jihadi groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State, it was right wing extremism that was highlighted.
Archival Tape -- Mike Burgess:
‘In Australia the right wing extremist threat is real and it is growing.’
We get a sense that ASIO had sort of paid attention to right wing extremism for many years, but now has been much more intensely following this threat. And there was an inflection point with the Christchurch attack.
Archival Tape -- Mike Burgess:
‘Obviously the threat came into sharp terrible focus last year in New Zealand. In suburbs around Australia, small cells meet regularly, salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat, and share their hateful ideology. Sadly these groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years.’
So it's very significant phrasing. One can imagine political pressure on Mike Burgess as head of ASIO to mention other threats. And he didn't go there despite the fact that in this sort of political realm, people like to talk up left wing extremism as being an immediate threat, that that's not the way ASIO sees it clearly. [16.2s]
So Greg it sounds like what Mike Burgess is saying and what ASIO’s been saying publicly, runs contrary to what we are hearing from senior figures in the government. We’ve also been hearing in the last couple of weeks from liberal senators who argue that just using the term right wing is offensive to people in the community.
I think there's a reluctance in the government at the moment to acknowledge the extent to which right wing extremist rhetoric in the sort of political banter, whether in parliament or in public, has any connection whatsoever with the sort of brutal right wing violent extremism.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified female politician
‘Right is associated with conservatism in this country and there are many people of conservative background who take exception to being charred with the brush.’
But I think we see much too much petty politics getting in and corrupting communications to the public and probably giving a sense of encouragement to far right extremists. That they have a bit of wiggle room, a bit of licence to move. And that's that's, I think, a very serious concern.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified female politician
‘I think that you do understand that your comments particularly when you refer to them solely as right wing has the potential to offend a lot of Australians.’
We’ll be back in a moment
Greg, one thing that struck me reading the ASIO dossier was the description of men drawn to the far-right. ASIO identified them as middle-class and educated.
And that’s at odds with the perception the general community has of the far right. They often think they are not that educated, from poorer areas. So, there is an active far-right in Australia but what brings them together?
The far-right movements are really a family of movements, but they have some axial narrative threads that unite them. And the biggest of those narrative threads is this notion of the great replacement that, essentially in the case of Western democracies, that white Christian populations are being replaced either by brown Muslims or by Jews who've been there for a long time, or by subversive bad whites, LGBTQI people or socialists or people who in some way don’t respect what they imagined as a utopian sort of a golden canon of European liberalism.
So, you know, a lot of this is an imagination of the past in America, the far-right typically imagines the founding fathers of America as being evangelical Christians, even though history tells us that's not the way it was.
Archival Tape --Announcer
‘Richard Spencer wants to redefine what it means to be American. He’s credited with coining the phrase alt right.’
Archival Tape -- Richard Spencer:
‘I also have big dreams, reviving the roman empire, it would be a empire welcome to Italians, to Scots, to Russians, to white Americans, to Finns etc, to have a safe space for all Europeans from around the world.’
So anyone who doesn't fit that trope of being preferably Protestant, but white Christian and and not just heterodox but heterosexual and politically conservative, anyone who is outside that, anyone who's regarded as progressive is regarded as a danger to the order of things. And they see this as sometimes in religious terms, as God's judgment coming on the world.
The document, the ASIO dossier that I've read also says that these groups are going to training camps and doing weapons training together. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah, it's it's the sort of stuff you think it must be easy for the police to move in and make arrests and lay charges. But actually, it's one thing to have people doing physical activity on a camp, wearing camo gear and quite another thing to be able to mount a counter-terrorism conviction.
I think the most worrying element, though, was in the ASIO annual threat assessment report two weeks ago, Mike Burgess made reference to the fact that at least one individual had wanted to go and fight in a conflict zone for reasons of preparation for far right extremist combat.
It's not clear where that was. If it follows the global patterns, it may well be East Ukraine, where we've seen far right extremists go and fight.
Archival Tape -- Male newsreader
‘Thousands of right wing foreign fighters have travelled to Ukraine, the fear is some who return may become violent.’
That's a very worrying development. As Burgess says, look, this is just one, and the numbers pale against Islamic State travel, but it's the beginning of a trend that has them worried.
And that's that's one person they detected and stopped from travelling. We don't know how many others might have quietly slipped away.
What we do know now with the Christchurch shooter was that he had spent time in Turkey, in Eastern Europe, as well as Western Europe, France, and was in close communication with those people. And the travel and the physical experience was probably formative we think and that is a pattern that is likely to be repeated in future.
One thing that struck me in this ASIO document is this flowchart that they have. It's about the long-term aspirations of the far-right. And it looks like one of these template, Microsoft Word flowcharts, a series of interlocking arrows, they’re all pointing in the same direction, and each one of them is a slightly darker shade of grey. Step one's about recruitment, then step two is preparing resources, step 3 is about establishing what the document calls a ‘white enclave’, and the next step is the inevitable race war before finally they've established a natural order. Does that blueprint, in terms of far-right thinking, square with your research into what their long term goals are?
It certainly squares in general terms, it's a very simple sort of model, but it squares in general terms with describing this complex family of far right movements. But it also fits with a larger pattern.
What the far-right is doing is not by any means unique, whether in terms of the personal dynamics of recruitment or in terms of these really almost apocalyptic, semi-religious visions of a perfect society being achieved. And of course, some people will be quite happy to wait for the by and by when eventually beyond perhaps their lifetimes, the perfect society will come and others will get impatient and agitate to take action next week or today and not hang around for the old guys to get their act together.
The one step that I find, you know, the most jarring is this one about establishing a white enclave. What does that actually mean?
Well, in the language of these people, it's a white enclave. In a different context, you could substitute your own kind of purist, you know, victim group.
With these extremists, some are quite happy to retreat literally to the mountains and form their own little commune, which often ends up being pretty toxic, by the way, and not trouble society. And others say, no, we've got to reach out and change society. The groups that retreat to the mountains and just run a little tight clusters of families are problems in themselves, particularly for the individuals caught up.
But for others, there's a larger picture that if they can attack this synagogue, attack this mosque, do something outrageous, provoke a response. It's going to trigger a cascading series of copycat responses. Until the point where we end up with in the language of the right wing extremists, the white supremacists, of a race war.
So what's the risk for us here in Australia?
I think we see this reflected in the ASIO documents. We've got to now consider this a relatively high risk, as ASIO says. It's most likely to be low tech; so not involving an attempt to build a bomb or even get an assault rifle butt, but using a knife, perhaps using a car.
But as we saw with the Bastille Day attack in Nice in France in 2016, one truck driver in a truck can kill a case 86 people and injure hundreds others. So, you know we can't exclude that as a possibility, but that's why we're seeing this now presented as an immediate threat. That's something that requires resourcing and attention every day. Not that anything is likely to happen any given week, but anything. It's certainly possible any given week in any location.
And what is the purpose of those kinds of attacks? Is it the far-right wanting to one by one wipe out the kinds of people they don’t like or is there a broader goal they’re trying to achieve by committing attacks like that?
Terrorists do outrageous things because they want the outrage; they want to provoke an angry response. And it’s the angry response which takes the very scarce resources and multiplies them.
For those who are thinking strategically and writing manifestos, it's about provocation, acceleration, consciousness raising, etc. For many those who might be caught up in do something, it's more about being recognised as a hero, that there's zero to hero logic. Unfortunately, that reward mechanism continues to deliver.
For many of them who are more thoughtful, they'll articulate it in terms of ultimately a race war that will bring about the change that has to happen, the revolution that has to come. One of the elements of motivation is simply just bigotry and hatred. So there's not necessarily always a lot of logic, but it would be wrong to dismiss these people as being crazy. Mental health doesn't particularly figure significantly in these attacks. And there is a rationale behind what they’re doing.
We've got to pay attention to these winds that are blowing because this is what's energizing the far-right base above ground and underground in Australia. And this is what increases the probability that one individual will go out by themselves and try and do something as a lone actor and may do it with a degree of fixated-ness and discipline, which makes them lethal.
Greg, thanks so much for talking to me today.
A pleasure Os. Thanks very much.
Tomorrow, in the final part of this series, we look at how Australian Muslims are adapting to life 12 months on from Christchurch.
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Also in the news, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has warned “extreme measures” will be needed to curtail the spread of coronavirus, as Australia records it’s 100th confirmed case.
Andrews warned that governments may be forced to cancel or postpone major cultural events, close all schools, and that entire sectors of the workforce may require staff to work from home.
And tens of thousands of women across Mexico have joined in a historic workers strike against government inaction on gender-based violence. On average, 10 women a day are killed in Mexico.
Officially branded “a day without us”, the strike comes after Mexico recorded its largest ever women’s march last Sunday.
I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am. See you tomorrow.
A secret document prepared by ASIO warns of the threat of far-right terrorism in Australia. In detail never before published, it outlines the risk Australia faces from those who believe in an impending “race war”. This is part two in a three-part series.
Guest: Chair in global Islamic politics at Deakin University Greg Barton.
7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh, and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.