Right-wing lone wolves are the biggest terror threat, experts say

Pandemic and cost-of-living pressures have provided fertile ground for right-wing extremists to flourish, with the head of Australia’s national security agency confirming lone wolves present the greatest danger.

Ideologically-motivated extremism – mostly in the form of right-wing terror groups – account for about 30 per cent of ASIO’s current counter-terror caseload, ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess said, while being questioned as to whether recent public demonstrations signalled a growing threat from neo-Nazi groups.

Neo-Nazi protests and demonstrations have become increasingly common in Australia recently, with many specifically targeting transgender people and drag queen story-time events.

Experts told TND that right-wing extremists have hitched a ride on the back of public frustration over pandemic mask mandates and lockdowns, along with the growing housing crisis and cost-of-living crunch.

But while Mr Burgess said neo-Nazi demonstrations are becoming more brazen, they are mainly aimed at driving recruitment, and don’t necessarily indicate a growing terror threat.

Instead, the greatest danger of a terror attack is considered to be an individual acting on their own.

“In the case of the neo-Nazi groups, what we worry about the most is people who join a group, or get drawn into that ideology, and are not satisfied there is no action and go off and do it themselves,” he said.

Groups in danger of attack

Greg Barton, Deakin University terrorism and violent extremism expert, said while the threat of a right-wing terror attack is “as confined as can it be”, there’s still a 50-50 chance somebody will launch an attack in the next 12 months.

He pointed to the perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch mosque mass shootings as an example of Australian-grown, right-wing terrorism.

The Christchurch terror attack shone a light on the right-wing extremism festering in Australia. Photo: AAP

“[ASIO and Australian police are] very good at disrupting large, well-organised plots … but everyone struggles with the lone actor attack,” Dr Barton said.

He said potential right-wing terrorists are most likely to attack groups that they have expressed their hatred towards in places that have symbolic importance without too much security.

“That could be Muslims. It could be Jews. It could be drag queen performers, or protesters at a pro-LGBTQIA rights rally,” he said.

“They would look opportunistically for soft targets; the Christchurch mosque, at the time of the attack, was a soft target. It was welcoming and friendly and didn’t have tight security.”

Targeting politics

Far-right researcher Kaz Ross said neo-Nazis have switched from a low-key approach to taking a more public stand as they sense the political climate is working in their favour.

Right-wing extremists are taking advantage of issues like the “culture wars” leaking from the US, the national conversation over the role migration is playing in Australia’s housing shortage, and the freedom movement, whose members have become largely “directionless” since the end of pandemic restrictions.

They’re also targeting conservative political parties, aiming to drive a wedge between the parties and supporters, or even between party members.

Fractures are already appearing in the Liberal Party, as members walked out of a party conference in support of Victorian MP Moira Deeming, who was booted from the parliamentary team after attending an anti-transgender rights rally where neo-Nazis performed the Nazi salute.

“[The neo-Nazi] aim is to shift the political discourse in Australia, and in particular … to expose what they call the hypocrisy of the conservative parties in Australia,” Dr Ross said.

“They would say the Liberal Party, mainly, but also the smaller parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party; they believe that these parties are hypocritical on key issues, and they need to be exposed.”

Senator Hanson has long been aligned with Australian conservatives, thanks largely to her anti-Asian and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

But recently, right-wing extremists are accusing her One Nation party of not being anti-immigration due to her endorsement of multi-ethnic candidates such as Indian-born Muthuraj ‘Raj’ Guruswamy and Taiwanese-born former candidate, Shan Ju Lin.

Dr Ross expects conservative parties will continue to shift further to the right to maintain their supporter base, despite recent elections indicating the majority of voters are leaning in the opposite direction.

“I think that there’s a danger that the political parties will use [the rise of right-wing and neo-Nazi ideology] as an opportunity,” she said.

Right-wing Australians are also being urged to take it upon themselves to enter politics to further their agenda from the inside; in March, an Australian right-wing Christian conference urged attendees to flood the Liberal Party with members to gain long-term conservative Christian influence.

What can be done?

Following the growing public presence of neo-Nazi groups, Australian states such as Victoria and Queensland have taken steps to criminalise the swastika, and ASIO has told a parliamentary inquiry that banning Nazi symbols such as the ‘Sieg Heils’ salute would help prevent recruitment and radicalisation by far-right extremists.

Dr Ross said even if these moves to criminal Nazi symbols prove futile in stopping their usage, it would still send an important message that the Australian community doesn’t accept neo-Nazi actions.

As the situation stands, she said the full extent of the law regarding issues like public order and offence have not been effectively applied to neo-Nazi demonstrators.

Police used pepper spray during a confrontation between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists this month, but scenes were much less violent than in the 2019 IMARC environmental protests, Dr Ross said. Photo: AAP

Dr Barton said Australia’s court system is also better equipped to deal with Islamic terrorism than right-wing terrorism.

“There’s been a number of cases in which the judge ruling on the case has put on record their findings reflecting a real blind spot when it comes to understanding the nature of far-right extremism,” he said.

“It undermines efforts to build trust with communities, so members of the Muslim community were saying, ‘How come when it’s one of our kids, a brown kid, a Muslim, they immediately get a heavy response from the law, but [when] a white kid does something that seems even more serious, they get dismissed’?

“That undermines faith in competence in our society.”

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