Digital Snapshot

by Katja Theodorakis

“Officially a Terror Organization, Religiously or Ideologically Motivated, Online, Offline, ‘Onlife’?”

Recent Extremism Developments and Debates Downunder

Digital Snapshot #09/21

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

___

A number of interesting debates and developments in regards to extremism/terrorism have been taking place in Australia and New Zealand over recent weeks and months, all to varying degrees related to the Christchurch attack and touching on fundamental questions/ issues. Here’s a brief overview and explainer on their significance:

Beginning with the proscription of the Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD), the declaration marked the first listing of an extreme right group as a terrorist organization in Australia. The move comes after a debate that followed Opposition Minister for Home Affairs, Sen the Hon Kristina Keneally’s September 2020 call to the government to add right-wing organizations to the list.

The addition of the UK-based group is puzzling in some ways as it means the proscription of a group that is not “directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, or assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act”.  An inquiry following Sonnenkrieg’s listing heard that even former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, who was behind its proscription at the time, had conceded that the group is in fact not even active on the ground in Australia, and that Australians were not “directly involved”; his reasoning for making SKD the first group to be listed was that its ideology and propaganda materials could “contribute to radicalisation and inspire lone wolf attack.”

The effectiveness of proscription in general is a contested issue – not only politically but also amongst experts. While it could be argued Australia simply  followed the UK proscription, and points to the transnational nature of the threat landscape as well as the trend towards individually driven acts , experts have inquired into the political motivation behind proscribing an organization that is not native to Australia: it could be seen as a low –risk point-scoring gesture that sends a sign the government is ‘doing something’ while eschewing direct engagement with the more controversial issue of domestic right-wing extremism that is unpopular amongst certain sections of Parliamentarians and the electorate. Accordingly, analysts raised the question why groups who are actually operative in Australia, such as for example the Lads Society or the Proud Boys, and even more extreme international neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division who are conducting outreach in Australia, were not listed first to send a stronger signal of government action.

Of particular note are the recruitment efforts of The Base, a North American neo-Nazi organization ‘prepping’ for a race war to establish a white ethno-state. Australian media investigations had revealed in March 2021 that group was actively seeking to recruit young Australians, with current affairs program Background Briefing and Nine newspapers revealing secret recordings that showed how The Base conducted hours of vetting interviews through encrypted channels with Australians in late 2019 and early 2020. The group was listed in Canada as a terrorist organisation early 2021 while Base members in the US are currently being prosecuted for federal hate crimes.

Yet, as one Australian expert cogently highlighted, nuance is required in assessing whether and on what grounds specifically groups should be officially banned as terrorist organizations.

“throughout the debate some commentary has focused on the executive proscription powers without noting other options for banning groups as terrorist organisation, or focused on ideological differences between the groups Australia has and has not proscribed without noting other important differences (including whether a group has actually perpetrated acts of terrorism), or drawn comparisons with other Five Eyes countries without noting the different legal contexts. When this happens, the debate clouds some of the key issues at stake and instead serves as a proxy for whether the Australian government takes the extreme-right threat seriously. The implied assumption is that the more extreme-right groups a government bans, the more seriously it takes the threat. There are indeed many ways the Australian government can, and should, do more to tackle far-right extremism. At a bare minimum, these could include speaking clearly and transparently about the threat, no longer watering down parliamentary condemnations of far-right extremism, properly monitoring hate crimes and supporting broader anti-racism initiatives. However, the power to ban groups as terrorist organisations should be used extremely carefully, and the public debate should be based on clear understandings of what it entails.” [emphasis added]

In regards to the need for a nuanced understanding that avoids politicization and ill-conceived policy, another politically charged, ideological debate ensued in Australia around the language and terms used to denote forms of extremism. Following the domestic security agency ASIO’s second Annual threat assessment, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess announced that ASIO would differenciate between “ideologically motivated violent extremism” and “religiously motivated violent extremism” – as two umbrella groupings that are said to “better describe the fact that violent actors can be motivated by multiple ideologies and conspiracies.” The change was seen as driven by politicization, with experts decrying the lack of conceptual precision and historical accuracy, and many critical voices suggesting the term “right-wing” extremism had been replaced to placate those policymakers who feel it directly targets conservatism.

The 2nd anniversary of the Christchurch terrorist attack last month also drew attention to other key issues, with the shooting representing a watershed event that has altered threat In Australia and New Zealand, it resulted in far right-wing ideology to be taken more seriously, with the gradually being tackled more head-on in public and political debate, as experts had been calling for since Christchurch and even well before.

The livestreamed Christchurch attack especially brought the connection between technology and extremism into the spotlight, resulting in number of legislative measures such as the Christchurch Call. In Australia for example, The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019, intended to hold providers responsible for extremists using online platforms to broadcast acts of violence, was introduced shortly after the Christchurch terror attack. The Act – which makes “the failure to report and remove so-called violent abhorrent material”[1] a criminal offence, with massive financial penalties and imprisonment in the case of conviction, remains controversial – equally praised by some experts and criticized by others.

This is connected to another important area that is commonly understood in oversimplified terms or overstated, namely that of the dangers of ‘online radicalization’– especially in the COVID-19 era which has been declared as an accelerator or even a ‘perfect storm for extremist recruitment.

In many instances, the relationship between technology and extremism is portrayed as one of direct, linear causality. In the context of the arrest of two men and a teenager suspected of terrorism offences in Melbourne in March, Assistant commissioner Scott Lee of the Australian Federal Police for example  made the following statement:

“It’s a phenomenon we see regularly now with our counter-terrorism, regardless of the ideology…The magnification of the online environment … that is certainly what we have seen out of the Covid period. People have been driven into the online environment and that has exacerbated some of the radicalisation we have seen.”

This is reflective of how commonly, the internet and the “real” world are seen as two separate spheres, with the internet regarded as the prime place ‘where young people are radicalized’, especially during lockdowns.

Yet such an assessment needs further clarification as research clearly shows that radicalization takes place in so-called “onlife spaces”: hybrid environments that incorporate elements from individuals’ online and offline lifeworlds and experiences. Or, as one group of Australian researchers put it,

There have been increasing calls to look at online and offline radicalization in an integrated way– recognizing the fusion of digital and physical settings when it comes to radicalization.

Simply put, this means,radicalization is better conceived as a process that occurs across virtual and ‘real life’ spaces.

 Likewise, it is wrong to just see right-wing extremism as a fringe phenomenon. So-called meta/politics, a far right strategy designed to shift the parametres of political discourse further and further to ‘the right’ presents a threat to the quality of democracy and socio-political norms in Australia and other liberal democracies. This becomes a real danger when political arguments and questions of belonging are framed more and more in terms of exclusion –  through tongue-in cheek humor, culturally acceptable tropes and via popular signifiers relating to nationalism and whiteness/ethnicity.

“Although hateful and extreme, the right-wing extremist milieu is a highly social space. Social connections are created and maintained around shared values and norms engendering positive experiences for those involved in the networks. The content often conceals its revolutionary anti-government agenda behind appeals to nationalism and “traditional” Australian values. These extremist perspectives are often presented through online content that is entertaining, provocative and supposedly ironic.”

To sum up this overview, it’s more complicated than simple dichotomies, categorizations and yes/no answers to tricky policy questions like proscription. 


[1] “defined as that which captures a terrorist act involving serious harm or death, murders or attempts to murder, torture, rape and violent kidnapping”