MICHAEL GAWENDA: One year after Christchurch, the threat of right-wing extremism is growing across the western world, yet the Australian government refuses to even call it by its name
TOWARDS THE END OF THE 2019 school year, the last Jewish school in Melbourne that did not have an armed guard decided it could no longer resist the advice of security officials – public and private – and hired a guard with weapons training and a licence to carry a firearm.
There were parents who strongly disagreed with this decision by the school council. Several threatened to take their kids out of the school. In the end, they did not do so: it seemed they accepted the reality that if they wanted their kids to have a Jewish education, armed guards were part of the educational environment.
According to Jewish community officials, Jewish schools in Sydney have armed guards and there are security arrangements in place at the headquarters of most major Australian Jewish communal organisations.
The Melbourne-based Community Security Group, which receives funding from the Federal Government and the general Jewish community, monitors threats of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. Together with federal and state police forces, it works to implement security measures that would identify and defuse these threats.
It must be assumed that Islamic schools and institutions have security arrangements that involve armed guards – it would be unconscionable if the sort of security measures available to Jewish schools and institutions was denied Islamic schools and institutions.
Some of us hoped the horror of Christchurch would change things and that neo- Nazi terrorism would be treated as seriously as Islamist-inspired terrorism. That has not yet come to pass.
Jews and Muslims: in Australia, there is little doubt that these are the main targets for extremists and potential terrorists, especially right-wing extremists, and specifically violent right-wing extremists.
According to security officials, there have been threats against Jews and Jewish institutions. As far as is known, none of these threats have led to actual attacks. And It is the case that the majority of victims of Islamist terrorism around the world have been Muslims.
And the stark fact is, on the anniversary this week of the attack by an Australian right-wing terrorist who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, that right-wing terrorists- neo Nazis is what they are and the way they should be described, rather than calling them euphemisms like the alt-right or even white supremacists -have been responsible for more deadly attacks on Jews and Muslims and on Jewish and Muslim property, in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and the United States than any other extremist group.
What’s more, there is no evidence of Islamist terrorist attacks in Australia that have specifically targeted Jews or, for that matter, moderate Muslims who have spoken out against Islamist extremists and terrorists.
The Christchurch massacre was carried out by a neo-Nazi radicalised by his access to neo-Nazi websites and chatrooms and so-called dark web sites that advocate violence against Jews and Muslims.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there was some hope, for a short time at least, that finally, the threat of neo-Nazi terrorism would be acknowledged and addressed by governments, especially the Australian Government.
For political reasons, it had never in any real and sustained way, called out the threat of neo-Nazi terrorism. Instead, terrorism, in the government’s view, was predominantly a threat coming from Islamist extremism.
Perhaps, some of us hoped, the horror of Christchurch would change things and that neo- Nazi terrorism would be treated as seriously as Islamist-inspired terrorism. That has not yet come to pass. But there has been public acknowledgement of the threat from an unlikely source, the intelligence community.
Last month, Mike Burgess, the Director General of ASIO, delivered the agency’s annual threat assessment. Burgess said the number of terrorism leads that ASIO is investigating has doubled since February 2019, that the threat of terrorism remains high and “will remain high for the foreseeable future”.
He goes on to describe the “ease with which terrorists continue to use the internet to spread their hateful messages, radicalise people to their cause and provide how-to advice on committing atrocities against Australians.”
Peter Dutton was asked about his suggestion that Islamist terrorism was carried out by “left-wing lunatics”. Dutton said that he would not attach labels to terrorism. Terrorism was terrorism. It was a pathetic and disturbing performance.
Most of this radicalisation via the internet, Burgess implies, is perpetrated and run by Islamist extremist groups who, he says, are aiming to recruit children who have just started high school and are as young as 13 or 14.
But then he does go on to say that “we are seeing other actors operating in the terrorism arena.”
“Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus in New Zealand. In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real and is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”
Burgess is blunt: “These groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years … We continue to see Australian extremists seeking to connect with like-minded individuals in other parts of the world. They are not merely seeking to share ideology and tactics.”
Is all of this not chilling? A year after Christchurch, the neo-Nazis are better organised, more internationally connected and more and more of them are radicalised through the internet, where neo-Nazi websites and chat rooms and special apps have multiplied. And they are training for “combat” and have, according to Burgess, accumulated weapons.
A few days after the Burgess report, the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, praised Burgess for calling out the neo-Nazi threat.
“The lesson of history is that if this is left unchecked it is only a matter of time before violent words escalate into violent deeds,” he said. “When Australia’s top intelligence chief speaks out publicly about an issue like this, urgent and intelligent action by government is called for.”
Asked about the government’s response to Burgess, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said “left-wing and right-wing lunatics” needed to be dealt with. This was a nonsensical response from a senior minister and illustrates just why neither Dutton nor Morrison is ever likely to robustly call out the threat of neo-Nazi terrorism and do something about it.
When Dutton referred to “left-wing lunatics”, he meant Islamist extremists. Islamist terrorists. He admitted as much when pressed. When pressed further, he could not explain how these groups were “left-wing”. What he meant, of course, was to suggest that the Left, -meaning the Labor Party, was soft on Islamists and soft on the “real” terrorist threat to Australia.
A few days later, Dutton was asked about his suggestion that Islamist terrorism was carried out by “left-wing lunatics”. How exactly were they left wing? Were they not in fact far-right extremists? Reactionaries? Dutton said that he would not attach labels to terrorism. Terrorism was terrorism. What about Burgess and the threat he identified from far-right terrorism? No, he insisted, he would not attach labels.
It was a pathetic and disturbing performance, disturbing because it means that the threat of growing neo-Nazi violence is unlikely to be addressed by this government. The fact is that senior ministers like Dutton can’t even call it by its name.
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