The potential for far-right terrorism in Australia
by Andrew Zammit
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings, public discussions of terrorism are likely to focus on the jihadist threat.
Australian governments have been correct to consider jihadism the primary threat over the past decade. The Bali bombings demonstrated that this form of terrorism has posed the greatest likelihood of killing large numbers of Australians. There have also been several failed attempts at launching jihadist attacks within Australia, which would have caused many deaths if successful.
However, focusing exclusively on one threat can risk being taken by surprise by another. Judging both by incidents within Australia and international trends, far-right extremism poses a potential terrorist threat that is under-acknowledged.
Since 2001, there have been several incidents of far-right extremist violence in Australia. While none resulted in prosecutions under terrorism legislation, some could be considered terrorism as they constitute acts of politically-motivated violence.
For example, the only fatal terrorist attack in Australia this century was by a Christian anti-abortion extremist named Peter James Knight. On July 16 2001, he entered the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne and murdered a security guard in an attempted massacre. His plan had been to shoot as many people as possible, set the clinic on fire and seal the doors shut. Fortunately he was wrestled to the ground, foiling the plot.
Another incident was an attempted campaign of organised violence by white supremacists in Perth. In 2004, Peter Joseph Van Tongeren conspired with John Van Blitterswyck, Matthew Peter Billing and others to firebomb four Chinese restaurants. Tongeren had led the Australian Nationalists Movement (ANM) in the 1980s, and the attacks were intended to coincide with the launch of his book, The ANM Story.
However, the planned firebombings were preceded by a racist graffiti and postering campaign, for which five people were arrested. Some of those arrested told the police about plot, leading to the arrest of Tongeren and the other conspirators. There were also reports of threats by the ANM to kill the then West Australian Attorney-General Jim McGinty, ASIO head Dennis Richardson and Prime Minister John Howard. The conspirators were later convicted over the planned firebombings and also for attempting to organise the bashing of a prosecution witness.
In February 2010, another white supremacist incident occurred. Two people who styled themselves as the Australian branch of Combat 18 (a UK neo-Nazi group) fired bullets at the Canning Mosque in Perth. It was later revealed that a West Australian police officer had tried to tip them off that they were under surveillance. The shooters and the police officer were all charged and convicted.
There are also other assorted incidents. In February 2004 three Asian restaurants in Perth were set on fire and spray painted with swastikas. In 2006 Victoria Police investigated claims that the White Pride Coalition of Australia had circulated an article that reportedly contained bomb-making instructions titled “How to Make a David Copeland Special” (in reference to a UK white supremacist who carried out bombings in London in 1999). Most recently, an 81-year old man was convicted for having spent three years posting bullets and bomb parts to Julia Gillard, Anna Bligh and other political figures, threatening to kill them and demanding that they expel foreigners and refuse entry to refugees.
While the threat has been under-acknowledged, it is important not to respond by overstating it. Australia experienced greater far-right extremist violence in the late 1980s, when the ANM launched a terror campaign that involved multiple firebombs, bashings and burglaries. Another group, National Action, was also involved in violence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were three cases of far-right extremists murdering fellow activists that they suspected of being traitors.
These groups became a prime security concern but were fortunately impeded by successful police action. ASIO’s annual report in 1990 stated that:
The only discernible domestic threat of politically motivated violence comes from the racist right. This has suffered serious setbacks in the past year with the arrest of a large number of leading members of the two most dangerous groups.
Domestic far-right violence has not since returned to these levels.
Also important to note is that far-right extremism in Australia has never been as violent as in comparable countries. Fortunately, the 2001 attack killed no more than one person, and the subsequent plots were not attempted acts of mass casualty terrorism. By contrast, other Western countries have seen many deaths caused by far-right terrorism, particularly from the attacks by Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, David Copeland, Anders Breivik and Wade Michael Page.
However, these overseas incidents serve as a warning of the potential threat in Australia, particularly as they have escalated in recent years. The 2012 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report stated that “the threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated” and there has been a similar surge in the United States.
While jihadism has posed the greatest threat of mass casualty terrorism to Australians this century, focusing on one threat can risk missing others. Australia has seen significant cases of far-right extremist violence, and international examples demonstrate a growing threat, showing public discussion of terrorism needs to broaden beyond jihadism.
Andrew Zammit is a researcher in the Global Terrorism Research Centre in the School of Political and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.
A version of this article also appeared in The Conversation