The groups are more sophisticated and are learning from their mistakes. Every arrest and court case exposes police methods and the fringe groups respond accordingly, learning how to communicate in secret.
Usually the leaders meet in small groups, with more damage being done in ordinary loungerooms than mass meetings. ASIO’s annual threat assessment, released in February, states: “In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.
“These groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years.”
And the situation has deteriorated in the past few months.
AC Guenther says while the coronavirus lockdown appears to have slowed terror cells, the exact opposite is true. “There appears to be a lull but that is not borne out by the facts. There has been a rise in the extreme right wing.”
A number of elements are being exploited by the ultra-right, including:
- The lockdown has meant isolation, with the vulnerable spending more time exploring fringe online forums.
- A recession traditionally encourages extreme groups.
- Unemployment can create a sense of haves and have-nots.
- The closing of borders encourages anti-immigrant groups.
- COVID-19 has created a spike of anti-China and anti-Asian activities.
- Black Lives Matters has created a right-wing response that envisages a race war.
An ABC report says ASIO warned that “COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing.”
Just a few days ago, right-wing fanatics massed in London, allegedly to protect the statue of Winston Churchill.
There they were, a group of soccer louts (one of the main groups is called Democratic Football Lads Alliance) spoiling for a fight and using a flag of freedom as a shield of oppression.
When police kept them from Black Lives Matter protesters, they attacked the very cops assigned to protect the statues.
They are too thick to understand the reason for Churchill’s monument is to recognise how he stood up to the fascist Adolf Hitler, the ultimate evil ultra-right leader.
Churchill famously said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; the Football Lads offered boils, tatts, beers and snot. (They are living proof that evolution doesn’t always get it right. Their grandfathers flew Spitfires while they manage only to fire spit.)
In the past few years, there has been an explosion in counter-protests where the hardcore left and right attempt to disrupt each other. They demand freedom of speech for their views while sabotaging their opponents from having the same rights.
AC Guenther says there are around 16 ultra-right organisers in Victoria with about 300 hardcore sympathisers.
We live in an interconnected world where a death in Minneapolis creates worldwide protests and a statue of a slave trader dumped into Bristol Harbour results in Captain Cook’s memorial in Melbourne being vandalised.
This means police have to develop their own international networks that can anticipate future trends to get in front of the game, and the biggest secret intelligence club is the Five Eyes of the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
That group is represented by the Leadership in Counter Terrorism Alumni Association (LinCT-AA), an assembly of 200 experts who monitor risks on an hourly basis. If there is a terror event, the experts have a briefing and threat assessment prepared within hours.
AC Guenther, who has just been appointed LinCT-AA’s president, says when members discover a potential threat in an associated country they simply “pick up the phone”.
‘There appears to be a lull but that is not borne out by the facts. There has been a rise in the extreme right wing.’
Assistant Commissioner Ross Guenther, Counter Terrorism Command
The plot by two Sydney brothers and Islamic State sympathisers to bring down an Etihad passenger plane was foiled by a Five Eyes tip-off.
AC Guenther says Australian intelligence shared through LinCT-AA has stopped international terror attacks.
While social distancing is the buzz and Zoom meetings are the fashion, nothing beats face-to-face contact to build trust. In counter-terror, you can’t wait for quarterly reports.
At their regular meetings around the world, LinCT-AA might be briefed by an academic on Islamist terrorism, experts on the trauma of the mass attack aftermath, or those who stormed France’s Bataclan theatre to kill suicide bombers.
Cops are by nature suspicious and like to share information about as much as Labradors like to share dinner. Terrorism has changed all that because there are no international boundaries. A group in London inspired by events in Syria can recruit in Sydney to attack in Melbourne.
The vulnerable can be recruited, indoctrinated and targeted in days. Sophisticated groups are the easiest. They talk, prepare and arm. Often they are arrested before the last step — seeking firearms or the raw materials to build bombs.
“The low-capability attack is the greatest threat,” AC Guenther says.
International experts say the lockdown and subsequent economic devastation will promote terrorism in Africa, Pakistan and Turkey. There will be a spike in refugees worldwide.
While the main threat remains from Islamist extremists, new terror groups are surfacing with ideas that would be laughable if they weren’t deadly.
There is a group known as Incel (Involuntarily Celibate) who embrace violence because their members feel they are unable to attract females for romantic interludes and walks on the beach.
In Toronto, a 17-year-old youth faces murder and terror charges after the stabbing death of a woman. Police say it was an Incel attack.
A 2018 van attack in Toronto that killed 10 people was Incel-related.
This appears to be a real-life battle between the good, the bad and the ugly.
There are those who blame 5G towers for coronavirus. This would be a view of the delightfully deluded until they started to set fire to the towers in New Zealand (17 at last count).
Another area on the move has nothing to do with terror cells – foreign interference. Australia is under virtually daily cyber-attack designed to steal information or bring down computer networks. And industries with high-level security components have been slipping into foreign hands.
In the shadowy world of counter-terrorism, it is what you don’t see that really matters. There has been a marked shift from trying to arrest offenders to disrupting their plans or, even better, helping those on the point of tipping over into terrorism.
Victoria has the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre, which combines detectives, analysts and mental health experts to identify and help people heading down a terror path. It is one of only five in the world.
“We look through a preventative lens at everything we do. The aim is to keep people out of jail,” says AC Guenther.
While the experts have to navigate a delicate privacy path, the group has seen a 300 per cent growth in their work in 18 months and will soon be expanded.
Take just one case that thankfully will never make the headlines. A man with expertise in firearms and explosives is battling his own demons in isolation.
He comes to the attention of police over minor offences, then becomes increasingly irrational and violent. Eventually he threatens to blow up a police station (he had the capacity).
The traditional response is an armed raid with all the accompanied risks. “It could have resulted in the use of the Special Operations Group and possibly fatal force,” says AC Guenther.
Instead, the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre produces an individual mental health program, the man is treated, returns to the community and is no longer seen as a threat.
In Victoria, there are 165 terror suspects monitored by counter-terrorism police. This number is about to jump.
Just as medical experts fear a second wave of COVID-19, terror experts fear a second wave of violence as convicted terrorists are released from prison.
In November Abdul Nacer Benbrika, leader of a Melbourne-based terrorist cell, will be released after serving his full 15-year jail term. He has refused to renounce violence and has been a charismatic influencer even behind bars.
While many of his followers are looking forward to his eventual release, police are not. He will be closely scrutinised when the cell door opens.
It is fair to say that come November, Benbrika will be surrounded by more bugs than an echidna in a termite mound and will probably be just as prickly.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.