18 Mar 2019
Hard for police to track when a troll turns to terrorist
By Isaac Kfir
The killing of 49 men, women and children at two mosques in Christchurch on Friday was the latest in atrocity by far right terrorists.
Christchurch will now be added to Charleston where a white gunman walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killing nine people, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where Robert Bowers allegedly killed 11 worshippers.
There have been similar attacks in the UK, Norway, Germany and France
Security services around the world are trying to deal with the increase of far-right activism. However, as was noted in ASIO's 2017-2018 annual report, minimal violence was observed in Australia among far left and far right activists, partly because the police were pro-active in preventing the escalation of violence. But it was noted that while Sunni Islamist extremism poses the primary threat to Australians, other groups are also willing to use terror to advance their ideology.
The challenge for ASIO and others has been how to translate the expression of anti-social and unpalatable but lawful sentiments into predictors for violent extremism. Moreover, agencies can only act if there is evidence that the person is either at risk at being radicalised or poses a risk. If there is evidence, a set of actions can be taken, depending on whether the risk is low, medium or high. This is done on a case-by-case bases and is extremely labour intensive.
As information about Brendan Tarrant becomes available, security services will be looking for predictors – primarily, was there anything that he had said or done that could have alerted the authorities to intervene and prevent the atrocity.
"Right wing" terrorism has proven to be notoriously hard to define. The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland defines right-wing extremism as "violence in support of the belief that personal and/or national way of life is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent". The ADL identifies two strands of the "extreme right": a white supremacist movement, and an anti-government extremist movement. Within this broad church, one also identifies "single-issue" movements such as anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-feminism, anti-LGBT, etc.
Far right sentiment is alive and well in the cyberworld where individuals can visit countless forums to express their anger, unhappiness, disillusionment with little fear of being identified as many operate through pseudonyms. By day these individuals can be productive members of society, but in private they may harbour racist, violent views. There is a whole subculture of far-right violent extremism that is difficult to penetrate as it relies on anonymity. Its members use specific browsers and platforms such as Thor, 4chan, 8chan, Gab, Voat and the dark web to avoid detection. The Pittsburgh attacker Robert Bowers, used Gab, a platform developed for the purpose of permitting speech censored by mainstream platforms such as Facebook.
Extremists are also able to exploit flaws within social media platforms. For example, Islamic State sympathisers have hijacked countless number of dormant Twitter accounts which they now use to spread their propaganda (prior to 2018, there was no need for an email confirmation or a phone to open a Twitter account, which mean that by using a simple email address based on the Twitter handle at "@hotmail.com" or "@yahoo.com" one can activate a dormant account). Atomwaffen, (which means "atomic weapons" in German) is a US-based neo-Nazi group. It has used Discord, which is an online chat service designed for video gamers to exchange confidential discussions.
Another challenge is that many of the individuals are disconnected from mainstream society and are best seen as "self-directed, internet-inflamed terrorists" feeding of a diet of vitriolic conspiracies that pulls and pushes them further and further down the radicalisation path. It is best seen as a leaderless network, of individuals connected by the sharing of vitriolic ideas. When action occurs, it is often by a single individual, without clear organisational support (they often acquire weapons either legally or through the dark web).
A robust discussion is taking place on the need to change public discourse where it seems to legitimise white nationalist views. But for the security services, the challenge will remain the same: how do you combat violent extremism without undermining core liberal democratic principles, especially when so many of the predictors are located within the private sphere.
And public safety also begins with family and friends. People close to Tarrant must have seen his descent down the radicalisation route and perhaps recognised that he was dangerous. Questions must be asked of why none had alerted the authorities.