16 Mar 2019
Keep hunting and we’ll find no lone wolf but a member of a fanatical pack
The terrible attacks on two mosques in Christchurch will push many intelligence agencies and police forces in the developed democracies to review their handling of right-wing extremism. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already foreshadowed a review of what was known, or should have been known, about the behaviour of the prime assailant Australian Brenton Tarrant.
What seems already clear in the early aftermath of the attack is that Tarrant was heavily involved with on-line right-wing extremist web sites and chat groups. He live-streamed his murderous shootings with a camera mounted on hat and left a rambling manifesto referencing the Norwegian mass-killer Anders Breivik as his chief inspiration.
Tarrant’s writings – including white painted references on his assault weapons to neo-Nazis, mass killers and battles between Christians and Muslims – his playing of an anti-Muslim song known as ‘Remove kabab’ as he drove to the mosques and his comment before shooting: ‘remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie’, a Facebook channel, all point to him living disconnected from daily reality and shaped by on-line extremism, pop culture memes and violent video games.
It’s not yet clear that Tarrant was involved with any existing Australian or New Zealand right wing extremist groups. Reporting on his schooling and life as a fitness instructor in Grafton in country New South Wales do not suggest he was active in extremist politics at that time.
In his manifesto Tarrant claims to have started to radicalise during a period of extensive overseas solo travel in response to the rape and murder of a Swedish girl, Elin Krantz, by an Ethiopian immigrant in 2010. He repeatedly cites British fascist, Oswald Mosley, as a source of inspiration and claims to be a soldier fighting to expel Muslim ‘invaders’ from ‘white countries.’
Police and intelligence agencies will clearly be looking to see if there is a stronger pattern of connections between Tarrant and other extremists. Three other individuals remain in custody in New Zealand about whom little has been reported.
What can be said based on what we know about on-line radicalisation is there are few genuine ‘lone wolves’. Most people who radicalise do so with some degree of contact with others who can ‘mentor’ individuals down a path towards extremist violence.
Tarrant was acutely aware that his actions would be praised inside a community of like-minded extremists; he was fully conversant with the symbols and memes of right wing fanatics; he had access to sophisticated weapons and explosives and knew how to use them and he had enough money to travel widely.
These factors suggest to me that he was connected with a group of like-minded supporters. It’s relevant that Australian and New Zealand Police are continuing their sweep of locations where Tarrant lived. That suggests they believe he may have been part of a wider network.
In Australia police and intelligence services have had a sustained interest in far right extremist movements even though the broader public and political focus has been on extremist Islamist ideology.
In early 2018 I worked closely with New South Wales state authorities on developing a counter-terrorism strategy. It was striking that the state police force and other agencies were as concerned about the prospects for extremist right wing violence as they were about Islamist extremism.
Australia raised its warning level on the risk of terrorist action from ‘possible’ to ‘probable’ in September 2014 and since that time the country’s internal intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) claims to have disrupted 14 advanced plans to commit a terrorist act.
One of these disrupted plots concerned the plans of Melbourne man, Phillip Galia, who was making explosives to blow up three left wing political targets in Victoria and to recruit others, as put in his trial ‘for the advancement of extreme right wing ideology to overcome the perceived Islam-isation of Australia.’
Galia had been active in an extreme right wing group known as the Greater Geelong Patriots United, a further group called the True Blue Crew and then a breakaway faction called Reclaim Australia Victoria Incorporated.
Australian right wing extremism had its origins in white nationalism and has used fear of Islamist extremism and Muslim migration as a vehicle to recruit larger numbers of people. Academic estimates have suggested that there are perhaps several hundred core organisers across a large number of loosely aligned groups including the United Patriots Front, Reclaim Australia and Soldiers of Odin.
Such groups typically maintain Facebook pages, use encrypted communications to organise rallies and maintain links with counterpart groups overseas like the English Defence League (EDL).
The founder of the EDL, Tommy Robinson was due to visit Australia in late 2018 with an American right wing extremist and leader of the so-called Proud Boys movement, Gavin McInnes.
The visit did not proceed because Robinson reportedly found himself ‘double booked’ to attend Brexit protests in the UK. However one of ASIO’s prime concerns has been to prevent clashes of extremist political groups at rallies and significant Australian policing effort has been deployed to foil such clashes.
New Zealand academic Paul Spoonley has identified ‘70 local groups that met the definition of being extreme right wing.’ They ‘were a mixture of skinhead, neo-Nazi and extreme nationalist groups’ including some based in Christchurch.
Few countries are as close in people to people exchange as Australia and New Zealand and this is true also for organised crime gangs which overlap extreme right wing groups to some extent. New Zealand’s biggest bikie gang, the Mongrel Mob is active in Australia and recruiting for chapters in Perth, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Darwin. Likewise Australian motorcycle gangs, the Comancheros and Bandidos have also been seen in New Zealand. It will be necessary to determine whether Tarrant had any connections into organised crime, for example to buy weapons and explosives.
Australia and New Zealand will need to jointly tackle what regrettably is an emerging picture of growing right wing extremism, fuelled by access to a global community of on-line sympathisers and potentially funded, armed and connected to organised crime.
A shortened version of the above piece was published in the Sunday Times - UK.