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Why A Christchurch-Style Attack Is Less Likely In Australia

By John Coyne

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre -- a crime committed by an Australian citizen -- many Australian Muslims are scared.

This fear is often underpinned by the bitter experience of vilification and hate crime. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's $55 million commitment to community grants to improve the security of Australia’s various places of worship and religious education indicates that there might be some justification for being afraid.

But could something like the Christchurch massacre really happen here in Australia?

Assessing the threat posed by terrorism of any type is undertaken by considering two factors: capability and intent.

Capability refers to the ability of a person or group to undertake an attack, while intent relates to their motivation to do so.

There is a reason that Brenton Tarrant committed his vile attack in New Zealand. Despite at least three reform efforts, their gun laws afforded him access to the assault rifles and pump-action shotguns needed to inflict mass casualties.

In the dark days following the 1996 massacre of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania, then Australian Prime Minister John Howard led the biggest-ever reform of gun laws in our nation’s history.

By doing so, he removed semi-automatic and military style weapons from our communities, and drastically reduced the availability of handguns.

While others might have the intent of launching a similar mass casualty attack in Australia, they wouldn’t have access to the weapons they need. If someone launched a similar attack in Australia, they’d be armed with a bolt action rifle or pistol, and though they could still inflict casualties they’d likely be quickly restrained.

Of course, there is the old chestnut, ‘what about the criminal market’?

Well as more than one cop has told me before, ‘even our good crooks have bad guns’. Let’s also not forget that Australian authorities have disrupted some 15 terror plots since 2014. If you start looking for guns or explosive on the Australian criminal market, you are likely to quickly appear on our security agencies radar.

Assessing intent is a little more opaque. Australia’s extreme right groups have a long but mercifully unsuccessful history.

In the 1980s the Australian Nationalist Movement, led by Peter Joseph Van Tongeren, demonstrated their willingness to use violence to forward their white supremist agenda by firebombing a number of Asian-owned businesses in West Australia. But their reign of fear was quickly ended by law enforcement.

By the mid 1990s, ASIO had identified two organisations -- the Loyal Regiment of Australian Guardians and the AUSI Freedom scouts -- as extremist paramilitary groups. These organisations were quickly disbanded under concerted intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny.

More recently, we’ve seen the rise of such groups as the United Patriots Front. While their protests have been vocal, divisive messages from leadership figures like Blair Cottrell have been quickly disrupted by social media bans on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Fortunately, Australia’s right-wing extremist community is pitifully small. Those groups that do exist are usually torn apart by internal ideological rifts. They also lack the strong leadership and organisational frameworks necessary to develop widespread appeal.

On this basis, it seems unlikely that we will see a Christchurch Massacre in Australia: for no other reason than the lack of capability to undertake such crimes.

However, we shouldn’t ignore right-wing extremist groups growing global social media presence. It is without doubt creating a dangerous echo chamber for their sick ideologies. The Christchurch tragedy clearly illustrates the threat posed by self-radicalised right-wing lone actors.

Despite this assessment, sadly there is capability and intent within Australian communities for both hate crimes and racial vilification.

While better security at places of worship should be welcomed, Morrison’s government ought to consider developing a more detailed understanding of hate crimes in Australia. A national database of such crimes could be used by the Council of Australian Government and Home Affairs’ National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator to develop targeted anti-hate crime programs.

Originally published by: on 19 Mar 2019