Ignoring the Fascist Threat

Fascists groups in Australia, though tiny, regularly threaten violence. The state is traditionally blind to terror from the Right; don’t expect it to intervene.

Sydney, Australia, 2006. Kevin Gibbons / Flickr

“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.”

That’s Mike Burgess, the director-general of security for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), delivering ASIO’s annual threat assessment.

We do not know details about the people he describes. But, on face value, combat training linked to Nazi ideology seems to fall squarely within the remit of Australia’s anti-terror laws.

Yet in the weeks since Burgess’s remarks there’s been no sign of an imminent crackdown on these armed fascists — and no suggestion the government wants one.

On the contrary, in his response, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton repeatedly avoided acknowledging a specifically fascist threat, instead stressing the necessity of stamping out both right-wing and left-wing “lunatics” — even though the threat assessment made no reference to violence from the Left.

By contrast, in the wake of a stabbing attack in Bourke Street in 2018, Dutton joined with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in calling out “radical, violent, extremist Islam,” going so far as to imply that Muslim leaders were withholding vital information from authorities.

The response to Islamist terrorists illustrates the extraordinary powers the government could — if it so chose — use against fascists.

Preparatory Offenses

In their book Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, Andrew Lynch, Nicola McGarrity, and George Williams show how the raft of anti-terror legislation passed after 9/11 attempted to legislate against “preparatory offences.” Acts like collecting or making a document, possessing a certain “thing,” or receiving training could result in a charge if it could be shown that these acts were “connected with preparation for, the engagement of a person in, or assistance in a terrorist act.”

In other words, the laws generate what the authors dub “pre-inchoate liability”: they ban the formative stages of an act, attaching very severe penalties to actions that haven’t actually happened and that may never have been actually intended.

It was on this basis that Faheem Lodhi was convicted of a bombing plot in 2004. Lodhi had met with a French jihadi and talked, in general terms, about committing terrorist acts. He bought maps of the electricity grid, downloaded photos of military installations, and investigated the acquisition of chemicals.

Yet he hadn’t actually implemented his schemes. In fact, the judge noted that Lodhi’s plans “had not reached the stage where the identity of a bomber, the precise area to be bombed or the manner in which the bombing would take place, had been worked out.”

Nonetheless, under the anti-terror laws, Lodhi could be convicted and sentenced to twenty years jail. As the appeal judge explained, preparatory offenses apply to “conduct where an offender has not decided precisely what he or she intends to do.”

The fascists Burgess describes seem to be engaged in preparations at least as serious as Lodhi’s.

Certainly, had ASIO announced that armed jihadi groups were drilling in suburbia, the government would, without doubt, have staged a flag-lined press conference to warn of the existential menace posed by radical Islam.

Yet, after the recent speech, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells attacked Burgess for using the term “right-wing” … on the basis that his comments offended conservatives.

It’s an example of the ongoing reluctance by politicians and the state to take right-wing violence seriously.

Contrary to what most people believe, the vast majority of political violence in recent Australian history has been committed by the Right.

The most sustained terror campaign in this country’s history was conducted by a Croatian fascist group usually known as the Ustasha, which planted repeated bombs in the late sixties and early seventies, including an attempt to assassinate the anti-fascist Marjan Jurjevic.

Historian Frank Cain suggests ASIO, knowing that Yugoslav spies monitored the Ustasha, tacitly tolerated its terror campaign so as to expose enemy agents, an arrangement that only came to an end when a bomb in George Street, Sydney, injured passers-by.

In the early 1970s, the National Socialist Party of Australia also claimed responsibility for several bombings.

One of its members, Jim Saleam, went on to firebomb the Eastwind bookshop in 1974. He then formed the fascist group National Action (NA), whose members carried out repeated attacks (including with firebombs) of properties belonging to opponents.

In 1989, Saleam organized two NA member to attack the house of the local representative of the African National Congress with a shotgun. Though briefly jailed, he’s now free — and remains an important figure on the local fascist scene.

Another member of NA, Jack van Tongeren, did time for firebombing five Asian restaurants in Perth in the late 1980s — and then upon his release firebombed some more.

Like Saleam, he’s currently a free man.

The historical latitude shown to violent right-wingers deserves particular consideration as we approach the anniversary of the Christchurch massacre.

It should not be forgotten that the perpetrator of that atrocity came to the attention of the authorities before he committed his crimes. A regular commenter on the Facebook page belonging to the United Patriots Front (UPF), he used Facebook Messenger to send death threats to a critic. Though the police were warned, they merely advised the complainant to use the block facility.

In one sense, that’s understandable: the vast majority of internet threats mean nothing. But it’s hard not to think that a tip about violent bluster associated with Islamists would have received considerably more attention.

Part of the problem was that, during that period, the rhetoric of fascism was being normalized by sections of the media.

The two Australian groups the Christchurch killer especially praised — the United Patriots Front (UPF) and the True Blue Crew — regularly boasted about their willingness and ability to deploy violence, with their Facebook pages filled with commentators calling for refugees to be drowned, journalists hanged, leftists bashed, and so on.

Yet, even though UPF leader Blair Cottrell was an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler, the ABC’s youth station Triple J asked him to feature on its show to discuss patriotism. He was also invited onto Sky News and Channel Seven to discuss immigration.

If Cottrell — a man who once declared that anti-fascists would be “executed post-revolution or sent to labor camps, along with all the liberal leaders” — was considered a suitable figure to discuss an “an immigrant crime crisis” on Channel Seven, why should the police pay any attention to someone else using the same language?

Legislation passed in 2014 gives the government substantial powers to ban organizations if they go so far as to “advocate” an act of terrorism — “whether or not a terrorist act has occurred or will occur.” The law stipulates that an organization can be outlawed if it “directly praises the doing of a terrorist act in circumstances where there is a substantial risk that such a praise might have the effect of leading a person (regardless of his or her age or any mental impairment that the person might suffer) to engage in a terrorist act.”

These laws have never been used against the fascist right, despite seeming obviously relevant.

After the murder of Heather Heyer by a fascist during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Neil Erikson, another prominent UPF member, circulated a mugshot of her killer, framing the image with smiling emojis with love hearts for eyes. Erikson also posted video of a murder carried out by an Italian fascist in 2007, narrating the violence as “bloody awesome” before urging attendance at a UPF rally.

When a Sydney neo-Nazi called Michael James Holt posted on Facebook about how he was “going crazy at a rapidly increasing rate,” that he “needed to stomp some skulls” and “shed some fuckin’ commie blood,” and that “mudbloods” should be “punished by death,’ Neil Erikson “liked” several of the messages before adding “there should be Saturday lynchings at Fed Square once a week … we could sell popcorn, fairy floss and show bags.”

Shortly after Erikson encouraged a clearly disturbed young man as he ranted about political murder, Holt was arrested after an anonymous tip-off about his plans to shoot up a shopping center, and then went to prison for possessing child porn and a huge stash of weapons. During the trial, the judge said that Holt could have become “the next Martin Bryant,” a reference to the man who killed thirty-five people in Tasmania in 1996.

It’s merely one example of how fascist incitement might have culminated in tragedy.

In November 2015, Erikson, Cottrell, and other UPF members paid visits both to the Melbourne Anarchist Club, and the community radio station 3CR, with the obvious intention of intimidation.

They were accompanied by Chris Shortis, another UPF activist who in 2015 was featured on the front page of the Age. The images showed him brandishing weapons alongside quotations in which he declared the necessity of “take[ing] up arms against both Muslims and the Australian government.” At the time, he was compared to Anders Breivik.

If a jihadi known to be armed had been visiting political opponents, the reaction — we can safely assume — would have been quite different.

The attention paid by the UPF to the Melbourne Anarchist Club coincided with the obsessions of a man called Phil Galea.

Galea, who had administered social media for Reclaim Australia and attended demonstrations called by the UPF, was recently found guilty of planning terror attacks as part of a campaign to bomb not only the Melbourne Anarchist Club but also Trades Hall and the socialist group Resistance, as part of a campaign to “eliminate the leaders of the left.”

In his trial, witnesses spoke of how he had discussed “torture techniques” and “chopping people up,” as he compiled a “Patriot’s Cookbook’ to train right wingers in techniques of violence. Galea seems to have acted alone — and, thankfully, was stopped before he could cause any harm.

But his conviction raises obvious questions about the official latitude shown to the milieu in which his fascinations emerged.

Push Them Back

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 facilitated a mainstreaming of the fascist right, both in Australia and in the United States. In both countries, individual fascist leaders and their organizations enjoyed a brief period of prominence, before determined counter-protests pushed them back.

Indeed, as I argue in my book Fascists Among Us, the strategic turn to terrorism advocated by the Christchurch perpetrator stemmed from his awareness of the street movement’s decline. Because he recognized the failure of fascists to build successfully in the real world, he sought to convince online supporters to take up the gun.

His call continues to engender responses, with imitative attacks in California and Texas and, most recently, in Germany.

It’s important to recognize that political organizing has already played an important role in isolating the far right. The more that progressives can present a positive alternative, the harder for fascists to recruit.

That task becomes all the more important since, as Peter Dutton’s remarks remind us, the state cannot be relied upon to take fascist terror seriously.