Aussie police thwart alleged terror plot by right-wing extremist

Country's domestic spy chief warns of threat posed by radicals, who have become 'idols'

The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation has expressed growing concern about small cells of right-wing extremists which are increasingly tightly organised and well-equipped. PHOTO: REUTERS

Police in Australia have launched raids in connection with an alleged plot by a right-wing extremist, just weeks after the domestic spy chief issued a warning about the rising threat from right-wing groups.

Counter-terrorism police last Friday conducted raids of people and places connected to a 21-year-old man who was arrested this month over an alleged terrorist plot.

The man allegedly tried to buy military equipment and firearms and was planning to blow up an electricity substation. The suspect, from Sanctuary Point, a town south of Sydney, was initially investigated after posting extremist right-wing comments online and was arrested after his activities escalated.

"This person had anti-government sentiment, he was anti-Semitic, he has neo-Nazi interests and anti-Indigenous interests," said New South Wales Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Walton.

Police arrested the man on March 14, a day before the one-year anniversary of an attack on two mosques in Christchurch by right-wing extremist Brenton Tarrant, 28. Tarrant, who killed 51 worshippers, was from an Australian town in the state of New South Wales.

The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (Asio), the country's domestic spy agency, has expressed growing concern about small cells of right-wing extremists which are increasingly tightly organised and well-equipped.

The agency, which rarely makes public statements, has issued two warnings in recent months about right-wing groups. The most recent was on Feb 24 by Asio's director-general Mike Burgess.

Delivering the agency's first ever annual threat assessment, he said the extreme right-wing threat was "real and it is growing" and involved radicals who were in contact with other extremists around the world. Small cells meet regularly in suburbs around Australia and "salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology", he said.

"These groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years."

Mr Burgess also revealed that Asio advice led to an Australian being stopped from leaving to fight with an extreme right-wing group overseas.

Asio, in a separate assessment of extreme right-wing groups included in its annual report last October, said these groups were "more cohesive and organised than they have been… and will remain an enduring threat" though violent Islamic extremists remain the principal concern.

"Any future extreme right-wing-inspired attack in Australia would most likely be low capability and conducted by a lone actor or small group, although a sophisticated weapons attack is possible," it said.

Analysts believe right-wing terrorists in Australia could pose a greater threat of causing mass casualties than Islamic extremists, pointing to the methodically planned bombing and shooting attacks by Timothy McVeigh in the United States, Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, and Tarrant in New Zealand.

These figures, said counterterrorism expert Clive Willams, a visitor at the Australian National University, have become the "violent idols" of the far-right. By contrast, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its followers in Australia have typically conducted or contemplated relatively unsophisticated hits such as knife attacks and ramming of vehicles.

Professor Williams said most recent far-right attacks had been carried out by adult males who were not active members of a group. This made them a difficult intelligence target, he said.

"Asio penetration of far-right groups will not necessarily turn up," he wrote in The Canberra Times. "The most likely way to identify potential problem individuals is through their communications (usually encrypted), membership of gun and hunting clubs, the kind of literature they read, and links to bikie (motorcycle) gangs."

Some analysts believe Australia has been too focused on Islamic extremism and must do more to monitor the right-wing threat.

The opposition Labor Party has urged the government to review its register of designated terrorist organisations, noting that no right-wing groups are included. The list has 26 organisations, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS. It is a criminal offence to join, support or recruit for such organisations.

Labor MP Kristina Keneally said the criteria for designating terror organisations should be reviewed by Parliament's intelligence and security committee.

"It may be that the criteria for listing terrorist organisations in Australia isn't fit for the purpose when it comes to right-wing extremism," Ms Keneally wrote on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Strategist website.

"The Australian government and all federal parliamentarians must now take the terrorist threat of right-wing extremism seriously and respond appropriately."

The government has said it would consider listing right-wing groups if this was recommended by Asio.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline Aussie police thwart alleged terror plot by right-wing extremist. Subscribe