Watching Australia’s Terror Watch List

By Mikele Prestia | 28 Apr 21

In early March, then Minister of Home Affairs current Minister of Defence Peter Dutton signalled his intention to proscribe British Neo-Nazi group Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD), a terrorist organisation. This represented a significant, if contextually alarming, moment in Australian history. 

Australia has never listed a far-right group as a terrorist organisation – even though Neo-Nazi groups have operated here since the 1960s. Under the leviathan Department of Home Affairs, the listing of a terrorist group grants the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) vast surveillance, arrest and detention powers over a proscribed group, with the aim of pre-empting and preventing terrorist attacks. 

The proscription of SKD is also significant because the Department of Home Affairs’ process for designating terrorist groups is an insular one, meaning there is no mechanism for external referral or recommendation. Home Affairs will table a final proposition to Parliament but the choice to designate a group as a terrorist begins and ends entirely within the Department. 

Of the now 27 terrorist organisations listed by the Department of Home Affairs, 25 are ‘Islamist’ groups.

In the long shadow of the 2019 Christchurch massacre, it may be tempting to view the criminalisation of the SKD as the beginning of a move away from the hyper-fixation on Islamic terrorist groups, and towards an overdue reckoning with Australia’s history of Neo-Nazism. 

In his article for the ABC: What Do We Do When the Terrorist is One of Us? counter-terrorist research fellow at Deakin University, Joshua Roose, expresses skepticism that the Christchurch massacre will prompt a widening of attention on behalf of counter-terrorism and security agencies. As for the banning of SKD, Roose says that its listing is “more likely linked to an ally banning them than any strong presence on the ground in Australia.”

The ally Roose is referring to is the United Kingdom, where SKD originated. A report jointly prepared by British and Emirati extremism research centres, found that fringe Neo-Nazi groups that have been banned in Europe and North America are growing in engagement in Australia.

One such group, Combat 18, was responsible for a shooting in a Perth mosque ten years ago and for disseminating Islamophobic propaganda in Melbourne in 2015. In Germany, a member of this group was found guilty of murdering local politician Walter Luebcke for expressing support for refugees. 

Following the Christchurch massacre, where 51 Muslim worshippers were murdered by an Australian terrorist, a Royal Commission into the shootings found that New Zealand police and security agencies held an inappropriate concentration on Islamist terrorist groups, at the expense of monitoring far-right extremism. 

The Commission’s report evidenced a familiar narrative of institutional prejudice and government bias at the expense of the safety of Muslims in Western countries. “On behalf of the Government, I apologise,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated.

One of the most incredible findings of the Commission’s report was that, even with the hollow clarity of hindsight, the Christchurch massacre could not have been stopped. Prior to moving to New Zealand in 2017, the perpetrator had been posting on Neo-Nazi forums and donating to far-right extremist groups for years.

The structural and cultural introspection of New Zealand following the Christchurch massacre stands in stark contrast to what has occurred in Australia, the home of the terrorist. Scholars on far-right terrorism, such as Roose, have warned against pathologising terrorism and thereby placing it in a vacuum from socio-cultural influences. 

Since the September 11 bombings, Australia has enacted a multitude of domestic anti-terrorism laws, resulting in over 60 pieces of legislation being passed since 2001. The first wave of anti-terrorism laws — which included warrantless searches and the covert detention and interrogation of non-suspect citizens by ASIO — passed with ease. This was partly due to Australia’s perennial lack of a Bill of Rights, and partly because of the media and political classes’ raucous, fearful rhetoric surrounding Islamic extremism.

In the last two decades, our broad spectrum of anti-terrorism laws has enjoyed tacit approval on the premise that we were the beneficiaries of these laws, that they were there to protect us from them. The reason the composition of Home Affairs’ terrorist watchlist resembles a who’s who of Islamic extremism is because we as a country have been systemically unwilling to contend with extremism occurring under the auspices of the Anglo-Saxon majority.

While the vast majority of White Australians do not go on to commit terrorist acts, we must not be wilfully incredulous about the common culture we share. In reference to the Christchurch shooter, Roose said, “This individual is clearly, unequivocally a white nationalist terrorist, born and raised on our shores; and we have a profound obligation to reflect on how our society produced such an individual.”

At the cultural level, we needn’t look far for Australian institutions emboldening white supremacy. The Christchurch terrorist is a vocal supporter of Australian Neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell, who headed the disbanded far-right group United Patriots’ Front. Cottrell, an inspiration to the Christchurch shooter, has been afforded national airtime to disseminate his fascism. After airing an interview with Cottrell mere months before the Christchurch shootings, Sky News Director Greg Byrnes apologised, stating: “His views do not reflect ours.”

Although the Cottrell interview was rightly removed from repeat broadcast slots, Sky News continues to give Andrew Bolt a nightly platform on which to decry the failures of multiculturalism: a central theme to the ideologies of Neo-Nazi terrorists from Australia to the United States to Norway. The Victorian Herald Sun newspaper provides Bolt a column in perpetuity, which he routinely uses to vilify people of colour and lament the loss of a White Australia. 

The critical spotlight that New Zealand cast on itself in the aftermath of Christchurch can be contrasted with the dim glow across the Tasman. The lack of self-reckoning regarding Australia’s complicity in creating a fertile climate for white supremacists should not be surprising, particularly given the often-blurred line between its cultural institutions and white nationalism. 

It is this dissonance that allows for Australia to decry the actions of the Christchurch shooter while absolving itself of any culpability in his genesis. This dissonance allows for genuine shock at the manifestations of white supremacy, while ignoring that the Department responsible for indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers, to the point of despondency and suicide, is the same Department that has historically ignored white supremacist extremism in favour of focusing almost exclusively on Islamist extremism. 

For so long the cultural narrative has conflated the Muslim faith with terrorism, rendering them largely interchangeable in the minds of many. When this is not only reflected in the mouthpieces of mainstream media but in the very institutions designed to identify and stop domestic terrorism, there is no room left for faux-surprise at how we came to be here.