Mike Burgess ASIO intelligence
ASIO head Mike Burgess (Image: AAP/Darren England)

It is now two years since an Australian terrorist executed 51 people attending prayer services at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and it should be remembered that the ideology on which the Australian acted is still very much alive in extreme right circles.

The pernicious ideological spring from which the Australian gunman drew inspiration relates to the notion of a “great replacement” of white people by immigrants from non-white or non-Christian countries over time.

This is the domain of white supremacists and those that look to Adolf Hitler and national socialism as a solution to whatever problems they seek to blame on other parties that they characterise as being lesser beings because of their ethnicity or the belief system in which they worship.

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Right at the darkest ideological heart is an avowed commitment to a smorgasbord of bigotry that includes but is not limited to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and misogyny.

Those events in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, and the subsequent examination of the motivations of the Australian terrorist through a trial and a royal commission have caused Australian politicians to hold a parliamentary inquiry to look more closely at the way in which extreme ideologies spread and the risks they pose.

The inquiry will look at all kinds of extremism, but the two most prominent strains relate to Islamist ideology and the far right.

We can expect, however, that the committee will have regard for a change in terminology that is being advocated by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

ASIO chief Mike Burgess said during his annual presentation last night that labels such as right-wing and left-wing or Islamic terrorism can distract from ASIO being focused on the threat posed rather than the political or religious beliefs.

“At ASIO, we’re conscious that the names and labels we use are important,” he said. “Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues.”

Violent extremism will be described as being either religiously or ideologically motivated. The emphasis is clear: ASIO is concerned about the possibility of extreme violence that might be committed by an individual or group — irrespective of what underlying beliefs are used to justify it.

Those underlying beliefs, according to ASIO, are being spread via online forums by people who know they tread a fine line when they seek to spread their propaganda.

You don’t have to look too far to find how or how fast the ideology is being spread. A Current Affair’s coverage earlier this month of the National Socialist Network and its spokesman, Thomas Sewell, provides a poignant case study.

Two reports on the growth in activity of far-right groups were aired on ACA in the week beginning March 1 and this was accompanied by the added controversy of Sewell’s visit to the Nine headquarters that resulted in a scuffle with a security guard.

Sewell’s public channel on Telegram received a boost in subscribers from 5008 on March 1 to 7643 on March 3. The account of the public face of the National Socialist Network rose to 8314 subscribers by March 5.

An account belonging to the National Socialist Network experienced a less dramatic increase in numbers, going from 3986 followers on March 1 to 4295 subscribers on March 5.

It is reasonable to conclude that the steep growth in subscribers to Sewell’s account is directly due to the publicity he and his cohorts received during that week.

These two accounts share memes, videos and links that cover the national socialist world view, which incorporates the notion of the demographic replacement of the white race by other groups.

Other accounts on the messaging platform act as repositories for far-right propaganda, and there are still accounts that provide access to the footage and manifesto at the centre of the Christchurch killings.

It is disturbing to also note that the second anniversary of the Christchurch massacre has been marked by individuals selling a line of merchandise that leaves one to question what sort of depraved person would fork out their hard-earned to buy it.

Security agencies remain concerned at the growth in the numbers showing an interest in far-right movements in Australia, and the way in which technology enables people who have an extremist worldview to connect and share propaganda justifies their vigilance.

Will changing what we call them make a difference? Let us know your thoughts at letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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