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The nature of radicalisation is changing rapidly. The phenomenon is increasingly atomised, nested in grievances, motives and everyday lives that are difficult to penetrate for policymakers. Here Michele Grossman examines these shifts and the perceived asymmetry between Islamist-inspired and far-right violent extremism. She concludes that a credible strategy to tackle these challenges relies, more than ever, on community based responses alongside criminal justice ones. Shamit Saggar
As Andrew Zammit has recently noted (www.avert.net.au, 2019) the nature of radicalised violent attacks has shifted in recent years, as terrorist movements adapted their recruitment and attack strategies. Instead of the large-scale, ambitious, technically complex terrorist plots and targets mobilised in events such as 9/11 or Oklahoma City, for example, radicalisation to violent extremism now relies much more extensively on simpler, low-tech, small cell or lone actor events. These are characterised by digitally enabled communication, greater diversity of targets and easily accessible weapons such as knives, firearms and vehicles. More women and children have also now become involved in radicalised violence, especially through the mechanism of foreign travel but also through online and offline social networks of influence.
In the same period as the rise of Islamic State beginning in 2014, right-wing extremist movements in Australia, while already well established, were less well organised and resourced and lacked the expertise and mobilisation capacity of other terrorist actors. Despite the increasing levels of far-right movement activity we have seen in Australia – both digitally based and in the form of street protests and demonstrations – very few groups or individuals associated with these groups have specifically advocated or been involved in forms of violence that would meet the threshold for terrorism. One exception to this trend is Philip Galea, who in 2016 was arrested for plotting a terrorist bomb attack against two far-left political groups in Melbourne. However, Galea remained an outlier, and many of the far-right groups and individuals he associated with distanced themselves, at least publicly, from the violence he advocated.
Accordingly, the perception of asymmetry between Islamist-inspired violent extremism – with multiple successful attacks and disrupted plots attributed to the former – and far-right and right-wing extremist groups, which appeared to have neither the means nor the appetite to mount a serious threat to public safety, continued to persist. This perception remained intact despite the mounting evidence of both far-right influence in relation to political activism, and also the resurgence of right-wing extremist movements and actions throughout Europe and in North America since the mid-2000s.
This has now changed with the March 2019 white supremacist-motivated attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand by the Australian-born and raised Brenton Tarrant. Few are surprised an event like this has finally occurred, because all the signs it was coming were there: measurable rises in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, with religion-focused hate crimes against both Muslim and Jewish individuals and institutions such as mosques and synagogues; increasingly reckless political and media dog-whistling aimed at Muslims and at Islam and aired through both conventional and social media; and the increased normalisation and mainstreaming of far-right commentary and protest.
Tarrant’s avowed fealty to white supremacist ideology; his reliance on poisonous yet historically familiar narratives of invasion, pollution, ethno-statism and existential conflict in relation to non-European peoples, and his canny and sophisticated use of social media – just like Islamic State – to amplify the messaging and impact of his violent action reveal that it is toxic narratives of existential threat and avowed victimhood, wherever they may fall on the political spectrum, underlie all appeals to, and justifications for, violent extremism.
Not all radicalisation is violent, nor is all radicalisation unhealthy. But violent radicalisation is dangerous for everyone, including those who embrace it, and the increasing tolerance and sanction we see for the use of targeted and hateful violence to achieve political goals remains a key challenge of our times. One answer to this challenge is that, in the aftermath of Christchurch, Australia will need to recalibrate, strengthen and broaden its social cohesion and counter-terrorism policy and strategy settings accordingly.
Western societies in many parts of the world have created increasingly permissive environments for deep social divisions and hostilities to be chronically inflamed rather than tempered or ameliorated. The events in Christchurch offer the chance to re-examine this permissiveness in relation to responsible political leadership, media sensationalism and bias, and a stronger balance between freedom and regulation of social media and the internet. We routinely limit the abuses and harms caused by modes of speech and behaviour in many other domains of social and political life, and there is no reason why digital environments should be exempt from such efforts.
Police and government measures, for example through surveillance or ‘watch lists’ of persons of interest, cannot be relied on in isolation and will never be able to detect the full potential array of specific emerging threats or copycat actions that Christchurch and events like it may fuel. It is false hope to assume governments can be held wholly responsible for the emergence of terror linked to a range of flashpoints in our midst.
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