The media’s response to Monday’s speech by director-general of security Mike Burgess tended to focus on his comments about right-wing extremism as terrorism. However, as the ASIO head pointed out, “right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time”.
Burgess added: “Obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand.” The reference was to the mass murder of Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch by an alleged Australian white nationalist in March last year. The case is still before the courts.
The alleged murderer took advantage of New Zealand’s gun laws, then much weaker than those prevailing in Australia. In 1996 prime minister John Howard, with the support of Nationals leader Tim Fischer and the Labor Party, toughened Australia’s firearms legislation in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre.
Indeed, in April 1991 ASIO had audio surveillance on the Sydney headquarters of the extremist National Action group when one member murdered another on the premises. This was a civilian killing, not a terrorist attack. But ASIO was taping conversations because it was monitoring political extremism.
There were several instances of right-wing terrorism around this time.
In Perth in the late 1980s, members of the Australian Nationalist Movement engaged in assaults and arson attacks on Asian-Australians. Jack van Tongeren, the ANM’s leader, served a lengthy prison term for racially motivated crime. Also, two ANM members were convicted of murdering a college student they falsely believed was a police informer.
In the early 90s James Saleam, the head of National Action, was convicted of organising a gunshot attack on the home of the African National Congress representative in Australia. In time, bodies such as National Action and the ANM faded from insignificance to near extinction, but not before leaving a dreadful scar on the nation.
Earlier, in the 70s, ASIO closely monitored what were said to be acts of political terrorism by men of Croatian background against the property in Australia of the Yugoslavian government. At that time Croatia (now an independent nation) was part of Yugoslavia ruled by Josip Broz Tito’s communist regime.
As is made clear in The Official History of ASIO, Australia’s security service at the time was not certain whether Croatian-Australians were engaged in acts of terror at home. The alternative scenario was that these were “false flag” operations undertaken by Tito’s secret police and the Yugoslav Intelligence Service designed to discredit the predominantly Catholic and anti-communist Croatian diaspora in Australia and elsewhere.
In The Secret Cold War, volume three of the ASIO official history, John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley refer to “the wrongful conviction” of the Croatian Six, who were found guilty of a conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism in Sydney in 1979. This remains a stain on the Australian judicial system, despite having gone to the High Court.
Before and after World War II, there were several right-wing nationalist groups, such as Inky Stephensen’s Australia First Movement and Eric Butler’s Australian League of Rights (which was anti-Semitic). But neither was inclined to acts of violence.
In view of ASIO’s historical attention to the extreme right in Australia, it is well placed to monitor contemporary acts of what Burgess has termed “intolerance based on race, gender and identity”. ASIO is well aware that “in suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology”.
Even before the Christchurch tragedy, mass murder by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in the US sent out a clear message that right-wing extremists can engage in acts of terrorism. Despite the media’s interest in right-wing extremism in Australia, the essential message of the director-general of security was elsewhere.
Burgess said: “The threat of terrorism at home is probable and will remain unacceptably high for the foreseeable future.” He added: “Right now, terrorists are still plotting to harm Australians”, and he said the number of terrorism leads under investigation “has doubled since this time last year”.
There followed the important point: on ASIO’s assessment, “Violent Islamic extremism of the type embodied by Islamic State and al-Qai’da and their offshoots will remain our principal concern.” In other words, Australia should regard it as probable that there will be an Islamist terrorist attack of the kind that have occurred in nations such as Britain, France, Germany, Spain and, to a lesser extent, in Australia in recent years. And there may be a Christchurch-style attack as well.
The Australian Jewish community is entitled to be especially concerned at this assessment since it is a possible target at the hands of both Islamist and self-proclaimed neo-Nazi terrorists.
In his inaugural annual threat assessment, Burgess also focused on the important issue of foreign interference. Understandably, he didn’t name nations. However, it seems pretty clear which countries he had in mind. In the 50s ASIO successfully handled the defection of diplomat Vladimir Petrov, who was later joined by his wife, Evdokia Petrova, from the communist Soviet Union. They turned out to be among the most important figures to defect to the West during the Cold War and they brought with them evidence of a Soviet spy ring in Australia.
On Monday Burgess said: “There are more foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating in Australia now than at the height of the Cold War.” Presumably he was speaking of China and Russia — and more besides.
So far Australia has been relatively successful in thwarting terrorist attacks and limiting foreign interference. But this is an ongoing challenge that will see many more annual threat assessments by ASIO.