The threat of nationalist and racist violent extremism is escalating rapidly, according to Australia's domestic security and investigative services.
In the past 18 months, the Australian Federal Police’s Joint Counter Terrorism Team's (JCTT) caseload covering the area has risen by 750 per cent.
And in an interview with SBS News, AFP Assistant Commissioner Scott Lee from the Counter Terrorism and Special Investigations Command said he only expected the threat to continue to climb.
“There was certainly an increase in the JCTT’s nationalist and racist violent extremism caseload from 2019 and into early 2020 … We expect it to increase further than what we are seeing at the moment, but how much further it will increase is difficult to ascertain at the moment.”
The rise means it now accounts for 15 per cent of the unit’s total investigative effort.
“Islamist or religiously motivated violent extremism remains the predominant threat at about 85 per cent of our workload,” Mr Lee said.
The interview comes as an SBS News investigation uncovered an underground network of Australian men who share far-right views that has never been reported on before in the media, with one member revealing the group's efforts to acquire firearms.
The AFP is monitoring groups like the one uncovered by SBS News and the investigation sparked grave concern, Mr Lee said.
“It’s very concerning to us and where we see individuals … where they have a violent extremist ideology and have expressed a view to act on that violent intent, and either have or are attempting to obtain firearms, we take that very seriously and we take action.”
Pandemic increasing extremism
The JCTT is responsible for investigating extremism that involves an immediate threat of violence.
Earlier this year, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) confirmed 50 per cent of its domestic caseload was looking at far-right groups, up from about 10 per cent before 2019.
Unlike ASIO though, the JCTT’s bar for prosecuting investigations involves an imminent threat of violence.
For several years prior to 2020, far-right extremism accounted for about two per cent of the JCTT's workload, which doesn’t take into account investigations by state and territory police.
Mr Lee said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had ramped up racist narratives within extremist circles.
“We continue to see the impact of the online environment particularly as we see the impact of COVID lockdowns, we are seeing that is having an impact and it is being exploited including by ideologically motivated extremist groups to magnify those ideologies within the community.”
“We are seeing the impact of COVID more broadly on some of the ideological drivers as well, so we are expecting it will increase particularly in terms of racist views, where people are anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim or anti-Indigenous. We are seeing this affect people, particularly young people who are vulnerable to these ideologies.”
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News the federal government had invested $69 million in countering violent extremism programs since 2013.
"Our intervention programs are designed to address all forms of violent extremism, including religiously and ideologically motivated violent extremism," they said in a statement.
The department did not respond directly to questions about what proportion of that funding went to far-right de-radicalisation programs.
Criminologist Dr Clarke Jones is a senior research fellow at The Australian National University, and a counter-terrorism expert who specialises in de-radicalisation.
He said while Australian authorities were highly resourced and efficient at investigating and prosecuting terrorism matters, de-radicalisation programs and initiatives were comparatively under-resourced in the country’s counter-terrorism efforts.
“Australian authorities have taken a militaristic approach to counter-terrorism, but have failed when it comes to dialogue, trust-building, and rhetoric that has, at times, inflamed divisions in our society.”
“We don’t see the government asking white people to condemn white supremacy,” he said.
“Narratives have created that sense of otherness. Why has it been on Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism, for views they don’t support in the first place?”
Assistant Commissioner Mr Lee said:“We can assure people we target criminality and not ideologies,” he said, adding that’s why they were taking on more cases involving far-right extremism.
“From our perspective, that’s why we want to reassure the community where we see these matters, we act appropriately and that’s why we are seeing an increase in these.”