As the Christchurch shooter faces sentencing, what has Australia learned about far-right terror?

<span>Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

In the weeks after the New Zealand Christchurch massacre, the attention of the international media turned to a small town on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

Grafton, population 18,000, is the home town of the far right extremist who killed 51 people at two mosques in March last year. Previously best known for its annual jacaranda festival, the town quickly became a beacon for journalists searching for clues about the gunman’s past in the wake of the shooting.

Nine News interviewed the gunman’s grandmother, who described him as “an ordinary chap” who liked computers. The New York Times spoke to former neighbours who remembered him playing in the streets as a child. A family friend described him as “introverted” and “quiet” to the Guardian.

All of this fossicking was geared towards trying to understand how Australia had produced one of the most heinous terrorists in modern history. What secrets was this unremarkable town on the banks of the Clarence River hiding?

“The individual who carried out the attacks does not represent us, nor does he represent the values and beliefs of our wider community,” Clarence Valley deputy mayor Jason Kingsley felt compelled to say at the time.

“This is an act of an individual, and our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Christchurch.”

Related: 'We've been in the trenches': the women holding power to account over Christchurch

But as Brenton Tarrant prepares to be sentenced for 51 charges for murder, 40 attempted murders and NZ’s first terrorism offence, the question of what Australia has learned from the massacre looms large.

Perhaps more than any of the dozens of high profile acts of far-right violence committed across the globe in recent years, the Christchurch massacre typified the transnational and deeply online nature of the far right.

From the document the perpetrator posted online before the shooting, the messages he scrawled on the weapons he used and his links to the European Identitarian movement, it was clear he wanted to brand himself as a member of a larger global community.

Certainly the links to the far right in Australia were real enough. After the shooting, the leader of an Australian white nationalist group said he had previously approached the Christchurch shooter to join his Lad’s Society, and an investigation by the ABC found he had posted online comments supporting another Australian far right group, the United Patriots Front, as early as April 2016.

He also praised the UPF founder, Blair Cottrell, as the “true leader of the nationalist movement in Australia” and dubbed him “Emperor” on the night of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election.

Cottrell has said he did not know the gunman and recently described him as “an idiot”.

After the shooting, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, called it a “vicious, murderous attack” on people of faith, and described the gunman as “an extremist, right-wing violent terrorist”.

“Names imply some sort of humanity and I struggle to see how anyone who would engage in this sort of hate and violence is human. He doesn’t deserve a name,” he said.

But it was the NZ prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who became the public face of attempts to grapple with far-right violence, co-chairing a summit in Paris with French president Emmanuel Macron, known as the Christchurch Call, which aimed to convince tech companies to suppress terrorist and violent extremist content online.

The push has been a partial success, and, according to Charles Sturt University terrorism expert Kristy Campion, has helped play a role in forcing many far right figures, including those in Australia, from mainstream social media platforms.

“I went to New Zealand after the shooting and spent time talking to survivors and a couple of people from the government and it was incredibly impressive to see how they were approaching it,” Campion told Guardian Australia.

“They weren’t othering the issue by saying he was Australian so it’s not our problem, but said we’re going to approach this holistically and see what we can do to make sure New Zealand remains safe.

“In Australia I think there is a great deal happening amongst security agencies but perhaps unfortunately we don’t see it as much. They are engaging with people in the field and expanding their knowledge about these networks but it’s not the sort of thing that happens in public.”

Australia’s police and intelligence agencies have become more vocal in raising their concerns about the threat of far-right extremism in the wake of the shooting. In February, the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, said the threat of violent extremism from the right was “real and growing”.

“In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology,” Burgess said.

Speaking in Canberra as part of ASIO’s annual threat assessment address, Burgess paid particular attention to links between Australians and international white supremacist hate groups such as The Base.

“While we would expect any rightwing extremist-inspired attack in Australia to be low capability, ie a knife, gun or vehicle attack, more sophisticated attacks are possible,” he said.

That threat has apparently only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. In June, the ABC reported that a threat assessment sent to security professionals by Asio warned that the far-right was using Covid-19 as cover to reach a new audience, exploiting the social isolation wrought by the pandemic to push extremist ideology.

“Covid-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing,” ASIO warned.

“We assess the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a ‘race war’.”

While much of the mainstream attention during the pandemic in Australia has focused on conspiracy groups such as QAnon, the Sovereign Citizen movement and various anti-vaccination proponents, the lines between fringe ideas have increasingly blurred in the wake of Covid-19.

As Guardian Australia reported earlier this month, the pandemic has provided an umbrella under which a broad movement of conspiracy groups have to some extent coalesced, and the far right has not missed the opportunity to grab a piece of the action.

Campion, who is researching how rightwing extremists have capitalised on community uncertainty during the pandemic to drive their own agendas, said the pandemic had “managed to achieve what the Unite the Right rallies didn’t”.

“In that that’s what it took for these very fractious, distinct and often conflicting elements of the far right and beyond to actually come together,” she said.

While many of the big social media companies have taken steps to remove far-right figures from their platforms, in the places where they still lurk veterans of the movement in Australia have kept up a steady stream of commentary on Covid-19.

That, Campion says, points to the limits of controlling far right extremism by policing online spaces.

“Websites alone are not capable of [radicalising people],” she said.

“What it really needs is community, and what we can observe is that people might regularly be at a website but that community doesn’t stay online. Groups in Australia that have had sites taken down are already on Gab or Telegram or various other apps, creating a very insular community.”