Gun violence is rare in Australia. In response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, Australia implemented strict gun laws and a successful national firearms buyback scheme. However, in December 2022, at a rural property in Wieambilla, a town in south west Queensland, two police officers and a civilian were the victims of a premeditated, ideologically motivated shooting. At the conclusion of the siege, the three perpetrators were also killed by police. This Insight will examine the ideologies and online footprint of the perpetrators of the Wieambilla siege and the influences the online conspiracist movement has had in the Australian context.
On 12 December 2022, police were ambushed at 4:30 pm as they approached the property in a routine response to a missing persons report for Nathaniel Train. It was later established that Nathaniel’s brother Gareth and his wife Stacey, who owned the property, lured the police to the remote Wieambilla property with a tip-off with the intention of killing them. Of the four police officers that attended the location, two were shot as they approached the premises, another escaped to his vehicle despite receiving a gunshot wound to his leg, and the fourth officer fled into adjacent scrubland. The two officers that had been gunned down were executed and relieved of their weapons before the grasslands were set on fire to flush out the remaining officer. A neighbour drawn to the property to investigate the fire was also killed before the three offenders were shot dead by tactical police in the firefight that ensued after a six-hour siege. The incident itself, as noted above, has not been designated a terrorist incident, despite the Federal Home Affairs Minister noting that, in the context of security agencies investigating the incident, “it is likely that radicalisation will form a part of it.”
In the aftermath of the attack, a range of online postings, including a video recorded during the siege, indicated that the perpetrators subscribed to a range of conspiracy theories, including aspects of sovereign citizens, QAnon, and anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown beliefs. Australia has experienced a recent increase in conspiracism resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent rise of anti-government and extremist ideology in the online environment. The increased support for conspiracy theories has predominantly been a non-violent movement involving a series of coordinated freedom rallies across the nation and an ongoing campaign in the nation’s capital Canberra. The siege has led to extensive consideration of the motivation for the “calculated and targeted execution” of police officers.
Conspiracy Beliefs of the Wieambilla Attackers
Research has demonstrated that the appeal of conspiracy theories internationally increases during times of crisis, and online sovereign citizen and conspiracist communities embraced both plausible and implausible explanations regarding the source of and threat posed by the pandemic as a means of regaining a perceived degree of control. Increased globalisation and online networks (both on social media and the dark web) have exposed Australians to online conspiracism and coverage of political unrest that coincided with the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, the emergence of QAnon and the COVID-19 pandemic. The conspiracy mentality that was normalised amidst the QAnon phenomenon was embraced by the broader, extreme right cultic milieu that rejected and was radically at odds with conventional beliefs. This countercultural rejection of orthodox beliefs nurtured extreme online communities that were predisposed to reject mainstream ideas and subscribe to increasingly radical fringe beliefs. Sovereign citizens belong within these fringe communities as a highly disjointed anti-authoritarian, anti-government movement that believes governments to be illegitimate corporate entities. It was amongst domestic and international online forums and news sites containing conspiracist and sovereign citizen ideologies that Gareth Train, one of the perpetrators of the Wieambilla siege, publicly expressed his extremist anti-authoritarian beliefs over a period of several years.
An examination of the online activity of Gareth Train revealed a prolific interaction with online conspiracist and anti-authoritarian communities. Online posts revealed Train’s belief that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre that left 35 dead was a ‘false flag’ operation leading to the implementation of strict gun laws. A false flag operation is a term used to describe an event believed to have been staged or organised by a government or organisation as a means to affect a political or social change. Train’s belief is reflective of far-right conspiracist Alex Jones’ claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax involving crisis actors as a means to subvert the USA’s Second Amendment right to bear arms. Australia’s Port Arthur massacre led to the introduction of strict gun laws that have proven to be instrumental in reducing levels of gun violence and consequently impacted the severity of violent extremist and terrorist activity in Australia in comparison to many Western nations.
The conspiracy theory indicating the Port Arthur massacre was a false flag operation is unique to Australia and its strict gun laws. However, it has proven to be consistent with broader international conspiracist beliefs of mass shootings being orchestrated in the USA to tighten gun control legislation. Conspiracists, patriot movements and sovereign citizens share the belief that the governmental implementation of mandates such as those imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic was aimed to control, monitor or subjugate citizens. Sovereign citizens have often been referred to as ‘paper terrorists’ due to their pseudo-legal arguments and litigious proclivities. However, sovereign citizens have also demonstrated high levels of targeted violence against law enforcement, predominantly in the USA. Just as conspiracy theories have been shown to be adaptable to domestic issues with connections to broader international influences, the sovereign citizen movement interchanges domestic legal precedents upon which they reject government legitimacy.
Assessing the Perpetrator’s Online Footprint
Gareth Train’s online footprint and interactions on online forums demonstrate his alignment to some degree with sovereign citizen beliefs that have been increasingly present in Australia. Train’s posts on Australian sovereign citizen web forums contained specific terminology e.g. “corporate Jesuit government muppets,” along with the random capitalisation of words like “CONTROL” and references to known Australian active sovereign citizen adherents. These posts have since been deleted.
The increasingly interwoven and pastiche embrace of a range of conspiratorial ideas makes assessing and analysing the ideology of idiosyncratic perpetrators challenging. Increasingly, the perpetrators of ideologically motivated violence evidence the influence of, and belief in, a variety of extremist ideas, often in a relatively shallow and less than coherent manner. Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO) Director, Mike Burgess, noted “an increase in extremism fuelled by diverse grievances, conspiracy theories and anti-authority ideologies” such as sovereign citizenry, anti-vaccination and anti-government sentiments. The difficulty faced in assessing the threat posed by these types of actors is the overlap and contradiction of their ‘salad bar’ ideology or what Zammit and Garnstien-Ross have referred to as Composite Violent Extremism.
Online culture allowed Gareth Train to cherry-pick ideologies, merging fringe religious beliefs, conspiracy, sovereign citizenry and the New World Order beliefs associated with the extreme right. These ideologies manifested and evolved in response to the changing global and technological landscape, allowing for decades-old Port Arthur conspiracy theories to be embroiled with other grievances, conspiracy theories and broader ideological influences. Gareth Train’s direct references to the Port Arthur massacre as a false flag operation alongside anti-government and fundamentalist religious references demonstrate the crossover of influences and personal grievances against a variety of government mandates, from gun control to vaccination mandates. The off-grid ‘prepper’ characteristics exhibited in Gareth and Stacey Train’s lifestyle, combined with religious and far-right narratives signals a hybridisation of ideologies that could be characterised under the ‘cultic milieu’ concept. This concept includes the acceptance of fringe religious or marginalised political ideas, or the rejection of most mainstream or conventional beliefs. Kaplan’s definition of idiosyncratic sectarian classifies these actors as a type of white supremacist within a structure more approximate to that seen within a cult.
The deaths of the three perpetrators in the Wieambilla attacks limited law enforcement’s ability to fully interrogate their ideological motivations. Gareth Train’s prolific online presence affords significantly greater insight than that of Stacey or Nathaniel. Stacey Train was dismissed from her role within the state’s education system after her refusal to comply with vaccine mandates. Similarly, Nathaniel Train also suffered a significant personal crisis and health scare after he perceived there to be a lack of action in response to a cheating scandal in a state school where he was the principal. The convergence of anti-government and anti-authority beliefs exhibited by Gareth, Stacey and Nathaniel reflects grievances evidenced in both the domestic and international spheres which are increasingly informing violent protests against government authority worldwide.
Gareth Train’s social media profiles included a video he posted online in the weeks leading up to the attack, in which he labelled himself as an extremist, a barbarian and a savage. This was in addition to a now-deleted article published on November 29th 2021 on the Australian conspiracist site ‘Cairns News’, in which he described the government’s actions as a psy-op, or psychological operation, to disarm the Australian population. The article indicated that COVID-19 vaccinations were neurological bio-weapons used to control, monitor and own people’s thoughts.
Gareth and Stacey Train posted a final video three hours after the ambush in which they stated: “They came to kill us and we killed them. If you don’t defend yourself against these devils and demons, you’re a coward.” After admitting to the killings, the Trains said: “We’ll see you when we get home, we’ll see you at home Don, love you”. The reference to “Don” has been reported to be a US-based conspiracist known to the Trains through their online activity. This message and their video admission were posted as police surrounded the premises and prior to the shootout during which all three were killed by police. A three-minute video posted by ‘Don’ also known as ‘Geronimo’s Bones’, stated “I received a message that they had to kill the devils themselves and are now on the run. These are people that are not armed as we are in America. Here my brave brother and sister have done what they are supposed to do, and kill these devils.” Both the Trains’ final video and Don’s response demonstrate the international interconnectivity of online communication and conspiratorial ideology, and the impact this has had in the Australian context.
The Wieambilla shooting is significant in the Australian context as it reveals the evolving extremist landscape from a non-violent, ideologically convenient movement to something more sinister and deadly. The labelling of the Train trio as idiosyncratic actors, as opposed to deranged conspiracists, signifies the complex and multidimensional nature of their ideological belief structure. Unlike the actions of a lone actor attack that may be spontaneous or as a result of external influences on the individual, the participation and commitment of three family members to commit a premeditated attack on law enforcement officers is truly unprecedented in the Australian context.
The convergence of international ideologies and strategies in the Australian context has demonstrated the need to prioritise increased monitoring of online activity within these broad and disparate groups. As technology advances, allowing these individuals to connect online and reinforce their fringe beliefs, so is the ability to utilise this same technology to identify threats posed by individuals or groups involved in extremist discourse. Understanding key phrases associated with these idiosyncratic actors would provide law enforcement and tech companies the ability to identify and mitigate potential threats.
Sgt Kristy Milligan VA (Ret) was a member of the New South Wales Police Force for over 15 years until 2021. Kristy completed her Masters of Terrorism and Security Studies with Distinction through the Australian Graduate School of Policing, Charles Sturt University and commenced her PhD with Victoria University, Melbourne in 2022. Her research examines the role of symbols and symbolism in extremist and terrorist movements. Her other areas of research include XRW idiosyncratic actors, including the Sovereign Citizen Movement, Conspiracists and symbolism in terrorist propaganda. Twitter:@KristyPMilligan