Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess recently warned that the next terrorist attack in Australia is likely to be carried out by an individual or small group, likely acting with “little or no warning” in response to a catalytic event or the failure of an affiliated group to satisfy their needs. In other words – what is commonly, though erroneously, called ‘lone wolf’ or ‘lone actor’ terrorism.
In actual fact, these lone actors, while unable or unwilling to join defined groups or even act collectively, still come to violent extremism through a process of socialisation. During this process, groups are replaced by loose networks or ‘radical milieus’. Ties are weak, transitory and unclear, though still potentially of great consequence. As such, I will refer to these as ‘small-scale terrorism’ to avoid any implication that they occur truly independently. These attacks are prohibitively difficult to predict in a timely manner.
In the wake of the Wieambilla shootings, now officially termed Australia’s first Christian extremist terrorist attack, this Insight looks at violent rhetoric and incitement from the country’s ‘Freedom Movement’. The examples originated from Facebook – the movement actors’ platform of choice. It situates the role of such content in the radicalisation pathways of individuals mired within the online conspiracist milieu.
Terrorists and Enablers
The kind of speech used as examples in this Insight has previously been explored by scholars through the lens of stochastic terrorism, which remains an important concept. Here, however, it will be examined in terms of its potential role in small-scale terrorism. A radicalisation model for understanding the phenomenon has been developed by Hamm and Spaaij. Fundamentally, the process they outline is:
- An individual has personal and political grievances which lead to an affinity with an extremist group – though since the original model, Hamm and Spaaij note that in line with extremist trends generally, the Internet has made it possible for looser connections, such as online communities, to play the role once reserved for groups.
- An enabler is identified – the enabler is an individual who directly though unwittingly assists in planning the attack, or who provides indirect support through encouraging, excusing, or ideologically validating terrorism. This is the part I suggest movement messengers such as those discussed in this Insight play by imparting violent fantasies of death and domination to their followers.
- Finally, the soon-to-be terrorist broadcasts their intent, through means such as a manifesto, online posts, or interpersonal communications, and then some kind of triggering event or catalyst sparks action.
Hamm and Spaaij make this observation about enablers – since 9/11, 67% of ‘lone wolves’ were enabled by others, and almost all this enabling was indirect. Frequent Islamist enablers include Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, while for white supremacists and the assorted far right, William Luther Pierce and Alex Jones rank highly. In the contemporary moment, a pantheon of conspiracist micro-influencers, in Australia and globally, are ready to take on the role. Next, I will discuss some striking examples of this phenomenon from Australia’s ‘Freedom Movement’.
The Australian Freedom Movement started out with a focus on opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates but grew to encompass a range of right-wing conspiracist views. One of these is a QAnon-adjacent preoccupation with political opponents and the general LGBTQ+ community being paedophiles. Such rhetoric has become common among the far-right as an effective way to demonise the Other.
A mainstay in Australian conspiracism is the discussion of ‘The 28’, referring to a list produced by then-senator Bill Heffernan purporting to name 28 high-profile paedophiles, including prominent Australians and one former Prime Minister. Heffernan has never elaborated on the contents of the document but has alleged widespread corruption within the government for their failure to investigate further. Unsurprisingly, this story became a key part of the Australian QAnon narrative and is also a common refrain within the Freedom Movement.
One individual with whom the story of The 28 has resonated is Riccardo Bosi. Bosi is the leader of the Australia One Party, a far-right group that entertains a range of popular conspiracy theories. Bosi is a former Australian Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel and military advisor. He recently ran as an independent in the New South Wales state election, as Australia One is not officially registered. Bosi’s running mate was David ‘Guru’ Graham, a concreter from Wollongong and prolific producer of conspiracist Facebook live streams. Along with running for office, Guru was recently charged with the stalking and intimidation of a staff member at a local radio station.
In a Facebook video, Bosi implicates a wide range of individuals and institutions including government, charities, schools, universities, and churches as being complicit in covering up the crimes of The 28. Bosi considers this to be treason, and worthy of the death penalty, stating:
“…the case can be made that many are already guilty of treason, but if any remain silent in the face of an obvious attack on Australian sovereignty, they will have signed their own death warrants, remember them…remember their names and who they are…”
Carl Liebold is an active member of the Freedom Movement and a supporter of Australia One and Bosi. Liebold produces a video series called ‘Voices of Freedom’. During one of these episodes, Liebold takes aim at a critic of himself and the Freedom Movement. In it, he states:
“…whether you believe it or not, the penny will drop one day… they’ll find you guilty, you’ll get a last meal, you’ll be taken outside and you’ll be shot or you’ll be hung…”
John Wilson came to the Freedom Movement through a different path than might be expected. Wilson previously held various prominent union roles; for three years he was President of the Peak Trade Union Council in Canberra and is the former State Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union. He was also a candidate for the Pirate Party of Australia, a small social liberal political party. However, since affiliating with the Freedom Movement, his militancy has taken an authoritarian turn. In a Facebook video, he states:
“We need people with the ability to enforce law and order, that’s the military, and secondly we need some laws in which to enforce…that’s martial law…and that’s our only salvation in this situation….”
In the past few years, it should have become apparent that rhetoric around executions and military takeover is not harmless, regardless of the immediate threat that its speaker ostensibly poses. At its height, QAnon was a masterclass in this concept – a grand narrative of a military takeover and mass executions in service of a war of good against evil, providing the catalyst for various small-scale acts of violence. While that name has been shed by much of the conspiracist right, its dangerously unpredictable character remains.
Discussion / Conclusion
It is my contention that actors engaging in the type of rhetoric illustrated in this Insight are practising the deniable incitement known as stochastic terrorism. This concept is in its academic infancy, but is acutely relevant to contemporary violent extremism. Likewise, while stochastic terrorism gives a name to the actions of those who incite violence, the model developed by Hamm and Spaaij accounts for the journey of the incited, wherein at the enablement stage the stochastic terrorist throws kerosene onto the fire.
As in the US and around the world, conspiracist extremism in Australia is only getting started. In recent days, a popular surf life-saving club in Wollongong cancelled its youth pride event after a TikTok video was released by David Graham urging supporters to show up and confront staff at the venue. As the New South Wales election grows closer, the audience for such messages from Graham or running mate Bosi will likely grow.
Australian home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, has recently conceded that current processes and legislation are ill-equipped to address the threat of small-scale terrorism. Counter-terror laws designed to combat jihadist groups are unlikely to be effective. Civil society may have a larger role in responses to the drivers of small-scale terrorism. What is clear is that it needs to be recognised that having the power of an audience and influence over them means responsibility and accountability, or at least it should.