Rightwing extremist groups have “exploited” anger at Covid-19 lockdowns to radicalise Australians in wellness and alternative medical circles into adopting white supremacist ideologies, Victoria police have warned a parliamentary inquiry into extremism.

The inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism has separately been warned by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation that Australians as young as 13 are involved in onshore terrorism, both in Islamist and rightwing extremist circles, and that encrypted online communication channels are preventing authorities from intervening before “lone actors” become radicalised and carry out attacks.

Victoria police, in their submission, also noted that conspiracy theories and anti-authoritarian sentiment linked to the pandemic have exposed counter-terrorism experts as being ill-equipped to distinguish between threats from extreme leftwing- and rightwing-aligned individuals whose ideologies have become conflated.

The submission states that Islamist, rightwing and leftwing extremist circles have framed Covid-19 on social media as “confirmation” of their existing beliefs of “societal collapse and the validity of the ‘accelerationist’ mind-set”.

Victoria police warn that “online commentary on Covid-19 has provided a recruiting tool for right-wing extremist groups, linking those interested in alternative wellness, anti-vaccination and anti-authority conspiracy theories with white supremacist ideologies”, in addition to solidifying their base of exisiting adherents.

Police believe that “reduced public freedoms” enforced as part of Victoria’s lockdowns allowed rightwing groups to radicalise the other online communities, because the hostility towards politicians and law enforcement “fed” into anti-authoritarian narratives that extremists, anti-vaccination, wellness and conspiracy theorists share.

“Continued restrictions and border closures despite relatively low Covid-19 cases has continued to fuel the perception that restrictions are primarily a tool for authoritarian control, rather than for prevention of the spread of Covid-19,” the police submission says.

“Individuals traditionally holding right-wing extremist or left-wing extremist ideologies join online extremist and/or conspiracy groups that espouse conflating ideologies. For law enforcement, this has presented a challenge in effectively tasking and investigating these individuals as they do not fit neatly into pre-existing tasking and coordination frameworks.”

The Victoria police submission, as well as those lodged by Australian federal police and Asio, noted that jihadi-inspired terrorism remains a considerable threat, with the latter warning this threat will grow, particularly over the next five years, as a number of al-Qaida-linked prisoners are set to be released from Australians prisons.

But all agencies warn that the threat of terrorist activity inspired by rightwing extremism has grown at an alarming rate, with Asio noting that the 2019 Christchurch attack continues to be drawn on as a source for inspiration by rightwing extremists locally and abroad.

In its submission, Asio noted that since September 2014 – when Australia raised the national terror threat level to “probable” – there have been 19 major counter-terrorism disruptions in response to potential or imminent attacks being planned in Australia.

Of these, 17 related to Islamist terrorism, and two related to rightwing extremism. Meanwhile, of the nine terrorist attacks on Australian soil since 2014, all were carried out by “lone actors”, with six using blades and three using firearms.

Asio warn that “lone actors” and small groups remain the most likely perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Australia, and that they are likely to rely on “readily available weapons and simple tactics” and focus on “soft targets”, such as people in crowded places.

The spy agency also noted that terrorist propaganda is resonating with an increasingly younger audience in Australia, and that “Australians as young as 13 and 14 are involved in onshore terrorism, both in Islamic extremist and extreme right-wing circles”.

But Asio’s submission criticised online encrypted communications tools for enabling “unrestricted access to online propaganda, instructional material and extremist discussion”, which potentially “builds capability to undertake terrorist attacks”.

Asio said encrypted communications damage intelligence coverage in nine out of 10 priority counter-terrorism cases.

The Department of Home Affairs, in its submission, echoed Asio’s concerns about encryption.

“The malicious use of encryption and the dark web by criminals has significantly degraded the capacity for Australian national security and law enforcement agencies to access communications, conduct investigations and prevent crimes, including combatting the threat posed by extremist movements and radicalism,” it said.

“These technologies provide opportunities for the most serious crimes, including terrorism and other acts stemming from extremism and radicalism, to occur online undetected. Social media is a force multiplier for the spread of abhorrent, hateful or violent material online.”

The AFP, in its submission, is critical of the commonwealth criminal code, because the law requires evidence that suspects have an intention to harm or carry out terrorist acts for police to charge them with offences including advocating genocide or possessing items connected to a terrorist act.

“As a result, law enforcement experience a gap in being able to pursue individuals who simply possess or disseminate abhorrent or violent content that is not instructional or does not meet these thresholds, resulting in investigators being unable to disrupt individuals and small groups at an earlier stage in the attack planning continuum,” the AFP said.

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