“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 Organisation (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.
“The key here is the violence, that is the threshold for us to take action. Where we see individuals where there is a threat or move to violence, that’s where the JCTT will take action,” Mr Lee said.
Far-right threat growing, AFP says
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.”
'De-radicalisation is key'
Dvir Abramovich is the chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), Australia’s leading Jewish civil rights organisation.
He said his organisation had witnessed discussions around the “ethnic cleansing” of Australia and the purchasing of firearms by groups additional to the one uncovered by SBS News.
“The ADC, throughout its investigation of these hardcore bigots, has seen discussions and has seen those individuals talking about acquiring weapons, talking about a racial war, talking about eliminating anybody they perceive to be as a threat to white people.”
“I think this is a problem from hell that we can’t run and hide away from and I think the worst thing we could do is ignore the threat materialising before our very eyes.”
Mr Abramovich called on the Australian Government to look at putting additional funding into far-right de-radicalisation programs.
“We need a whole of society approach … we don’t need a Christchurch massacre in our cities to take this problem seriously. These people are ticking time bombs.”
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?”
“I can see how these growing divisions could give some groups a sense of ‘we need to take matters into our own hands’, and that is very dangerous, especially when those groups are engaging in training and looking at buying weapons.”
Assistant Commissioner Mr Lee rejected the assertion that requests by Australian authorities for Muslim leaders to condemn Islamic extremist violence had added to a sense of alienation.
“I don’t think the calls [for the] condemnation of Islamic extremism is an unfortunate legacy,” he 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.”
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Those wishing to report suspected terrorist activity in Australia are encouraged to contact the National Security Hotline on 1800 123 400.