Foreign Fighters and Fellow Travelers: Right-Wing Extremism in Australia and the United States

Editor’s note: America has rediscovered its problem with right-wing extremism in recent years, recognizing the danger this movement poses to the lives of Americans and to democracy itself. The United States, unfortunately, is not alone. Kristy Campion, senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University in Australia and author of “Chasing Shadows: The Untold and Deadly Story of Terrorism in Australiadescribes some of the long history of right-wing extremism in his country and details his many ties to the United States.

Daniel Byman

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The United States is not alone in its problem of right-wing extremism. When America’s attention on this issue turns abroad, it is usually to Europe. One of the most instructive places to watch, however, is Australia. As established in my recently published book, Australia has long had a problem with far-right movements with many transnational connections.

Australia’s far-right rarely operates in a vacuum – it typically seeks connections with fellow travelers in other white-majority countries, including the United States. These connections, in turn, inform and reinforce their beliefs and operations. These operations include traveling to foreign lands to fight, a legacy that dates back 60 years.

Deep connections

There are important stories about the far right in the United States, but the same cannot be said for Australia. The 1901 White Australian policy and other systems encouraged white nationalism to flourish, meaning the rise of European fascism found fertile ground in Australia early, from 1920. Nazi storm fronts were established as early as 1930 and, over the following decades, far-right organizations. rose and fell.

Some of these organizations have developed strong transnational ties with like-minded people in other predominantly white countries. One such example is the Ustaša, a fascist organization that ruled Croatia on behalf of the Nazi Party during World War II. After the war, the Ustaša went underground and overseas, becoming one of several organizations monitored by the CIA.

The Ustaša have developed a strong presence in Australia. The Australian members kept the international network afloat financially and undertook violent missions. Arguably, its agents became Australia’s first foreign terrorist fighters. In 1963, Australian Ustaša agents traveled to Trieste, Italy and then mounted an incursion into Yugoslavia. Armed with 30 pounds of explosives and 100 detonators, the group sought to incite an insurrection, followed by a fascist revolution. They were captured upon arrival.

The Ustaša tried this strategy again in 1972, when the Australians were part of a 19-man cadre who entered Yugoslavia near Bugojno. They tried to incite the citizens’ revolt, but the local citizens immediately called the authorities. Yugoslav security forces engaged in a firefight with the group, killing 13. As a result, the US FBI told the Australian government that it considered Australia to be the “hotbed of Ustaša terrorism” in 1973.

WANs

Australia’s far-right, however, viewed white US citizens as their allies and fellow travelers. Throughout the 1960s, various Australian groups followed the campaigns of George Lincoln Rockwell, an American neo-Nazi and politician. Australian Customs intercepted propaganda packages, including “Hitler was right” stickers, from US senders suspected of involvement with Rockwell. The two midfielders also visited, or at least tried – Rockwell attempted to visit Australia but abandoned his plans after media reports suggested his visa would be rejected.

Jack van Tongeren, the leader of a far-right group called the Australian Nationalist Movement, visited the United States in 1983. There he met a representative of the neo-Nazi American Workers’ Party. Van Tongeren described the United States as “Zionist-dominated and diseased” and saw “vice, degeneracy and perversion” seemingly everywhere. He later obtained the “bible” of the American far right, the novel “The Turner Diaries”, and distributed thousands of copies in Australia.

When Van Tongeren returned home to Western Australia, his organization launched its own Kristallnacht. From 1989 to 1990 they carried out a firebombing campaign against the businesses of Asian Australians as part of a strategy to force them out of Australia. The members openly stated that they had hoped to strike terror into the Asian community. They further justified the violence as self-defense, arguing that they were jeopardized by Asian immigration and Zionism, which they saw as evidence of white replacement.

Although far-right organizations in the United States and Australia can (and usually did) operate independently, a few organizations have managed to establish chapters in both countries. The Hammerskin Nation, established in Dallas in the late 1980s, had two separate and rival chapters in Australia: the Southern Cross Hammerskins and the Australian Hammerskin Nation. Another import was Aryan Nations, which had an active Australian chapter. These organizations maintained the exchange of ideas. Blood & Honour, a UK-based organization, has also established a beachhead in Australia and the United States.

Shared beliefs

Groups like these, including the Aryan Nations, peddled conspiracy theories that remain prevalent today, including ideas about “white genocide,” which is also sometimes described as a “replacement theory.” This conspiracy theory argues that the white population is under threat due to immigration and multiculturalism policies that alter national demographics. In Australia, this conspiracy theory came to public attention after the March 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. The terrorist, an Australian citizen, attacked two mosques with firearms and was arrested en route to a third, killing 51 and injuring 49. The attacker was found to have national and international connections and was inspired by demographic conspiracy theories.

Transnational networks, such as those linking Australian white supremacists to others overseas, serve to reinforce the belief systems of extremists by reinforcing shared ideological positions and introducing new and complementary ideas. Personal visits also contribute to this connection. This could partly explain why far-right violence around the world occurs in waves.

These networks between far-right transnational communities continue. The Base, a neo-Nazi cell based in the United States that openly celebrates terrorism, sought to recruit Australians in 2021. The Order of Nine Angles, a satanic neo-Nazi cult originating in the United Kingdom and which was influential in the United States, has also extended its operations to Australia through a local affiliate organization, the Temple of THEM. Many encrypted social media channels exist between other Australian bands and US accounts.

Beyond the American connection, Australians traveled to Ukraine to fight with right-wing nationalist organizations, donated to European organizations and cemented their networks in New Zealand. Fighting in foreign lands is perhaps the strongest indication of this transnational connectivity.

A common enemy

This review highlights a very simple fact: transnational connections between the far right in Australia and the United States have a long history and continue to the present day. FBI and CIA officials recognized decades ago that the far-right threat in Australia could impact US national security.

As the attack in Christchurch demonstrates, far-right transnational connections must be understood in order to effectively counter this threat.

As policymakers in Australia, the United States and elsewhere consider new policies and efforts to counter the far right, they must conceptualize it as an entrenched transnational threat. For this reason, policies should involve greater multilateral collaboration, particularly with regard to transnational extremist networks, and facilitate the sharing of databases on the wide range of signs, symbols, tattoos, slogans and literature that help to identify extremists.

More than 20 years after countries around the world formed a coalition to fight transnational Salafi jihadism, it is worth reflecting on the benefits of joint counterterrorism initiatives. Strong partnerships formed against one threat could help counter another: the transnational far-right.

About Harold Hartman

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