Counter-terrorism experts have welcomed a federal inquiry that will look into the rise of extremism in Australia, amid concerns the pandemic has exacerbated the mobilisation of extremist groups.
Dr Kristy Campion, a lecturer in terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University, told the Guardian she was hopeful the inquiry would address the changing nature of terror threats.
“There is no silver bullet to counter terrorism: as threats evolve and change, we must evolve and change to counter them,” she said.
The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security will run the inquiry, which will examine the the nature, extent and threat of extremist movements in Australia.
The announcement of the inquiry came as Labor pushed for a motion in parliament to scrutinise anti-terror laws in light of the rising threat of far-right extremism.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has included Islamic extremism in the terms of reference, arguing the inquiry should focus on extremist ideologies no matter where they come from.
Dutton asked the inquiry to look at the motivations, objectives and capacity for violence of extremists, as well as how they operate and spread their messages online.
Dr Debra Smith, a researcher at Victoria University focusing on violent political extremism, said the current counter-terrorism framework was developed in a period of a “different threat complex”, and it was time to rethink the government’s approach.
“The current strategy was developed very much with the Islamist threat context front of mind.
“But it seems to be more pressing to consider whether this is appropriate within a different threat context, including the increasing prominence of the far-right threat.”
Smith described the terms of reference as “broad” but welcomed that it included a look at hate speech and how it is distributed online, particularly in light of the findings by New Zealand’s royal commission inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shooting.
“Currently there’s a lot of confusion about when something moves from being freedom of speech to being hate speech. Having a look at that and how that enables the emergence of violence is appropriate.”
Campion welcomed the inquiry’s focus on the role of social media and the dark web in spreading such ideologies but said it was still missing some key elements.
“This overlooks offline activity, which is, on its own, significant for extremists in making friends, extending their networks, validating their worldview, and finding a sense of community. Neither should be taken in isolation.”
The Labor MP Anne Aly, an expert in counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation, had attempted to force the issue by pushing a motion in the House of Representatives that would have referred the issue to the peak security committee, before Dutton agreed to launch the inquiry.
She said that it was “vitally important” Australia remained prepared for any kind of terror threat it may face.
“Australia is out of step with the other five eyes nations – all of whom have proscribed rightwing extremist groups. This inquiry is a starting point to begin to address the growing threat of rightwing extremism.”
She said Labor was able to reach a compromise with the government to help launch the inquiry, welcoming the bipartisan support and recognition of the changing nature of the terror threat Australia is facing.
“We know that rightwing extremist groups present a threat to Australia, and are different in the modes of terror they use to other forms of terrorism.
“The terms of reference include other forms of violent extremism and terrorism. Any learnings that we can take about how we have approached violent jihadism and apply those learnings to the increasing threat of rightwing extremism will be welcome and beneficial.”
Dutton said that he hoped the inquiry would look at extremism in general, and not focus on one ideology.
“We certainly have an issue with extremists; whether they’re on the extreme right wing or they’re Islamic extremists, that’s a concern for us and everybody in between essentially,” he said on Sky News on Thursday morning.
Smith, though, sees the inquiry as an opportunity to confront divisive rhetoric and for the government to clearly and conclusively stand by the multiculturalism that defines Australia.
“There’s an opportunity here to look at how willing our leaders are to robustly defend the principles of a multicultural democracy.”
The launch of the inquiry comes days after the New Zealand royal commission released its report into the Christchurch Mosque attacks last year that killed 51 worshippers.
It also comes after an 18-year old was arrested on terror charges in Albury, with police alleging the man is a neo-Nazi and was allegedly encouraging a mass casualty terrorist attack.