As one of the reporters who worked to uncover the operations of white power accelerationist group, The Base, I view the Australian federal government’s listing of them as a proscribed terror group this week as a belated but important recognition of the danger presented by white supremacist organisations.
But the national security state is a blunt instrument, and the apparatus of anti-terrorism is no substitute for making anti-racism principles central to a more inclusive democracy.
At its height, The Base was a transnational network of white nationalists who were seeking to collectively plan and prepare for what they saw as the inevitable collapse of liberal democracies they saw as decadent and corrupted by the values of feminism and multiculturalism.
In the Guardian US, I was the first reporter to identify Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American former US intelligence contractor now based in Russia, as the group’s founder and leader.
Previously he had only been known by the aliases Norman Spear and Roman Wolf.
An infiltrator gave me unprecedented access to the group’s internal communications. There I saw that although their group claimed only to be preparing for disaster, their conversations functioned to further indoctrinate members in a poisonous ideology of racial hatred, and the group’s relentlessly repeated fantasies of terroristic violence, for some of them, translated into real-world acts of destruction.
Members of the group are now facing trial for offences ranging from vandalising synagogues to assassination plots.
Late last month, one member, former Canadian serviceman Patrik Mathews, was sentenced to nine years in federal prison for engaging in a terror plot with other members of the group.
Later, I showed how The Base’s efforts to recruit in Australia had led to them vetting Dean Smith in 2019, who was a federal election candidate for One Nation in Western Australia the same year. Smith ended up withdrawing his application and there is no evidence he has engaged in or planned any violence.
Further reporting from the ABC and Nine/Fairfax showed the extent to which other Australian prospects for The Base at the time were part of a local network of white supremacists and far-right organisations that included local groups like the Lads Society who publicly disavow violence.
All of this reporting, including mine, was facilitated by informants from the activist world of anti-fascism, including Australia’s White Rose Society.
Together, these efforts showed that The Base’s Australian recruits were connected to groups like the Lads Society, which had been in contact with Australian terrorist mass murderer Brenton Tarrant in the years before his crimes.
Tarrant was in turn venerated as a white supremacist “saint” in The Base chats I obtained access to.
In the lead-up to Tarrant’s crime, various members of the far-right had been given platforms in mainstream media outlets, ranging from Sky News to Triple J.
After one such media appearance by Australian far-right extremist Blair Cottrell, Tarrant was moved to praise him on Facebook as the “true leader of the nationalist movement in Australia”. Cottrell, who in 2015 was convicted of racial vilification after making a video beheading a dummy in protest of a Bendigo mosque, has said he has never met Tarrant and has described him as “an idiot”.
Some media outlets realised too late that elevating extremists in this way, and amplifying their message, can have serious consequences.
Other outlets have adopted rightwing conspiracy theory as a business model.
Cottrell and the Lads Society may not advocate terror, but their extremist views are seemingly shared by those who do.
Where governments are concerned, their response to white supremacist terror has been flatfooted when compared with the heavy-handed approach to the so-called “war on terror”, which has frequently tipped over into indiscriminate surveillance and overpolicing of Australia’s entire Muslim community.
For this government, the war on terror has never ended, and as if to underline this fact, Hezbollah was listed along with The Base this week.
No Australian Muslim has committed any terrorist attack on the scale of Tarrant’s massacre, and as I observed at the time, Tarrant’s own crime needs to be understood in the context of the culture of Islamophobia produced by Australia’s participation in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home.
The experience of the war on terror should be what leads us to ask whether the national security state is best equipped to deal with the danger of white supremacist violence.
Obviously, crimes of violence and criminal conspiracies should be punished and seen to be punished.
But courts, prisons and even universal surveillance cannot solve the problem at the heart of white supremacist terror, which is racism.
A multicultural settler society cannot be just or even function for all of its members unless it makes racial equality and anti-racism core values.
Such a society would not tolerate racial vilification and hatred, whether in white nationalist groups or tabloid newspapers.
But it would also be distinguished by the positive actions it took: on the endlessly deferred task of Indigenous reconciliation; on welcoming refugees, wherever they may be fleeing from; on ensuring that Australia’s diverse communities are represented in the composition of parliaments, appointed bodies and, I daresay, newsrooms.
The Base has been banned, but other such groups will form and radicalise young Australians until we confront the beliefs that sustain them.