Our efforts to prevent extreme violence aren’t working

Australia's current approach to preventing extremism is too siloed. Could greater cooperation between agencies prevent further tragedies’

Associate Professor Emily Corner

ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods

In the wake of an extreme violence event such as the deadly attack at Bondi Junction, perpetrators are usually described as being either politically motivated or having poor mental health with no ideological motivations.

But this binary view can miss many of the complexities surrounding these events.

There is a growing argument that acts of extreme violence may be better understood and prevented if framed using the term grievance-fuelled violence.

The concept was first put forward by frontline workers. It was suggested after research disproved a long-standing belief that holding an ideology and suffering from poor mental health are antithetical. A review of the literature showed that an average of 23.4 per cent of extremists have had a mental disorder.

A toxic cocktail of grievances

In the last decade, there have been rapid changes in a wide range of belief systems.

For example, Western countries have experienced a groundswell in violence from emerging extreme-right belief systems characterised by biological racism, modern conspiracies, and misogyny. Climate-related activism and violent protest thrives around the world, and anti-government protests were consistent features of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue today.

In the 2023 ASIO Director-General’s annual threat assessment, Mike Burgess noted that it is "critical to understand that every ideologically motivated extremist is not automatically a left-wing or right-wing extremist... There is a cohort of individuals motivated by a toxic cocktail of conspiracies, grievances and anti-authority beliefs. It is neither helpful nor accurate to reflexively assign these individuals to a place on the political spectrum... Proper, sober, accurate assessments require time and multiple inputs".

Despite these changes in the security landscape, research into, and prevention of, extreme violence currently exists largely in silos. Established evidence bases and prevention mechanisms are ascribed to specific categories - terrorism and extremism, mass murder, violence in workplace or educational settings, hate crime, or domestic homicide.

A common prevention model

While many who act violently due to their beliefs continue to claim inspiration from political or religious ideologies, the blurring between traditional extremist ideologies and more personalised grievance is becoming increasingly salient.

Different categories of offenders, despite having different belief systems and targets, share a common origin that can be understood better using a common prevention model. This model may help to prevent cases where offenders do not neatly fit into existing categories.

The New South Wales State Coroner’s 2017 inquest into the Lindt Cafe siege highlighted errors in prevention due to the offender’s complex history and motivations - no single agency had oversight to identify all the offender’s warning-sign-behaviours prior to their attack.

The inquest made several recommendations for improving prevention, one being the establishment of multiagency centres across Australian states and territories tasked with preventing grievance-fuelled violence. These centres identify and gather information to intervene early for those at risk of committing an act of extreme violence.

The centres investigate cases when the wider public or other agencies raise concerns of either direct or indirect signs suggesting someone may be planning an act of extreme violence. Early signs can include inappropriate language or approaches, protests, or written communications.

Grounded in the premise that no single agency can hold all the skills and knowledge necessary to prevent extreme violence, the centres are made up of policing and mental health teams, and some centres operate with the addition of intelligence analysts.

They are also well connected to each other, meaning if a person at risk of violence moves into a new jurisdiction information on their ’riskiness’ is not left behind in their old jurisdiction. This capacity for sharing information means the centres have the ability to identify and act on threats at the earliest opportunity to prevent the progression to violence, in whatever form it takes.

The centres can divert at-risk people to the appropriate care pathways (e.g. mental health, physical health, social care, probation services or custodial services) to ensure they receive the correct intervention for their needs, and do not go on to conduct an act of extreme violence.

And these centres have been successful. Assessments of the Victorian grievance-fuelled violence centre showed the number of referrals classed as ’high concern’ dropped from 43 per cent to two per cent following intervention.

The constantly changing threat of extreme violence means that effective prevention will be achieved through cooperation between agencies, not through the siloing of different prevention mechanisms. This is particularly true when those mechanisms do not include long-term interventions appropriate for the complex needs of those presenting a risk of extreme violence.

If, as noted by Mike Burgess, "accurate assessments require time and multiple inputs," then the responsibility of prevention should be shared by all those who have the knowledge and skills to do so.