Julia spent two years undercover chasing extremists

Julia Ebner chases extremists for a living.

By day, she's a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue in London.

By night, she could be a white nationalist attending a neo-Nazi rock gig; or an anti-feminist TradWife discussing her possible sexual value to men; or an ISIS-sympathiser in a jihadi bride group.

Over two years, using five different identities, Ebner infiltrated extremist groups to see how they operated from the inside.

She wanted to know what drove people to join up, and what kept them coming back to the community for more.

"I couldn't quite grasp the motivational factors, and also the social dynamics," Ebner told Hack.

She went deep into their worlds, both online and offline, finding the spaces where attacks were planned, young recruits were targeted, and people like the Christchurch shooter were radicalised.

She says it wasn't uncommon to see a little Australian flag next to a user's name, showing how far-reaching these networks are.

Getting in: genetics tests, and stupid mistakes
Ebner took time to craft her online avatars, with many of the groups requiring strict proof of identity.

"One of the neo-Nazi groups that I went undercover, in the very beginning they asked me to submit a timestamped wrist picture, to prove that I'm white, and also the results of a genetic test to prove that I have no non-white heritage," she says.

Others required live voice chats, and in-person meetings. One weekend, she met up with white nationalists at an AirBnB in one of the most multicultural parts of London, and headed to the pub with them to talk conspiracy theories.

She says it could be hair-raising stuff, often done on-the-fly.

"It also meant that I made a lot of very stupid mistakes," Ebner said.

She accidentally signed off an email with her real name, and once dropped a credit card with her personal details on it.

That made it sometimes quite tricky and quite scary as well.
Once accepted by these movements, she noticed a common goal: young, new recruits.

Gaming, hipster clothes and hot extremists: hooking young recruits
For months before the Charlottesville rally in 2017, the white supremacist organisers were talking about clothes.
Ebner watched them finally agree on a look that would give them a 'normal, but cool' vibe: white tees, khaki pants, black gloves and helmets.

The orgsanisers were also keen to stack the rally with good looking members, asking everyone else to stay at home, so the crowd would look more appealing to new recruits.

She says brand management is a big concern for these extremist groups, and they're good at adapting to subcultures, language and visual ways of communicating to lure young people in. Think the 'OK' hand emoji / sign, which caused a stir with Victoria Police last year, not swastikas.

'Nipsters' - young neo-Nazis who've adopted a hipster aesthetic - are also a thing, apparently.

In her book about all this, Ebner is particularly worried by how many young people she sees in these communities - as young as 14.

It reflects something Australia's own spy agency, ASIO, has noticed.

Just last week, the head of the agency, Mike Burgess, talked about disturbing cases they'd seen of extremists actively trying to recruit high school-age kids.

She also thinks there's something in the way recruitment, and extremism itself, has been 'gamified': made to look and feel like live-action-role-play (LARP) games that are pretty popular these days.

She was in the groups where the Christchurch shooter was radicalised, and shared the livestream of his horrific attack.

"A lot of the members that commented on the attack still seemed to see this all as a big game. One of the comments was like, is this a LARP?," she says.

"[It] showed how a lot of times, the lines between what is a game and what is real world violence or what is trolling and what is terrorism have become blurrier."

After Christchurch
On Sunday 15 March, it'll be one year since the Christchurch shooting, where 51 people were killed.

ASIO says Christchurch really put right-wing extremism on their radar last year.

"In Australia, the extreme right wing threat is real and it is growing," Mike Burgess said last week. "In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology."

Thinking about the lead up to the massacre, Ebner told Hack it shouldn't have been a surprise to authorities that all the extremist chat online turned into real-world violence. There's a danger in not being across how these networks operate from the inside.

She also thinks there could be more understanding of what pulls people into extremist groups, as a different counter-terrorism approach.

The feeling of being part of an exclusive group for people who were lonely, or looking for a kind of love, was a powerful force. In some cases, she felt empathy, and sympathy, for people in the groups.

"But I think that also gave me a lot of hope, because it also means that we can use those human dimensions as starting points for intervention in the radicalisation programmes."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/julia-ebner-book-extremism-christchurch/12053230


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