Train family cop killings: How dangerous is the sovereign citizen movement?

It’s about as un-Australian as you can get.

Pepe the frog may be a global phenomenon. And the language of white supremacy speaks across the world. But only the sovereign citizen concept appears to have the power to unite budding extremists under one common cause.

On December 12, Gareth Train, his partner Stacey and his brother Nathaniel executed two police officers and shot and killed a neighbour. Since then, little has been officially released detailing their motives.

But extremism analysts have been scouring the internet for clues. And what they’ve found suggests the trio portrayed themselves as “sovereign citizens”. They believed all governments are illegitimate, that they could live outside the law, and that only violent insurrection could bring about a new world order.

Whatever that may be.

Twelve deleted YouTube videos and a trail of posts across various social media platforms sketch a picture of Gareth and Stacey’s beliefs. A thirteenth video, posted during the ensuing siege, proclaimed the dead police as “devils and demons” sent to assassinate them.

“If you are a conservative, anti-vax, freedom lover, protester, common law, conspiracy talker, alternative news, independent critical thinker, truther, Christian, patriot etc etc expect a visit from these hammers — they are here to kill, maim and take you to re-education school,” one account linked to the trio proclaimed.

Sovereign citizenship is a dogma that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. And it’s seen a revival in popularity after the Covid-19 lockdowns, mandatory vaccinations and pandemic containment measures of recent years.

But it won particular attention within Australia.

And that has analysts worried we haven’t seen the last of their particular brand of terrorism.

“The aim is to provoke a general crisis that must magically unlock all future possibilities,” a Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) analysis reads.

“Civil wars thus function as fantasies of grand catharsis. But what comes after this satisfying showdown is unclear: or is left open to individual taste, of which there are many along the far-right extremist spectrum.”

Conservative anarchists

“Significant protest activity in 2022, Covid-19 disinformation and negative social media sentiment, has led to an increase in threats and harassing, nuisance and offensive behaviour towards Parliamentarians and against protected establishments such as Parliament House,” a 2022 Australian Federal Police briefing paper states.

“In the next four years, Australia is expected to face increasingly frequent, complex and interconnected crises,” the Department of Home Affairs adds.

“Challenges to our national security and prosperity across a broad spectrum, ranging from natural disasters, to state and non-state hostile activity (including more sophisticated transnational serious and organised crime groups, a metastasising terrorist threat, malicious cyber activity and foreign interference) will place significant pressure on the nation.”

That’s precisely what sovereign citizens want, FPRI analysts Colin Clarke and Tim Wilson argue.

“What unites the disparate elements of the far-right today is the concept of accelerationism, a violent extremist strategy aimed at triggering the downfall of current systems of government through repeated acts of extreme violence,” they write.

“Accelerationism is essentially a tactical doctrine elevated to an end goal: rocking the ship of state until it capsizes.”

The sovereign citizen was invented by William Potter Gale. He was an adherent to the white supremacist Christian Identity philosophy.

On the one hand, the movement rejects the concept of rule-of-law. On the other, it embraces the document that founded the whole idea – the Magna Carta of medieval Britain.

“Extremism is spreading globally like a virus,” says University of Notre Dame counter-terrorism expert Dr Daniel Baldino.

“[It’s] a worldview in which society can be crudely separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people and the corrupt elite.”

Rule thyself

“Sovereign anti-government lore and language has proven to be highly alluring and pervasive in different international contexts,” says Dr Baldino.

“This is due, in part, to the fact that it can borrow, blend, and adapt from a hodgepodge of ideological and conspiratorial narratives.”

It espouses self-determination. It promotes communal rule. Mainly, it believes any formalised form of government is illegitimate – and their laws don’t have to be obeyed.

But it’s not the fascism and Nazism of the 1930s. Then, both believed governments needed to be infiltrated and captured to remould society to fit their rigid dogmas.

Sovereign citizens have few standards.

“Despite its racist anti-Semitic origins, the modern-day SCM does not have a cohesive shared values base, cuts across demographic clusters, and can be drawn into a wide variety of convenient ideologies to rationalise anti-government hostility or suspicion,” Dr Baldino adds.

Clarke and Wilson agree.

“The far-right is more inclusive than at any point in recent history, broadening its tent to welcome not just garden variety racists, but also conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, ‘incels,’ and an array of anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists,” they write.

“Such ‘anarchism of the right’ could hardly be further removed from the European leadership cults of 100 years ago.”

Instead, sovereign citizenship demonstrates a “weakening of traditional political and social bonds within many democratic countries and a rise in a form of populist extremism that cannot be simply quarantined”, Dr Baldino explains.

In 2021, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said that right-wing extremism represented 50 per cent of its priority work.

“It is both difficult to identify and stop lone actors and to regulate the extremist ideas which may ultimately motivate them,” says ANU radicalisation researcher Dr Michael Zekulin. “Despite our best efforts, we remain limited in explaining the process of radicalisation, particularly why, and how, some individuals progress from radical thought to violent action.”

Herding cats

“The nature of this type of toxic groupthink and a growing cross-polarisation of connections between groups in Australia and in other countries is that they are all broadly employing a “leaderless resistance” model,” says Dr Baldino.

This helps evade law enforcement. But, mainly, it allows the broad church of largely unrelated extremists to share their one common element – resentment of civil authority.

An account named “Gareth Train” was a prolific participant in Australian fringe conspiracy forums.

It was particularly keen on posting anti-vaccine, anti-government and anti-police posts. It claimed to be under surveillance by intelligence agencies. It boasted of hostile clashes with police. It pushed the myth that the Port Arthur massacre was a government “false flag” event designed to eliminate gun ownership in Australia.

“Rather than believing in a single conspiracy theory, he appears to have subscribed to a multitude of conspiracy theories and to have interpreted almost everything in the context of these theories,” notes an Institute for Strategic Dialogue report.

“Conspiracy theories referenced in his comments include anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown narratives, climate engineering and Sovereign Citizen conspiracies, conspiracies about microchips, the New World Order and Great Reset, the Illuminati, antisemitic conspiracy theories and more.”

But while the broadbased hate philosophy of sovereign citizenship is proving popular online, it appears to be struggling to inspire mass action.

Repeated, emphatic and impassioned pleas to turn bluster into action have largely failed. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was supposed to represent “stepping off the internet in a big way”. Instead of the hyped thousands, only a few hundred turned up.

“There is little serious threat of a paramilitarised mass movement that marches toward dictatorship,” the FPRI analysis concludes.

“Contrasts with earlier models of extreme right mobilisation could hardly be sharper from the days when — to pick just one example — no less than 60,000 Nazi Brownshirts first marched, and then rampaged, through Braunschweig, Germany in October 1931.”

But, they add, things can change. Fast.

Wolfpack politics

The ASIO 2022 Annual Threat Assessment states that the threat of terrorism has declined. But it goes on to add, “there’s been a distinct increase in radicalisation and specific-issue grievances”.

It’s easier than ever before for this to happen.

“Like the crowds at fascist rallies a century ago, isolated and frustrated individuals can feel themselves part of something bigger,” the FPRI analysis states. “Unlike 100 years ago, that something bigger asks very little of them in terms of personal discipline or subordination to a higher authority – but it does often encourage political violence.”

Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling of the Jeff Bleich Centre at Flinders University warns the digital revolution has made ideological extremism more widely accessible, visible, relatable and palatable.

“Yet, digital technologies are also an indispensable part of the solution to what is emerging as a growing problem for liberal democracy,” she explains.

“Although deplatforming can potentially facilitate ideological extremism by pushing extremist ideologies into more fringe parts of the internet, it might limit users’ initial exposure to extremist ideologies online. Likewise, while algorithms can lead users to more extremist content, they can also direct users away from it.”

At the heart of the counter-extremism debate is the definition of free speech.

Does it encapsulate hate speech? What are the distinctions? And would a blanket ban have the desired effect anyway?

“Banishing them to the shadows of the internet reinforces the echo chambers which likely isolate them and radicalise them further. Instead, challenge them, force them to confront and defend their ideas and values in full view of everyone,” argues Dr Zekulin.

It promotes the divisive “us versus them” narrative, he adds. “We must tone down the rhetoric and engage with our fellow citizens, even those we do not agree with and especially those whose ideas make us uncomfortable.”

But the FSRI analysts argue such “mainstreaming” of extremism will ensure its survival.

“In a television ad for the senate race in Missouri, former governor Eric Greitens wields a shotgun and urges his followers to go ‘RINO [Republican in Name Only] hunting,’ declaring, ‘there’s no bagging limit, there’s no tagging limit’. Coincidentally, this was the same language used by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who bragged of having a ‘multicultural-traitor hunting permit tagging not required, no bag limit’.”

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