SYDNEY (Reuters) - From its clubhouses in Melbourne and Sydney, the Lads Society promotes drug-free living and exercise, as well as “white resistance” and Islamophobia, according to online statements and interviews with two of its leaders.
One of Australia’s most high profile extremist groups, its members last year infiltrated the youth arm of the National Party, part of the ruling coalition government, before being exposed and ejected due to their far right views.
Now, the group has come to prominence again – and to the attention of security agencies – after a gunman shot 50 people dead at two New Zealand mosques.
In the hours after the shootings, the Lads Society’s private Facebook page lit up as its members discussed the attack and the man arrested and charged with murder, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, according to five screenshots of the Facebook messages which were provided by a person with access to the group and reviewed by Reuters.
“He had been on the scene for a while,” said Tom Sewell, founder of the Lads Society, according to the previously undisclosed messages on the Lads Society’s Facebook page.
“He made heaps on Bitcoin and paid for his own holidays, I spoke to him back in 2017 when he was donating money to everyone,” added Sewell.
In a later public statement, Sewell said he and Lads Society leaders were interviewed about the Christchurch attacks by the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic spy agency.
ASIO said it does not comment on specific individuals, intelligence or operational matters but was alert to the threat from people with “extreme right-wing ideologies”. The Australian Federal Police also declined to comment when asked about any ties Tarrant had to the Lads Society.
Sewell declined to comment on Tarrant or whether he knew him, and his messages provided no further details.
Tarrant, who is now in custody and has said he plans to represent himself, was not available for comment.
The Lads Society’s page was shut down after Facebook targeted white nationalists in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Reuters was unable to verify the claims on the since-deleted Facebook page.
However, Sewell’s messages to the private group on the Lads Society Facebook page, which carried the same profile photo as a photo posted on Sewell’s Instagram account, add to evidence Tarrant was engaged with Australia’s far right.
On the 8Chan message board minutes before the attack, Tarrant posted links to a livestream video of the attack and said: “You are all top blokes and the best bunch of cobbers a man could ask for.” Cobber is Australian slang for friend, and a term popular among Australian white nationalists.
As Australia confronts the uncomfortable truth that Tarrant was one of its own, the country has been gripped by acrimonious debate about both its past race policies and whether recent political discourse about immigration and Islam had any role to play in his radicalization.
In the space of a few minutes outside a Sydney mosque the day after the Christchurch shootings, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison encapsulated the country’s contradictory identity.
“We are a tolerant, multicultural society, the most successful immigration country on the planet,” he said, before pivoting to a darker undercurrent. “These white supremacist, white separatist views, are not new. I mean, these sentiments have sadly existed in Australia for hundreds of years.”
Tarrant grew up in the small Australian city of Grafton, where he worked as a gym instructor and developed a passion for gaming and computers, according to local media reports citing the gym owner and his grandmother.
In a “manifesto” distributed online just before the attack, Tarrant said he formed his racist beliefs on the internet and downplayed his links to Australia, saying he was radicalized abroad.
He acted alone, the manifesto said, although he said he had donated to far-right groups from an inheritance and a cryptocurrency windfall.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last week confirmed his country’s far-right Identitarian Movement had received 1,500 euros ($1,690) from Tarrant.
Most of his past nine years was spent traveling across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Tarrant was “on nobody’s radar, anywhere,” said Morrison, spending only 45 days in the past three years in Australia.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, citing archives of the deleted Facebook account of the United Patriots Front (UPF), another Australian far-right group, Tarrant described one of that group’s leaders, Blair Cottrell, as “Emperor”. Reuters was unable to independently verify that detail.
Cottrell - a muscle-bound, blond-haired carpenter - founded the UPF alongside Sewell. Sewell later started Lads Society in 2017, with Cottrell’s promotional support. Cottrell, described by sources as the movement’s main figurehead in Australia, still heads UPF and appears in Lads Society photos and videos but holds no formal position in that group.
Cottrell told Reuters that, as best he could tell, Tarrant had donated only once to groups he was associated with - A$50 to the UPF.
“I don’t believe I influenced Tarrant much at all. Maybe three years ago, he was in support of our specific opposition to that mosque development in Bendigo.”
In 2017, Cottrell and two other UPF members were found guilty of inciting contempt of Muslims after they filmed a mock beheading outside council offices to protest a mosque development in the small Victorian city.
White extremists gained momentum in 2014 after an Islamist gunman took a group of hostages in a Sydney cafe, analysts and members of the movement say.
The following year, thousands of people attended rallies arranged by anti-Islam group Reclaim Australia, and some far-right politicians spoke at the events.
Suspicions about the presence of Lads Society members in the youth wing of the National Party first emerged after officials of the rural-based party noted an influx of new members from cities.
After ties to the Lads Society were revealed in local media, the National Party expelled 19 people, saying in a statement in November it “would not rest until every last one of these extremists have been identified and removed.”
In Australia’s latest census, about 90 percent nominated their ancestry as Australian or European, while 2.5 percent were recorded as Muslims.
Just under a quarter of Australians have a “negative attitude” to Muslims, according to a 2018 report from the Scanlon Foundation, a group that tracks social cohesion.
In the wake of the Christchurch attacks, Australia’s Islamophobes flooded social media with memes and messages in support of Fraser Anning, the Australian senator who blamed the bloodshed on “an immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand”.
In an interview with Reuters, Anning said he was “completely opposed” to the attacks in Christchurch.
However, he echoed the “replacement theory” embraced by Tarrant and the global white supremacist movement. Muslims, he said, “are going to outbreed us very quickly”.
Anning has picked up 28,600 Facebook followers in the past four weeks, data provided by his office shows, and now has more than 122,000 followers.
Sewell and Cottrell in statements and interviews with Reuters and other media, also said they were appalled by the attacks on the mosques.
“Politically motivated violence is not in the interest of our organization or our community,” Sewell said in his since-deleted Facebook statement on March 20.
In his interview with Reuters, Sewell said further that Tarrant’s violence had caused governments to become “extremely reactionary”, passing legislation “without thinking it through”.
New Zealand moved swiftly to ban the kinds of semi-automatic weapons used in the attacks.
“We have a new level of totalitarian thought crime legislation across New Zealand and shortly here in Australia too,” Sewell added.
Reporting by Byron Kaye, Tom Allard and Jonathan Barrett. Editing by John Chalmers and Lincoln Feast.