When Australian former Neo-Nazi and registered gun owner Ethan Tilling flew into Brisbane this year, he was returning under the radar of Australian authorities with newfound combat experience from a brutal and forgotten war.
- Two Australians have been identified as joining militant groups to fight in the war in Ukraine
- One of the men, Ethan Tilling, is a former Neo-Nazi and soldier in the Australian Army and the other was an airman with the Royal Australian Air Force
- There are no rules prohibiting Australians fighting for Ukraine
Mr Tilling, who was until recently a member of the Nazi group Right Wing Resistance, had spent the Australian spring in the bitter cold of Eastern Ukraine firing Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and grenades at Russian-backed separatists.
The 23-year-old former soldier from Brisbane is one of two Australian ex-Defence Force personnel identified by the ABC who have joined thousands of ultranationalists flocking from across the world to take up arms in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass.
Mr Tilling and former Royal Australian Air Force airman Jared Bennet joined a patchwork of pro-Ukrainian militia groups taking on the Russian-backed separatists in a chaotic and stuttering conflict, which has become to right-wing extremists what the war in Syria is to jihadists.
The ABC does not suggest Mr Tilling or Mr Bennet pose any threat, but Australian and international security experts say the cases highlight an inconsistency in the law which leaves Australia vulnerable to the brand of violent right-wing extremism that is spreading across the US and Europe.
At the age of 18, he joined the Australian Army but he did not serve out his contract and was discharged after serving 18 months with the 8th/12th artillery regiment in Darwin. Two months after his discharge in late 2015, when anti-Islamic sentiment was boiling over in Australia, Mr Tilling wore a Southern Cross flag to a Reclaim Australia anti-Islam protest in Brisbane.
He said it was there that he met a New Zealand-based Neo-Nazi group called Right Wing Resistance, which describes itself on its website as “an active army of white nationalists” committed to white supremacy.
Still “an Australian nationalist, a patriot … very much anti-immigration” and “definitely anti-Muslim”, Mr Tilling turned his mind to fighting a war. He was initially drawn to fighting against Islamic State in Syria, but Australians who joined the Kurdish forces were being threatened with charges under foreign fighter laws. Under Australian law, anyone who participates in acts merely with the intention of engaging in hostile activities faces life in jail, but taking up arms alongside an army on their soil is perfectly legal.
Mr Tilling set about trying to find a foreign army that would take him.
It was a YouTube video that drove him to sign up with the Georgian National Legion, an international unit of foreign fighters in Ukraine including Americans, Brits and Europeans.
After contacting the Georgian National Legion and assuring the unit he was not breaking any laws, Ethan Tilling landed on the frontline of Lugansk, the site of the most intense battles of the war in eastern Ukraine.
The Georgian National Legion was among a mishmash of militant groups which had gained strength and popularity in Ukraine when the ill-prepared and under-resourced Ukrainian army struggled to beat back Russian-backed separatists after war broke out in 2014. Groups on both sides of the conflict were a magnet for thousands of ultra-nationalist amateur militants who were on an ideological “pilgrimage”, according to Dr Kacper Rekawek, from the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Slovakia.
The legion fought alongside the Ukrainian army, under constant artillery fire from Russian-backed separatists, who seized a large swathe of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Fighters were equipped with Soviet-era machine guns, small rocket launchers, semi-automatic grenade launchers and sniper rifles, Mr Tilling said.
“I personally had an AK assault rifle and a grenade launcher — and we had everything on the line, It’s more or less World War I-style trench warfare and I certainly didn’t expect that when I got into occupied Donetsk. We were getting shelled by a combination of mortar and artillery for almost 24 hours a day.”
The ABC was unable to independently verify Mr Tilling’s account, but the commander of the Georgian National Legion, Mamuka Mamulashvili, and an independent observer confirmed there had been instances of bodies of fighters being mutilated.
A year before Mr Tilling flew to Ukraine, another former Australian Defence Force serviceman traded his suburban life in Melbourne’s north for the battlefields of Donetsk.
After ending a five-year stint with the Royal Australian Air Force, Jared Bennet, 30, had spent his days going to the gym and his nights driving trucks.
Like Mr Tilling, Mr Bennet was inspired by social media to take up arms in Ukraine.
Mr Bennet told the ABC the catalyst to join the war was the Facebook posts from the frontline of a former US military friend he had met on a training exercise in Australia while in the air force. Mr Bennet said he travelled to Ukraine in 2016 to fight for the country’s radical ultranationalist Right Sector. A spokeswoman for the Right Sector-aligned Volvika Tactical Group told the ABC that Mr Bennet returned to Ukraine to fight with the unit again last year, but Mr Bennet refused to respond to the claim. Mr Bennet served alongside Craig Lang, the same American ex-soldier who had fled the US for Ukraine after allegedly threatening to kill his ex-wife and who later joined Mr Tilling’s unit.
The Right Sector Volvika Tactical Group was not the only ultranationalist cause Mr Bennet was drawn to on social media. On Facebook, he likes the pages of the Australia First Party and self-styled ultranationalist leader Blair Cottrell, as well as right-wing army veterans groups and bikie clubs including the Rebels.
The ABC does not suggest Mr Bennet is an extremist.
Australia’s former watchdog on national security laws, Bret Walker SC, called for changes to Australia’s foreign fighter laws in response to the ABC’s revelations that Australians had fought with militant groups in Ukraine. Mr Walker said Australia was vulnerable to any returned ultranationalist fighters who go on to become violent.
Mr Walker said the inconsistency in the current legislation was highlighted by the fact Australians could legally fight with the forces of foreign government dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
As the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor in 2014, Mr Walker SC made a recommendation to Federal Parliament for the law to be changed so that all foreign fighting would be illegal unless officially approved by the Australian Government.
His recommendations were ignored.
“There’s very little sign that there was — let alone at parliamentary level — any consideration of them,” Mr Walker said.
“They have been utterly silent in relation to the basic principle that Australians should not fight abroad except for Australia or with Australia’s approval.”
In February this year, Mr Tilling was visited by two officers from the Queensland Police Counter-Terrorism Command who interviewed him about his time in Ukraine. Police also contacted him after neighbours complained he was firing rifles and shotguns, which he is registered to own. Queensland Police refused to shed any light on the visits, saying it was unable to comment on specific individuals.
But the ABC understands counter-terrorism authorities had doubted whether Mr Tilling had even fought in Ukraine, despite being featured in a Ukrainian TV news story from the Donbass frontline, in Ukrainian army propaganda on YouTube and in pictures shared by some Australians on Facebook.
Mr Tilling said the visits from police were unnecessary because neither he nor any ultranationalists posed any threat to Australia.
“We’ve committed no crimes here, we’ve never committed a terrorist attack in this country,” he said.