Membership of Australia’s outlaw motorcycle clubs is being transformed by a new breed of ‘criminal entrepreneurs’ motivated by drug trade profits and prepared to collaborate with rivals, a leading researcher claims.
A recent spate of violent shootings by individuals with bikie links has exposed the changing nature of how the gangs operate.
Professor of Criminology David Bright, who works at Melbourne‘s Deakin University and has studied bikie gangs for many years, said in the past decade there has been a shift away from the traditional tribal identity offered by clubs towards the lure of easy money from the drug trade.
‘Where there’s money to be made, that has become the primary motivation,’ Prof Bright told Daily Mail Australia.
Outlaw motorcycle club members, otherwise known as bikies, are known for their massed and intimidating gatherings
What remains the same, even if the reasons may be shifting, is the trademark brutal and bloody violence that has long made bikies feared criminal enforcers.
‘There’s been this evolution from brotherhood and riding motorcycles as being the primary part of their existence to something different,’ Prof Bright said.
‘A model of criminal entrepreneurship takes over.’
Prof Bright said this was changing the membership of clubs.
‘Research shows there are younger, more criminally prone or more active men being recruited or attracted to clubs,’ he said.
‘You might have heard of the ‘Nike Bikie’.
‘They don’t dress in the stereotypical bikie way with club leather jackets, torn jeans and everything else, they have a lot of bling and high-end fashion and some of them don’t even ride or own a motorcycle.
‘For some clubs and some members it’s no longer a central part of their identity.’
The development is a long way from how one of the world’s most famous outlaw motorcycle club’s, the Hells Angels, was formed in California after World War II, with the iconic name borrowed from a wartime squadron of US fighter planes based in China.
A spate of shootings, including this one of prominent Comanchero brothers at a south west Sydney gym in May have thrown the spotlight back on bikie clubs
Omar Zahed (top) was shot dead in an execution-style attack at a Sydney gym in May while his brother Tarek (bottom) was seriously injured
Comanchero national bikie boss Allan Meehan has become known as the ‘bathrobe bikie’ after donning Versace home wear that featured the club’s colours (pictured right with wife Elise)
Meehan is an example of the new breed of bikie who love to flaunt their wealth and luxury lifestyles
‘The clubs started with returning veterans who were seeking some sort of brotherhood, something like that experience in the military, so it developed into a sub-culture,’ Prof Bright said.
‘That sub-culture was based on both brotherhood but also on their own norms, what you might call anti-social, brawling, riding motorcycles, drinking a lot. A barbarian type culture.’
Prof Bright said in the early days bikie clubs weren’t well organised or involved in serious crime but that changed in the late 1990s.
This led to a broader recruitment of people with useful criminal connections or potential.
‘Membership is much more open than it once was in Australia and elsewhere,’ Prof Bright said.
‘White working class men were the members early on but these days membership has opened up significantly, such that you see a range of ethnicities and a range of cultural backgrounds.’
A victim is taken to hospital after the infamous ‘Milperra Massacre’ in 1982 where rival gangs engaged in a deadly shootout that claimed the lives of an innocent 14-year-old girl and six bikies
Sydney Airport travellers were shocked to see a deadly brawl break out between rival bikie gang members in 2009
Violence has always been a calling card of bikies but Prof Bright said the recent shootings seemed different in type from previous infamous episodes of carnage.
Perhaps the bloodiest day of bikie violence in Australia was the 1982 ‘Milperra Massacre’, where Comancheros faced off with members of breakaway club the Bandidos in south-west Sydney.
Both sides were heavily armed and the shoot-out that ensued claimed the lives of six bikies and 14-year-old bystander Leanne Walters, with 20 people also needing hospital treatment.
Criminology Professor David Bright has spent many years researching and interacting with Australia’s bikies
In 2009 a nationwide war involving multiple bikie clubs spilled over into a domestic terminal at Sydney Airport. A Hells Angel member was fatally bashed and stabbed by Comancheros while shocked travelers looked on.
In 2015, another confrontation erupted on the Gold Coast in Queensland as members of the Bandidos and Finks sent tables flying and startled families running for safety in a crowded eatery during what became dubbed ‘the Broadbeach bikie brawl’.
Former Bandidos president Brett ‘Kaos’ Pechey became Queensland’s most wanted man after that incident and spent two years on the run in south-east Asia before surrendering to police at Brisbane airport.
Prof Bright believes more recent bikie shootings appear to be more about personal and family vendettas, where someone retaliates for feeling disrespected or engages in tit-for-tat killings, rather than traditional warfare between gangs.
Former Bandidos Brett ‘Kaos’ Pechey (pictured) became Queensland’s most wanted man after the infamous Broadbeach bikie brawl and spent two years on the run in Asia
Daily Mail Australia recently revealed that national Comanchero bikie boss Allan Meehan was allegedly plotting a reprisal against the assassins who shot the gang’s sergeant-at-arms Tarek Zahed and killed his brother Omar in an execution-style double shooting at a Sydney gym in May.
According to court documents, Meehan discussed a reprisal attack with Comanchero World Commander Mark Buddle, underworld figure Mohamad Alameddine and another man, Victor Youssef, in the wake of the shooting.
Meehan is in some ways emblematic of the new generation of outlaw motorcycle gang members, and has earned the nickname ‘the bathrobe bikie’ by posing in a designer Versace dressing gown.
He also posts images flaunting a partying lifestyle replete with eye-catching designer clothes, mansions and private cruisers.
Prof Bright believed the multiple murders could highlight a struggle for power as bikie gangs continued to evolve away from their traditional image.
‘There may be in clubs different sub-groups of individuals, some who are more interested in [an] hedonistic rebellious lifestyle but not interested in doing significant crime,’ Prof Bright said.
‘But then another group within the same club might be really keen on doing organised crime and there might be some dispute with different cliques, sub-groups or just individuals wanting to take power.
‘Often they will do whatever they need to do to get it.
‘Where there’s money being made by the club there’s even greater motivation to take control of the purse strings.’
Traditionally bikie clubs have a very strong sense of hierarchy, with a regional club coming under a national or even international chain of command.
The so-called club chapters in a city or region are headed by a president, vice president and treasurer who are classified as office holders.
Reflecting their military beginnings, many clubs also have a sergeant-at-arms, whose job it is to keep club discipline and order, which can mean violently bringing unruly members into line.
Underneath this are the ‘patched’ members, who can only wear the club’s emblem after a long trial period, where they are called a prospect or nominee.
According to the most recent report on bikie groups by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), there are 38 motorcycle gangs operating in Australia with more than 4,700 patched members and 1,000 prospective members
This vetting process is useful in establishing criminal credentials.
‘In the criminal underworld one of the big challenges is, who do you know you can trust?’ Prof Bright said.
‘How do you know the guy who has just approached you and wants to work with you isn’t an undercover cop?
‘One way is, if you’ve got a Hells Angel patch on the back of your jacket, you can be trusted.’
Despite the shocking trail of recent shootings, Prof Bright said for serious criminal organisations, where the primary goal is making money, violence was normally bad for business.
‘Violence in illicit markets is actually avoided at all costs because it draws the attention of law enforcement,’ Prof Bright said.
‘Organised criminal groups whether they be bikies or Mafia avoid violence because it tends to bring the heat.’
Prof Bright said his research showed another way bikies are departing from their traditional tribal approach was that they had become more open to collaboration.
‘There’s collaboration between clubs and collaboration between clubs and other types of crime groups… you wouldn’t have seen that even a couple of decades ago,’ he said.
Outlaw motorcycle club members, otherwise known as bikies, are known for their massed and intimidating gatherings, which are called ‘runs’
‘There’s a whole model of criminal entrepreneurship and we are definitely seeing that play out in the bikies’ space, where clubs shift from that sort of brotherhood idea to engaging in criminal activities.
‘Interclub co-offending seems to brokered by, or mediated by, high-level office bearers.’
In 2021 police conducted Australia’s biggest organised crime bust, with global law enforcement agencies having tricked underworld figures into using the ANOM phone app which they thought provided complete anonymity from authorities.
This provided an insight into the scope and high-level collaboration between major crime gangs.
Of the more than 1,000 arrests worldwide, 383 were in Australia and ranged from alleged mafia bosses and senior bikies, to airport workers and other insiders.
Some of the largest bikie clubs in Australia are the Rebels, Hells Angels, Finks, Nomads, Comancheros, Rebels and Bandidos
They were charged with 2,340 offences in Australia while more than 6.3 tonnes of illicit drugs, 147 weapons and firearms and $55million in cash were seized.
Police said various criminal enterprises had been welded together to form a global supply chain of drugs, with prominent actors including Mafia clans, outlaw bikies, Middle Eastern gangs, Asian triads and South American cartels.
Prof Bright said that there had always been an international dimension to bikie gangs, as they nearly all emanate out of the US, but this was becoming more explicit.
‘Over the last decade or so we are seeing a lot of bikie members, particularly office bearers of Australian bikie clubs, moving overseas to either avoid legal consequences and law enforcement or to further their interests,’ Prof Bright said.
Tattoo parlours have been one of the legal businesses traditionally owned by bikies (pictured stock image)
Bikie clubs invest some of their profits into legitimate businesses, which traditionally have been tattoo parlours, the security industry and in some places, brothels.
‘I guess they are businesses that might be on the fringe,’ Prof Bright said.
‘Very likely there is a money laundering component.’