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Australia's Security Environment and Outlook

Terrorism—the Australian security environment

The Islamist extremist terrorism threat in Australia remains elevated with little prospect of significant improvement in the near term. We see little indication that the attraction of the Islamist extremist narrative is substantially declining—and we expect a very small number of Australian Islamist extremists will continue to plan and aspire to conduct terrorist attacks in Australia.

  • The national terrorism threat level is currently PROBABLE—credible intelligence, assessed to represent a plausible scenario, indicates an intention and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia. Since the national terrorism threat level was raised in September 2014, there have been five onshore terrorist attacks targeting people in Australia and 13 disruption operations in response to imminent terrorist attack planning in Australia (refer Chart 3). All but one have been linked to or inspired by ISIL.

Chart 3: onshore terrorist attacks and disruptions

While experience over recent years suggests the most likely form of terrorism in Australia remains an attack by an individual or small group, recent disrupted attack plots—in December 2016 in Melbourne and July 2017 in Sydney—remind us that we must be prepared for terrorist attacks across the spectrum of tactics and capabilities.

Globally, there has been a continued reduction in the perceived threshold of what is deemed a successful Islamist extremist terrorist attack—from complex to basic weapons, and targeting the public in relatively non-secured locations. Such attacks can emerge with little or no forewarning and are highly challenging to identify and prevent.

In response to the military pressure and losses faced by Islamist extremist groups, we continue to see in Islamist extremist English-language propaganda—particularly from ISIL. These are clear calls for terrorist attacks in Western countries, including Australia. We expect such propaganda will remain accessible and justify violence for years to come.

  • The recent change in ISIL propaganda tone, from its success in establishing an Islamic caliphate and controlling territory to victimhood and the need for supporters to respond, is particularly noticeable.
  • ISIL propaganda provides specific and direct guidance on particular attack methodologies and targeting to improve the lethality of terrorist attacks. Publicity surrounding terrorist attacks in the West is likely to provide further guidance.

We have seen a substantial decline in the number of Australians successfully travelling to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq. We continue to assess that most Australians with ISIL will remain there, either as a conscious choice or because they are currently unable to safely depart. In the longer term, further ISIL military losses are likely to lead to the death of many of these individuals, although we can expect considerable uncertainty about their circumstances.

Freedom of movement from the conflict zone will continue to be extremely limited. A small number of Australians may successfully depart Syria and Iraq, or may be detained there as ISIL loses territory. Of these:

  • A very small number may return to Australia voluntarily, but are unlikely to hold valid travel documents, so will find this difficult. Others may be returned through deportation. It is unlikely large numbers will return in concentrated periods, but rather small numbers periodically—this will include non-combatant women and children.
  • Some will go to third countries. Their destinations will be influenced by their background, ethnicity and language skills, or through connections that give them access to new destinations.
  • Other Australians will stay long term with ISIL and other Islamist extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. A small handful of these are or may become involved in ISIL’s external terrorist planning.

Any defeat of ISIL will not be absolute—some remnants of the group will remain, probably focused on a local insurgency, but still projecting a global terrorist threat. It will not eliminate the terrorist threat posed by Islamist extremist groups to Australia and Australian interests globally. This threat, including from those Australians who have spent time with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, will endure in the long term.

Additional factors bringing complexity and challenge to the Australian terrorism security environment include the increasing numbers of radicalised individuals incarcerated for terrorism or other offences, and the increasing availability and use of encrypted communication applications.

Terrorism—the international security environment

The international terrorism threat environment remains fraught. ISIL has been the dominant driver of terrorist attacks in Western countries. We have seen a multitude of attacks in Western countries—not only in European countries but also the United States—as well as significant attacks in Bangladesh, Turkey and the Philippines.

The July 2016 attack in Nice, France, where an individual drove a truck through a crowd killing over 80 people, exemplifies that ‘simple’ attacks can be highly lethal. 2016–17 has also seen the first instances of ISIL affiliates being involved in successful attacks in Western countries.

  • Globally, we are confronted with increasing ungoverned spaces in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia, which can be exploited by terrorist groups—and in some of these locations the situation will get worse.

While ISIL continues to be the principal source of terrorist threat to the West and Middle East, it is also a serious threat in South Asia, South-East Asia and Africa. Al-Qa‘ida, however, continues to steadily rebuild and is positioning itself to resume the leadership of global jihad upon the demise of ISIL. Through its affiliates, al-Qa‘ida is stronger than it has been for over a decade. Al-Qa‘ida is building support and influence among Sunni populations across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, and is an ongoing threat to the West.


Violent Islamist extremists continue to view Europe as a legitimate target for attack, particularly those countries involved in military activities in Syria and Iraq—numerous attacks occurred in 2016–17, including in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Russia. Individuals inspired and encouraged by Islamist extremist groups—primarily ISIL—will continue to plan attacks targeting Europe. These attacks will most likely use basic weapons (such as knives and vehicles), firearms and explosives. Such attacks are likely to continue to target police and military targets, and crowded places such as shopping centres, transport hubs and sporting or entertainment events.

South Asia

The security environment in South Asia continues to deteriorate. Afghanistan faces a persistent threat from the Taliban and Haqqani Network, while Islamic State—Khorasan Province has increased its capability to conduct complex attacks in Kabul. Extremist groups in Pakistan continue to conduct attacks against government targets and minorities—while the number of extremist attacks in Pakistan has reduced, the lethality of these attacks has increased substantially. India faces threats from domestic groups—such as Hindu extremists and north-east separatists—as well as broader regional threats from al-Qa‘ida and ISIL, and their affiliates. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba also presents an ongoing threat. Al-Qa‘ida in the Indian Subcontinent and ISIL continue to influence groups in Bangladesh, and extremists maintain the intent and capability to conduct attacks against both domestic and foreign targets there.

South-East Asia

In South-East Asia the influence of ISIL has continued to grow. The attack on Marawi City in the Philippines demonstrates the strength of ISIL’s influence, and its ability to coalesce extremists and encourage them to undertake large-scale acts of violence. It is possible foreign fighters will seek to travel to the Philippines to undertake further terrorist acts or training. ISIL-inspired terrorists have continued to conduct attacks in Indonesia, some of which are linked to foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of individuals from South-East Asia have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant groups, including ISIL, with some openly advocating attacks in South-East Asia. Some will continue to encourage and direct terrorist attacks in South-East Asia—including against Australian interests—meaning the terrorist threat is unlikely to abate in the near future. Some of these individuals will return from the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and this may increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack against Australians or Australian interests.


In Africa, al-Qa‘ida- and ISIL-aligned groups continue to pose a significant security threat. Regional groups are expanding their areas of operation through increasing cooperation. Ongoing campaigns of attacks are aimed at destabilising regional governments, and extremists maintain their intent and capability to attack Western interests. Despite ongoing international and regional counter-terrorism operations, global jihadist ideology continues to resonate as a justification for violent responses to perceived regional grievances.

Middle East

The Middle East security environment remains highly complex with numerous threat groups of varying capability and intent posing an ongoing threat across the region. The Syria and Iraq conflict continues to dominate the security environment, and countries in the Middle East are likely to be adversely affected by the displacement of fighters from the conflict zone. ISIL remains capable of mounting complex attacks in Syria and Iraq against a range of targets, despite territorial losses and degradation of resources. ISIL and affiliated or aligned groups and individuals have conducted highly lethal attacks—including in Iran, Egypt, and Jordan—aimed at destabilising ruling governments and exacerbating sectarian divisions. Turkey remains a high-threat environment with both Kurdish groups and ISIL retaining the intent and capability to conduct attacks, including in metropolitan centres such as Istanbul and Ankara. In Yemen, both al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIL-Yemen continue to take advantage of the country’s endemic instability.

Communal violence and violent protest

Most Australian protests, while occasionally employing disruptive tactics, comply with regulations and conclude without significant incident. However, ongoing hostility between extreme left-wing and anti-Islam/extreme right-wing proponents at protests occasionally results in confrontational behaviour. While protests relating to other issues are mostly peaceful and counter-protests are rare, disruptive tactics are occasionally used by various issue-motivated groups and violence remains possible.

  • Minimal violence at left- and right-wing protests and events occurred through 2016–17. This was probably due to a number of factors including large police contingents keeping groups separate at events and peaceful left-wing attendees significantly outnumbering anti-Islam and right-wing opponents at a number of events.
  • Anti-Islam/right- and left-wing proponents will continue to hold protests and counter-protests about issues relevant to their interests in the next 12 months. While we do not expect violence between extreme left- and right-wing proponents to escalate significantly, we note violence remains possible when these interest groupings meet.
  • Protests relating to other issues—such as government policy, Indigenous rights and the environment—are mostly peaceful, and counter-protests are rare. Occasionally disruptive tactics are employed and incidental acts of violence may occur from time to time.

Australia continues to experience low levels of communal violence, although incidents in response to specific local or international events that resonate with expatriate communities do occur occasionally. In particular, high-level international visits have resulted in instances of provocative and small-scale violence in Australia-based diaspora communities.

While extreme right-wing groups in Australia have not engaged in or advocated terrorist-related activities, in 2016 a Melbourne-based man became the first person motivated by extreme right-wing ideology to be charged with terrorism offences . Any further extreme right-wing terrorist plots or attacks in Australia over the next 12–18 months would probably target the Muslim or left-wing community, be low-capability, and be more likely to be perpetrated by a lone actor or small group on the periphery of organised groups.

Espionage and foreign interference

The threat from espionage and foreign interference to Australian interests is extensive, unrelenting and increasingly sophisticated. In addition to traditional espionage efforts to penetrate government, foreign intelligence services are targeting a range of Australian interests, including clandestine acquisition of intellectual property, science and technology, and commercially sensitive information. Foreign intelligence services are also using a wider range of techniques to obtain intelligence and clandestinely interfere in Australia’s affairs, notably including covert influence operations in addition to the tried and tested human-enabled collection, technical collection, and exploitation of the internet and information technology.

Australia continues to be a target of espionage through cyber means. The cyber threat is persistent, sophisticated and not limited by geography—Australian individuals and organisations can be targeted regardless of the physical location of the perpetrators. Increasingly, foreign states have acquired or are in the process of acquiring cyber espionage capabilities designed to satisfy strategic, operational and commercial intelligence requirements. We assess the number of cyber security incidents either detected or reported represents a fraction of the total threat Australia faces.

Espionage can cause severe harm to Australia’s national security and economic well-being, and can have long-term implications if not detected. Interference by foreign actors can undermine Australia’s sovereignty by advancing a foreign state’s cause through covertly interfering in Australia’s political system and seeking to unduly influence public perceptions of issues. Foreign interference in Australia’s diaspora communities through harassment or other means can erode the freedoms enjoyed by all people living in Australia.

The clandestine nature of espionage and foreign interference means that the aggregate cost is difficult to quantify, particularly in dollar terms. However, the harm caused by hostile intelligence activity can undermine Australia’s national security and sovereignty, damage Australia’s international reputation and relationships, degrade its diplomatic and trade relations, inflict substantial economic damage, degrade or compromise nationally vital assets and critical infrastructure, and threaten the safety of Australian nationals.

Emerging espionage and foreign interference in Australia’s economy is an area of growing concern, particularly with the increase of investment flows. Australia’s economy is open and transparent, and foreign investment is both a welcome and important contributor to Australia’s national wealth. However, it is not without national security risks. For example, foreign intelligence services are interested in accessing bulk data sets and privileged public or private sector information, including Australian intellectual property. Developing and implementing effective mitigation strategies for these issues is critical to reducing the threat to an acceptable level. Another emerging issue of potential national security concern is the lack of diversity of ownership within certain infrastructure sectors.

Espionage against the Australian defence industry is an enduring threat. The Australian Government’s decades-long military modernisation program—which includes niche research and development capabilities within the sector—is of interest to a wide range of foreign intelligence services seeking to obtain or compromise sensitive technologies.

Border integrity

The people-smuggling environment is characterised by a continuing suppressed demand among potential illegal immigrants (PIIs) for travel by illegal maritime venture to Australia; however, Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) and offshore regional processing constitute a significant and ongoing deterrent. Demand among PIIs for travel to Australia has fallen but is not universally or permanently suppressed. Illegal maritime ventures to Australia continue to be organised mainly from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, with the greatest interest in illegal travel being shown by PIIs from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Vietnam. As such, planned and actual illegal maritime ventures to Australia will remain an enduring challenge over the next decade.

There will be a growing need to manage downstream security risks associated with the flow of people seeking entry to Australia and applying for citizenship. There will be some complex cases, including ones where we recommend against entry, visa retention or citizenship on security grounds. Enhancements in the way people of security concern are identified will represent an important aspect of ASIO’s activities in support of border security. The size and scale of international migration has challenged state boundaries and jurisdictions, and will challenge Australia for the years ahead. ASIO’s border security focus will continue to be on partnering with other Australian Government agencies such as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), in supporting the delivery of the annual migration program.

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