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Australia’s security environment and outlook

Terrorist threat—onshore and offshore

Australia’s national terrorism threat level remains at PROBABLE—credible intelligence, assessed to represent a plausible scenario, indicates an intention and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia.

The threat of terrorism in Australia remains elevated—with some Australia-based extremists maintaining the intent and capability to conduct attacks onshore. Since September 2014, when the national terrorism threat level was raised, there have been seven attacks targeting people and 16 major counter-terrorism disruption operations in response to attack planning in Australia. While the frequency of attacks and disruptions has decreased since a peak in 2016, terrorism-related incidents continue to regularly occur in Australia.

The principal source of the terrorist threat remains Sunni Islamist extremism and emanates primarily from small groups and individuals inspired, directed or encouraged by extremist groups overseas. Overseas groups continue to espouse a violent ideology which resonates with some Australia-based extremists. Repeated calls for attacks in the West will continue to adversely shape Australia’s security environment. Other forms of extremism are currently less likely to manifest in violence over the next 12 months.

The targeting preferences of onshore extremists are likely to continue to be directed towards ‘soft’ targets, such as crowds of people in public places, over targets such as infrastructure, where greater physical security measures exist. While the symbolic appeal of an attack against a government or authority—such as the military, police and security agencies—remains, easily accessible targets can reduce the capability required to undertake a successful terrorist attack. Terrorist targeting of crowded places, in particular, has featured in recent terrorist attacks both onshore and globally. A low-capability attack targeting people fulfils a number of key terrorist objectives, including casualties, public fear and anxiety, and media attention.

  • Any terrorist attack in Australia for at least the next 12 months is more likely to be low cost, locally financed, and use readily acquired weapons and relatively simple tactics. However, terrorists are creative and could use new and innovative weapons and tactics.

The influence of offshore terrorist groups

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has lost all of its former territory. While ISIL’s ability to direct external attack planning from the conflict zone may have been diminished because of sustained losses, the group continues to inspire attacks globally—including against the West. ISIL’s violent Islamist extremist ideology retains its appeal with extremists, many of whom continue to draw inspiration from developments in the Syria and Iraq conflict zone to justify extremist narratives. Calls by ISIL for attacks in the West are likely to continue.

Islamist extremist groups and supporters will continue to disseminate propaganda designed to radicalise, recruit and inspire terrorist attacks in the West, including in Australia.

  • While a single piece of propaganda in isolation is unlikely to be the sole catalyst for an onshore attack, we remain concerned that the reinforcement through propaganda of a particular weapon or tactic may increase the likelihood of it being used in onshore terrorist attacks.

Australian travellers to the conflict zone

Australian foreign fighters may take months or even years to return to Australia. Some Australians have returned already, and further returnees, including women and children, are likely. Whether these individuals present an ongoing threat will depend on their ideology and willingness to participate in violence onshore.

A small number of Australians continue to hold an intention to travel to the Syria and Iraq conflict zone. Prevented or aspirational travellers may maintain their extremist ideology. It is feasible these individuals could shift from seeking to travel to planning to undertake an attack onshore.

Extreme right-wing terrorism in Australia

The threat from the extreme right wing in Australia has increased in recent years. Extreme right-wing groups in Australia are more cohesive and organised than they have been over previous years, and will remain an enduring threat. Any future extreme right-wing-inspired attack in Australia would most likely be low capability and conducted by a lone actor or small group, although a sophisticated weapons attack is possible.

Communal violence and violent protest

Australia continues to enjoy a high level of community cohesion, and communal violence is infrequent. Previous acts of communal violence in Australia have primarily occurred because of local or international events that resonated with expatriate communities. The most likely form of expression of communal tensions will be through public events and demonstrations aimed at drawing the attention of the broader Australian community towards specific issues.

Violent protest in Australia continues to be rare, and the vast majority of protest activity concludes peacefully. Where violence has occurred, it has generally been opportunistic rather than pre-planned. Over the next 12 months, acts of opportunistic violence or civil disobedience at protests are possible, particularly those attended by counter-protesters.

Terrorism—the international security environment

Terrorism has maintained a stubborn momentum into 2019 and will continue to evolve, representing a potent threat with global dimensions and reach. Terrorists inspired by violent Islamist extremist and right-wing extremist ideologies reinforce their respective narratives by fomenting hatred and inciting violence to realise their ideological objectives. Terrorist attacks globally, whether directed or inspired, are now an indelible feature of the security environment.

The international security environment is shaped by extremists subscribing to a broad spectrum of violent ideologies. ISIL and the networks it has spawned, in person and virtually, have endured beyond the collapse of its so-called caliphate and continue to present a transnational threat. Al-Qa‘ida continues, through its affiliates, to embed itself in local conflicts, exploiting parts of the globe where governance is weak and security conditions are advantageous; but it has not relinquished its longstanding anti-Western ethos. The right-wing extremist attacks in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 demonstrate that it takes only a single individual to embrace and act on a violent extremist ideology to have a global impact.

Online propaganda remains an indispensable tool for extremists. Social media, file-sharing platforms and encrypted messaging applications remain vehicles for the global dissemination of easy-to-digest narratives aimed at attracting supporters and inciting violence. ISIL’s approach to propaganda has set the standard among Islamist extremists, but right-wing extremists will also continue to produce internet-savvy, sophisticated messaging.

Europe

Europe remains a target for attack by individuals affiliated with, or inspired by, Islamist extremist groups such as ISIL and al-Qa‘ida. The most likely source of attack is an individual or small group inspired by Islamist extremist ideology, using basic weapons (such as knives and vehicles), firearms or explosives to target crowded places. During 2018–19, Islamist extremist attacks occurred in several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands and France. Disruptions also continue to occur regularly throughout Europe, further demonstrating the ongoing intent and capability of extremists to conduct attacks. The potential return of foreign fighters to Europe, with experience and hardened ideologies, is likely to exacerbate the terrorist threat.

South-East Asia

Terrorism is resurgent in South-East Asia, where ISIL’s propaganda, resources and direction have reinvigorated Islamist extremism and increased the current threat of terrorist attacks in our near region. Undeterred by ISIL’s loss of territory in the Middle East, pro-ISIL groups and individuals in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have continued their campaigns of plots and attacks in support of ISIL and local extremist agendas. While ISIL continues to dominate the regional threat environment with low-capability but often deadly attacks conducted primarily against local security forces and sectarian targets, al-Qa‘ida groups continue to exist in South-East Asia and are undertaking recruitment and training in preparation for possible future acts of violence.

Reinvigoration of cross-border extremist connections within the region, and extending to foreign conflict zones, has increased the risk of inter-group cooperation, sharing of skillsets, and transfer of attack methodologies and ideology. Under ISIL’s influence, attack methodologies in the region are evolving; for example, suicide bombings have emerged in 2018–19 as a new and repeated tactic in terrorist attacks in the southern Philippines.

South-East Asians travelled in large numbers to the Syria and Iraq conflict, and extremists from South-East Asia continue to seek access to new conflict zones to fight with or give support to global jihadist organisations, including ISIL and al-Qa‘ida. The potential return of South-East Asian foreign fighters from foreign conflict zones poses an ongoing risk to the regional security environment.

South and Central Asia

The terrorist threat across South Asia remains high. Islamist extremist groups continue to operate in the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they can train, operate, recruit and fundraise with relative freedom. Afghan and Pakistani government interests, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, are frequently attacked, and Western interests continue to be highly desired targets. The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka—which killed over 250 people—demonstrate the ongoing influence of transnational terrorist groups such as ISIL throughout the region. ISIL also announced a new affiliate in India, likely as part of its efforts to demonstrate its reach and strength following its territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. ISIL and al-Qa‘ida in the Indian Subcontinent continue to influence Islamist extremists in Bangladesh, who aspire to attack foreign and domestic targets there.

Middle East

The Middle East security environment remains highly complex and dynamic, with numerous threat actors. Despite the fall of ISIL’s caliphate and complete loss of territory, the group remains an enduring threat in Syria and Iraq. ISIL is conducting an insurgency in both countries, mounting attacks of varying complexity and lethality, including with explosive devices. Al-Qa‘ida-affiliated or -aligned groups in the Middle East continue to thrive in areas of instability, sectarian tension and civil strife, particularly north-west Syria and Yemen. While they appear focused on local issues, these groups represent an enduring threat to Western interests.

Outside Syria and Iraq, groups and individuals of varying affiliation or alignment have attacked a range of targets including in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Turkey also remains a high-threat environment despite the absence of recent significant attacks or plot disruptions, with both ISIL and Kurdish groups retaining the capability to conduct attacks, including in metropolitan centres. As a political solution to Yemen’s civil war remains elusive, the country’s security environment continues to be highly unstable and complex.

Espionage and foreign interference

Australia continues to be a target of espionage and foreign interference—activities that can harm Australia’s interests by undermining its national security and sovereignty; damaging its reputation and relationships; degrading its diplomatic and trade relations; inflicting substantial economic damage; compromising nationally vital assets, defence capabilities and critical infrastructure; and threatening the safety of Australians.

Important legislative reform in 2018–19 has provided ASIO and our partners with a range of new tools to counter foreign interference. The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference)Act 2018 and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 will strengthen Australia against acts detrimental to its security and provide the Australian public with a greater degree of transparency regarding those who represent the interests of foreign states. These tools will increase the cost and risk of conducting foreign interference in Australia and make it more difficult for Australia’s adversaries to threaten its interests.

Australia’s national security and economic growth are at risk from foreign states seeking to advance their strategic and economic interests at the nationʼs expense. Foreign intelligence services continue to seek access to privileged and classified information. Australia’s research and development of innovative technologies and its military modernisation program are attractive targets for espionage by foreign states seeking to gain an advantage to the detriment of Australia’s security and prosperity.

Australia’s telecommunications sector is also an attractive target, as it underpins Australia’s critical infrastructure and provides opportunities for our adversaries to conduct activities that pose a persistent threat to national security. The security and integrity of these networks and the communications and data they carry is of the upmost importance. The implementation of the Telecommunications and Other Legislative Amendments Act 2017—also referred to as the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms—provides valuable new tools to help combat this threat.

We continue to observe foreign states seeking to monitor and control the activities, opinions and decisions of sections of the Australian community in a way that impinges on the freedom of speech, association and action of members of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials. If left unchecked, such interference enables foreign states to exercise power and influence in a way that undermines Australia’s sovereignty and confidence in the integrity of its system of government.

We are keenly aware of the importance of foreign investment to Australia’s economic prosperity, and fully support the need to balance national security with broader national interest considerations. Foreign intelligence services seek to exploit Australia’s businesses for intelligence purposes. That threat will persist across critical infrastructure, industries that hold large amounts of personal data, and emerging sectors with unique intellectual property that could provide an economic or strategic edge.

Foreign states continue to undertake acts of cyber espionage targeting Australian Government, academic, industrial and economic information technology networks and individuals, to gain access to sensitive and commercially valuable information—these threats to Australia’s security continue to increase in scale and sophistication. Cyber espionage is a relatively low-risk and scalable means of obtaining privileged information, which adds another potent method to the array of espionage techniques through which foreign intelligence agencies and other hostile actors can target Australians and Australian interests.

Basic Weapons

Basic weapons are defined as readily available, everyday
objects that do not require specific skills or training to use
as weapons. These weapons include knives and vehicles.
Four of the seven terrorist attacks in Australia since
September 2014 have used basic weapons.

Explosives

Explosives remain a popular tactic due to their accessibility and proven
effectiveness in causing mass casualties and economic disruption. Australia-based
extremists may consider the use of homemade, commercial or military explosives
for a domestic terrorist attack. One terrorist attack has involved the use
of a flammable gas cylinder in an attempt to create an explosion in Australia.

Firearms

Australia-based extremists continue to show interest
in firearms-based terrorist attacks. Three of the seven
terrorist attacks in Australia since September 2014
have used firearms.