The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the end of the Cold War, and many hoped the resulting changes in world politics would equate to a victory for intelligence services. ASIO was no exception. The Australian Government believed that, with communism gone, so was much of the need for a security service. It applied a ‘peace dividend’ and, like many of its counterparts overseas, ASIO experienced stark reductions in its workforce and budget.
However, hindsight makes it clear that the end of the Cold War saw ASIO’s work shift in focus rather than diminish. Espionage activities against Australia continued, this time with a new emphasis on science and technology in a precursor to the cyber-related threats we face today.
The primary shift, though, was the Organisation’s increasing focus on terrorism. Many of the factors that had driven terrorist movements globally and in Australia in previous decades had declined; there was a period of apparent calm as the new global order was established. But, in the background, Islamist groups such as al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates were growing in influence. ASIO was concerned about Australian connections to these groups: during the 1990s a small number of Australians travelled—often repeatedly—to conflict zones in places such as Somalia, Chechnya and Afghanistan/Pakistan to learn terrorist skills and build networks with groups such as al-Qa‘ida, Laskhar-e-Tayyba, al-Shabaab, and the Taliban.
ASIO was heavily involved in security planning in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and undertook joint operations with law enforcement to disrupt any potential threats to the event.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Australian Government substantially increased the resources available to ASIO and other national security agencies to deal with the threat of terror, and the Organisation entered a period of unprecedented growth.
On 12 October 2002, Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyyah (JI) bombed the Sari nightclub in Bali, killing 202 people including 88 Australians. This single event remains the worst terrorist attack on Australian interests. ASIO and its law enforcement partners moved swiftly to disrupt and dismantle the JI support network operating in Australia, effectively neutralising the threat of any onshore terrorist attacks. However, the threat in Indonesia remained, and JI was responsible for several more bombing attacks against Australian and Western interests.
By the mid-2000s, some of the Australians who had earlier trained with al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates had begun planning terrorist attacks in Australia, in support of the broader global al-Qa‘ida campaign. ASIO identified this planning and, with law-enforcement partners, disrupted a planned terrorist attack in November 2005. Twenty-two people were arrested in the operation, a number of whom were convicted of terrorism offences and remain in prison. Over the next few years, ASIO and its partners disrupted three additional planned terrorist attacks on Australian soil, saving many lives.
More recently, the ‘Arab Spring’—a democratic movement that swept across the Middle East in 2011—has disrupted many governments across the Middle East, creating ungoverned spaces and allowing the resurgence of terrorist groups such as al-Qa‘ida, or the transformation of groups into new forms such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These and other events overseas continue to present security challenges for Australia and ASIO as we work to secure Australia’s interests.
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