Australia’s security environment and outlook

Terrorism in Australia

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.

Although COVID-19 has changed our environment, it has not substantially diminished the threat of terrorism in Australia. The primary threat remains Sunni Islamic extremism, but other violent ideologies—such as those of the extreme right—are also of concern.

Islamic extremists continue to disseminate propaganda designed to radicalise, recruit, instruct on and inspire terrorist attacks, including in Australia. Australia continues to be specifically mentioned in pro–Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) propaganda, and these releases add to a large body of material that encourages terrorism. This propaganda is drawing a younger audience which accesses this material online, and its potential reach increased in 2020 as COVID-19 social isolation increasingly pushed Australians online. Al-Qa‘ida remains active, particularly offshore; although in the next five years Australian prisons are due to release a number of Islamic extremist prisoners whose actions were inspired by al-Qa‘ida.

Extreme right-wing groups and individuals have been in ASIO’s sights for many decades—while we have maintained continuous and dedicated resources to this area, extremists such as neo-Nazis represent a serious, increasing and evolving threat to security. The 2019 Christchurch attack continues to be drawn on for inspiration by right-wing extremists worldwide.

These groups are also becoming ideological: more aware of and committed to specific dogmas, philosophies and views. They draw from a diversity of ideas and are attracting a younger membership who display few overt signs of their extremist ideology.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been used by right-wing and issue-motivated extremists to promote their views. They are seeking to exploit social and economic dislocation; and their extremist ideology has been spreading more quickly and widely as Australians spend more time online engaging with like-minded individuals. However, calls for violence and sabotage have not yet been acted on in Australia.

Violent extremists remain attracted to ‘soft’ targets, such as crowds in public places. While the symbolic appeal of attacking a government or authority—such as the military, police and security agencies—remains, easily accessible targets reduce the capability required for an attack.

Any terrorist attack in Australia for at least the next 12 months is more likely to be committed by a single person or a small group using simple methods. The use of basic weapons, improvised explosives and firearms remains more likely. But terrorists are creative—they could use new and innovative weapons and tactics, and more sophisticated attacks are possible.

 

Right-wing extremism

While ASIO has a longstanding and enduring interest in investigating and advising on the threat from both right-wing and left-wing extremists, this year saw an increased growth in ASIO investigations related to extreme right-wing groups, individuals and emerging ideologies. Australia is not unique in this regard; other Western countries have also increased their focus on this issue while maintaining counter-terrorism programs against transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qa‘ida and ISIL. In the last year:

  • extreme right-wing individuals comprised around a third of all ASIO counter-terrorism investigative subjects;
  • investigations relating to these individuals occurred in all Australian states and territories;
  • a right-wing extremist charged under Commonwealth terrorism laws in 2016 was found guilty of terrorism offences including ‘acts in preparation for, or planning a terrorist act’;
  • for the first time, a right-wing extremist was prevented from travelling offshore to fight on a foreign battlefield, due to a passport cancellation based on an ASIO adverse security assessment;
  • the second terrorism disruption, in Australia, linked to an individual with an >extreme right-wing ideology occurred; and
  • our subject matter experts provided over 50 briefings and presentations on this issue at the request of partners and clients.

Terrorism—the international security environment

The legacy of ISIL’s caliphate – foreign fighters and their families, its global network, and the availability of propaganda inciting violence – still shapes the global environment.

Through its affiliates, al-Qa‘ida continues to embed itself in local conflicts and exploit weak governance, and has not relinquished its longstanding anti-Western ambitions.

Further, the emergence of nationalist and isolationist narratives globally is normalising aspects of extreme right-wing ideology.

Europe and North America

Europe and North America remain terrorist targets, posing a threat of incidental harm to Australians there. During 2019–20, Islamic and right-wing extremist attacks occurred in Europe and North America; many other attacks were thwarted.

Attacks are most likely to be inspired by Islamic extremist ideology and use basic weapons such as knives and vehicles, firearms or explosives to target crowded places or police and uniformed personnel. The release of terrorist prisoners across Western Europe is likely to exacerbate the terrorist threat.

Right-wing extremists primarily pose a threat to Jewish, Muslim or other minorities, as well as extremists’ ideological opponents. Extremist rhetoric and previous attacks can inspire action from individuals with little or no connection to established extreme right-wing groups.

COVID-19 has energised some issue-motivated extremists in >North America, but has not measurably changed the terrorist threat there or in Europe. The pandemic’s longer term effects are yet to be seen.

South-East Asia

The terrorist threat in South-East Asia remains elevated. South-East Asian ISIL affiliates continue to be influenced by ISIL’s ideology, narrative and global jihadist attack methodology. Despite the death of former ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and a number of significant disruptions, 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. Although ISIL continues to dominate the regional threat environment, al-Qa‘ida-aligned groups also continue to exist in South-East Asia, recruiting and training to prepare for possible future acts of violence.

Cross-border connections, both within the region and into international conflict zones, increase the risk of the transfer of skills, attack methodologies and ideological influence from transnational Islamic extremist groups. Despite COVID-19 restrictions largely constraining extremists’ movements, those in South-East Asia are increasingly collaborating and consuming ISIL propaganda online, as well as planning and conducting simple, often opportunistic, attacks primarily directed against local security forces and sectarian targets. Under ISIL’s influence, Islamic extremists are adapting their methods, with suicide bombings becoming more common in the southern Philippines.

Many South-East Asians who travelled in large numbers to join ISIL and al-Qa‘ida-aligned groups in Syria and Iraq returned early in the conflict with greater capability, ideological commitment and status.

The scheduled release of terrorist detainees in South-East Asia, many of whom probably maintain an extremist ideology, will also be detrimental to the security environment in the region.

South and Central Asia

Islamic extremists retain the freedom to operate in less-governed areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their frequent attacks on government interests, security forces and minorities will continue. Islamic State—Khorasan Province in Afghanistan has transitioned to a clandestine insurgency after losing territory, but its high-profile attacks persist. Elsewhere in the region, Islamic extremist ideology is still radicalising individuals and groups who conduct low-capability attacks.

The full impact of COVID-19 has not yet been realised; however, it has had limited effect on the terrorist threat inSouth Asia to date. While decreased tourism reduces the likelihood of Westerners being attacked, the anti-Western intent of some extremists is unchanged.

Middle East

ISIL’s post-caliphate insurgency continues in Syria and Iraq. Although ISIL has not reclaimed territory, and is still losing senior leaders and fighters, the ISIL threat in both countries persists. ISIL is still active elsewhere in the Middle East, although its strength varies. Online propaganda is a key tool and still resonates with disenfranchised individuals who can quickly mobilise to violence, including attacking Westerners.

Al-Qaʻida-affiliated or linked groups are still exploiting civil strife and ungoverned spaces. Their presence in Yemen and north-west >Syria is an enduring threat to Western interests. Elsewhere, individuals and groups, driven by various ideological objectives—some backed by Iran—have attacked targets in Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

While COVID-19 has not significantly changed terrorist threats in the Middle East so far, its longer term effects are not yet clear. Travel restrictions have temporarily reduced the exposure of Australians, but terrorists’ intent to attack Australia is unlikely to change.

Africa

In Africa, established al-Qa‘ida-aligned and ISIL-aligned groups continued their campaigns of attacks aimed at destabilising regional governments. Most target Westerners, including Australians, if they have the opportunity. Emerging ISIL affiliates have survived counter-terrorism operations and in some cases gained strength, including in northern Mozambique where one affiliate group operates close to Australian mining operations.

Mali-based terrorist groups have increased their areas of operation, including into Burkina Faso where 19 local employees of an Australian-owned company were killed in November 2019 when a mining convoy was ambushed.

Border integrity

Australia continues to see suppressed demand for irregular maritime ventures to Australia, due to the continued view held by potential irregular immigrants (PII) that there is a low prospect of permanent resettlement in Australia. Despite this, attempts at irregular maritime migration to Australia and within the region occurred throughout the period, albeit at low levels.

Deteriorating economic, health or security conditions in traditional PII source countries have the potential to drive individuals to take desperate measures to escape such conditions in the future, possibly through irregular migration to Australia. This remains a concern; however, to date, COVID-19 has further suppressed demand for irregular migration as closed borders, strict lockdown measures and restricted international and domestic travel in PII source countries create a difficult operating environment for people smugglers. Similarly, reduced incomes and employment opportunities for PII in the current environment limit their ability to access irregular migration pathways, as their focus is on more immediate needs.

Communal violence and violent protest

Communal violence in Australia is infrequent. Communal tensions are generally expressed through public events and demonstrations aimed at drawing the attention of the broader Australian community to specific issues.

There is a limited tradition of violent protest in Australia. While incidental violence has occurred in the past 12 months, most protest continues to resolve peacefully. Violence is most likely when events are attended by counter-protesters.

 

Premeditated violent protests

ASIO can investigate protest activities only where premeditated violence may be used, or where tactics used are likely to result in violence.

Although large-scale protests have taken place throughout the past 12 months, violent protest in Australia remains rare. The use of provocative and disruptive tactics, which occurred during some environmental protests in 2019, are more likely. Tactics such as obstructing pedestrians and traffic are designed to create economic disruption and draw the broader community’s attention to a cause.

At times, protests have resulted in incidental violence or property damage. Such incidental violence, rather than premeditated violence, remains a matter for police.

Espionage and foreign interference

Australia remains a target for acts of espionage and interference by foreign states, who continue to target government, academia and industry for access to sensitive and valuable information.

These acts, which occur on a daily basis, are of unprecedented scale and sophistication. The threat to Australia from foreign states seeking to obtain strategic advantage at the expense of Australia and its interests cannot be understated. The intent is to engineer fundamental shifts in Australia’s position in the world, not just to collect intelligence or use Australia as a potential ‘back door’ into its allies and partners. There are more foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating in Australia now than at the height of the Cold War, and many of them have the requisite level of capability, intent and persistence to cause significant harm to Australia’s national security.

This threat encompasses a widening range of activities, combined with clear intent by foreign states to shape Australia’s policies, decisions and actions to their benefit. We continue to observe—and actively seek to mitigate—clandestine interference and penetration efforts by intelligence services from a range of nations against all levels of Australian government.

The consequences of unchecked espionage and foreign interference are grave: they damage Australia’s economy and international competitiveness, harm its alliances, undermine its governments and erode its capacity to make decisions in its own national interest. They also threaten the safety of Australians.

Foreign governments continue to attempt to interfere in Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Some foreign governments seek to control or suppress opposition or dissent which they perceive as a threat. Such interference has included threats of harm to individuals and/or their families, both in Australia and abroad.

Alternatively, foreign governments use community members to monitor, direct and influence the activities of these communities in Australia.

Foreign government espionage and interference activities against Australians do not occur only on Australian soil. Cyber espionage is targeting all levels of government, universities and academia—and Defence-related and corporate information networks—to gain access to sensitive and commercially valuable information. As a relatively low-risk, scalable and at times non-attributable means of obtaining privileged and timely information, it is an attractive tool by which foreign intelligence services (FIS) can target Australians.

 

Espionage

Espionage is the theft of Australian information or capabilities with the intent of providing that information or capability to another country.

Such activity may threaten Australia’s national security or provide a political, commercial or economic advantage to another country.

Espionage activities can be directed against Australian governments, Defence, politics, industry, foreign relations or commerce; or other information or objects that are otherwise unavailable to a foreign nation.

The growth in the number of Australians working from home during the global COVID-19 pandemic has increased Australia’s exposure to a range of hostile actors in cyberspace. As businesses move to remote access options for employees working from home, motivated state and non-state malicious cyber actors may attempt to take advantage. ASIO advice, shared with academic and corporate sectors through our Outreach program, plays an important role in helping to mitigate the cyber security risks associated with Australia’s increased online presence and remote working arrangements.

FIS are seeking to recruit Australians online through social media platforms—taking advantage of the low cost and ease of disguising their approach to their targets. Many of the attributes that make social media so valuable also make it vulnerable; as a result, FIS are seeking to take advantage of these targeting opportunities.

Australians overseas are also targeted by FIS for their current or future potential to undertake espionage and foreign interference activities on behalf of FIS. In some instances, FIS approach Australians through professional networking sites, seeking non-public or sensitive information under the guise of representing think tanks and recruitment agencies. FIS also entice Australians to travel overseas where they are more vulnerable—FIS use their home ground advantage to cultivate and recruit Australians for espionage or foreign interference activities.

 

Foreign interference

Foreign interference is detrimental to Australia’s values, interests and security.

Unlike legitimate ‘soft power’ lobbying or diplomatic activity, foreign interference involves covert, deceptive or threatening actions on behalf of, in collaboration with, or directed by a foreign principal.

ASIO has identified foreign state actors and their proxies persistently seeking to develop relationships with Australian Government political figures, academia, commercial interests and individuals, in pursuit of objectives detrimental to Australian interests.

These activities are unacceptable.

ASIO works across government to harden Australia’s critical infrastructure against harm from FIS—particularly FIS efforts that target critical infrastructure, sensitive and sizeable Australian data sets, and emerging technology.

Australia’s telecommunications sector is an attractive target, and its security is of utmost importance. It underpins Australia’s critical infrastructure and way of life. Access or disruption to the sector provides opportunities forAustralia’s adversaries to conduct activities which threaten Australia’s national security.

ASIO plays an important role in helping to mitigate the risk that foreign investment may pose to Australia’s security, including by providing advice to the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). Foreign investment continues to play a vital role in Australia’s economic success, stability and prosperity, and fully assessing any associated national security concerns benefits both the investor and Australia.

In addressing these challenges, we seek to ‘detect and protect’ by hardening the security environment against hostile foreign actors. We and our national security partners actively conduct counter–foreign interference operations—increasing our adversaries’ costs and risk, thereby reducing the harm they cause. We also deploy an array of measures to identify and respond to espionage operations directed against Australia.