What is terrorism?
‘Terrorism’ is a broad term that has only recently been defined in Australian legislation. When we talk about terrorism, we are referring to a specific set of activities defined in section 4 of the ASIO Act 1979 as ‘politically motivated violence’. These include:
- acts or threats of violence that are likely to achieve a political objective, either in Australia or overseas;
- acts or threats of violence intended to influence the policy of a government, either in Australia or overseas;
- acts that involve violence or are likely to lead to violence, and are directed to overthrowing or destroying the government or the system of Australian Government;
- acts that are defined as terrorism offences; and
- certain other acts, defined in Australian legislation, relating to the taking of hostages or activities conducted on ships, offshore platforms or aircraft.
The terrorism threat environment in Australia
The ever-changing nature of terrorism presents challenges for the early identification and detection of threats by ASIO and our partners. The primary terrorist threat in Australia today comes from a small number of Australia-based individuals who are committed to a violent anti-Western, Sunni Islamist extremist ideology. These individuals present a direct threat as well as a secondary threat through their ability to influence others.
- Some have turned their attention to onshore attack planning after the cancellation of their Australian passports—preventing them from travelling to join terrorist groups in the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq—while some are returnees from that conflict.
- A small number of individuals have returned from Syria and Iraq and are of security interest. We are concerned they will be joined by others returning from the conflict who have trained and fought with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other extremist groups. It is possible they will undertake terrorist attacks themselves or enable others to do so.
- Radicalisation by extremists is a key risk. The internet plays an important role in the radicalisation, recruitment, indoctrination and training of future violent extremists and terrorists. Terrorist groups, particularly ISIL, are adept at broadly promoting their violent extremist message by producing high production quality, high-impact propaganda easily distributed online; this material resonates with some people in Australia. We are also concerned about returned Australians with connections to networks of extremists who could be a source of information and guidance.
While large-scale attacks, including coordinated attacks by multiple individuals, are still occurring around the world, the most apparent threat in Australia mirrors international trends towards simpler ‘lone actor’ attacks that require minimal preparation. Many terrorist attacks and disrupted plots in Australia have involved individuals or small groups who were radicalised, often through isolated online activity, to the point where they were willing to use violence to act out their politically or religiously motivated grievances. This type of threat can develop quickly, typically requires little preparation or planning, and can come from individuals who are on the periphery of investigations or who are unknown to authorities.
What is communal violence?
Globalisation, digital disruption, ideological disagreements, historical conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups, and changing societal expectations can highlight perceived differences and create tension in our community. Communal violence is when these differences lead some people to promote violence against their perceived opponents with the intention of endangering the peace, order or good government of Australia.
The communal violence threat environment in Australia
While Sunni Islamist extremism is the primary terrorist threat facing Australia, other groups continue to engage in politically motivated violence and the promotion of communal violence. These groups are diverse and have differing agendas, including extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing ideologies. Small subsets of individuals in these groups are willing to use violence to further their own interests. While their activities are concerning, they remain a small part of their broader movements and are presently unlikely to lead to wide-scale violence or pose a threat to social cohesion.
Violence at protests in Australia is rare, and the vast majority of protest attendees are peaceful and support Australia’s democratic ideals. Social discourse around anti-Islam and anti-migration issues has increased, and public protests have become more frequent. These protests provide an opportunity for ideological adversaries to converge, and sporadic violence can result. Recently, violence at protests has mostly comprised small-scale clashes between right-wing and left-wing opponents at anti-Islam protests, or protesters targeting police maintaining public order.
Other groups with overseas separatist agendas are represented in Australia, but their membership is small and their influence is limited. Activities in support of overseas issues are mostly confined to fundraising and ideological support.
What ASIO does to counter terrorism and communal violence
Our role in countering terrorism is to predict and anticipate terrorist acts. Unlike law enforcement agencies, which are responsible for gathering evidence to prosecute people, ASIO’s unique value lies in our ability to identify and investigate people who are planning or threatening acts of violence that are intended to influence government policy, have a political objective, or undermine the Australian system of government. By being able to anticipate the emergence of threats from such people, we can work with law enforcement agencies and partners to mitigate the threats.
We focus on four key areas:
- We identify terrorism-related activities and the promotion of communal violence affecting Australia, its people and its interests.
- We provide advice and undertake or enable activities that disrupt terrorism-related activities and the promotion of communal violence affecting Australia, its people and its interests.
- Our advice improves the effectiveness of the Australian Government’s protective security responses to terrorism.
- Our advice supports the development of Australian Government policy responses to terrorism and to the promotion of communal violence.
In recent years our ability to anticipate threats has been instrumental in disrupting numerous terrorist attacks in Australia, and has helped some of our partners to disrupt attacks in their own countries. Our counter-terrorism advice informs security planning by the Australian Government and state and territory governments, and informs businesses about key terrorism risks to their infrastructure and activities.