Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your review of these components of Australia’s counter terrorism laws.
ASIO valued the work of your predecessors and we look forward to continuing this productive working relationship with you.
The office of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) is an important part of ASIO’s accountability and oversight framework.
Effective review of legislation and its impact increases the public’s confidence in the work of the Australian Intelligence Community, and ensures that we are best placed to continue to counter threats to our national security.
ASIO appreciates the independence of your role, and the assurance you (and your office) provide to the Parliament, Ministers and the community.
My opening remarks focus on the global threat environment as it affects ASIO’s work on politically motivated violence.
It is important to note that ASIO faces other challenges that fall outside the scope of this review.
These challenges include ongoing threats in relation to counter-espionage and foreign interference, cyber intrusions, malicious insiders, border security and encryption.
Current security environment
ASIO’s work is set against a steadily worsening overall security and operational environment.
There are a range of ongoing threats to Australia’s national security.
The sources of these threats—anticipated out to 2026 —will likely continue to be defined primarily by manifestations of Islamist extremism, hostile espionage and interference activities, and malicious insiders.
These threats will be framed by changing political and economic dynamics, technological change including an evolving cyber environment and more astute and determined adversaries.
These threats will also transcend national borders —Australia is part of a globalised world.
Events overseas have, and will continue to, shape the security challenges we face.
The scale of the challenges posed has increased, further exacerbated by the evolution of technology and the way the subjects of security investigations operate, and will continue to make responding to them more difficult.
ASIO continues to devote significant attention to the challenge of predicting the shape of global security in the coming decade, yet the trends we are seeing do not provide us confidence that the situation will improve.
To confront these threats, we need to ensure national security powers remain effective and practical into the future.
Politically motivated violence
The counter-terrorism challenge Australia faces is underscored by recent events.
Since the national alert level was raised in September 2014, there have been four onshore terrorist attacks in Australia and 12 disruption operations in response to imminent attack planning in Australia.
All four attacks and eleven of the twelve disruptions involved individuals motivated by Islamic extremist ideology (the twelfth disruption involved an extreme right-wing individual —the first case in which a right-wing extremist has been charged under Commonwealth terrorism laws).
The attacks and disruptions in Australia in recent years highlight the enduring and dynamic nature of the extremism challenge to Australia, with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq energising locals in unprecedented ways.
Over the same timeframe, we have seen the subjects of our counter-terrorism investigations greatly increase in number, reduce in average age, and diversify in ethnicity and gender.
Like our international partners, Australia is challenged by a trend of individuals acting alone and utilising low-capability methods.
Australia’s four terrorist attacks (since 2014) are characterised by single actors using unsophisticated methodology such as basic firearms and knives—but this does not mean that these attacks are low impact.
Although the efforts of intelligence and security services have averted several planned mass casualty attacks, the innocent victims of these four attackers are an enduring reminder that these unsophisticated attacks can still have a devastating impact.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq has now energised Islamist extremists, including in Australia, at a level not seen before and these changes to the national and international security environment will have generational impact.
While we do not expect to see any major exodus of Australians from the conflict region, we anticipate seeing an ongoing trickle of returning foreign fighters and extremist group members.
Some will have greatly enhanced capabilities to undertake terrorist attacks.
Any planning to do so may take many years to manifest.
We are also likely to see returning Australian families, and in particular children, who have been exposed to Islamist extremist groups in Syria or Iraq and will be traumatised by their experience.
Not only will many of these individuals experience difficulty reintegrating into Australian society, but also many will be vulnerable to Islamist extremist ideology.
Regardless of actions taken, highly sophisticated Islamist extremist propaganda in English (and a range of other languages) will continue to be accessible to potential extremists, including in Australia, to justify their actions for years to come.
The threat we face is self-sustaining, easily drawing in vulnerable individuals who are swiftly radicalised and able to undertake simple but deadly attacks.
Our ability to counter these individuals is further challenged by the operating environment—from the continuing spread and increased uptake of technologies— including encrypted internet communications and device security, as well as the shift from complex methodologies to simple, but very difficult to detect and prevent low sophistication attacks.
All these factors mean that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have to evolve their approaches to be more innovative, integrated and agile in order to identify and disrupt would-be attackers.
Globally, we are confronted with a greater range of Islamist extremist groups and more ungoverned spaces in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia than we have seen before.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has created empowered affiliates and emboldened sympathisers who will outlive the organisation, also of note, al-Qa’ida and its affiliates are stronger than they have been in over a decade.
They will continue to draw on local grievances to support their global agenda.
Other new groups may also emerge inspired by an Islamist extremist ideology.
We expect Australians and Australian interests to continue to be potential targets for extremist violence, either directly through activities such as hostage taking or indirectly by being caught up in terrorist attacks on broader Western interests.
The most likely venue for this will remain our immediate region of South-East Asia, where up to one million Australians visit Indonesia annually and where more Australians have fallen victim to terrorism there than anywhere else.
The return of seasoned fighters from Syria, Iraq or other jihadist theatres in the future, even if few in numbers, could further increase the threat there (and elsewhere).
I will close my remarks here and thank you once again for the opportunity to participate in your important review.