Interview with the Director-General of Security Mr Duncan Lewis AO, DSC, CSC
Wednesday, May 31 2017
DUNCAN LEWIS: We’re a week after the tragic and the brutal attacks in Manchester where so many innocent children being victims; the attack in Jakarta where police were killed; one week after the coronial report on the Lindt Café attack in our own country - our thoughts and prayers are going to the families of those lost and to the victims that have suffered injury or disfigurement and it’s in that backdrop that we have this conversation this morning. I made these remarks last week that you referred to and I heard you just play the clip, and I want to put some context around that. The refugee program is not the source of terrorism in Australia. This is the key point, Fran, and I want to try and make this very clear. We have had tens of thousands of refugees come to Australia over the last decade or so and a very few of them have become subject of interest for ASIO and have been involved in terrorist planning. I’m not denying that. I’ve not said that there are no terrorists who have not been refugees or not been the sons and daughters of refugees born in this country. But the context is very important. The reason they are terrorists is not because they are refugees but because of the violent extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam that they have adopted.
FRAN KELLY: OK, so let’s look at those comments in the broader picture because if we look at the three fatal terror attacks on Australian soil in the past three years, the Lindt Café siege with Man Monis, admitted to this country as a refugee; Numan Haider who stabbed two police officers in Melbourne and Farhad Jabar who murdered Curtis Cheng - both children of refugees. It’s pretty easy to see why a lot of people do see a link between the refugee program and terrorism, isn’t it?
DUNCAN LEWIS: I understand that and that is the issue that I’m trying to make very clear. In all of those cases, they were not terrorists because they were refugees, they were terrorists because of this warped violent extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam. It is Sunni Islamic extremism and the way they are absorbing it, which is quite interesting Fran—to have a look at the way in which these folks have made the transition to become radicalised. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s as a result of online viewing. They are getting online in their lounge rooms, in their bedrooms, at a very young age and absorbing some of this very objectionable and brutal material and all of this is being published as you know by sources internationally. Quite a lot of it is coming out of the Middle East, and that is the material that is driving them towards radicalisation. It is not because they are refugees. I can cite as many cases of terrorists who have made attacks that have no connection at all.
FRAN KELLY: Can you? Because in all the criticisms I’ve read, everyone says you know out of the 12 only one was a non-Muslim. I mean can you cite as many attacks?
DUNCAN LEWIS: Well that’s a different thing, Fran, of course. The issue was that one of the 12 thwarted attacks and these are ones that we prevented and I just want to make the point that ASIO, together with our law enforcement and our border protection and immigration partners, are working very, very hard to ensure that we don’t have people that have problems coming into this country. But the point is essential, Fran, to understand that it is not because they are refugees that they become terrorists. It is because of the adoption of this Sunni extremist view that causes them to resort to violence.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, and the question then is why are some more susceptible to that radical view? If there’s no evidence, as you say, of a link between refugees and terrorism, what does explain these terrorist attacks by refugees or the children of refugees? Is this group in our community more susceptible to radicalisation in your view?
DUNCAN LEWIS: I don’t think statistically they would be more susceptible. There are, without question Fran, and I don’t resile from this, there are either former refugees or the sons and daughters of refugees, who are in the group that have resorted to radicalisation but I think it is very wrong to say that it is because of their refugee status, or because of the association with their refugee status, that they are, where they are. They are radicalised for different reasons.
FRAN KELLY: Senator Hanson’s question implied that Middle Eastern refugees themselves are the terrorism threat. She said do you believe that the threat is being brought in possibly from Middle Eastern refugees that are coming out to Australia.
DUNCAN LEWIS: That is not…
FRAN KELLY: Now if that were true, sorry, you say, sorry?
DUNCAN LEWIS: And I do not believe that is the case.
FRAN KELLY: If that were true, it would mean the screening process of those allowed in as refugees was deficient. In your assessment are our screening measures adequate?
DUNCAN LEWIS: Well this is the point I was trying to make a moment ago, Fran. I think they are. We work very, very hard together with, particularly Immigration and Border Protection, but also with our law enforcement partners, the police forces around the country, to do the background checking on the many thousands of migrants who come to this country. That includes those on the refugee stream. Our reports are enormously detailed and I believe that we have a very sound border control regime.
FRAN KELLY: The former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, he says you’re tip-toeing around the issue. He says there is a death to the infidel strain within Islam and he says nearly all terrorists are associated with people yelling out Allahu Akbar as they kill. I don’t know if you agree with that but obviously ASIO needs to keep good relations with the Muslim community because that’s key to intelligence, but it’s also imperative you command strong confidence amongst the broader community, that you will keep the country safe. Tony Abbott has alluded to the fact that he thinks you’re at risk of undermining that confidence.
DUNCAN LEWIS: Our relationship with the Islamic community is absolutely critical and I’ve made this point plain both publicly and privately. It is essential that we, our law enforcement partners, keep in close contact with the Islamic community. I’m not here to vilify the Islamic community. I’m here to keep the Australian community safe and ASIO works very hard, every day on that particular issue. I think if you have a look at the statistics Fran, we talk about, and I mentioned this publicly the other night, that there have been four attacks in Australia and 12 thwarted attacks since September 2014. That indicates to me that we have very good arrangements in place to check, do the background checking, and to prevent would-be terrorists from plying their trade, but it’s not fool-proof, and this is the important thing, we can give no guarantees.
FRAN KELLY: And again, of those attacks thwarted, what percentage of them, in your knowledge, committed by what we’d call radical Islamic terrorists?
DUNCAN LEWIS: The overwhelming majority, Fran. Of those 12, 11 were conducted by what I would describe as young men who were radicalised in the spirit of this Sunni Islamist extremist cult and one of them was actually a right wing extremist - nothing to do with Islam.
FRAN KELLY: Director General, you were responding to questions from Senator Pauline Hanson. Some had described your attitude in that questioning as contemptuous in your answers. Did the fact that it was Pauline Hanson and One Nation influence your response, do you think?
DUNCAN LEWIS: Oh I don't think so Fran. I had no intention of being contemptuous. The point I'm making is that we need to stick to the facts with this particular argument, and the facts are that the refugee program is not the source of terrorism in Australia. The source of terrorism is radical Islam, and it is that particular strain of violent extremism related to the Sunni sect.
FRAN KELLY: More broadly, Duncan Lewis, we learned this week of the more than 40 foreign fighters who have returned to Australia from Iraq and Syria. Only two have been prosecuted due to the difficulty of gathering evidence. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes the returnees who are free to roam the streets as an “ongoing grave terror threat to Australia’. What assurance can you give the public about these people?
DUNCAN LEWIS: The first thing I'd say about that is that the overwhelming majority of the 40, some 35 or so, returned to Australia before the ISIL caliphate was declared. So they are young individuals from this country who were involved in what was then and continues to be the Syrian Civil War. The ones that are of great concern obviously are the issue of those who might return post the establishment of the ISIL caliphate, so-called caliphate. And those statistics you gave, I won't go into particular numbers, but they are close to the facts.
We have a very, very capable border protection system so that as these returnees come into the country, they are picked up and they are put into whatever the process is. They are either detained and charged, or whatever their background dictates should be done to them. So the process is very clear.
What I will say, Fran, is that the estimated number of returnees to Australia has been adjusted down considerably over the last six or so months. I had anticipated there would be quite a large number come back, we still have about 100 Australian fighters over in the Middle East. I now believe, and we assess that there will be a much fewer number come back to Australia. But I can assure you that those who come back from fighting in the Middle East will face the full force of the law.
FRAN KELLY: But will they ever be prosecuted, will it forever be the case? You won’t be able to collect the evidence to put them before a court?
DUNCAN LEWIS: Evidentiary collection is very, very difficult. We of course in ASIO are collecting intelligence, a combination of intelligence and then the adjustment of that into evidence will be central to the prosecution of these people.
FRAN KELLY: And Duncan Lewis, just before I let you go, I wonder can you confirm—you mentioned at the beginning of this interview the news reports of a 12-year-old Australian girl killed in a terror attack in Baghdad.
DUNCAN LEWIS: Those reports are coming in now, Fran, I'd rather not say anything more at this stage.
FRAN KELLY: Duncan Lewis thank you very much for joining us.
DUNCAN LEWIS: Thanks, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Duncan Lewis is the Director General of ASIO.