PJCIS inquiry into extremist movements and radicalisation in Australia

Mr Mike Burgess, Director-General

29 April 2021

Australia’s national terrorism threat level remains at PROBABLE.

We have credible intelligence that individuals and small groups have the capability and intent to conduct terrorism onshore. We judge a terrorist attack is plausible in Australia across the next 12 months. Our greatest concern remains the terrorist threat from lone actors or small cells.

Today, there are individuals and groups subscribing to religiously motivated violent extremism—specifically Sunni violent extremism—that intend and encourage violence against Australians.

Two prominent international terrorist groups—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and, to a lesser extent, al-Qa‘ida—continue to shape this threat. Sunni violent extremists overseas continue to produce and disseminate propaganda encouraging attacks against West—including in Australia.

In the last six months religiously motivated violent extremists continued to plan and conduct attacks in Australia. Most of these were disrupted thanks to the actions of our law enforcement partners through the Joint Counter-Terrorism Teams, however two were not. Both were lone-actor attacks using basic weapons, requiring minimal planning or capability.

Looking forward, battle-hardened foreign fighters are seeking to return to Australia, and over the next five years, fifteen Australians convicted of terrorism offences will reach the end of their prison terms.

In addition we are facing a growing assortment of ideologically motivated violent extremists—both individuals and groups—who are driven by a diverse range of grievances.

Over the last 12 months, investigations of ideologically motivated violent extremists—specifically nationalist and racist violent extremists—have grown from one-third of our priority on-shore counter-terrorism caseload, to approximately 40 per cent. This reflects both an international trend, and our decision to dedicate more resources to this threat.

The face of the threat is also evolving, and poses further challenges for security agencies. Today, ideological violent extremists are motivated by a wide variety of social, economic and political grievances—underpinned by their personal experiences. More often than not, they are young, well-educated, articulate, and middle class—and not easily identified.

Young Australians are being ensnared in these racist, supremacist and misogynist ideologies in a way that is deeply concerning. The average age of our investigative subjects is 25. Particularly concerning is the number of minors who are being radicalised. And they are overwhelmingly male.

Investigations into these violent extremists have occurred in all Australian states and territories. Compared with other forms of violent extremism, it is more widely dispersed across the country, including in regional and rural areas.

These violent extremists are acutely security conscious and adapt their security posture to avoid attention. In online forums and chat rooms, they show they’re savvy when it comes to operating at the limits of what is legal and discuss ways to ‘beat the system’ in what they say and do. They are also very reactive to world events.

ASIO anticipates that the threat from this form of violent extremism will not diminish anytime soon—and may well grow.

However, it is important to put this threat in context. The National Socialist Network is not ISIL. The Grampians is not a caliphate. And while the threat from ideologically motivated violent extremism is real you should be reassured that ASIO and our law enforcement partners are on the case. Since 2016, there have been two major disruptions of ideologically motivated extremist threats. Disruptions however are just one aspect of the broad range of activity that is keeping Australians safe from these threats. For example, recently our law enforcement partners in multiple jurisdictions have taken action against individuals with links to nationalist and racist groups, focussing on offences relating to possession of extremist material, racial vilification and wilful damage.

I’d like to conclude my remarks by making a few final points.

First, while we might be seeing an increasing threat from this form of ideologically motivated violence, this, and other forms of violent extremism, are not new.

ASIO has been working for decades to protect Australia and Australians from terrorist threats. In that time, Government has established a highly effective set of tools to assist security and law enforcement agencies in countering the evolving threat. Attacks have been disrupted. People have been arrested. And lives have certainly been saved. The tools and partnerships work regardless of the violent ideology.

Second, the listing of a terrorist group is just one of the tools. While it has its place and can send a strong message about abhorrent behaviours and beliefs, listing an entity will not stop anyone from committing a violent attack if they have the intent and capability to do so. And conversely—the absence of a listing does not prevent ASIO from investigating a threat. ASIO acts on the basis of intelligence and our assessment of threat—not whether someone is a member of a listed group.

Third, an individual’s belief may be an indicator of a future threat. But it’s not what causes ASIO to act. ASIO’s functions only kick in when someone forms the intent to act on those beliefs by carrying out or advocating an act of violence.

Finally, ASIO is not all-seeing or all-knowing—and that is a good thing in a democratic society. So it is important to note that our activities are just one element of a much broader spectrum of activity in the Home Affairs portfolio that is keeping Australians safe. Strong cooperation between ASIO and law enforcement is well known. But people often overlook the importance of the social cohesion initiatives that exist in the portfolio and broader Government. Community engagement is an essential part of the overall strategy—both in terms of the early identification of security concerns, and helping to de-radicalise people before they can do real harm.

This end-to-end approach—spanning policy, community engagement, law enforcement activities and security investigations—is critical given the evolving nature of the threat.

ASIO’s role as part of this strategy is clear. We protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security, that includes violent extremism.

That’s where our purpose is unambiguous and our mission is clear. It’s the potential for violence that triggers ASIO’s interest. Not whether they fall into a particular category, and not whether they are affiliated with a particular group or not. This work is critically important given the current nature of the threat.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.