• Montane PS Staff

ASIO Director-General's 2021 Annual Threat Assessment

This week, on 17 March, accompanied by Five Eyes partners and senior members of the government, defence and diplomatic corps, ASIO’s Director General of Security - Mr Mike Burgess - delivered his annual threat assessment within Organisation's Headquarters, the Ben Chifley Building in Canberra.

During his address, Mr Burgess offered some details of an major operation in 2020 that disrupted a foreign intelligence service operating in Australia. "One of ASIO's investigations focused on a nest of spies, from a particular foreign intelligence service, that was operating in Australia," he said.

Of note, the Director-General went on to say that “The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign ¬embassy and a state police service,” Mr Burgess said. “They monitored their country’s diaspora community. They tried to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships."

"They [spies] asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport."

Mr Burgess said as a result of ASIO’s actions over the past 12-months, it was “no longer accurate to describe levels of espionage and foreign interference as unprecedented”. “Our work made a material difference to Australia’s safety and security. But this is not a declaration of victory, even less of a ‘mission accomplished’. The spies I most worry about are the ones I do not know about.”

"As I’ve said before, espionage is a fairly straightforward concept. It is stealing secrets, and it’s the world’s second-oldest profession."

During the speech, it was also announced that ASIO will be changing the language used to talk about violent threats encountered by the Organisation., "We will now refer to two categories: religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism." Detailing the reasoning behind this new lexicon, Mr Burgess stated " Put simply, it’s because the current labels are no longer fit for purpose; they no longer adequately describe the phenomena we’re seeing.”

Mr Burgess said some Muslim groups, and others, viewed the term Islamic extremism as “damaging and misrepresentative of Islam”. With the terrorist threat remaining “probable”, the ASIO chief said “we have credible intelligence that individuals and groups have the capability and intent to conduct terrorism onshore ... this threat is significant and it’s not going away. Today there are individuals and groups subscribing to religiously motivated violent extremism that are plotting violence against Australia and Australians.” He referred to several cases of religiously motivated attacks and plots in Australia last year inspired by Islamic State.

"Today’s ideological extremist is more likely to be motivated by a social or economic grievance than national socialism. More often than not, they are young, well-educated, articulate, and middle class—and not easily identified."

Highlighting extant and emerging threat assessments, "An ideologically motivated terrorist attack in Australia remains plausible, most likely by a lone actor or small cell rather than a recognised group, and using a knife or a vehicle rather than sophisticated weapons."

"But to be clear, even a low-capability attack can still result in loss of life."

Regarding COVID-based threats and risks, The Director-General stated that ideological extremists were now more reactive to world events, such as the Pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and the recent American Presidential election. COVID has reinforced extremist beliefs and narratives about societal collapse and a race war. "As a consequence, we are seeing extremists seeking to acquire weapons for self-defence, as well as stockpiling ammunition and provisions."

"So-called right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for many years, and last year I called out what we have been seeing."

"Since then, ideological extremism investigations have grown from around one-third of our priority counter-terrorism caseload, to around 40 per cent. This reflects a growing international trend, as well as our decision to dedicate more resources to the emerging domestic threat. The face of the threat is also evolving, and this poses challenges as we seek to identify and monitor it."

The full address can be found here.


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