Domestic Terrorism and Extremism
Definition of Terrorism
The Australian Criminal Code Act 1995 defines a terrorist act as ‘a threat to commit an act, that is done with the intention to coerce or influence the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause, and the act causes:
a) death, serious harm or endangers a person;
b) serious damage to property;
c) a serious risk to the health or safety of the public; and
d) seriously interferes with, disrupts or destroys critical infrastructure such as a telecommunications or electricity network’.
Division 102 of the Criminal Code provides that for an organisation to be listed as a terrorist organisation, the Attorney-General must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that the organisation:
a) Is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, or assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act; or
b) Advocates the doing of a terrorist act.
For the purposes of listing a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code, the doing of a terrorist act includes the doing of a specific terrorist act, the doing of more than one terrorist act and the planning doing of a terrorist act, even if a terrorist act does not occur.
Specifically defining terrorism is a highly contested exercise with differences across regions, governments, intelligence and security agencies, and lawmakers.
Highlighting this, the United Nations has acknowledged that there is no current agreement regarding a universal legal definition of the term.
However, domestic terrorism - sometimes called 'onshore terrorism' - is generally defined as violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature. This is opposed to state terrorism, which mostly refers to acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organisations or nations (state-sponsored).
Home-Grown-Terrorists (HGTs) - also known as Grassroots terrorists - pose an increasing terrorist threat to Australia. Such individuals are predominately groomed and recruited via social media and other online channels, with many not necessarily joining terrorist organisations to fight overseas but identify these groups as the inspiration for planning and/or undertaking attacks. It is this latter group that likely presents a more significant threat to Australia.
Intelligence agencies within Australia identify Melbourne and Sydney as the major locations for HGT activity.
The HGT threat is expected to endure in the long term. This was amplified by Director-General of ASIO – Mike Burgess – during ASIO’s 2020 Annual Threat Assessment speech, the Director-General stated that “ASIO has previously assessed and stated publicly that the threat posed by terrorism in Australia has plateaued at an unacceptable level. This is sometimes misunderstood as the fact that the threat has simply plateaued. So, let me be clear: the threat of terrorism at home is PROBABLE and will remain unacceptably high for the foreseeable future … The unfortunate reality is that, right now, terrorists are still plotting to harm Australians. Sophisticated plots involving Islamic State returnees and central planning are less feasible in Australia than Europe, given the difficulty of returning discreetly, but cannot be ruled out. ” The Director-General went on to say that the number of terrorism-based leads ASIO is investigating has doubled since last year. The Director General is due to release the 2021 Threat Assessment in coming weeks.
Regarding tactics, intelligence agencies assess that a terrorist attack in Australia would more likely feature armed attacker(s), hoaxes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), reconnaissance and rehearsals, and/or a siege/hostage situation. Basic weapons could also be utilised in conjunction with other weapons - for example, explosives and firearms - in mixed-mode attacks.
Given the array of weapons available, including illicit firearms, knives, bats, chisels, swords and axes, proliferation is relatively simple, and attacks easily enabled. The use of vehicle as a weapon (VAW) attacks is a common and easily enabled tool for terrorists.
Prominent counter-terrorism expert Greg Barton from Melbourne’s Deakin University recently warned that Australia must prepare for and expect an imminent vehicle attack. “Unlike a sophisticated explosives plot, a vehicle and a knife are the sort of thing we’ve seen attempted in the past and will see attempted again in Australia…it could happen anywhere, unfortunately. This is the real risk we face, and we haven’t got an answer to it. We can put passive security in place like bollards or concrete walls, but there’s no magic solution.”
The Australian Newspaper recently reported that in a recent submission to government, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said the vast majority of its counter-terrorism operations were still focused on the threat of Islamic terrorism, “Australians as young as 13 and 14 are involved in onshore terrorism, both in Islamic extremist and extreme right-wing circles,” the submission from ASIO reportedly reads.
Right Wing Extremism
The threat from the extreme right-wing in Australia has increased in recent years, driven primarily by concerns about immigration, weak governance and the ‘growing’ influence of Islam. Although extreme right-wing groups often produce ‘manifestos’, they generally lack a specific ideology and embrace a range of ideologies and attitudes, including neo-Nazism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, homophobia, neo-fascism and Islamophobia.
Violent extremism is broadly defined as individuals or groups seeking to change society or a government’s policies by threatening or using violence to achieve an ideological, religious or political goal. Again, there is no widespread and accepted definition across countries and jurisdictions.
Australian right-wing extremism had its origins in white nationalism and has used fear of Islamist extremism and Muslim migration as a vehicle to recruit larger numbers of people. Academic estimates have suggested that there are perhaps several hundred core organisers across many loosely aligned groups including the United Patriots Front, Reclaim Australia and Soldiers of Odin. Such groups typically maintain social media pages, use encrypted communications (such as Apps and Proton Mail) to organise rallies and maintain links with counterpart groups overseas like the English Defence League.
Extreme right-wing groups in Australia are more cohesive and organised than they have been over the previous five years, and recent efforts to establish long-term goals and develop capability indicate these groups will remain an enduring threat.
In an interview with Sydney Morning Herald, Jacinta Carroll, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University, said one key concern would be if far-right groups in Australia linked up the organised crime gangs, as this could give them access to guns. She said that intelligence and police agencies had to prioritise "depending on where a threat manifests" and previously "there has been more of a threat coming from Islamist terrorists."
Agencies remain concerned with the threat posed by small Right-Wing splinter cells or lone actors (who have separated from other groups) inspired to conduct an attack.
Individuals associated with this threat source are difficult to detect as they have adopted the ‘leaderless resistance’ operating model.
Again, during his 2020 Annual Threat Assessment speech, ASIO’s Director-General warned that “Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time, but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand. In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real, and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology. These groups are more organised and security-conscious than they were in previous years.”
Furthermore, in February 2021, one of the nation’s top security chiefs has warned the threat posed by violent right-wing extremists is “no different” to that by Islamist terrorists, saying far-right groups drawing support and inspiration from counterpart groups in the United States and Europe. Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said Australia’s intelligence and security services were looking closely at the relationships between violent, far-right groups in Australia and overseas. “There are online platforms, there are transnational groupings here. They support one another. They share material et cetera … And it’s no different in some respects to any other form of violent extremist ideology, whereby technology, which is so otherwise beneficial in our lives … can also be used to connect people whose purposes are very nefarious.”
Finally, the aforementioned submission detailed in The Australian purportedly outlines that “The threat from extreme right-wing groups and individuals in Australia has increased, and ASIO continues to see more people drawn to and adopting extreme right-wing ideologies ... ASIO remains concerned with the threat posed by small groups or lone actors inspired to conduct an attack. These threats are difficult to detect, and can emerge with little forewarning.”