Joined by Five Eyes partners and senior members of the diplomatic corps, including the Canadian High Commissioner and Ambassador of Japan to Australia Shingo Yamagami, yesterday ASIO’s Director General of Security, Mike Burgess delivered his annual threat assessment in Canberra’s HQ, the Ben Chifley Building. Burgess said, “The decision to again hold this event here, at our headquarters, is a deliberate one. It’s a sign of my continued determination to make ASIO more open and transparent.”
“Agility and ingenuity are at the core of ASIO’s operations. We go up against sophisticated foreign adversaries that are effectively unconstrained by law, ethics and resources; we need to be able to out-imagine and out-manoeuvre them.
We go up against extremists who are security aware and tech-savvy; we need to be able to know what they are plotting and see what they are doing—always lawfully, of course.”
Burgess highlights late last year, there were two religiously motivated terrorist attacks in Australia. “In December, Raghe Abdi, a radicalised ISIL supporter, allegedly murdered an elderly couple in their Brisbane home. And in October, a Bangladeshi woman—already incarcerated for a terrorist attack—allegedly cited ISIL as the inspiration for a stabbing attack against another inmate.”
There have also been disruptions. In March 2020, in Sydney, an individual was charged with acts in preparation for a terrorist attack. In November, police charged another individual with planning to undertake a terrorist attack in the Bundaberg region. And in February of this year, in NSW, an individual was arrested and charged with two counts of acts done in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist attack.
Change in Terminology
ASIO also announced a terminology change and changing the language to now refer to two categories:
- religiously motivated violent extremism, and
- ideologically motivated violent extremism.
“ASIO does not investigate people solely because of their political views,” Burgess said, “so labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ often distract from the real nature of the threat.” “We are seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left–right spectrum at all; instead, they’re motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy.”
Nest of Spies
The Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce has investigated over 30 cases. In 2020 one of ASIO’s investigations focused on a nest of spies, from a particular foreign intelligence service, that was operating in Australia. The foreign intelligence service was not from a country in the Asia Pacific region, Burgess confirmed.
The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.
Burgess said, “We have discovered and we have dealt with multiple attempts—from multiple countries—to steal Australia’s secrets and undermine its sovereignty. We’ve used all of the human and technical capabilities, partnerships and legislative instruments at our disposal to discover, disrupt and deter threats to Australia and Australians.”
In use of new legislation, Burgess outlined, “Parliament passed legislation allowing us to be more flexible in our use of less intrusive tracking devices, and to compel suspected spies to attend interviews. I can report that ASIO has already used one of these powers and will soon use the other; evidence that an evolving threat environment requires evolving capabilities—and that we don’t ask for new powers or resources unless we need them.”
The full speech is available here