Mike Burgess says labels are ‘no longer fit for purpose’ as he reveals Asio removed ‘a nest of spies’ from Australia in 2020

Australian security and counter-terrorismMike Burgess says labels are no longer fit for purpose as he reveals Asio removed a nest of spies from Australia in 2020
Australian spy agency Asio is overhauling the language it uses to talk about terrorism, dumping terms like rightwing extremism and Islamic extremism, arguing such labels are no longer fit for purpose.
Mike Burgess, the director general of security, announced the changes as he revealed the average age of ideological extremists investigated by Asio was 25 and they were overwhelmingly male. He said a terrorist attack by such individuals in Australia remains plausible.
The new umbrella categories to be used by Asio from Wednesday will be ideologically motivated violent extremism and religiously motivated violent extremism. The shift follows repeated warnings by security agencies that the extreme rightwing threat in Australia is on the rise.
Burgess, in an updated assessment of the security threats Australia faces, also disclosed that Asio investigators in 2020 confronted a nest of spies from a foreign intelligence service outside the region meaning it wasnt China and removed them from Australia.
Burgess used a similar speech in February 2020 to warn that the extreme rightwing threat in Australia was real and growing, with small cells regularly meeting to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.
On Wednesday evening, Burgess said the existing labels no longer adequately described the phenomena security agencies were seeing.
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It was unhelpful to categorise groups as extreme left wing or extreme right wing because Asio did not investigate people solely because of their political views, he said. The focus was the threat of violence.
In the same way, we dont investigate people because of their religious views again, its violence that is relevant to our powers but thats not always clear when we use the term Islamic extremism, Burgess told officials, parliamentarians and journalists at Asio headquarters in Canberra.
Understandably, some Muslim groups and others see this term as damaging and misrepresentative of Islam, and consider that it stigmatises them by encouraging stereotyping and stoking division.
Burgess said agencies were seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that dont fit on the leftright spectrum at all; instead, theyre motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy.
For example, the violent misogynists who adhere to the involuntary celibate or incel ideology fit into this category, he said. So we need to use language that can accommodate groups that are outside the traditional categories.
Burgess said while the new umbrella terms would be ideologically motivated violent extremism and religiously motivated violent extremism, there may still be circumstances where we need to call out a specific threat that sits underneath them.
The move follows a language review that Burgess flagged publicly in October. Some conservative government senators had previously argued Asios warnings about the increasing threat posed by the extreme right wing caused unnecessary anxiety or might offend.
After Burgess mentioned the extreme rightwing threat in his first annual threat assessment speech in February last year, the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, raised concerns about extremism of the far left and far right, saying the authorities would tackle any threats posed by either rightwing lunatics or leftwing lunatics.
Burgess on Wednesday said the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in more people spending time at home online, meaning more time in the echo chamber of the internet on the pathway to radicalisation.
He said extreme rightwing propaganda used Covid to portray governments as oppressors, and globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing while Islamic extremist narratives portrayed the pandemic as divine retribution against the West for the perceived persecution of Muslims.
Burgess said while rightwing extremism had been in Asios sights for many years, ideological extremism investigations had since grown to be 40% of Asios priority counter-terrorism caseload.
People often think were talking about skinheads with swastika tattoos and jackboots roaming the backstreets like extras from Romper Stomper, but its no longer that obvious, Burgess said.
Todays 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.
Burgess said the average age of these investigative subjects was 25, and he was particularly concerned by the number of 15- and 16-year-olds who are being radicalised.
He said they were overwhelmingly male and revealed that investigations into ideological extremists had occurred in all Australian states and territories. Compared with other forms of extremism, he said, ideological extremists were more widely dispersed across the country, including in regional and rural areas.
The threat from this form of extremism may well grow in the future.
The online environment is a force multiplier for extremism; fertile ground for sharing ideology and spreading propaganda. Ideological extremists are now more reactive to world events, such as Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent American presidential election, Burgess said.
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.
Burgess said the terrorist threat level in Australian remained at probable, meaning that Australia has credible intelligence that individuals and groups have the capability and intent to conduct terrorism onshore. He said the terrorist threat was significant and its not going away.
He said there were individuals and groups subscribing to religiously motivated violent extremism that were plotting violence against Australia and Australians. He said Isis media had released a video last year referencing the Australian bushfire crisis to encourage arson attacks in the West.
Burgess who last year argued the threat Australia faced from foreign espionage and interference activities was higher now than it was at the height of the cold war said Asio had made progress and the unprecedented tag no longer applied.
Last year, for example, one of Asios investigations focused on a nest of spies, from a particular foreign intelligence service, that was operating in Australia, he said.
The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service. They monitored their countrys diaspora community. They tried to obtain classified information about Australias trade relationships.
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Burgess said these spies had asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport, and successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology.
We investigated, identified and verified the activity, he said. We cancelled the government employees security clearance. We confronted the foreign spies, and quietly and professionally removed them from Australia.
And before you jump to conclusions and to underline my point that multiple countries are trying to conduct espionage and foreign interference in Australia I want to point out that the foreign intelligence service was not from a country in our region. And no, Im not going to name the country. That would be an unnecessary distraction.
In the past 12 months, Burgess said, a significant number of foreign spies and their proxies had either been removed from Australia or rendered inoperative. The counter foreign interference taskforce had investigated more than 30 cases.
He said the proportion of priority counter-terrorism cases affected by the secrecy of end-to-end encryption had risen to 97% up from 90% last year.
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