'Words matter': ASIO ditches 'right-wing' and 'Islamic' extremism labels as it changes its language on terror

ASIO boss Mike Burgess also revealed the agency removed a "nest of spies" from Australia last year and said the threat of foreign espionage is no longer "unprecedented".

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, on 17 March, 2021. Source: AAP

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) will stop referring to "right-wing extremism" and "Islamic extremism" to talk about violent threats, saying the labels are "no longer fit for purpose". 

Delivering his second Annual Threat Assessment in Canberra, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess also revealed violent extremists and foreign spies have posed new online challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. 

From Wednesday, ASIO will start referring to "ideologically motivated violent extremism" and "religiously motivated violent extremism" - two umbrella categories that better describe the phenomena security agencies are seeing, Mr Burgess said. 

"Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues." 

"ASIO does not investigate people solely because of their political views, so labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ often distract from the real nature of the threat," he said on Wednesday night, reiterating ASIO's focus is the threat of violence. 

"In the same way, we don’t investigate people because of their religious views - again, it’s violence that is relevant to our powers - but that’s not always clear when we use the term ‘Islamic extremism’."

Mr Burgess said the term "Islamic extremism" can be seen by Muslim groups as "damaging" and "misrepresentative of Islam", and one that stigmatises them by "encouraging stereotyping" and "stoking division". 

He added ASIO's language "needs to evolve to match the evolving threat environment". 

An 'evolving' ideological extremist threat

Last year, Mr Burgess used his threat assessment to warn of the "real" and "growing" threat of what he now labels "so-called right-wing extremism". 

On Wednesday night, he said ideological extremism investigations have grown from 30 to 40 per cent of ASIO's counter-terrorism caseload. 

 ASIO Director General Mike Burgess rehearses his annual speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra.
Source: AAP

The face of that threat is also evolving. 

Mr Burgess explained security agencies are seeing a growing number of individuals "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."

"People often think we’re talking about skinheads with swastika tattoos and jackboots roaming the backstreets like extras from Romper Stomper, but it’s no longer that obvious," he said. 

"More often than not, they are young, well-educated, articulate, and middle class - and not easily identified."

Mr Burgess said the average age of these investigative subjects is 25, and that he was "particularly concerned" by the number of overwhelmingly male 15 year olds and 16 year olds who are being radicalised. 

He said such investigations have occurred in all Australian states and territories, and that the threat from this form of extremism "may well grow". 

The online environment: a 'force multiplier for extremism'

Mr Burgess said violent extremists and foreign spies have taken to the internet during the coronavirus pandemic, posing a new range of challenges. 

He said for those intent on violence, more time at home online meant "more time in the echo chamber of the internet on the pathway to radicalisation".

"They were able to access hate-filled manifestos and attack instructions, without some of the usual circuit breakers that contact with community provides," he said.

"Extreme right-wing propaganda used COVID to portray governments as oppressors, and globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing.

"Islamic extremist narratives portrayed the pandemic as divine retribution against the West for the perceived persecution of Muslims."

He said in the case of foreign spies "the lack of opportunity for international travel and reduced social mobility meant their tradecraft evolved, and they increased their online activity and approaches".

ASIO busted 'nest of foreign spies'

Espionage and foreign interference continued to be levelled at not only the federal government but all Australian states and territories.

Mr Burgess said ASIO last year investigated a "nest" of foreign spies targeting relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.

"They successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology," he said. 

ASIO investigated, identified and verified the activity, cancelling the government employee's security clearance, confronted the foreign spies, and "quietly and professionally removed them from Australia", Mr Burgess said.

He added the total number of foreign spies and their proxies who have either been removed from Australia or rendered inoperative in the last year was "in double figures". 

Mr 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 such levels are no longer "unprecedented".  

With additional reporting by AAP. 


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Published 18 March 2021 at 6:45am
By Emma Brancatisano