ASIO boss Mike Burgess says agency is ditching ‘Islamic’ and ‘right-wing’ tags, will now refer to ‘religious’ or ‘ideological’ violence

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By defence correspondent Andrew Greene


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ASIO will no longer refer to “Islamic” extremism.(AFP: Tauseed Mustafa)

Australia’s domestic intelligence agency will avoid referring to “Islamic extremism” and “right wing extremism” and has revealed it last year disrupted a foreign “nest of spies” who were seeking access to sensitive defence secrets.

Key points:
ASIO will no longer refer to “far-right”,”far-left” or “Islamic” extremism

The Director-General says ideological extremists are, on average, men around the age of 25

Mike Burgess also revealed ASIO remove a “nest of spies” from Australia last year

Delivering his Annual Threat Assessment, director-general of security Mike Burgess declared ASIO will follow its Five-Eyes intelligence partners in changing the language it uses towards violent extremist threats.

Instead ASIO will now use the umbrella terms of “religiously motivated violent extremism” and “ideologically motivated violent extremism” to describe those seeking to do harm.

“We don’t investigate people because of their religious views — it’s violence that is relevant to our powers — but that’s not always clear when we use the term ‘Islamic extremism’,” he said.

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“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.

“Our language needs to evolve to match the evolving threat environment.”

He said describing “left” or “right” extremism was also no longer relevant or applicable in many circumstances.

“We are seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left-right spectrum at all,” he said.

“Instead, they’re 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.”

The director-general said ASIO’s language needed to accommodate those groups that fall outside “traditional” categories.

Men in black tops with the Proud Boys name and logo walk down St Kilda Road.
Mike Burgess says ideological extremism investigations have grown to make up 40 per cent of ASIO’s counter-terrorism caseload.(AAP: James Ross)

Mr Burgess acknowledged that trust in democracy was falling worldwide and since speaking about the rising threat of far-right extremists last year, ideological extremism investigations had grown from 30 to 40 per cent of the agency’s counter-terrorism caseload.

“This reflects a growing international trend,” he said.

“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.

“Today’s ideological extremist is more likely to be motivated by a social or economic grievance than national socialism.”

ASIO cracks ‘Nest of Spies’ seeking access to Australia’s Defence secrets
He said the average age of the people they are investigating is 25 and are “overwhelmingly” male.

Mr Burgess also revealed the organisation removed a “nest of spies” from Australia, with the total number of foreign operatives kicked out of the country reaching “double figures” in the past year.

Speaking inside ASIO’s highly secure Canberra headquarters, he offered some details of a major operation last year 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.

“The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.”

In front of an audience of military chiefs, security bosses and diplomats, including Japan’s ambassador, Mr Burgess described how the foreign operatives monitored their diaspora community in Australia.

The ABC has confirmed the country behind the foreign spy ring was not China.


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