The head of the nation’s domestic spy agency has announced he will stop referring to “Islamic extremism” and “right-wing extremism” as umbrella terms, saying his organisation needs to be conscious that the names and labels it uses are important.

Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation boss Mike Burgess also revealed ASIO busted a “nest of spies” from a foreign intelligence service that had cultivated and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology.

Director-General of Security Mike Burgess made his annual threat assessment speech in Canberra on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He said a “significant number” of foreign spies and their proxies have either been kicked out of Australia or rendered inoperative over the past 12 months, adding he couldn’t provide an exact number “but I’m talking about a number in double figures”.

Delivering his annual assessment of the threats facing the nation on Wednesday night, Mr Burgess confirmed “so-called right-wing extremism” had grown from about one-third of ASIO’s priority counter-terrorism caseload to about 40 per cent over the past year.

He said his agency would now use the broad terms of “religiously motivated violent extremism” and “ideologically motivated extremism” in a significant change to the language it used to talk about the violent threats facing the nation.

ASIO has previously faced criticism from conservative politicians and the Islamic community for referring to right-wing extremism and Islamic extremism. Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells last year said many people of a conservative background in Australia took exception to the term.

“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.”

Mr Burgess said the labels were “no longer fit for purpose” and did not “adequately describe the phenomena we’re seeing”.

“At ASIO, we’re conscious that the names and labels we use are important,” Mr Burgess said.

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

Mr Burgess said ASIO did not investigate people solely based on their political views, so categorising groups as “extreme left-wing” or “extreme right-wing” distracted from the real threat of violence.

Director-General of ASIO Mike Burgess says more than 10 foreign spies have been kicked out or rendered inoperative in the past year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“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.

”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.

“I should note that these are umbrella terms – and there may be circumstances where we need to call out a specific threat that sits underneath them – but we believe this approach will more accurately and flexibly describe security-relevant activities.“

Mr Burgess said investigations into ideological extremists had occurred in all Australian states and territories. He said unlike other forms of extremism, they were more widely dispersed across the country, including in regional and rural areas.

“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.

“Today’s 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.

“The average age of these investigative subjects is 25, and I’m particularly concerned by the number of 15 and 16-year-olds who are being radicalised. They are overwhelmingly male.”

Mr Burgess said the terrorist threat remained at “PROBABLE”, saying ASIO had “credible intelligence that individuals and groups have the capability and intent to conduct terrorism onshore”.

He said while ideological extremism was on the rise, religious extremism was an enduring threat with ISIL last year releasing a video referencing the Australian bushfire crisis to encourage arson attacks in the West.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in violent extremists spending more time at home 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.”

Mr Burgess said foreign spies increased their online activity and modified their approaches to recruit targets during the pandemic.

He revealed ASIO last year focused on a large spy ring that was operating in Australia that targeted current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.

“They asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport,” he said.

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

“ASIO acted. We investigated, identified and verified the activity. We cancelled the government employee’s security clearance. We confronted the foreign spies, and quietly and professionally removed them from Australia.”

While China has previously been blamed for an unprecedented wave of foreign interference acts against Australia in recent years, Mr Burgess said the spy ring in question “was not from a country in our region”.

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