Australian security agency stops referring to Islamic or right-wing extremism

The Australian intelligence and security agency will longer refer to Islamic, right-wing or far-left extremism. The goal is to focus on the violent traits and better describe evolving and complex security concerns. The pandemic has also accelerated the spread of extremist narratives and modified espionage operations.

Words matter

During the Annual Threat Assessment, Mike Burgess, the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, took a moment to explain the updated language that the agency would be using moving forward.

The security threats would now be referred as “religiously motivated violent extremism” or “ideologically motivated violent extremism”. ASIO director general pointed out that words matter. “They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issues.

The authorities will therefore talk about religiously motivated violence instead of Islamic extremism. The objective is to avoid damaging or misrepresenting Islam or creating stereotyping divisions.

The director points out that the wording uses umbrella terms but that some circumstances would require to call out a specific threat.

The ASIO headquarters
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation headquarters in Canberra, Australia // Canley

New forms of extremism

The change is also the indication of an evolving security environment. Numbers of individuals or groups no longer fit into the left-right political spectrum. A growing range of ideologies are “motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy”.

The incel, an ideology driven by social anger, wouldn’t conform to traditional political claims. Incels, for involuntary celibates, are mostly men who consider themselves as unable to find love or sexual partners and blame women for it. In 2020, Canada procesuted an incel-related killing as a terrorist act.

Identifying or monitoring those security threats are also challenging. It is not as obvious as “skinheads with swastika tattoos” who promote national socialism anymore.

For the Australian equivalent of the British MI5 or the American CIA, ideological extremists are young, 25 years old on average, “well-educated, articulate, middle class”, who avoid attention and are “overwhelmingly male”. Many people in Australia could fit the description without representing a danger.

The Covid-19 health crisis also fostered online radicalization. “More time at home online meant more time in the echo chamber of the internet on the pathway to radicalization”. Fewer real-life social interactions also reduced contacts with “circuit-breakers”.

Lines of code
With the Covid-19 crisis much of the extremism and intelligence activities have migrated online

Counter intelligence needs to adapt to COVID-19

Covid-19 turned out to be an opportunity for reinforcing conspiracy theories, picturing the current society as flawed and failing, or spreading narratives about “societal collapse and a race war”. As such, the agency also noticed extremists seeking to buy weapons or stockpiling ammunition and provisions in that perspective.

Restricted mobility doesn’t remove threats, which remains at “probable“, the 3rd level in a 5-scale range.

The online environment is a force multiplier for extremism.” And extraordinary moments, like the U.S. presidential elections or the Covid-19 crisis are conveniently used for propaganda purposes. “Ideological extremists are now more reactive to world events.

The virus might have even been portrayed as “divine retribution against the West for the perceived persecution of Muslims”.

The restrictions around mobility and social encounters also affected how intelligence and counter-intelligence operated. As a consequence, much of the spy, counter intelligence and secret-stealing activities migrated online.

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