Last week proposals for legislative changes and $630 million in increased funding focused on counter-terrorism were announced for a range of Australian agencies to deal with some emerging threats arising from the involvement of Australians in the ISIS-led conflicts in the Middle East.
The changes include broadening the definition of conduct that can be labelled terrorism, new measures to deal with threats arising from technological advancements, and the prohibition of travel to certain destinations.
The measures follow the relatively sudden emergence of a new trend in radicalised Australians travelling overseas to join ISIS, the group described today by Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “murderous hordes” that are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter in Iraq. There are now believed to be around 150 Australians fighting with ISIS. The nation was shocked this week by the image of a seven-year-old Australian boy holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The boy was the son of Khaled Sharrouf, a convicted terrorist who fled to Syria last year.
There has been rising concern about activity that these militants might carry out if they return to Australia, and also about how they are being recruited. And just in recent weeks, the social media of people like Sharrouf has been highlighted as potential recruitment material for more disaffected Australian youths.
ASIO Director General David Irvine, the nation’s top spy, spoke at the Australian Institute of International Affairs yesterday and outlined some of the changing dynamics of the terrorist threat in Australia. The full speech is here, but here’s an extended extract that explains how Australian security agencies are now dealing with a changed dynamic in the Middle East, and emerging risks at home. Emphasis has been added.
The ongoing conflicts in Syria and now Iraq appear to be adding to the challenge in a more fundamental way. These conflicts have created a new hub for Islamist extremists, the scale and scope of which we have not seen elsewhere. This is creating a new generation of Islamist extremists, much as happened in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s – a cohort with whose activities and experience we spent many years subsequently having to contend.
The number of Australians who have sought to take part in the Syria and Iraq conflicts, or have sought to support extremists fighting there, is unprecedented. We assess around 150 Australians have become involved with Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq, either by travelling to the region, attempting to travel or supporting groups there from Australia. This is not the first time we have seen involvement of Australians in overseas jihadist conflicts. But their number was much smaller and few were involved in the type and level of violence we are now seeing.
Why this is happening is a complex question.
Some of those travelling may not – at least initially – have gone with extremist intentions, motivated instead by a wish to help other Muslims or live what they believe to be a truly Islamic lifestyle. However, a combination of the greater resources available to extremist groups, their globalist agenda, the extreme radicalisation caused by the violence they are exposed to and the keenness of extremist groups to accept foreign fighters all appear to play a role in their increasing alignment with the most extreme groups there, and for them to fight and die in support of this extremist ideology. Others have a clear intent right from the outset to join extremists or support them from here.
Experience suggests that any conflict that takes in the Levant – a region with longstanding ties to Australia – will provoke strong reactions here. But we have seen that reaction spread far beyond those with lineage back to the Middle East.
Syria and Iraq are also “social media” wars. Graphic and highly emotive social media coverage – through the ubiquitous mediums such as Facebook and Twitter that are well known to us all – has brought these conflicts directly to Australians in a way no other similar conflict has been presented before. Extremists use this new media to disseminate their message, interactively bringing their gory barbarity back to Australia, with the aim of radicalising young Australians in real time as they sit at home or wait for buses and trains in the morning.
And it has been Australians who have been doing this, Australians involved with the worst of the worst in terms of extremist groups inside Syria and Iraq. These individuals have chosen to publicise a series of abhorrent acts of wanton viciousness with the aim of recruiting others, as well spreading panic and fear (often through social media) – and then reveling in the notoriety they receive.
Australians are now acting as English language Islamist extremist propagandists, accessing audiences and contacts they could not have dreamed of before social media to connect them. They, and other predatory radicalisers, continue to target often already alienated individuals, isolating and then grooming and further radicalising them – with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq central in their narrative whilst doing so.
Another trend is the youth of those we see being attracted to Islamist extremism. The recent suicide bombing allegedly undertaken by an Australian in Iraq is illustrative; a teenager whose journey took him from the suburbs of Australia to fight and where his radicalisation and grooming was such that he was allegedly prepared to kill himself and others for a terrorist organisation in a foreign land he barely knew. These terrorist organisations, which young Australians are joining, are willing to sacrifice young brain-washed souls in the name of a distorted, hate-filled interpretation of Islam. This would have been the second Australian Islamist extremist suicide bomber inside Syria and Iraq in less than a year. Until then, Australia had never seen one.
You can read the entire speech here.
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