Australian intelligence head flags foreign threats

Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Operation (ASIO), the country’s national espionage agency, has warned that foreign agents are making “sophisticated and wide-ranging” daily attempts to interfere in the nation’s affairs.

Such attacks have been aided by the use of technology while COVID-19 restrictions have been in place.

In remarks included in ASIO’s annual report, Burgess said it was not just one country targeting Australia and believed espionage cases would overtake the threat of terrorism in coming years.

“Foreign spies are attempting to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships, defence and intelligence capabilities,” he said.

“They are seeking to develop targeted relationships with current and former politicians, and current and former security clearance holders. They are monitoring diaspora communities in Australia and, in some cases, threatening to physically harm members of these communities.”

Burgess heralded new legislative powers, allowing ASIO to use “less intrusive” tracking devices and forcing “suspected spies” to submit to interviews as helping the agency’s causes.

“We have since used both of these powers; evidence that an evolving threat environment requires evolving capabilities — and that we don’t ask for new powers or resources unless we need them,” he said.

In warning of the threat of espionage and foreign interference, Burgess noted he did not want to “downplay the threat of terrorism”.

“Twenty-four convicted terrorism offenders are eligible for release over the next 10 years, and some battle-hardened foreign fighters may yet return to Australia,” he said.

“At the same time, our investigations into ideologically motivated violent extremists, such as racist and nationalist violent extremists, have grown. During 2020-21, these investigations approached 50 per cent of our onshore priority counterterrorism caseload.”

He said one of the most “concerning elements” was the ongoing radicalisation of young people — particularly men.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Reece Kershaw noted his agency charged 25 people with terrorism offences in the past year.

“Any terrorist attack in Australia is more likely to be committed by a lone actor or a small group using simple methods and basic weapons — such as guns, knives or vehicles,” the ASIO annual report said.

“This type of threat is difficult to detect, and can emerge with little to no forewarning.”

ASIO also noted the US Capitol riots in January had sparked the agency’s interest.

“In April 2021, ASIO published advice on the Australian elements of one of the groups involved in the Capitol violence in Washington,” the report stated.

“Our advice was informed by our investigations into, and analysis of, issue-motivated violent extremists.”

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