'Violent extremists': Asio boss warns of radicalisation of 'angry and isolated' Australians during pandemic.
Mike Burgess asserts that lockdown and vaccination protests have occasionally 'devolved into violence,' as he foreshadows foreign meddling in the 2022 federal election.
Asio warned that more "angry and alienated Australians" may resort to violence as a result of their exposure to "an echo chamber" of extremist messaging, misinformation, and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mike Burgess, the Asio's executive director, said on Wednesday that the pandemic had accelerated online radicalization, noting a "deeply distressing" trend of children – some as young as 13 – being radicalized online and in school.
"As a nation, we must reflect on why some teenagers display Nazi flags and portraits of the Christchurch shooter on their bedroom walls, while others share beheading videos," Burgess said in a speech on Wednesday night.
Burgess also disclosed during his annual threat assessment speech in Canberra that Asio had "recently detected and disrupted a foreign interference plot in the lead-up to an Australian election."
He stated that the nation needed to be vigilant against foreign interference in 2022 due to the impending federal election – and that foreign spies were cultivating government employees via social media.
'Path to violence'
Burgess stated that isolated individuals spent more time online during the Covid pandemic, where they were "exposed to extremist messaging, misinformation, and conspiracy theories" due to the absence of some of the circuit breakers found in everyday life.
"In some cases, it accelerated extremists' progression toward violence," he said.
Burgess noted that Asio issued a 2007 report warning that a future pandemic would result in an increase in anti-government behavior.
"Certainly, we have seen that with Covid. While Asio's overall terrorism caseload has decreased since last year at this time, there has been a noticeable increase in radicalisation and specific-issue grievances," he explained.
"Some Australians believe the government's vaccination and lockdown policies violate their liberties. And in a few instances, resentment escalated into violence."
Burgess cited "violent incidents at Covid-related protests fuelled by anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown, and anti-government agendas" as examples.
"We've also seen threats directed at public officials, an attack on a vaccination clinic, and several assaults on healthcare workers. We believe that these tensions will persist, as will the possibility of violence."
While lockdowns and mandatory quarantine were being eased, the Asio chief stated that vaccination requirements for certain types of work and travel would "continue to fuel anger, insecurity, and fear among a small segment of society."
The restrictions were interpreted by this group as a "attack on their rights, the establishment of a two-tier society, and confirmation of their perceived persecution."
Burgess stated that his intelligence agency "has no problem with people expressing their opinions" – as this is a necessary component of a vibrant democracy – but its concern is "when those opinions veer into the promotion of violence or actual acts of violence."
He stressed that the vast majority of people who choose not to be vaccinated are not violent extremists, but he added: "Asio's focus is on a small number of angry and alienated Australians."
'An intoxicating concoction of fears, frustrations, and conspiracies'
Last year, Burgess abandoned terms such as rightwing extremism and Islamic extremism in favor of two new umbrella categories: "ideologically motivated violent extremism" and "religiously motivated violent extremism."
Burgess stated on Wednesday that the reactions to Covid lockdowns and vaccinations were "not exclusively left or rightwing," but rather a "cocktail of views, fears, frustrations, and conspiracies."
Individuals willing to support violence were "most accurately described as ideologically motivated violent extremists" in this context.
"Some of the alleged violent acts committed during the recent Old Parliament House protest are an example," he said.
"The individuals involved were motivated by a variety of grievances, including anti-vaccination agendas, conspiracy theories, and anti-government sovereign citizen beliefs," the report stated.
Burgess stated that Asio expected to see "more of this behavior in the medium term" in Australia, with protests motivated by a variety of specific-issue grievances continuing to be a part of the security environment for the foreseeable future.
"In some instances, protesters will advocate for the use of violence, and in a minority of instances, they will engage in violence," he explained.
Because many of the actors were "newcomers," Asio found it more difficult to "distinguish between idle talk and genuine planning for violence."
He stated that the most likely scenario for a terrorist attack in Australia over the next 12 months remained a lone-actor attack.
While Asio did not believe the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan increased the immediate terrorist threat to Australia, the agency expressed concern that violent extremists "from our region" might travel to Afghanistan for militant training in the longer term.
Alarmingly, Burgess stated, the number of radicalized under-18s was increasing. He stated that children as young as 13 years old were embracing extremism, both religious and ideological.
"By the end of last year, minors accounted for more than half of our priority counterterrorism investigations on a weekly average."
He asserted that Asio and law enforcement were not the answer to preventing adolescent radicalisation – "we do not belong in the classroom" – and urged parents, schools, clubs, and community leaders to intervene early if children acted out of character.
Plot against the election
Burgess's description of the target of a recently disrupted foreign interference plot in the run-up to "an election" in Australia was ambiguous.
He declined to name the jurisdiction, stating that "we are seeing attempts at foreign interference at all levels of government, in all states and territories."
However, Burgess stated that the case "involved a wealthy individual with direct and extensive ties to a foreign government and its intelligence agencies."
He stated that the objective was to "secretly shape the jurisdiction's political scene to the benefit of the foreign power."
"The puppeteer hired a person to facilitate foreign interference operations and used an offshore bank account to fund operating expenses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," Burgess said.