Anthony Albanese turns a deaf ear to Australia’s rising terror threat
The Queensland Police Service’s Special Emergency Response Team prepares to breach the lower levels of the Queensland Country Bank Stadium as part of Exercise Austral Shield 22 in Townsville, Queensland. (Defence image.)

The Queensland Police Service’s Special Emergency Response Team prepares to breach the lower levels of the Queensland Country Bank Stadium as part of Exercise Austral Shield 22 in Townsville, Queensland. (Defence image).

Written by

Peter Jennings

The appearance at the National Press Club of ASIO director-general Mike Burgess and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw on Wednesday coincided with a massive counter-terror operation in NSW.

On Thursday, five juveniles were charged with various offences including conspiring to engage in a terrorist act and “possessing or controlling violent extremist material obtained or accessed using a carriage service”.

The youths are said to be “associates of the alleged offender who conducted the stabbing at a Wakeley church”.

The day after the Wakeley stabbing, Burgess said at a press conference with Kershaw and Anthony Albanese that “at this stage there’s no indication of anyone else involved, but that remains an open investigation”.

Burgess added: “Our job is also to look at individuals connected with the attacker, to assure ourselves that there is no one else in the community with similar intent. At this stage we have no indications of that.”

Nine days later we see more than 400 police and ASIO agents conducting 13 operations across Sydney’s Bankstown, Prestons, Casula, Lurnea, Rydalmere, Greenacre, Strathfield, Chester Hill and Punchbowl, and in rural Goulburn.

One can only be impressed at the speed of this action. In all probability it has prevented one or more terrorist incidents, but at the same time it is clear that this youthful terrorist cell radicalised under the radar of our security apparatus.

Across several decades ASIO and state and federal police forces have a remarkable record of disrupting terrorist plans. The arrests this week, though, feel more like a lucky break.

The agencies’ budgets are too small. Too few people struggle with unsustainable caseloads and must deal with a government that cannot hide its uninterest in security, being more focused on electoral politics and self-righteous attacks on supposedly evil technology companies.

This is a toxic mix. Australia dodged a terrorist bullet this week. Now some urgent attention needs to be paid to strengthening domestic security.

The presentations of Burgess and Kershaw at the National Press Club were most likely planned well before the Wakeley terrorist incident, but I am struck at the oddity of the whole performance.

Both men are hardworking, serious minded and admirable servants of the commonwealth. Neither aspires to be a media star, preferring to work in their national security classified environments.

Their speeches appealed to the companies developing encrypted internet applications. Burgess said: “In 2021, I revealed that encryption damages intelligence coverage in 97 per cent of our priority counter-terrorism cases. The impact is now worse. It is virtually 100 per cent in our priority counter-terrorism and counterespionage cases.”

Kershaw said: “While end-to-end encryption provides solace for law-abiding individuals, it can also provide criminals with an instant invisibility cloak. My door is open to all relevant tech CEOs and chairmen, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.”

They were appealing to technology industries to work more closely with law enforcement and intelligence agencies by designing end-to-end encryption apps that allow legal access to prevent terrorist and criminal activity.

This is a perfectly reasonable request, but I stress the oddity of the National Press Club speeches for four key reasons.

First, the only way this policy goal can be advanced is through the Australian government working with democratic counterparts to put a unified position to the tech companies.

Musk and Zuckerberg probably won’t call Kershaw. The problem for our police and intelligence agencies is that the government is not leading what should be a behind-closed-doors international effort to engage the tech companies.

The Prime Minister is overseas on his endless tour of Labor historical icons – this time following Paul Keating’s appropriation of the Kokoda Track to the Labor mythos of national defence rather than empire defence in World War II.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, in a monumentally stupid act, attacked Musk as a “megalomaniac” for refusing to remove images of the Wakeley terrorist stabbing.

O’Neil told the Seven Network’s Sunrise program on Wednesday: “There is no way that these social media platforms are going to do the right thing voluntarily and we need to step up and do better as a parliament to make sure that we regulate them.”

This completely undercut the thrust of the respectful request by Burgess and Kershaw for industry to work with them.

My second reaction to the press club speeches is that the government has no interest in strengthening the police or intelligence agencies in their counter-terrorism work because they worry it would counter their pandering to the Muslim vote in Sydney and Melbourne and lose progressive support to the Greens.

A third point: if there were any extremist groups not using end-to-end encryption apps on Wednesday, these technology laggards would have switched to them by Thursday.

Fourth: Burgess, in very precise terms, told his audience that ASIO is blind to encrypted communications: “Even when the warrant allows us to lawfully intercept an encrypted communication, we cannot actually read it without the assistance of the company that owns and operates the app.” ASIO works around that problem by other means including using human intelligence, which is expensive, slow and highly dependent on its limited staff resources.

Imagine the desperation that puts our police and intelligence heads in front of the press club asking for a level of support that they aren’t getting from government. Burgess was asked directly about being removed as an automatic attendee at the national security committee of cabinet. He could have answered that he had all the access he needed. Instead, he just said the question was a matter for the government.

There is one respect in which ASIO has unnecessarily trapped itself, in its refusal to lift the terrorist threat level from the current “possible” to “probable”.

ASIO lowered the threat level to “possible” in November 2022. That was a reasonable call some years after the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the absence of attacks in Australia.

Burgess has always maintained that “possible does not mean negligible”, but following the Hamas October 7 atrocities last year and the rise of tolerated ugly protests in Australian cities, my assessment is that Australia is becoming more vulnerable to people radicalising in support of terrorist action.

After the Wakely stabbing, Burgess defended keeping the threat level at “possible” by saying “one incident like this does not actually cause us to change the threat level”.

On Wednesday, as arrests were being made, Burgess said that “possible” represented a “50 per cent chance over coming years”. He also indicated that “we see minors who get confused by the ideology”.

At the University of Sydney we now have an encampment of students chanting “Intifada, intifada” – a call for a popular uprising. I don’t doubt that this is the product of confusion, but clarity of thinking is not a hallmark of terrorist ideology.

In our capital cities we see a very public radicalisation process under way. It takes only a handful of people from the thousands participating in these protests to take a further step to violence before we may face a major crisis on our hands.

At this stage it is not known whether any of the young people currently under arrest have been involved with the post-October 7 protest movement. We will find that out soon enough.

Reports in The Australian on Friday indicate that one of the charged youths had a number of Islamic State beheading videos stored electronically and that another youth “is following a Hamas sympathiser online”.

No one should be surprised that the radicalisation trail leads directly to recent Islamist extremist violence in the Middle East. How could it not?

As these links are identified an obvious question is why did the Albanese government chose to be so tolerant of street protests? Why has Albanese and his ministers been so reluctant to show some leadership demanding a cessation of aggressive demonstrations?

The Australian reports that “Islamic leaders slammed the ‘high-handedness’ of police, saying they feared the raids would only further widen societal divisions”.

Do these leaders share any responsibility for counselling moderation among their youth? What has the Albanese government been saying to them?

We can see a growing pool of radical behaviour acting as a dangerous centrifuge towards extremism. This is happening in our central business districts, suburbs and on our university campuses. And the government is doing nothing.

This article originally appeared in the Weekend Australian on 26 April 2024.