Speaking at his agency’s secretive Canberra compound on Monday night, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess delivered an inaugural annual threat assessment to a crowd of officials, policymakers and the general public. Given the concerns are cited in the context of a globalising world, it is hard not to read between the lines.
Highlighting risks identified by the domestic intelligence sector of foreign political influence, international terrorism and partisan extremism – issues to which Australia has long been held to be almost watertight – the Director-General's comments seem particularly germane in view of a continued trend towards globalisation.
Australia has long benefited geopolitically from the nation's isolation, at least from a military standpoint. Amid the throes of widespread 'scorched earth' aerial campaigns in the Second World War, the larger eastern seaboard cities managed to escape unscathed while large parts of Tokyo, London and Berlin burned to the ground.
Recent years, however, have seen interconnectivity increase rapidly between Australia and its neighbours (in terms of both geographic and cultural links). A double-edged sword in some respects, this integration exposes the nation to the risks – as well as benefits – of an ever more integrated world order.
The Burgess address and cross-border risk integration
Though the risks of terrorism within Australia are statistically very low, the 'National Terrorism Threat Level' has remained fixed at 'probable' for some time now. Citing concerns about technology importing influence from abroad on these issues, Burgess offered up some explanations that serve to bridge this gap.
Perhaps one of the more conspicuous examples raised by the Director-General was access to the internet; more specifically, to encrypted (and unencrypted) instant messaging. Though globalisation was not, by any means, a central tenet of Burgess' speech, he briefly touched on it where he stated:
"Global connectivity and the ready availability of messaging apps which are encrypted for privacy offer tremendous capabilities to connect with each other, whether across the street or across the world (or even across the lounge room or dinner table – you will know what I mean if you have young people at home)."
The very premise of instant, remote and often encrypted communication lends itself conveniently towards clandestine international activity; and, as we are finding all too common to be the case, cross-border radicalisation.
Speaking with characteristic candour, Burgess put it this way:
"As a father, I find it truly disturbing to see cases where extremists are actively trying to recruit children who have only just started high school and are as young as 13 or 14."
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has cited on a number of occasions the manner in which encrypted messaging services can often serve to frustrate the works of counterterrorism or counterintelligence officials. Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has singled these services out as one of the single biggest technical issues faced by counterintelligence agencies, and the sovereignty of privacy enjoyed by these platforms has even been subject to considerable parliamentary pushback (in the form of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018).
Though the merits of this bill and privacy rights are beyond the scope of this article, it is clear that Burgess is right to approach these (and other) policy decisions with an appreciation of the risks inherent to a globalised world. In the modern age, defence policymakers would be remiss to ignore these threats, and to fail to understand the context through which they have developed.
Partisan extremism: A decidedly un-Australian phenomenon
The second-most pressing of Burgess' concerns was the rise of right-wing extremism in Australia. Though the Director-General conceded that ASIO has had these movements in its crosshairs for some time, he reiterated that this threat "came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand".
Though a prominent minority movement in the US, many Australian observers would be surprised to hear the ASIO boss suggest that such a trend is present at home. However, he states in no uncertain terms:
"In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology."
Though his commentary on the globalised nature of this was sparse in detail, Burgess does cite 'The Base' as an example of an online forum through which these ideas have made their way to Australia. A cursory search of the site shows that The Base has attracted large followings in the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa; unsurprisingly, the consensus view in political circles is that these ideologies are, in fact, being imported to some extent from countries abroad through these online forums.
One point too often overlooked – which must be accounted for, in light of Burgess' comments – is the role of social media and cultural integration with the greater Anglosphere. As partisan politics turn increasingly sour in the US and the UK in particular, it pays to be wary of the extent to which they are able to pollute Australian political discourse.
Though posing a markedly different set of issues from international terrorism, it is similarly clear that technology and globalisation are the driving forces at play here. Much like the 'Arab Spring' of revolutionary ideals among the MENA region in the early 2010s, it is clear that close socio-cultural links to other Western nations can lead to cross-pollination of ideas, thought and dialogue.
Though this inaugural address covers key strategic threats in detail, it was never intended to act as an exhaustive list. In a 2018 SBS poll – listing the top four sources of concern for peace and stability in Australia – respondents listed (in order):
1) The threat of competing countries
2) The threat of nuclear weapons
3) The threat of returned fighters
4) The threat of cyber crime
Though defence, by definition, has always been in the business of dealing with other countries, these four concerns highlight the degree to which technology-driven globalisation is exacerbating these issues all the more. Recent security-oriented bans on Chinese platforms Huawei and TikTok further underscore the need for a real and enduring appreciation for these issues.
Though intelligence players tend to be brought up to speed quickly on concepts such as encrypted messaging and extremist online forums, defence policymakers across the board can easily be left behind by rapid bounds forward in technology and social media – even on a scale of several years. Does technology-driven globalisation pose a risk to defence strategy, and is it time to take these risks more seriously?