Domestic spy agency ASIO has recommended a number of extreme right-wing groups be declared terrorist organisations but they haven’t made the cut because Australia’s legal definition is narrower than in some other countries.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on Monday confirmed UK-based neo-Nazi group Sonnenkrieg Division had become the first right-wing extremist organisation listed as a terrorist group in Australia.
ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess during a Senate estimates hearing at Parliament.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Mr Dutton said the group adhered to an “abhorrent, violent ideology that encourages lone-wolf terrorist actors who would seek to cause significant harm to our way of life and our country”.
“Members of SKD have already been convicted of terrorist offences in the United Kingdom, including encouraging terrorism, preparing for a terrorist attack and possession and dissemination of terrorist material,” he said.
The decision to proscribe a terrorist organisation lies with the Governor-General, on the advice of the government, which then criminalises any membership or association with that group. Other groups on the list include Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Islamic State.
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess confirmed his agency had recommended to the government that other ideologically motivated extremist groups also be listed but suggested it decided they did not meet the legal definition. He conceded the UK’s definition for proscribing a terrorist organisation was broader than Australia’s.
“There are other groups we have proposed. Obviously how that happens and whether or not they meet the legal threshold is a matter for others,” Mr Burgess told a Senate estimates hearing on Monday.
“This is a group [Sonnenkrieg Division] that actually does have reach here … it is very findable online, some Australians do connect with this group, so it does have relevance here. It’s not highly active but it does have resonance here.
“If we believe the group is promoting violence then we will consider pushing that forward – as to whether that proves the legal threshold for listing [that’s a matter for government].”
Delivering his annual threat assessment last week, Mr Burgess announced ASIO would stop referring to “Islamic extremism” and “right-wing extremism” as umbrella terms, saying his organisation needed to be conscious that the names and labels it used were important.
Mr Burgess said on Monday he wouldn’t resile from naming the particular ideology or religion when it was necessary and confirmed Sonnenkrieg Division was an “extreme right-wing group”.
“Some commentators did suggest I have banned words and that’s simply not true. As you have heard me say already here, I will say ‘extreme right-wing’ when it’s relevant, I will call out Islamic State when it’s relevant,” he said.
Mr Burgess confirmed foreign interference in Australia was still at “an unacceptably high-level”.
He said a “nest of spies” caught by ASIO last year had their plan curtailed early, suggesting their damage was minimal.
“We got them early and it was deemed more appropriate that we ask those foreign spies to leave the country and they did,” he said.
“What I worry about the most is the things I don’t know about. When you’re coming up against foreign intelligence services that are actually well-resourced and unconstrained by a whole range of things – laws and ethics – they can, and will be, successful.
“Sometimes we find it well ahead of damage being done. Occasionally, I can’t promise you we’re going to be 100 per cent – so we will come to it after the fact. How damaging it is depends on the circumstances.”
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Saturday foreign spies were targeting Australia’s mining and agricultural industries in a bid to get sensitive information on how the nation was diversifying trade away from China.
Mr Burgess said “hostile governments” were seeing intelligence about how Australia was recovering from COVID-19 “and we’ve already seen key export, technology and research industries be targeted”.
“ASIO stands ready to detect and disrupt these threats. Security will underpin our recovery,” he said.
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