Australia’s terrorism threat level downgraded to ‘possible’ after eight years as ‘probable’
Australia’s terrorism threat level has changed to “possible” after eight years as “probable”, with security authorities saying the risk of a terror attack has reduced.
The head of intelligence agency Asio, Mike Burgess, said the decision was “not taken lightly” but said there were now “fewer extremists with the intention to conduct an attack onshore than there were when we raised the threat level in 2014”.
Burgess told reporters on Monday the reduction of the threat level took into account the Albanese government’s decision to bring back a number of women and children from camps in Syria.
He said Asio had “conducted a thorough assessment before the decision to repatriate was made” including face-to-face interviews in Syria.
Under the then Abbott government, Australia increased its terrorism alert level from medium to high in 2014 – a time when Islamic State (Isil) controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria and was attracting recruits from abroad.
The following year the threat categories were overhauled but the threat level did not change. For years, Australia’s threat level remained as “probable”, meaning that individuals or groups “have developed both an intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia”.
From Monday, the level will drop to “possible”, meaning Australia is a possible target but there is a limited intent or capability to conduct an attack.
Burgess said terrorism was an enduring and evolving threat, with ideologies, tactics and capabilities changing over time.
“When Isil formed its caliphate in the Middle East, significant numbers of Australians were seduced by slick propaganda and false narratives, and that led Asio to raise the terrorism threat level to probable,” he said.
“Our decision was tragically justified. Since 2014, there have been 11 terrorist attacks on Australian soil, while 21 significant plots have been detected and disrupted.”
But it is understood 12 out of those 21 disrupted plots were between 2014 and 2016 – the first two years of the elevated threat level. Asio has reported no attacks or major disruptions this year.
Burgess warned against complacency, saying the change in the level “does not mean the threat is extinguished”.
He said it remained “plausible that someone will die at the hands of a terrorist in Australia within the next twelve months” and Asio was “still investigating and tracking Australians who embrace violent extremist beliefs”.
“Individuals are still fantasising about killing other Australians, still spouting their hateful ideologies in chatrooms, still honing their capabilities by researching bomb-making and training with weapons,” he said.
“Critically, though, there are fewer of these people than there were previously, and fewer of them are likely to conduct an actual attack in Australia.”
Burgess said the most significant change was that the threat from religiously motivated violent extremists had “moderated”.
“The offshore networks, capabilities and allure of groups such as Isil and al-Qaida have been degraded, with their support in Australia declining accordingly – but I stress: it’s dissipated, not disappeared,” he said.
“Ideologically motivated violent extremism – particularly nationalist and racist violent extremism – remains a threat and its adherents will continue to engage in offensive behaviours.”
He said while authorities remained concerned about these groups, it was important to “distinguish between ugly actions, big talk and actual terrorism”. He said Asio assessed that the vast majority of such extremists were more likely to focus on recruitment and radicalisation than attack planning in the foreseeable future.
“Over the last two years, there was also an increase in extremism fuelled by diverse grievances, conspiracy theories and anti-authority ideologies,” Burgess said.
“While some individuals used violent rhetoric and some protests involved violence, we did not identify acts of terrorism.”
An intelligence source said Covid-related grievances such as about masks, lockdowns and vaccines had lost momentum, while the threat of nationalist and racist extremism “persists rather than continues to grow”.
The minister for home affairs, Clare O’Neil, said it was “a good day for the national security of our country, but we remain vigilant”.
Speaking to reporters after the Asio announcement, O’Neil said the government had approved the repatriation of four adults and 13 children from Syrian camps, but had not made any further repatriation decisions.
Defending the decision against continuing Coalition criticism, O’Neil said the women and children in the camps were Australian citizens and at some stage would be allowed to return to Australia, so the government had to weigh up the best way to manage their return in a controlled manner.
O’Neil said the government would look at policy options to address new challenges, including the “very alarming surge” in the number of minors who were being radicalised. She said there was a need to increase youth and health support measures to move them off the radicalisation pathway.
O’Neil signalled that the government would likely wait for forthcoming high court judgments before attempting to introduce new powers to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals, after recent defeats of former government legislation.
“What I don’t want to do is legislate for a solution and have it knocked out again,” she said.
“Our government listens to experts, we rely on their advice and we trust them.”
Australia’s terrorism alert system has five threat levels – not expected, possible, probable, expected and certain.
Security agencies believe the most likely terrorist attack in Australia “involves a lone actor using a basic and easily obtained weapon such as a knife or vehicle” rather than a large-scaled sophisticated attack