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Cyber-Enabled Extremism in Australia

Cyber-Enabled Extremism in Australia
22nd March 2021 Rachael Falk
In Insights

While still a relatively young and geographically isolated nation state, Australia is no stranger to extremism.

Over time, since the loss of innocence marked by the 1978 bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel, through to the rise of Islamic State (IS), Australian governments and citizens have increasingly had to grapple with the rise of terrorism and extremist ideologies and their impact on national security and the principles of democracy. And, just as society has evolved during this time, so has the environment in which extremism, radicalism and terrorism proliferate and operate.

Ours is a cyber-enabled world, where messages of hate can be dispersed over the Internet with the click of a button and shared with millions; where like-minded radicals can communicate clandestinely via encrypted messaging services and the dark web; and where mass terror events can be broadcasted in real-time to viewers around the world. Hence, “the nexus between terrorism and technology is socially and politically more relevant than ever. Almost every mobilisation and radicalisation process and every violent attack, whether carried out or prevented, has an online component to it.”

As noted by Australia’s Director-General of Security, Mike Burgess, in the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) 2019-20 Annual Report: “Australia’s threat environment is complex, challenging and changing … Individuals in Australia continue to be radicalised, and the online amplification of radicalisation messages is reaching ever-younger targets.”

Australia’s terrorism threat level remains at ‘Probable’, with Salafi-jihadism presenting the greatest threat. However, right-wing extremism has increased, with ASIO indicating about one-third of its counter-terrorism investigations in 2019-20 involved such threats.

Exposure to radicalised networks and associates has been identified as a key contributor to individual radicalisation. Hence, the geographic movement of Australian jihadists to Syria had an impact domestically, aided by the Internet. This has been illustrated starkly in a number of court cases, whereby radicalisation and incitement of violence via online channels by Australian foreign fighters back to domestic supporters has been proven.

Likewise, despite the dispersed nature of right-wing extremism (RWE), there is evidence it is becoming increasingly transnational, a trend fuelled by digital platforms and the Internet. According to the UN, RWE movements amplify and recruit both online and offline, enabling them to “improve their tactics, develop better counter-intelligence techniques, solidify their violent extremist views and broaden their global networks.”

In an Australian context, owing to a dearth of court rulings in relation to RWE, it is difficult to build a clear picture of how radicalisation occurs and is reinforced. However, several recent cases indicate the key role the Internet and, likely, international links, play in RWE.

In December 2020, Tyler Jakovac was arrested and subsequently charged with urging violence against members or groups and advocating terrorism. Jakovac – who police said held neo-Nazi, white supremacist and anti-Semitic views – was arrested after allegedly expressing support for a “mass casualty event, and potentially his involvement in that event.” Police said Jakovac used private social media groups to discuss such plans with like-minded individuals and had used social media to access RWE material, including bomb-making materials.

And earlier, in March 2020, two brothers, Joshua and Ben Lucas were arrested and charged in relation to an alleged terror plot to attack an electrical substation. Counter-terror investigators were alerted to the brothers through several online posts allegedly containing RWE political and anti-government ideology.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019, which was swiftly enacted by the Australian Government in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, was a pioneering and pivotal move aimed at reducing the use of online platforms to transmit acts of violence. Violent abhorrent material is defined as that which captures a terrorist act involving serious harm or death, murders or attempts to murder, torture, rape and violent kidnapping. The Act created two new criminal offences aimed at Internet service providers and hosting and content providers – failure to report and failure to remove violent abhorrent material – holding them responsible for reporting and removing such material. Large financial penalties and imprisonment apply in the case of conviction, which has not yet occurred.

In addition, the Australian Government’s proposed Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020, which seeks to introduce new law enforcement powers to enhance the ability of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to combat serious online crime, will, if passed, play a key role in countering violent extremism and radicalisation. It presents a clear opportunity for Australia to ensure domestic laws are properly aligned with digitally perpetrated activities, allowing lawful access to data and devices where it is appropriate to do so.

Finally, the United States and Australia remain in negotiations regarding a bilateral agreement under the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (the CLOUD Act), which would significantly boost law enforcement and counter-terrorism cooperation. If legislative amendments by the Australian Government are passed, allowing the CLOUD Act to function, Australian law enforcement agencies would be able to access electronic information held by US-based global platforms and providers, significantly expediting the current mutual legal assistance (MLA) regime. As it stands, it can take up to three years for data to be shared under an MLA – a long time in a very fast-moving space.