ASIO chief flags alarming increase in children lured to extremism
11 Feb 2022|

The number of children attracted to extremist groups has increased dramatically and minors are now the focus of more than half of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s highest priority investigations each week.

The alarming increase, involving children as young as 13, was revealed by the head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, Mike Burgess, in his annual threat assessment, delivered this week.

‘As the director-general of security, this trend is deeply concerning,’ Burgess says.

‘As a parent, it is deeply distressing. As a nation, we need to reflect on why some teenagers are hanging Nazi flags and portraits of the Christchurch killer on their bedroom walls, and why others are sharing beheading videos. And just as importantly, we must reflect on what we can do about it.’

Two years ago, Burgess said ASIO was seeing an increase in the radicalisation of young Australians.

‘Unfortunately and alarmingly, this trend is continuing,’ he says. ‘The number of minors being radicalised is getting higher and the age of the minors being radicalised is getting lower.’

Burgess says most radicalisation occurs online but some happens face to face. ‘Children as young as 13 are now embracing extremism, and this is happening with religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism.’

Many of these young people do not come from families where a parent or sibling already holds extreme views, as happened in the past.

‘A few years ago, minors represented around 2% to 3% of our new counterterrorism investigations,’ says Burgess. In the past year, the figure’s been closer to 15%. And perhaps more disturbingly, these young people are more intense in their extremism.

‘Where once minors tended to be on the fringe of extremist groups, we are now seeing teenagers in leadership positions, directing adults, and willing to take violent action themselves,’ says Burgess.

‘At the end of last year, on average, minors represented more than half of our priority counterterrorism investigations each week. This should concern us all.’

Burgess says ASIO is aware of minors preying on other minors, seeking to turn them to their violent ideology and using grooming techniques similar to those used by paedophiles. ‘We have seen cases involving young, radicalised violent extremists systematically targeting vulnerable associates who were lonely or going through tough times.’

The targeting takes place in a variety of settings, even schools. The tactics used by the extremists in these cases involve a combination of attention, flattery and friendship, which shifts to bullying and manipulation.

‘We’ve seen young ringleaders deliberately desensitise their targets, gradually exposing them to more extreme and more violent propaganda, until the most graphic material imaginable was normalised,’ says Burgess.

‘Believe me when I tell you that ASIO finds these kinds of cases challenging—we do not belong in the schoolyard—and while we act when there is a threat of violence, the broader trend of teenage radicalisation demands a different response, one where ASIO and law enforcement are not the answer.’

Burgess says it is very hard to deradicalise an adult extremist, but there are many more options to redirect young people who are experimenting with extremism in response to unhappiness or insecurity.

‘As a society, we have to recognise the signs and step in early. Radicalisation in young people can happen quickly—in days and weeks, not months and years—and kids are most vulnerable when they are under stress.’

In these situations, ASIO’s role is at the end—at the point when there’s an active threat to security, says Burgess. But before that point there are nearly always off-ramps and opportunities to redirect behaviour.

Government plays a key role in helping to counter violent extremism, he says, and policy agencies, law enforcement and community organisations are doing important work.

‘But the community can play a pivotal part identifying signs a teenager isn’t just going through adolescence but is heading towards radicalisation. Without knowing about these indicators, it’s much harder for us to divert them from a dangerous path.’

Security is a shared responsibility, says Burgess. He urges schools and sports clubs to notice and ask questions if young people are acting antisocially and out of character. ‘Parents and carers—notice and ask questions if your children are receiving or circulating inappropriate material online. Children often start with moderately objectionable material, which then becomes worse and worse. Identifying it early can be critical.

‘Community leaders—notice and ask questions if young people you know are showing marked changes in their demeanour or views.’

Burgess says Australia’s security outlook remains complex, challenging and changing. Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns added considerable volatility to the mix and continue to influence the security environment.

During lockdowns, the internet brought many benefits, but more online shopping meant more cybercrime. More online engagement provided greater opportunities for radicalisation. More working from home increased the risk of cyber-enabled espionage.

In the past two years, thousands of Australians with access to sensitive information have been targeted by foreign spies adept at using the internet and social media profiles for their recruitment efforts. On any of the popular internet or social media, they make seemingly innocuous approaches—such as job offers, says Burgess. This then progresses to direct messaging on different, encrypted platforms, or in-person meetings, before a recruitment pitch is made.

That threat spread during the pandemic with a jump in suspicious approaches on messaging platforms like WhatsApp that provide an easy way for foreign intelligence services to target employees of interest.

ASIO is also tracking suspicious approaches on dating platforms such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge. ‘My message for any potential victims on these sites is a familiar one—if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!’

As long ago as 2007, ASIO warned that a pandemic would see an increase in anti-government behaviours. ‘We have certainly seen that with Covid,’ Burgess says.

Covid sent online radicalisation into overdrive, he says. Isolated individuals spent more time online, exposed to extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

‘Social media platforms, chat rooms and algorithms are designed to join up people who share the same views and push them material they will “like”. It’s like being in an echo chamber where the echo gets louder and louder, generating cycles of exposure and reinforcement.

‘More time in those online environments—without some of the circuit-breakers of everyday life, like family and community engagement, school and work—created more extremists. And in some cases, it accelerated extremists’ progression on the radicalisation pathway towards violence.’

Some believe the government’s approach to vaccinations and lockdowns infringed their freedoms. In a small number of cases, violent incidents were fuelled by anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown and anti-government agendas. ‘We have also seen threats against public office holders, an attack on a vaccination clinic, and several physical assaults on healthcare workers.’

ASIO believes these tensions and the possibility of violence will persist.

The introduction of vaccination requirements for some forms of employment, social engagement and travel will continue to drive anger, uncertainty and fear within a small section of society.

‘This cohort views the restrictions as an attack on their rights, the creation of a two-tier society and confirmation of their perceived persecution,’ says Burgess.

‘ASIO does not have any issue with people who have opinions they want to express. This is a critical part of a vibrant democracy. We do not—and cannot—investigate peaceful protest or dissent. Our concern is where opinions tip into the promotion of violence, or actual acts of violence.’

He says the vast majority of people who choose not to be vaccinated will not engage in violence in response to vaccine mandates. The vast majority of protestors are not violent extremists, and the vast majority of the protests are not violent. ASIO’s focus is on a small number of angry and alienated Australians.

Lockdown and vaccination protests are not specifically left or right wing, says Burgess, but a cocktail of views, fears, frustrations and conspiracies. Individuals who hold these views, and are willing to support violence to further them, are most accurately described as ideologically motivated violent extremists.

For ASIO, many of those involved are newcomers, so it’s harder to get a sense of what is simply big talk and what is genuine planning for violence.

‘Making the call about which statements indicate a genuine plan for violence and which are purely sounding off or wishful thinking is one of the greatest challenges our analysts have. Our information is often incomplete—and the stakes are high.’

Burgess says the most likely terrorist attack scenario in Australia over the next 12 months continues to be a lone-actor attack.

‘That fact weighs heavily on my mind and the minds of our staff.’