An unprecedented number of Australians have sought to take part in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, or have sought to support extremists fighting there, the director-general of ASIO has told a packed meeting of AIIA NSW in Sydney.
David Irvine, in his last month as head of Australia’s pre-eminent security agency, said ASIO assessed there were about 150 Australians who have become involved with Islamist extremists in Syria or Iraq, “either by travelling there, attempting to travel there or supporting extremist groups from Australia”.
The ASIO chief was quick to point out that the extremists based in Australia or returning to the country represented only a tiny minority of the Muslim population, and criticized those who sought to blame Islam.
“We should not let the phenomenon of violent Islamist extremism destroy the community harmony that is such an essential characteristic of Australia’s highly successful multicultural democracy. That is precisely what violent extremism and terrorism want to do”.
“Nor should we be critical of a whole community based on a tiny minority of misguided individuals. In my experience, the overall leadership of the community of Muslim Australians, in dealing with these issues in their own quiet way, has been outstanding”.
ASIO’s director-general singled out the Weekend Australian for criticism.
“We all need to understand that Australia’s counter-terrorism arrangements are not directed at Muslim Australians, they are directed at terrorism. Our efforts are designed to protect both Muslim Australians and non-Muslim Australians alike”.
“It was for this reason I was upset by the headline in last Saturday’s The Australian, ‘we’ll fight Islam for 100 years’, it read. Let me reiterate, we are not fighting Islam, in Australia or anywhere else. We are fighting the terrorism that kills innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, as the actual text of the article (by retired general, Peter Leahy) went on to imply.”
Mr Irvine’s 40-minute address was a wide-ranging analysis of the evolution of global terrorism and what it means for Australia. You can read the full text here. He was the guest of the Australian Institute of International Affairs as part of its 90th birthday celebrations, and was one of only three public speeches he makes each year.