National security chiefs have identified “radical Sunni Islam” and its impact on first and second-generation families as the source of Australia’s terror threat, in a bid to shut down a bruising political row over the danger posed by refugees fleeing the Middle East.
The show of unity came after Coalition MPs, led by Tony Abbott, heaped pressure on ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, who had told a Senate estimates hearing last week there was “absolutely no evidence” to suggest a link between the refugee intake and terrorism.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin and Deakin University terrorism expert Greg Barton yesterday backed Mr Lewis in saying that “sons and daughters” of refugees were at risk of radicalisation.
“The challenge that we are dealing with is, by and large, a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam,” Mr Colvin said.
Mr Lewis, who will brief Coalition MPs as to why radical Sunni Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir has not been listed as a terrorist organisation — yesterday modified his claim there was no link between refugees and terrorism, admitting that “a very few of them” had been persons of interest to ASIO. “I’ve not said that there are no terrorists who have not been refugees or who have not been the sons and daughters of refugees born in this country,” Mr Lewis said.
However, the spy chief added it was “very wrong” to suggest children of migrants had resorted to radicalisation because their families had arrived as refugees.
The Australian can reveal Malcolm Turnbull has previously associated the refugee crisis in the Middle East with terrorism. In March last year, the Prime Minister said: “Recent intelligence indicates that ISIL (Islamic State) is using the refugee crisis to send operatives into Europe.”
Several of the militants who participated in the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 entered Europe amid refugee flows, as did perpetrators of other overseas terrorist assaults. Last July, 17-year-old asylum-seeker Riaz Khan Ahmadzai wounded four people in an ISIS-inspired axe attack on a train near Wurzburg, Germany. Six days later, Mohammed Daleel, 27, a failed Syrian asylum-seeker, wounded 15 in a suicide attack in Ansbach, Bavaria.
Following Mr Turnbull’s speech at the Lowy Institute, which was criticised for linking refugees with terror attacks in Brussels and Paris, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australia had a “problem” with second and third-generation migrants who became extremists.
As part of Australia’s intake of Syrian refugees, single Sunni men were categorised as “high risk”.
“We have a problem in this country with second or third-generation new Australians and people that are radicalising online, people who believe that they owe some allegiance to another part of the world,’’ Mr Dutton said last year.
Asked yesterday if he would endorse his security chiefs’ description of “radical Sunni Islam” as being a major terror threat in Australia, Mr Turnbull declined to comment. But the Prime Minister’s office last night defended Mr Turnbull’s record on calling out Islamic extremism, noting he had used the terms Islamist terrorism on at least four separate occasions between September and March.
While Mr Turnbull failed to condemn last week’s Manchester bombing as an “Islamic-inspired” attack, he described the atrocity as “Islamic” to MPs in the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday.
After receiving questions from The Australian, Mr Turnbull told parliament the “threat of Islamist terrorism, the threat of this extremism violence, is here at home and it is right around the world”.
He said Australia’s best “allies” and “collaborators” were domestic and international Muslim leaders, including Indonesia’s Joko Widodo who he said represented a moderate, tolerant, democratic Islam.
Mr Abbott, backed by other conservative MPs, said yesterday too many people “pussyfoot around the fact that just about every terrorist incident of recent times involves someone killing in the name of Islam”.
The former prime minister, who appointed Mr Lewis in 2014, said there were clear links between terrorism and refugees. “We’ve had three terrorist attacks in Australia and all three of them involved either people claiming to be refugees or the children of refugees,” he told 2GB. “I think that the ASIO director really needs to think again on this issue. I don’t think public officials help the debate by denying the facts.”
The majority of convicted terrorists in Australia have been second-generation migrants, but at least six arrived via refugee channels or were born to refugees.
Professor Barton said Australia’s problem was confined mostly to second-generation migrants.
Mr Colvin told the National Press Club it was simplistic to draw a “cause-and-effect position on two issues: migration and terrorism”. “We can’t do that,” he said.
He said the “majority of persons of interest that come across my office’s desk are first and second-generation Australians”.
Mr Lewis told ABC radio yesterday the key challenge for security agencies was addressing the radicalisation of first and second-generation Australians by an extremist strain of Sunni Islam.
“The facts are the refugee program is not the source of terrorism in Australia. The source is radical Sunni Islam,” Mr Lewis said. “I don’t think statistically they (refugees) would be more susceptible.”
One Nation’s Pauline Hanson welcomed Mr Lewis’s clarifying the comments he made at an estimates hearing denying a link between terrorism and refugees.
Coalition MPs were yesterday assured by Mr Lewis’s clarification but questioned why he had not initially provided the explanation during his exchange with Senator Hanson in last week’s hearing.
Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz said: “There unfortunately seems to be a reluctance to name the source of the vast bulk, if not all, of the extremist and terrorist behaviours that are being experienced in the Western world.”
Additional reporting: Paul Maley