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The current security environment

In September 2014, the National Threat Assessment Centre raised the general terrorism threat level for Australia to HIGH. While this advice did not indicate a terrorist attack was imminent, an attack in Australia is now assessed as likely. Recent low-capability attacks overseas and in Australia reinforce the elevated threat and provide clear examples of the terrorist threat. Under the new National Terrorism Threat Advisory System released in November 2015, this level became 'PROBABLE'.

The conflict in Syria and Iraq continues to resonate strongly in Australia. The level of direct involvement by Australians in this conflict is unprecedented. Australians in the Syria and Iraq region conduct activities ranging from providing humanitarian aid, fundraising and material support to directly participating in the armed conflict. There is no single factor catalysing the involvement of Australians, but those susceptible to the extremist rhetoric of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qa'ida, and of Australian extremists involved with these groups, will likely continue to be drawn to the conflict.

Individuals who are attracted to the jihadist narrative but have not travelled to conflict areas-especially those prevented from travelling-pose an enduring threat. Those frustrated in their attempts to take action overseas, may be inspired to conduct an attack within Australia. Those with overseas combat experience or training also pose a threat, both directly and by their potential to motivate others to act due to their enhanced credibility and status within the extremist community.

Media-savvy groups such as ISIL and al-Qa'ida utilise Western mass media and social media to recruit, motivate and radicalise. A recurring message is that the West is at war with Islam and that retaliatory attacks, including in Australia, are required. Terrorist propaganda continues to encourage supporters and sympathisers-particularly those based in Western countries-to conduct attacks at home. The increased prominence of Australians and an increase in references to Australia in terrorist propaganda are concerning.

In its September 2014 edition of Dabiq, ISIL claimed 18-year-old Abdul Numan Haider, who was shot dead after stabbing two police officers outside a Melbourne police station in September 2014, was directly motivated by ISIL's 'call to action'. In the December 2014 editions of their English-language online magazines-Dabiq and Inspire-ISIL and al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula praised the 'heroic' efforts of the perpetrator of the Sydney siege incident, Mohammad Hassan Manteghi (AKA Man Haron Monis).

Personnel and premises readily identifiable with Australia's counter-terrorism and defence policies may be considered attractive targets for individuals holding violent Islamist extremist views, and ISIL has made repeated calls for attacks against police and military personnel in a range of Western countries, including Australia. Recent self-directed, low-capability attacks on police and military personnel in Australia and overseas underscore this threat. However, this threat does not supplant the broader terrorist threat, and there are no assurances that extremist groups or individuals will not attempt a spontaneous or opportunistic attack against another target in Australia, depending on their specific motivation, capability and psychological state.

The lone actor threat

Individuals on the fringes of, or unaffiliated with, established groups may pose a 'lone actor' threat. A lone actor is an individual who plans or conducts violent acts for political or religious motives or to advance some personal cause. A lone actor may have some contact with other extremists but operate independently; may have no contact with other extremists but be inspired by an ideology promulgated by others; or be completely self-contained. Regardless, their autonomy makes them difficult to detect.

The threat of self-directed lone actor attacks using basic weapons and firearms presents a significant challenge for security and law enforcement agencies. Terrorist attacks in Canada, the United States, France, Denmark and Australia in late 2014 continue a trend towards this type of attack in the West.

Any extremist ideology can give rise to a lone actor, while some lone actors are not motivated by any ideology at all. For example, the November 2013 shooting of transportation security officials at Los Angeles International Airport by a lone gunman, and the July 2011 mass-casualty terrorist attack by Anders Breivik in Norway, are a reminder that attacks may also be inspired by a right-wing extremist ideology or driven by local issues. The deadliest mass casualty attack to occur in Australia-the Port Arthur massacre of 1996-was perpetrated by an individual with no links to an extremist ideology.

While attacks like these are a major concern, the terrorist attack against staff at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and disrupted attacks in Belgium in January 2015 emphasise that the threat of coordinated and well planned attacks in the West endures.

These examples reinforce that attacks can occur without forewarning and security services cannot guarantee visibility of attack planning.