Security agency ASIO has confirmed it has started seeing a drop in the number of Australian youngsters pursuing violent Islamist extremism.
The agency has told a hearing in Canberra that the number of children and teens being drawn to jihad on the wave of the so-called Islamic State’s previous success in the Middle East has passed its peak, though it warns Islamist terrorism remains a significant threat.
And it has warned of a rise in extreme right-wing ideology that may be attracting young people in a similar way to Islamist radicalism.
ASIO’s acting head Heather Cook made the revelations during a hearing of the national security legislation watchdog in Canberra, which is reviewing laws on the trials and sentencing of children on terrorist offences.
The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, James Renwick, SC, flagged the need to carve out exceptions for children in tough mandatory sentencing laws for terrorism cases.
The Islamic State terror group has lost all but a tiny fraction of the territory it seized across Syria and Iraq during its steamrolling heyday period in 2014 and 2015.
However, Ms Cook revealed that of the roughly 220 Australians who had travelled to the Middle East to join the group and other, similar, outfits, about 110 were “assessed to still be in the region” - though she did not say where they had found places to hide.
Regarding young Australians, Ms Cook said, “The participation of young people appears to have peaked and more recently we have seen a slight reduction in the number of young people requiring our attention. But despite a tempering in terms of numbers, it’s important to note that the threat is persistent.”
Ms Cook said Australia had experienced a rise in new, far-right ideology whose attractiveness to young people mirrored that of Islamist extremism.
“Similar to radicalising factors in Islamist extremism, young people may be attracted to the type of ideology, messages and methods espoused and used by newer extreme right-wing groups.”
Mr Renwick, who is reviewing the trial and punishment of children on terrorism offences on the request of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, said he had reached some preliminary views.
A section of the Commonwealth Crimes Act that requires judges to fix a non-parole period that is three-quarters of the full sentence should not apply to children, he said.
Lawyers and rights groups had argued “persuasively” that the law breached the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. Without discretion on non-parole periods, judges could not meet the convention's demand that courts consider “the best interests of the child ... [as] a primary consideration”.
Another section of the Crimes Act that establishes a presumption against jailed terrorists receiving bail might also breach the convention. A carve-out for children should be considered, he said.
And Mr Renwick raised concerns that because Commonwealth terrorism offences were being tried in state and territory courts, there could be too much variation in sentences across jurisdictions.
“I will therefore be recommending that there be much greater consistency throughout Australia regardless of where the matter is prosecuted,” he said.