One of the key areas of interest to me in ASIO director-general of security Mike Burgess's annual security threat address on Wednesday night was in relation to terminology.
He noted that the term "Islamic extremism" was seen by some Muslim groups - and others - as damaging and misrepresentative of Islam, and stigmatised Muslims by encouraging stereotyping and stoking division.
Muslims who advocate extremism and terrorism are of course a small minority of the very large and diverse global community of Muslims. A well-known saying is that most terrorists are Muslims, but most Muslims are not terrorists. The first part of that sentence is also probably no longer true, given the increase in other forms of extremism.
In fact, very few writers or organisations actually refer to "Islamic extremism"; the more common form is "Islamist extremism". "Islamist" relates to militancy or fundamentalism. ASIO has tended to be inconsistent in its usage, with "Islamist extremism" used in some reports and "Islamic extremism" used in others.
The director-general noted that in future ASIO would refer to only two categories of terrorism - religiously motivated violent extremism, and ideologically motivated violent extremism.
Politically motivated violence has always encompassed both religiously and ideologically motivated violence - and some would include sociologically motivated violence in the mix. My definition of terrorism since 1990 has been: "politically motivated violence, directed mainly against non-combatants, intended to shock and terrify, to achieve a strategic outcome".
I think it's important, though, to drill down further into the motivation of terrorists - as to whether they are Islamists, Christians, right-wing, left-wing, anarchists etc, or in fact driven by sociological issues - such as members of the "incel" community, or those who have used violence against abortion clinics or wild animal farms. [Bizarrely, incels are "involuntary celibates" who are unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one, so they perpetrate violence against sexually active people.]
ASIO's partner Five Eyes agencies still seem to be drilling down to provide that level of detail for those involved in the fight to contain terrorism.
For example, the US intelligence community's latest domestic threat report assesses that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists present the most lethal domestic threats, with racially motivated extremists most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians, and militia violent extremists typically targeting law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.
In sum, terrorism will continue to be perpetrated by a very diverse range of groups and individuals.
Anyone in a counterterrorism role needs to know exactly what they are dealing with to a much greater level of detail than just whether it is religiously or ideologically motivated extremism.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.