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Terrorism Incident: Albanese, Kershaw and Burgess Speak

The terrorism incident in Sydney last night saw the government, Federal Police and ASIO speaking out today in an attempt to calm Australians already unsettled by the Bondi shopping centre murders on Saturday.

In western Sydney overnight, a teenager with a knife entered Christ the Good Shepherd Church, an Assyrian community church in Wakely, and stabbed Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel whilst he was preaching. After members of the congregation detained the youth, live-stream video of the incident was circulated on social media. A riot ensued outside the church with NSW police coming under attack.

The NSW Police Commissioner, Karen Webb, designated the stabbing a terrorist incident.

This morning, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Federal Police Commission Reece Kershaw and Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) held a press conference in Canberra.

Watch the press conference – transcript below (20m):

Listen to the press conference (20m):

Transcript of press conference with Prime Minister Albanese, Federal Police Commissioner Kershaw and ASIO Director-General Burgess.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: I’m joined by the AFP Commissioner, Kershaw and the Director General of ASIO here this morning. Last night a 16 year old who has been apprehended was accused of stabbing a bishop at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Wakeley. This is a disturbing incident. There is no place for violence in our community. There is no place for violent extremism. We are a peace loving nation. This is a time to unite, not divide as a community and as a country. Last night the NSW Police overnight declared this a terror incident and have stood up Strike Force Petrina. As a result of that declaration, a joint counter terrorism task force has been established which includes the AFP and ASIO. And this morning we have had a meeting of the National Security Committee to receive formal briefings, following informal briefings that occurred earlier this morning. Can I say that we understand the distress and concerns that are there in the community, particularly after the tragic event at Bondi Junction on Saturday. But it is not acceptable to impede and injure police doing their duty or to damage police vehicles in a way that we saw last night. People should not take the law into their own hands, but should allow our police and our security agencies to do their job. My job as Prime Minister is to give them that support and I will continue to do so. And I’ve asked for the NSC to be convened this morning, and I now ask Commissioner Kershaw to comment.

REECE KERSHAW, COMMISSIONER OF THE AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLICE: Thank you, Prime Minister. Firstly, on behalf of the Australian Federal Police, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the victims and families affected by the senseless attack at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Wakeley last night. We can confirm that this incident has now been declared a terrorist attack and a 16 year old boy has been arrested in relation to the incident. I can also confirm that this matter is now under the investigation by the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism team, which includes the AFP, NSW Police and ASIO. The AFP, together with ASIO, NSW Police, will continue to investigate how this incident occurred and the individual involved. This attack will have a significant impact on the Australian community and I would like to reassure the Australian community that the AFP, together with its law enforcement partners, particularly under the Joint Counter Terrorism team, is working to investigate this incident from all angles. As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to discuss further details and we urge anyone with information to contact NSW Police. All Australians should remain vigilant and I urge people who see or hear something that they feel is not right to contact the National Security Hotline immediately on 1800 123 400.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Commissioner. Director-General.

MIKE BURGESS, DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF SECURITY OF ASIO: Thank you, Prime Minister. ASIO is a member of the Joint Counter Terrorism team. Our role here is to support the police in their investigation. We support NSW Government and the police for calling this a terrorist incident. It does appear to be religiously motivated, but we continue our lines of investigation. At the same time, our job is also to look at individuals connected with the attacker, to assure ourselves that there is no one else in the community with similar intent. At this stage we have no indications of that, but it is prudent that we do this to determine there is no threats or immediate threats to security. At this time we are not seeing that. The final thing I would say is when we lowered the terrorism threat level to Possible, I said at the time that possible does not mean negligible. And the most likely attack would be an individual that goes to violence with little or no warning, with a knife, car or gun. And sadly, we’ve seen that in this case and our investigation in support of the police continues. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, could I ask the Commissioner and Director-General, we understand that, as you said, Director-General, it’s religiously motivated. But what can you tell us about the 16 year old? We know that he’s, well we’re told that he’s known to authorities. Do you understand he’s been radicalised online?

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: I think at this stage we would best not actually share any more. There is a police investigation on foot and those details are best kept in close hold until we actually work through the facts of the matter. What I did say however though, I support NSW Police in calling this a terrorist incident, we believe it is religiously motivated.

JOURNALIST: Can we at least ask when it was that he first came to the attention of the authorities then?

COMMISSIONER KERSHAW: I think what’s best is that, as I stated, that we’ll be investigating every single angle in relation to this and the community can have confidence in the Joint Counter Terrorism team and how successful they have been over the years in tracking down and prosecuting these offenders.

JOURNALIST: Is there any indication that this is any one, is it just one attacker at this stage or is it just one individual so far?

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: At this stage there’s no indication of anyone else involved, but that remains an open investigation.

JOURNALIST: Can you say whether you’ll been investigating whether there were people involved in actually preparing the boy for the attack, and also can you say whether the current terror level threat for Australia has been raised as a result of this?

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: So, as the Commissioner said, all lines of inquiry are open. But at this stage it looks like the actions of an individual. In regards to the terrorism threat level, it remains at Possible and one incident like this does not actually cause us to change the threat level. But of course, we keep the threat level under constant review.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Australians are understandably feeling really uneasy right now between the Bondi attack and as well as the church stabbing and riots. What can you say to reassure Australians who are feeling uneasy about going out and about and living their lives?

PRIME MINISTER: I understand that people are feeling uneasy and that is understandable given the atrocity that occurred on Saturday and then this incident last night. I discussed this with Premier Minns this morning as well, and part of us standing up here is to reassure the public that the authorities are doing their work. I have every faith in the NSW Police, in the Australian Federal Police and our security agencies to do their work. We will provide them with every support.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just following on from Chloe’s question. There are police outside mosques in some parts of Sydney at the moment, the community is really quite terrified. We’re hearing about the potential for what Chris Minns this morning talked about in terms of his fears of tit for tat violence. What kind of extra resources are going to be stepped up and what’s the level of, I guess, assurance you can give people that this is under close attention and that incidents can be dealt with?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, quite clearly you would have seen last night the attention that was given by NSW Police and then the fact that the incident was called, declared a terrorism incident overnight in the early hours of this morning. We have had this morning briefings to myself as Prime Minister. We’ve already had a meeting of the National Security Committee. We have engagement between NSW and the Federal Government. And I would just say, reaffirm the message of Premier Minns that this is a time where police need to be allowed to do their job, need to be respected for their professionalism that they continue to show. And Australians can have every faith in the professionalism of our agencies.

JOURNALIST:What role do social media companies have at play here? We’ve seen graphic, violent videos of the attack spread online. And just another one if I can indulge you, Prime Minister. The bollard man from the weekend at the Bondi incident, he has some visa issues. Is there any update on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Two issues, on the online information I’ve spoken with, Minister Rowland has acted this morning, as has the E-Safety Commissioner. We remain concerned about the role of social media, including the publication of videos that can be very harmful, particularly for younger people who have access, anyone with a phone essentially can do that. We quadrupled the funding for the E-Safety Commissioner in last year’s Budget. We continue to work with the E-Safety Commissioner and to use what powers are at our disposal to demand that material will be taken down. And I know that the AFP Commissioner and the security agencies are engaged in that as well. We’ll continue to monitor it to make sure that these issues are dealt with expeditiously. With regard to the French citizen, the French national, Damien Guerot, who people saw such bravery in on Saturday. I say this to Damien Guerot who is dealing with his visa applications, that you are welcome here, you are welcome to stay for as long as you like. This is someone who we would welcome becoming an Australian citizen, although that would of course be a loss for France. We thank him for his extraordinary bravery. It says a lot about the nature of humanity at a time when we are facing difficult issues, that someone who is not a citizen of this country stood bravely at the top of those escalators and stopped this perpetrator from getting onto another floor and potentially inflicting further carnage on citizens. I think that on Saturday we saw some of the best of human character at the same time as we saw such devastating tragedy. And I thank Damien for his extraordinary efforts.

JOURNALIST: Commissioner, can you say any more about the religious motivation behind this attack? Why was this bishop targeted? Do we know, can you confirm the faith of the 16 year old boy? We’ve heard he was a recent convert to Islam. Can you confirm that?

COMMISSIONER KERSHAW: We’ve got a lot of intelligence we have to go through and confirm, so I can’t confirm that. But those are the things we are looking at. One of the things I do want to say though is that, you know, it’s a disgraceful act from a community who attacked police at that scene. And my support goes to the NSW Police Commissioner and the NSW police officers who were there to protect the community. And it was really un-Australian to see that happen last night.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, so it appears that the attacker might have had a religious motivation. Can I ask you whether you’re concerned in any way about whether the multicultural project in Australia in recent times is facing new threats or challenges and how significant the Multicultural Framework Review might be in addressing any of these recent problems?

PRIME MINISTER: We have overwhelmingly a harmonious society in Australia. In my local community people of different faiths live side by side and that is overwhelmingly the experience of Australians. It is vital, in my view, that we continue to stress what unites us and that respect for each other be maintained at all times.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, a question to Mr Burgess and Mr Kershaw, please. The PM mentioned it was the attacks on police, Mr Kershaw, you mentioned that just a moment ago as well. The Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton made a speech last week where he spoke about the way police respond to incidents. Obviously that was made before these last two incidents of the last couple of days, not to make that link. But are you concerned about the way that politicians speak about these sort of issues, these sort of social cohesion issues at a time like this? Mr Burgess, you’ve made points about this sort of language in the past.

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: My response to that would be all of us in terms of the language we use. It applies to every single Australian at moments like this.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask, Commissioner Kershaw, what are the next steps that police or the federal police are taking after these two attacks? I know the Prime Minister has touched on it, but just from your perspective, can you reassure the community at all about what’s being done to ensure their safety?

COMMISSIONER KERSHAW: Yes so basically we go into a very sophisticated investigation that no stone is left unturned. And given the fact that we’ll be alleging it is a religiously motivated violent act in particular, then what happens is that we work together with those agencies, we share all that intelligence. We have pretty good mechanisms in place, whether that’s through monitoring and other means, using our Five Eyes partners, for example, and other agencies to get a feel for what’s happening in the Australian community and also globally. As you know, a lot of our targets actually sit outside of Australia, not just in terrorism, but organised crime as well. So, we have a very sophisticated intelligence cooperation between all the agencies that I think is world class.

JOURNALIST: Probably one for Mr Burgess. We saw at both the Bondi attack and this one, likely lone wolf attacks appear to be targeted at a particular group of people. For Australians that don’t follow the definition too closely, can you actually spell out why in one attack you’re able to pretty quickly rule it out being a terror attack and one attack can quickly declare that it is one.

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: Sure, the simple answer there is to call it a terrorist attack you need indications of, well, information or evidence that suggests actually the motivation was religiously motivated or ideologically motivated. In the case of Saturday, that was not the case. In this case, the information we and the police have before us, it would indicate strongly that that is the case and that’s why it was called an act of terrorism.

JOURNALIST: Just on the ideological motivation, there’s video circulating of this alleged attacker speaking in Arabic, and there’s a rough translation of that which says, ‘If you didn’t swear at my prophet, I wouldn’t be here’. Are you aware of those comments? Is there any incident that may have triggered or be relation to that in recent days? Is this something that the Bishop might have said that might have brought that on? Is that part of the investigation?

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: We’re aware of those comments in terms of, and everything else is open lines of inquiry to understand why that individual got to where they did.

JOURNALIST: One for Mr Burgess and then to Mr Albanese. Do you believe that the tensions around the war in Gaza make incidents like this more likely? And thento the Prime Minister, do you have any direct message to the Christian community that is the subject of this attack? Do you want to speak directly to them?

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BURGESS: So firstly, in terms of the events in the Middle East, of course they do resonate here in Australia but we have not seen that to date actually cause individuals to go to acts of terror. Of course, in this case, we’re keeping an open mind and we’ll let that be a subject to the investigation of where we end up in our conclusions.

PRIME MINISTER: To the Assyrian community in particular, my heart goes out to you today. This will be a difficult day. And Chris Bowen, as the local Federal Member who represents a majority of the Assyrian community in Sydney, is with his community this morning and we will come through this. This is a great contributor to the community in Western Sydney – I’m familiar with it. And these are difficult times. Just here, just the woman up front there who had, you were really keen.

JOURNALIST: I was, I was. And then I thought I’d let the others have a go. But just going back to the issue of social media, besides the graphic content that’s out there, there’s also been a fair bit of misinformation. Are you concerned at a time like this, when there is so much lack of social cohesion, that it could make things worse?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course, I’m concerned by social media. I’m concerned by social media at times like this. But there’s probably not a day would go past, I’d find it unusual if there wasn’t things online that I wasn’t, that didn’t cause some concern. I think at times like this where everyone is a publisher, it can create some real difficulties. And I just say to people, think before you press send, because this can have a really disruptive impact on people. I’ve said before that often on social media, people will say things they would never say to your face. I don’t look at the comments on my social media posts. If I did, it would be very difficult to go about my day to day activity. And I think this is something that we as a society have to engage in a debate on because it is very distressing for me that young people in particular have to deal with a whole lot. If you look at the issues of young people dealing with mental health issues, I think that social media, I don’t know a parent who isn’t concerned about how much time their child spends online. That is just a fact. That’s something that there’s a role for government in. But there’s also a role for us as a society to have a mature debate about. Thanks very much.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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