18 years and counting: Australian counterterrorism, threats and responses
10 Apr 2019|

Australia’s counterterrorism architecture is complex, embracing hard and soft power, and it’s challenging to determine where it begins and ends. It also includes initiatives that the government rightly can’t publicise.

My latest ASPI report, 18 years and counting: Australian counterterrorism, threats and responses, details the evolution of this architecture since the 9/11 terrorist attacks as it pertains to the threat of Salafi-jihadism.

Australia’s 2015 counterterrorism strategy emphasises the need for a partnership between government, the private sector and communities to counter the threat of terrorism.

The strategy rests on five key pillars. Terrorist activity must be disrupted; the appeal of extremist ideologies must be reduced through counter-narratives and programs and initiatives aimed at social cohesion; people must be discouraged from resorting to violence to express their views; global counterterrorism efforts must be supported; and the government must be able to respond to any terrorist event.

A year before the strategy was issued, the threat level was raised to ‘probable’, which means that credible intelligence indicates that individuals or groups ‘continue to possess the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia’. It’s unlikely that the level will change soon, especially as it is evident that al-Qaeda is making a resurgence and, despite the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State is far from defeated.

When it comes to foreign policy, we’re trying to live up to our reputation as an upholder of the rules-based order and a principal advocate of multilateralism. Australia was a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an intergovernmental platform addressing the vulnerability of people to terrorism and violent extremism. Through the forum, several best practices have been adopted in relation to violent extremism, foreign terrorist fighters, criminal justice and the rule of law.

Even though Australia’s foreign aid contribution continues to shrink, there remains a commitment to address the drivers of violent extremism at all levels. In March 2017, the then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, launched a new policy framework (Development approaches to countering violent extremism) that sought to counter and prevent violent extremism through education, civil society, governance, livelihoods, justice and the rule of law. Bishop also committed Australia to providing Iraq with humanitarian assistance to help stabilise liberated areas and to support projects to build social cohesion.

With strong input from the Australian Federal Police, Australia has played a key role in setting up the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation. Among its achievements, the centre has helped develop Indonesia’s Densus 88, ‘one of the world’s best counter-terrorism units’.

AUSTRAC has also played an important role in promoting regional engagement on counterterrorism through its involvement in launching the Fintel Alliance, a public–private partnership combating money laundering and terrorism financing. Together with regional partners, AUSTRAC works to enhance regional efforts to combat the financing of terrorism, including organising, to date, four regional summits and facilitating regional risk assessment on terrorism financing.

On the domestic front, one wonders whether we have been as effective. Since 2001, more than 60 new statutes were adopted on areas such as detention, passport revocation, telecommunications and post-sentence preventative detention. Some of these measures are controversial, raising serious questions as to whether they undermine core liberal, democratic values. Professor George Williams, dean of the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, and a leading constitutional scholar, has captured the concern by provocatively claiming that successive Australian governments have launched a ‘legal assault on Australian democracy’.

One wonders whether imposing continued detention and control orders after a sentence has been served, granting a minister the power to revoke passports, and introducing an Australian values statement, among many other measures, have helped promote security. Might they, and the rhetoric around them, have politicised the debate over security, often at the expense of minorities? Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, the Grand Mufti of Australia, captured the exhaustion and anger of many in the Muslim community at being repeatedly called upon to condemn acts of terrorism when he said of his faith: ‘You don’t ask to disavow medicine if some doctors exploited it, you don’t ask to disavow law if some lawyers misused it.’

Clearly, the security services have faced an enormous challenge over the past 18 years, as the terrorist threat evolved and new cases emerged. The establishment was forced to rethink its predictors, its methods and its understanding of the new threat environment. In November 2018, a few weeks after the Bourke Street incident, Victoria Police arrested three individuals whose passports had been cancelled earlier in the year, alleging that they were planning a mass-casualty attack. In 2017, the security services uncovered the Sydney Airport plot, which involved a plan to place a bomb in a meat grinder to be carried aboard a passenger jet.

What has made the job of detecting such activity so challenging in the post-caliphate era is that a large percentage of those convicted were under 21 when they committed their offences and there was no evidence that many of them had direct or formal ties to Salafi-jihadi groups.

ASIO’s 2017–18 annual report made no mention of far-right, white supremacist activity, as there was arguably no evidence of such a threat emerging. There has, however, been plenty of evidence of Salafi-jihadi activity; over 80% of the convictions for terrorism offences in the past three years involved adherents of Salafi-jihadism. ASIO’s 2016–17 report noted that there was minimal far-right activity in Australia.

ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis told a Senate estimates hearing that, horrific as the Christchurch attacks were, the calculus had not changed because, out of seven attacks and 15 thwarted attacks, only one was allegedly perpetrated by a right-wing extremist and that case was still before the courts.

This doesn’t mean that ASIO isn’t focused on far-right, white supremacist activity, but at a time of limited resources, tough decisions must be made and currently there’s no evidence of a serious threat in Australia from the extreme right.

Australia’s counterterrorism environment is staffed by dedicated individuals, committed to protecting Australians. The past 18 years have shown us that terrorism evolves and innovates and we must too.

But safety and protection begin with the individual.

We must change our public discourse and work better at social cohesion and identify individuals at risk of being led down the violent extremist path so that with early help they can be dissuaded from making terrible mistakes.