ASPI’s decades: Hazards of many types

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

As the post-9/11 era took shape, the old demands of state security still stood at centre stage, dressed in new cyber garments but carrying the familiar flags of power contest.

Terrorism was a domestic issue in Australia as much as an international fear, sharing space on stage with other dangers. The policy phrase for an era when terrorism wasn’t the only terror became ‘all hazards’.

In Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 national security statement, terrorism sat with climate change, followed by a range of other scourges, from people smugglers and organised crime down to the need for e-security against cyberattacks. The rise of ‘all hazards’ meant the remit and membership of the cabinet’s National Security Committee expanded.

When Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, announced a national security strategy in 2013, non-state actors had dropped down the list. In Gillard’s ordering, the central role of the state applied as much to the cyber domain as to the ‘strategic competition’ she identified between the US and China.

The government’s judgement was that the security environment was ‘positive’ and ‘benign’. Gillard gave this description of the journey through the 9/11 era:

The attacks of 11 September 2001 are the most influential national security event in our recent history. The threat of global terrorism not only shaped the national security landscape of the past decade, but also heralded a new era for national security across the globe. Since then, much of our national security focus has been dedicated to guarding against such an attack occurring on our own soil.

Some 12 years on, our strategic outlook is largely positive. We live in one of the safest and most cohesive nations in the world. We have a strong economy. A major war is unlikely. Our highly-effective national security capability is already focused on priority activities. We have made considerable gains against global terrorism, and our alliance with the United States is as strong as ever. We also have deepening relationships with a range of influential countries in the region and across the world.

As Peter Jennings commented: ‘Welcome to the decade after the national security decade.’ The strains of the national security decade, though, ran through much of the second decade of the century.

From 2001 to 2014, Australia’s terror alert level was set at ‘medium’—an attack could happen. In September 2014, the warning was lifted to ‘high’—the risk of an attack was likely. The threat was from home-grown terrorists. Levi J. West wrote in The Strategist that the strategic power of small acts or ‘lone-wolf’ attacks were important aspects of the global terrorist milieu:

That evolution of the terrorist threat, and the arrival in Australia of active, offensive, individual and small-cell jihadist terrorism, demands the permanent embedding of our counter-terrorism structures (and funding) into the normal operations of government.

ASPI considered the system of threat communications and what the government should be saying to change people’s behaviour. More than just issuing advisories, Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy wrote, the government had to ensure the community understood what alerts meant:

Communicating terrorism alert level warnings is a tough challenge. It’s no easy task for our political leaders to find language that conveys the need to be alert, while also creating a sense of calm. But right now the public feels underinformed when it comes to terrorism advisories.

In 2013, ASPI set up a strategic policing and law enforcement program, with research funding from the Australian Federal Police; its inaugural report was on organised crime. The first head of the program, David Connery, wrote that strategic policing involved protecting national interests at home and abroad, to deal with:

  • espionage and foreign interference
  • instability in developing and fragile states
  • malicious cyber activity
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (especially domestically)
  • serious and organised crime
  • terrorism and violent extremism
  • countering state-based conflict and coercion.

The policing program built on earlier habits of thinking about the international dimension of Australian policing. ASPI’s first Strategic Insights paper, in 2004, was Police join the front line, by Elsina Wainwright, on how Canberra had turned to the AFP for foreign policy purposes. The AFP was used to help preserve the security and stability of weaker South Pacific states. Australian police had been working in peace and capacity-building operations in Bougainville, East Timor and Solomon Islands.

The Strategist launched weekly columns on policing, ‘The beat’, and on counterterrorism, ‘CT scan’; these eventually merged to become ‘The national security wrap’, which these days is called ‘The threat spectrum’.

In 2015, more than 100 Australians had left to fight in Syria and Iraq, and high-risk terrorism threats being monitored in Australia had more than doubled, prompting the report Gen Y jihadists: preventing radicalisation in Australia. Australia had become an exporter of terrorists, and later debate would turn to how to avoid the return of these fighters.

The Gen Y jihadists database identified Australians believed to be pulling the strings in Islamic militant groups, as well as a significant number of others who had been drawn to extremist beliefs, as Rosalyn Turner and Stephanie Huang wrote:

The database shows that there’s no archetype of an Australian jihadist. Australian foreign fighters come from a diversity of backgrounds, and there’s a wide range of influences and factors that appear to contribute to their decision to take part in a conflict half a world away.

However, one recurrent factor was the presence of an influential mentor that encouraged or facilitated the person to make hijrah (migration).

The ‘radicalisation’ broker was a guide offering purpose and a sense of belonging to something ‘bigger than themselves’, wrote Tobias Feakin, the inaugural head of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, in 2014. Online, modern jihadist propaganda had all the tools, as exemplified by Islamic State. A striking image expressing this was a photo ccirculated on Twitter showing three rifle bullets, each with a different top: ‘A bullet. A pen. A thumb drive … There is a different form of jihad’.

Islamic State members had grown up with digital technology, Feakin wrote, and were adept at using those tools to glorify the conflict:

JustPaste is used to publish summaries of battles that have taken place, SoundCloud to release audio reports of activities, WhatsApp and Kik Messenger to communicate and send images and videos, and Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to share images, propaganda and messages from the frontlines. They even have Q&A sessions about joining the group on Ask.FM. Their messages are tailored to their audience, changing depending on whether they’re intended for a local audience, or would-be Western recruits.

The many dark places on the ‘darknet’ were a key element of the all-hazards understanding.