Australia and the regional terrorist threat
29 Jul 2014|

Bali Bombing Memorial, Kuta

Much has been written of late about the potential for Australian citizens to go to the Middle East and take up arms with one militant group or another. Recent commentary about an Is­lamic State fighter, who appears to be the sec­ond Aus­tralian to carry out a sui­cide bomb­ing in a Shia-dom­i­nated dis­trict near the cen­tre of Bagh­dad, is chilling. Instead of delivering long-desired enlightenment to the region, the Arab Spring has in part unleashed forces that contribute to the current spiral of violence and instability—with effects felt as far afield as the Asia-Pacific.

We need to respond—in a measured way—to the actions of Australian citizens who no longer feel they owe their first duty to Australia and its people. But, equally, we must guard against exaggerating and sensationalising this issue for three important reasons: first because the threat is in reality quite small; second because we don’t want to draw even more (usually) young hot heads to the cause; and finally, because we have relatively strong institutional structures to address the threat.

It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of Australian immigrants of Middle-Eastern descent took a big risk to start anew in this country. They did so out of love, mostly because of the stability, moderation and the future it offered their children. As such, far from being radicalised, incendiary or reactionary, my wide circle of Middle Eastern friends (and I believe the vast majority of the Middle Eastern population in Australia) are a largely content, law-abiding, aspirational and contributing element of multicultural Australia. Far from constituting a threat they have embraced and now largely embody our national values. So, by all means, let’s address the unwelcome actions of a relatively small group of rogue radicals, but their wider communities mustn’t be tarnished in the process.

But that’s not the end of the matter, for there’s a real and much more significant threat which must inevitably be confronted. This one’s more nuanced, and equally more likely to fly under the radar, until it strikes quickly and dangerously. Its low profile is achieved, in part, because we are inclined to focus excessively on the relatively few ‘home grown’ would-be fighters just described.

This much greater threat is the risk posed by Southeast Asian fighters who go to Syria, and then return to regional transnational organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Given the relative weakness of institutional structures in some regional nations, the freedom of action that those committed and upskilled fighters enjoy is reason for great concern. In Australia’s case, that’s because of the enormous number of Australians and other Westerners who transit and/or holiday in our region each year.

So far, informed estimates suggest that there are approximately 50 Indonesian fighters in Syria. Almost certainly, that figure is conservative and growing—perhaps fast. Professional recruitment videos that call on Indonesia’s Muslim youth to answer the siren song of transnationalism are likely to stimulate further interest within disaffected communities in Indonesia and elsewhere in our region.

The key point is that the threat of regional separatists is an inter-regional dilemma, with known terrorists finding motivation, inspiration and training in the Middle East before returning to apply their skills at home. Such individuals can lie dormant within their home countries, but still possess the heightened potential and confidence to strike at soft civilian targets, including Western visitors and tourists. That’s a regional problem, requiring a regional solution for resolution, or, more realistically, practical long-term containment.

Australia has been fortunate to date, in being able to confront and successfully check would-be terrorist combatants on far distant foreign soil—and to do so with relatively few casualties. Regrettably, neither a distant battlefield, nor a low casualty toll, may always be possible in what we must remember is the Longest War—the all-too-conveniently-forgotten Global War on Terror. Because of its inchoate nature, it may seem at times to have simply gone away. But, that’s far from the truth. The problem is that in the foreseeable future it may again be waiting for us closer to home—in our own back yard as was the case in Bali—and re-emerge in a more dangerous and determined form.

Nor is it likely that the superb and recently well-proven counter-terror and combat capabilities of Australia’s special forces will get much of a rest in the foreseeable to middle terms.

But, one thing is certain. Now that the important Indonesian national election is done, it’ll be in the interests of both our nations to work to understand and cooperate more closely and consistently, toward the goal of a safe and stable region. To that end, our respective national self-interests—at times mismatched, misunderstood and even mismanaged—have never before been more closely aligned.

Andrew Nikolic is the Federal Member for Bass and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. He is a former senior Australian Army officer and First Assistant Secretary in the Defence Department. Image courtesy of Flickr user Roger Price.