Australia can learn from Biden’s domestic terrorism strategy
30 Jul 2021|

The Joe Biden administration’s National strategy for countering domestic terrorism, released last month, followed an urgent review of efforts to address what the White House says is ‘the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today’.

Australia has a similar problem. While policing responses have been very effective so far in stopping attacks, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation says efforts to stem radicalisation, which can culminate in attacks, have been unsuccessful. So-called right-wing extremism is a growing domestic threat.

The US review identified the two most ‘lethal’ types of domestic terrorists as white supremacists and anti-government violent extremists. Though distinct, these two groups exhibit significant overlap in both the US and Australia, and accelerationist rhetoric increasingly features in their social media and advocacy content.

There is no political solution’ is a slogan of the movement. The report says those involved have given up negotiating with people they share a country with. Many have disengaged from mainstream politics.

The anti-government element provides an insulating logic for what’s broadly termed right-wing extremism in Australia. Counter-engagement by government is harder when the point of vulnerability to radicalisation is the very idea that the government has become authoritarian and unrepresentative.

Recent polling in Australia indicates trust in federal, state and territory governments has increased across the mainstream population during the pandemic, though distrust remains steady among a smaller cohort. Yet, even the general increase over 2020 follows the broader downward trend in this metric since the 2007 poll, indicating a general, long-term decrease in trust in government. Critically, the increase in right-wing extremist discourse and activity doesn’t just correlate with but frequently mirrors this trend in some segments of society. Anti-government sentiment provides an entry point for newcomers to those conversations.

The core logic of right-wing extremism has become distrust of democratic institutions and government. The more successful a policing effort is, the more it can be twisted to support this claim, so a security perspective and law enforcement approach alone will never stop or reverse this rising threat. Disrupting radicalisation, and insulating people from it in the first place, requires community engagement guided by a community resilience perspective and a public health approach, alongside strategic policing and law enforcement responses.

Each of the US strategy’s four ‘pillars’ offers a fresh perspective on the domestic terrorism threat. The US and Australian threats and contexts, while similar, are not identical. Still, the US framework yields insights that can help Australian policymakers design better preventive and reactive strategies, and Australians to have the productive, honest political debate needed to implement and resource them.

The first pillar is to increase understanding of and share domestic-terrorism-related information across all levels of government, law enforcement, and private-sector and international partners. Tools for implementing this pillar include research and analysis of national datasets, as well as open-source information. The strategy notes that the US government ‘is enhancing its ability to receive and analyze domestic terrorism threat information provided by state, local, tribal, and territorial partners’.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission is bringing policing and intelligence agencies onto the new national criminal intelligence system, which aims to provide a live national dataset on criminal activity and recidivist perpetrators to enable analysis and information-sharing across jurisdictions. The pilot program has already demonstrated the search engine’s value to counterterrorism policing.

Concurrently, parliament is expanding the powers of policing and intelligence agencies to address criminal threats—of which terrorism is just one—exacerbated by advances in digitisation, global internet connectivity and technological innovation.

Much is written about the rise of right-wing extremism globally and how its networks can inspire attacks in different places. A national dataset will broaden understanding of the locally grown movement and inform responses.

The key element missing from Australia’s strategic policing approach is a communication strategy to bring the public along. This requires balancing increased policing responses (better technology and more enabling legislation) to this threat with the need to maintain democratic rights and liberties. This is critical to protecting our democracy and to avoiding providing fodder for the claims of anti-government violent extremist groups.

These claims need to be disproved, not be brushed off as mad, even when they’re delivered through outlandish narratives like that of QAnon, which is gaining traction in Australia. Such claims provide a bridge between violent extremist views that most people wouldn’t entertain and the civil liberties protecting citizens against government actions.

A start would be to ensure that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s upcoming review of how the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 has been used so far, including in the Australian Federal Police’s Operation Ironside, is public and transparent. How can the electorate trust further increases in police powers if we can’t know how already expanded powers have been used?

The second pillar is to prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilisation to violence.

Covid-19 lockdowns have provided an ideological quilting point for a fractured landscape of extremist views to rally around, forming a more coherent and unified movement. Fuelled by a sense of not being democratically represented and egged on by dis- and misinformation campaigns online, it’s not a huge step for someone at risk of radicalisation to consider attacking democratic institutions and processes, or people who represent them.

The public will understandably make moral judgements about terrorism offenders, but parliamentarians and policymakers must objectively analyse causal relationships to determine the most effective strategies.

It’s becoming more broadly understood that a public health approach is necessary to reduce the demand for drugs like crystal methamphetamine and heroin because locking up addicts isn’t reducing the impact on communities. Addicts often perpetrate shocking violence, but if the goal is to reduce addiction and crime, policy efforts can’t be guided and measured by incarceration rates.

If policymakers want to reduce the risk of violent extremism, the metric for success must be fewer radicalised individuals coming to the attention of police and agencies.

The US strategy has public health front and centre: ‘Grounded in existing evidence and best practices in public health–focused violence prevention, our approach to domestic terrorism prevention draws on the expertise, experience, and efforts of the entire government.’ It focuses on preventive measures that foster community resilience, such as digital literacy programs to decrease vulnerability to online mis- and disinformation from the likes of QAnon.

In contrast, preventive measures for countering violent extremism (CVE) are generally not considered a valid approach in Australian political and policy debates. Given ASIO’s view that high-school-aged youth make up a significant portion of radicalised subjects, ramping up CVE programs in high schools could help nip it in the bud.

The few CVE programs established or in development focus on deradicalising already radicalised individuals, rather than addressing the conditions that make communities vulnerable to radicalisation. There’s little evidence of success so far and international best practice is yet to be established.

The third pillar is to disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity. The US Department of Justice is considering whether ‘new legislative authorities that balance safety and the protection of civil liberties are necessary and appropriate’. Australia is already working on such legislation, which is important to national security and policing in the digital age. This is the classic democratic effort to balance safety and freedom.

After 9/11, citizens in both the US and Australia broadly trusted their governments to take bites out of civil liberties to mitigate the terrorist threat. Misinformation implicating Muslim Australians and Americans in terrorism pushed public opinion further towards security over freedom and towards trusting governments to make legislative changes, including reduced privacy online, to protect them.

Both electorates are now recalculating this balance after 20 years of foreign policy guided by a counterterrorism agenda, and now the frustration and trauma of Covid-19 lockdowns. The disinformation flooding social media from movements like QAnon, false information from some politicians and others, and confusing and shifting public health advice have created conditions in which distrust of governments can be understood.

The sacrifice of civil liberties is now commonly considered not to be worth the promised security. If intelligence and policing agencies are to get the increased powers they need, public trust must be won back.

The fourth pillar is to confront long-term contributors to domestic terrorism by addressing the root causes of violent extremism from a systems perspective. Where the third pillar will improve screening  to ensure violent extremists don’t work in law enforcement, the fourth targets systemic factors in institutions of law enforcement and government, as in legislation enabling violence like access to firearms.

Australians should note that this addresses the blurring between violent extremism and its social, economic and political causes, and legitimate politics and law enforcement.

The US strategy boldly acknowledges that systemic racial, ethnic and religious discrimination within government and law enforcement can help mobilise violent extremism, but it does not treat that as an indictment of those institutions. It outlines ways to root out discrimination and counter the polarised political discourse, fuelled by dis- and misinformation, to support an ‘information environment that fosters healthy democratic discourse’.

In contrast, Australia’s political discourse keeps playing ‘free speech versus hate speech’ ping-pong, which seems no closer to resolution and precludes advancement to an outcomes-focused security strategy like the Biden administration’s.

Australia’s exclusively reactive law enforcement approach to already radicalised threats puts band-aids on a worsening problem. It needs to be just half of our domestic strategy, along with actionable (not just aspirational) ways to foster community resilience to radicalisation.