Countering terrorism and violent extremism beyond the sandpit
25 Nov 2022|

Many counterterrorism experts and observers have long said that one of the key failings of the post-9/11 era was a lack of a cohesive, overarching strategic concept. Research indicates that short-term operational and tactical planning can dominate policy and security risk management at the expense of future scenario planning.

To be sure, a rigorous approach to counterterrorism as a security practice will always be needed, even as terrorist activity, and its immediate relevance in relation to other geostrategic and national security threats, peaks and dips. However, we need also to analyse events and issues through effective strategic thinking in counterterrorism, taking us beyond the more traditional focus on tactical innovation, organisational variations and changes in the modus operandi of terror groups.

That is why ASPI’s 2022 counterterrorism yearbook zooms out to the wider strategic horizon. One of the lessons we’ve learned during the past 20 years is that what determines a turn to violence doesn’t only come down to individual trajectories and the appeal of ideology in conjunction with structural variables but interacts with a much broader enabling environment. Several contributions in the yearbook highlight this.

For most of the past two decades, terrorism and extremism were largely seen as the domain of a foreign ‘other’. Even when talking about ‘homegrown jihadists’, extremist ideological motivations were generally ascribed to sources not only culturally different, but in direct opposition to our national identity and values, however abstractly defined.

If we want a counterterrorism and counterextremism approach that integrates with and complements a long-term, purposefully pursued national security policy framework, we need to move the discussion beyond what we did in the sandpit. Challenges today are increasingly systemic, amorphous and endemic. This is a much more uncomfortable, politically difficult reality.

Responsive policymaking in this environment—especially at a time of heightened strategic competition—requires ongoing recognition of the dilemmas and complexities inherent in countering terrorism and extremism. For instance, as one chapter in our yearbook argues, trust in government is crucial for preventing extremism and combating the activities of terrorists—of all persuasions—and delegitimising their actions in the eyes of the community.

Our approaches and policy measures must be built on a clearer distinction between security and societal outcomes, while at the same time factoring in the possible impact of geopolitical forces on domestic policies. We’re witnessing the proliferation of anti-democratic ideas as hate speech, hate crimes and politically motivated violence become more prominent in the evolving landscape internationally.

We have to be cognisant of lessons from the 6 January US Capitol attack, and from Canada’s, New Zealand’s and Australia’s various experiences with ‘freedom convoys’ converging on national parliaments.

Overall, these events highlight that efforts to counter extremism and build resilience can’t focus just on specific extremist fringes. Rather than considering the ability to recognise and withstand the appeal of anti-democratic ideas as a skill needed by individuals identified as ‘vulnerable’, or as a commitment by certain at-risk communities, the task takes on a fuller meaning as the threat changes and shifts.

As well as the ‘classic’ counterterrorism and counterextremism topics related to jihadism, a successful approach to combating terrorism requires research, commentary and dialogue on other (violent) contestations of democracy. This is certainly the approach that ASPI’s reoriented counterterrorism program is taking.

This broadened focus involves overlapping forms of ideological extremism, such as anti-government and conspiracy extremism, militant patriot and sovereign citizen movements, and other anti-pluralist discourse, gender-based hate and novel expressions of anti-Semitism, including how these developments are affected by evolving information and propaganda dynamics in a changing strategic environment.

We need a forward-looking, integrative approach that views countering terrorism and extremism as enduring political and societal challenges. If we define resilience as the ability to withstand extremist ideas through a commitment to Australian democracy and identity, we need to allow for contestability—that is, the ability to also question the meaning and application of national values, particularly in times of crisis or when the practice of democracy has polarising or exclusionary effects.

Keeping the strategic effects on democracy and the rules-based international order in centre view is fundamental to a comprehensive, long-term response in harmony with broader national and foreign policy objectives.

In terms of what lies ahead on the threat landscape, we must continually ask ourselves whether our approaches to countering terrorism and extremism are directed by a clear understanding of the distinction between the desired end state and the ways and means to get there.

Adapting to changed times means aligning a range of security priorities and other national objectives so they complement each other, rather than allowing the driving logic of one policy field or strand of national power to have adverse effects on another.

Going beyond the sandpit is therefore about recognising the need to stake out new strategic parameters and ensuring that the right questions are driving our analysis and policymaking.