The Counterterrorism Yearbook 2018

Three key factors defined the terrorist threat landscape in 2017: the international coalition’s military dismantling of Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate, and their return to a nebulous insurgency structure; increased IS activity in South East Asia catalysed by the battle for Marawi; and the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda.

These developments have in turn shaped the evolution of international counterterrorism (CT) agendas at local, regional and international levels. The challenges include the prospect of returning foreign fighters, the sustained threat of lone actor attacks, and the capacity of ‘virtual attack planners’. There’s no single way to address these issues and different regions/countries have developed their own policy and operational responses that reflect local socio-political developments. In addition, factors such as proximity to conflict, porous borders, low-levels of governance and corrupt state regimes have a tangible impact on how CT policy and practice is implemented.

CT in 2017–2018 has clearly been defined by the threat posed by IS in a post-caliphate era. Two key challenges confronting governments revolve around what to do with the likely prospect of returning fighters or migrants, as well as the question of repatriation for individuals who have been captured overseas for travelling to the caliphate. Australia and the UK have successfully passed laws to strip dual nationals of British or Australian citizenship while abroad to bar them from returning. Khaled Sharrouf became the first Australian to lose his Australian citizenship in 2017.

Governments are simultaneously struggling with securing convictions for terrorist offences, as well as with implementing the most suitable and effective punitive measures of prosecution. While prison sentences are non-negotiable for those convicted of terrorist-related offences, there is no universally accepted policy on the most effective arrangements for incarceration, with some governments favouring separation policy over dispersal.

Given the youthful demographic of those who have been involved, as well as their varied motivations and objectives, the level of threat an individual poses to society remains ambiguous, and there are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. Additionally, governments are trying to find the most effective measures to rehabilitate and reintegrate back into mainstream society those who no longer pose a threat. Tailor-made rehabilitation measures that emphasise social reform to positively reintegrate individuals are preferred.

Some notable shifts in CT strategy which will be interesting to monitor in the short and long term include a growing urgency—particularly in Western Europe, the UK, the US and Australia—to develop robust monitoring and evaluation measures to assess policies and programs for countering violent extremism (CVE). The difficulty has been in identifying best practice in this highly controversial field, in which no two paths into and out of violent extremism are the same.

Second, there’s been a conscious effort to change existing approaches to CVE in Australia, Morocco and Tunisia, with a key focus on addressing the sociocultural and political issues that create conditions conducive to radicalisation towards violent extremism. The analysis indicates that there has also been a visible move away from the practice of ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘counter-radicalisation’ towards a social policy focused approach to P/CVE (preventing and countering violent extremism) that values education, training and employment as effective routes towards facilitating engagement, belonging and integration.

On paper, this is a welcome change of direction, but whether or not governments have the appetite to invest in long-term social policy initiatives instead of security-focused approach to P/CVE remains to be seen. It will be of paramount importance to learn from mistakes if this shift is to be implemented successfully.

Third, noting the integral role played by the internet in radicalisation processes, as well as in facilitating and mobilising terrorism, the yearbook has included a chapter analysing the legislative challenges facing states in countering the online activities of terrorists. The challenges for both public and private sectors highlighted in this chapter will be interesting to monitor in the coming years, to assess the effectiveness of policy changes.

ASPI’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2018 analyses how different countries and regions across the world are tackling the threats of terrorism and violent extremism against the backdrop of the contemporary terrorist threat environment. The almanac identifies developments across the terrorist landscape that are relevant to the year in review and discusses possible challenges to expect in the coming year.

The 2018 edition demonstrates that international CT remains fixated on the threat of Salafi-jihadi terrorism. Not nearly enough attention is being placed on other forms of violent extremism, or where emerging threats may emanate from. Governments need to be better prepared to meet a broader range of emerging challenges across the terrorist threat landscape.

Likely examples include the demands  posed by accelerating automation on society, tracking the trajectory of far-right extremism, and the impact of climate change and people movement on national security. Additionally, none of the chapters in the current yearbook have indicated that governments are appropriately integrating gender perspectives within CT policy and practice, despite the fact that terrorism and violent extremism are gendered experiences.

The objective of the Counterterrorism Yearbook is to document the performance of governments in the CT space, and to demonstrate that states need to develop more flexible and adaptable policies and strategies to meet the challenges thrown up by the continually evolving national and international security landscape.