Counterterrorism yearbook 2020

ASPI’s Counterterrorism yearbook 2020, released today, was drafted at a time of upheaval in the global system. Like now, interstate tensions were on the rise and the global system was going through a drastic change. As we enter a new decade, different forces and ideas are emerging from these changes, especially in the West, which is one reason why for the first time we’ve included a chapter on right-wing extremism.

The 2020 edition of the yearbook continues our usual practice of providing assessments of how countries and regions are adjusting and responding to their terrorist threats. However, this year we’ve also included thematic chapters on topics such as mental health, strategic policing, the media, the terror–crime nexus and terrorist innovation.

These new thematic chapters are aimed at encouraging governments to consider more proactive counterterrorism agendas that move beyond the focus on disrupting plots and discouraging people from joining and supporting terrorist groups. The intent is to promote new thinking on how to deal with emerging areas of concern—like comorbidity of mental health, use of gaming platforms and artificial intelligence.

Despite some worrisome and tragic terrorism developments in 2019, overall, attacks are in decline. In some cases, that has led states to reduce their threat levels (in November 2019, for example, the UK lowered its terror threat level from ‘severe’ to ‘substantial’). The decline is likely due in no small part to positive developments in countering violent extremism.

Last month, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s new director-general, Mike Burgess, released his first unclassified annual threat assessment, which painted a rather bleak picture of Australia’s domestic security situation. The official terrorism threat level has remained at ‘probable’. The revelation that right-wing extremism was growing in Australia wasn’t a big surprise, but the idea that it is becoming more organised came as a shock to many.

Three themes emerge from the 2020 yearbook.

First, the experts seem to agree that Salafi-jihadi terrorist activities have continued to decline—something that was noticeable as far back as 2015. The decline is very much linked to the territorial defeat of Islamic State and the fact that al-Qaeda has changed its strategy.

Regrettably, as the number of Salafi-jihadi-inspired terrorist attacks has decreased, right-wing extremist activity has increased—a point well illustrated by the tragic Christchurch massacre in 2019.

To address the growing concern over far-right extremism, we’ve included two chapters on that subject: one by Kristy Campion looking at the phenomenon in Australia and one by Elise Thomas focusing on the Christchurch massacre and the role played by websites such as 8chan. Even though there isn’t clear evidence of an organised Australian right-wing extremist terror threat, a focus on promoting social cohesion is still required.

Second, the defeat of Islamic State continues to provide governments, including Australia’s, with persistent security and policy challenges, particularly in relation to returning foreign fighters and people convicted of terrorism offences who are coming close to the end of their prison sentences.

Our experts indicated that there’s an urgent need for the international community to adopt a united, cohesive approach not only to foreign fighters but also to their dependants. The current disaggregated approach has meant that some countries have taken their foreign fighters back, whereas others have adopted policies such as citizenship revocation or simply refused to tackle the problem.

Third, we recognise the role of technology, specifically social media, in the evolution of violent extremism. We note that countries are likely to experience more cyberterrorism and that extremist groups will continue to use the internet to promote their intolerant views, placing an enormous strain on states that must balance the right to free speech with security.

In preparing the 2020 edition of the yearbook, we recognised that security services and policymakers face many challenges that require courageous decisions. And there are no easy or cheap solutions to counter violent extremism. This year we asked our experts to offer recommendations so that the yearbook can serve as a guide to policymakers facing these substantial challenges.

Many will note that this is the first counterterrorism yearbook that doesn’t include a chapter on Africa. That isn’t because we’re ignoring terrorist activities on the continent, which continue to kill and injure civilians and cause havoc, but because there haven’t been any substantive developments from last year. Groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram continue to terrorise their communities, and African governments haven’t adopted more creative policies to deal with those groups and others.

We haven’t included a chapter on China and the plight of the Uyghurs either, but refer readers instead to the research of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. We suspect that next year we’ll have to devote more space to such places as Bangladesh, Central Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa, as Salafi-jihadi groups are making inroads in those regions.