Finding the right path: Australia’s counterterrorism strategy
27 Jul 2015|

Finding the right path

The national counterterrorism blueprint, Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, released last week by the Council of Australian Governments, has received little attention.

This is surprising given the national terrorism public alert level has been high since last September (which means a terrorist attack is likely) and that a recent poll found, of eight potential risks to Australia’s security, Australians rank terrorism-related threats first, second and third.

So, does the new blueprint provide a useful framework to understand what must be done, who must do it, and what actions are required in Australian counterterrorism?

On balance I’d say, yes. The document offers a conceptual framework, at this critical time, to strengthen our counterterrorism efforts.

The unity of direction is expressed in a handful of themes in the Strategy: challenging violent extremist ideologies, stopping people from becoming terrorists by working with community members to identify individuals at risk and help steer them away from violent extremism, shaping the global environment, disrupting terrorist activity within Australia, and effective response and recovery arrangements in the event of an attack.

These themes provide a useful checklist to evaluate progress in our counterterrorism efforts and, in that sense, are more important than getting too hung up about the specifics of any individual objectives or programs set out in the document.

It’s helpful to have an explanation of how our nation will marshal its counterterrorism resources and in general terms—it’s hard to be too specific in unclassified documents—how they’ll be applied against violent extremists.

One of the first critical steps to laying out a national plan is to define key terms. The Strategy cuts through a lot of murky argument and states clearly that the major threat we face is from violent extremism perpetrated or inspired by terrorist groups and others that claim to act in the name of Islam.

It rightly points out it’s those groups that are exerting an influence in Australia, and that this is increasing the risk of home grown terrorism, particularly by encouraging lone wolf attacks.

The Strategy correctly notes that ‘despite our best efforts, there can be no guarantees that a terrorist attack will not occur’. This is a useful reminder: we could spend ourselves into bankruptcy and still not achieve perfect security.

The Strategy is also right to raise the role of values in the national security debate. It states that in challenging extremists we should ‘seek to promote the values and ideas which underpin our society’. We’ve been far too bashful in arguing that national identity is a matter of national security. We shouldn’t shy away from defining what we stand for; for unless we do so, extremist ideologies are likely to fill the vacuum.

But there are some weaknesses in the document. At times it reads as a collection of policies rather than clear priorities that would guide the allocation of scarce resources to achieve specific counter- terrorism objectives. Priority setting is important because countering terrorism is a long-term requirement that may influence Australia for generations.

The Strategy talks about shaping the global environment in the face of an international terror threat. But it fails to acknowledge the importance of diplomacy or the application of our foreign aid budget in countering violent extremism.

On the home front there’s no mention of the importance of building resilience in schools and training teachers to identify signs of radicalisation. While it notes the role of the internet in radicalisation and recruitment, it doesn’t discuss the capacity of the new Children’s e-Safety Commissioner in raising awareness about the dangers of online extremism. The role of the new Australian Border Force in responding to terrorism also fails to receive a mention.

Where to from here? The Strategy has been released, priorities need to be agreed, funding allocated and agencies and communities brought on board. Alongside COAG, the Prime Minister should establish a Counter-Terrorism Advisory Council to bring together prominent Australian community leaders (who should have a say in efforts to aid vulnerable members of their communities), counterterrorism experts from academia, mental health professionals, communications specialists, educationalists and business leaders to help guide programs and policies that will safeguard Australia from terrorism and counter violent extremism.

Ultimately, as the Strategy points out, our approach in countering terrorism must be about protecting lives and, one hopes, our way of life. But we shouldn’t expect the impossible from our plans or our leaders here. The truth is that this new document doesn’t make us safer just by its release; even the best strategy is worthless unless it’s well implemented.