Keeping the local jihadist menace manageable
20 Jan 2015|

Is extra monitoring the solution? The Sydney siege and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris have highlighted that jihadist violence is on the rise. But what can be done to keep us safe? In the clear absence of any effective grand solutions to the problems jihadists pose, the answer seems to revolve around money.

The Prime Minister recently declared that the security services couldn’t monitor all individuals who may potentially commit jihadist acts instead simply keeping them under ‘reasonable supervision’. On 2GB, Mr Abbott observed: ‘I can’t say that they’re all under 24-hour watch but…we are doing everything we humanly can to ensure that anyone who is a menace to our safety is being monitored.’

This approach now seems less reassuring following the Charlie Hebdo killings given their ferocity and organisation. Just like all other jihadist attacks in Western nations over the last two years, the individuals responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack were known to the national security services, just as Sydney siege gunman Man Monis was known to Australian officials. The problem was that the French security services lacked the resources to monitor all dangerous individuals all the time. A French official declared that in order to do this, their security services would need to be three times their current size. Thinking resources, there are several alternatives.

First, the government could stick with the current system of monitoring and funding, while progressively tightening up laws and regulations as necessary, and simply accept that terrorist acts may occur in the future. The danger is that essential civil liberties will be further constrained and yet attacks like Charlie Hebdo might still happen. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

The second option is to keep the current system but throw more resources at the problem. Treble the security forces funding and drive the risks down albeit drawing money away from other areas of government spending. Moreover, there are worrying Orwellian overtones in building a garrison state where large internal security forces monitor everyone’s activities. And while only a trickle, more potential jihadists to supervise are emerging every day. Over time, there may be several hundred to monitor, a feasible but considerable task.

Third, one alternative is to outsource the problem to the Muslim community in whose name these acts of violence are ostensibly carried out. Some argue that the community should self-police to ensure such acts never occur again. This implies though that the overall community is responsible for the jihadists, which seems a stretch. Most members of the community deplore these acts of violence and have regularly warned the security services about dangerous individuals. Moreover, the result of such an implied collective punishment could be to turn the Muslim community into a closed inwardly-focused enclave within our society, an outcome sharply at odds with Australia’s fundamental liberal principles.

Fourth, the problem could be made more manageable by rounding up those individuals of concern. The UK did this in Northern Ireland in the 1970s when they introduced detention without trial. Instead of trying to monitor hundreds of individuals separately, they detained them as a group. The process fell into disrepute because torture was used on some and many were erroneously held. Moreover, that was a civil war whereas the current local jihadist problem involves Australians helping overseas terrorist groups with whom the nation is effectively, if not formally, at war.

Last, we could accept we’re at war with ISIS (and perhaps the al-Qaeda franchise) and declare war. That would mean the laws of war would apply with our dealings with the group, not the laws of peace. Those individuals deemed security risks could then legally have restrictions on their free movement applied such as home confinement or, if needs be, internment. This approach comes under the 1949 Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol 1, and is now much more strictly regulated than during World War II. Even so, there are risks such an approach might be misused for political gain or bureaucratic advancement.

Adopting this approach would limit costs and ease our security services problems dramatically while addressing a major issue in our laws of peace. Such laws punish those who commit crimes, but don’t prevent them happening in the first place. The idea of declaring war was discounted early in the Global War on Terror partly to avoid making the murderous thugs involved appear important. But times have changed.

None of the options is perfect. Their basic difference is between supervising dangerous individuals scattered across Australia on an open-ended cost basis or instead grouping them collectively and limiting security service expenditures. Our safety turns partly on spending but also on approach.

Peter Layton has extensive defence experience and a doctorate in grand strategy. Image courtesy of Flickr user Josh Koonce.