Terrorism in Australia in 2019: more of the same?
31 Jan 2019|

The terrorism threat level in Australia in 2019 is likely to remain at ‘probable’—the middle of five levels. While there can be no ironclad guarantees with counterterrorism, the current level of generous resourcing should allow security authorities to remain on top of the situation and prevent group plots from succeeding.

The main concern in 2019 will continue to be the threat generated by Sunni ‘Islamic State’ propaganda directed towards impressionable young Muslims and older disenchanted ones. As its territorial control dwindles in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State is increasingly relying on its media network to retain support from Sunni Muslims.

Despite significant losses among its media cadre, the network remains resilient and continues to publish new propaganda about its ‘successes’. Its key message is that Islamic State is embarked on a long guerrilla war of attrition in which God guarantees ultimate victory. Territorial control is therefore not so important.

In an August 2018 speech, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (aged 48 this year) called on followers ‘in the countries of the crusaders, in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere’ to carry out attacks against Westerners, saying that one attack in the West was equal to a thousand in Iraq or Syria. (Al-Baghdadi is probably located with other surviving Islamic State leaders in Syria’s Middle Euphrates Valley.)

Islamic State’s online publications like Rumiyah have provided instructions for target selection and simple attacks using knives, firearms and vehicles. (Limited access to firearms in Australia will continue to be a problem for would-be terrorists.) No new issues of Rumiyah have been released since September 2017, but past releases and new material containing attack guidance are regularly circulated online.

Sunni al-Qaeda remains a concern because not much is known about its global networking activities. Regional terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda are active in many parts of the world, but al-Qaeda seems to be making little concerted effort to galvanise supporters to mount attacks in the West. However, its online magazine Inspire (last issued November 2016) still provides effective explosive attack methodologies.

The hope of al-Qaeda’s followers is that in due course Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, aged 30 this year, will lead a re-energised organisation. Hamza is seen as deputy to al-Qaeda’s uncharismatic post-Osama leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, aged 67. In August 2018, Hamza was reported to have married the daughter of Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, and to be living in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Hamza has made public statements urging followers to wage war on Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv. In recognition of Hamza’s apparent status within al-Qaeda, in January 2017 the US government labelled him a ‘specially designated global terrorist’, meaning his assets can be blocked and anyone who deals with him will face arrest.

Under the Trump administration, new warnings have been issued about the international threat posed by Shiite ‘Lebanese Hezbollah’, a concern probably encouraged by Israel. However, there seems little evidence of a Shiite terrorism threat against Western countries. In the past, Lebanese Hezbollah carried out occasional out-of-region attacks against Israelis in retaliation for attacks by Israel on the Lebanese Hezbollah leadership group. US sanctions against Iran could, however, lead to isolated retaliatory attacks against Americans by disaffected Shiites.

Right-wing extremism is on the rise in some Western countries, notably the US and Europe, driven primarily by concerns about immigration, weak governance and the ‘growing’ influence of Islam. Several small extreme right-wing groups are active in Australia, including the ‘United Patriots Front’. Far-right extremists in Australia follow the UK-based neo-Nazi terrorist organisation ‘Combat 18’ and will attempt to exploit occasional opportunities to polarise the population—as they did during the 2005 Cronulla race riots.

In 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the conviction of neo-Nazi Michael James Holt, aged 26, who had threatened to carry out a mass shooting and considered Westfield Tuggerah as a target. It’s easy to dismiss the far-right as ineffective marginalised bigots, but we shouldn’t forget the attack by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011 that killed 77 people.

Anarchists also exploit opportunities to engage in violence—as they’ve been doing in France, taking advantage of the gilets jaunes protests since November 2018. Australia has a good record of containing anarchists at major events—like the G20 in Brisbane in 2014—but major international political and economic meetings and any breakdown in civil order can attract anarchist violence.

Terrorism by nation-states tends not to get the attention of national counterterrorism authorities because the number of incidents in Western countries is small and targeted against foreign nationals—or conducted in other parts of the world against target populations. States that have been accused of sponsoring state terrorism in 2018 include China, Israel, Myanmar, Russia and Saudi Arabia. There seems little prospect of foreign-state-initiated attacks in Australia in 2019.

There’s no international consensus on the criteria for national listings of ‘terrorist organisations’. New Zealand, for example, lists 20, and the UK, 88 (including 14 in Northern Ireland).

In Australia, 26 organisations are currently listed as ‘terrorist organisations’ under the Criminal Code. That’s too many to be useful. The list should be culled to those organisations that pose a specific threat to Australia, Australians and Australian interests, or that have funding or recruitment links to Australia.