The strategic power of small acts
26 Sep 2014|

Australian Federal Police on security duty (AFP)The recent instances of ‘home-grown’ terrorism and terrorism-related activities provide a useful basis upon which to reiterate some important dynamics of contemporary global terrorism. The disrupted plan in Sydney, and the more recent incident in Melbourne are characteristic of a number of important aspects of the contemporary global terrorist milieu. It’s tempting to see those incidents as the actions of ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, or as the product of a small, marginalised and disconnected group. But, put in context, they’re also something else: the ultimate manifestation of an intentional, targeted, and sophisticated strategic campaign that seeks to enable and empower individual and small-cell jihadist attacks within Western jurisdictions as a complement to the ongoing conflicts that jihadist entities are engaged in across the globe.

An analysis of the recent ‘beheading’ phenomena helps illuminate the model. What began as a series of videos of the beheading of Westerners has transformed, through media saturation and direct instruction and encouragement, into a beheading plot and a second individual jihadist action, both in Australia. That relationship between the broader idea and ideology of global jihad, the localised ‘open front’ conflict in Syria and Iraq, and individual and small-cell jihadist actions elsewhere, sits at the core of the ‘home-grown’ terrorist threat.

It’s those individual and small-cell jihadists—what AQ strategist Abu Musab al-Suri called the ‘resistance units’—that present arguably the greatest challenge to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. The reason that these otherwise small-scale acts of violence are able to garner substantially disproportionate power and impact, and to strike terror into their target audience, relates directly to the construction of a sophisticated strategic narrative. The development and deployment of increasingly articulate and professional multimedia and social media campaigns deliver those small acts a grossly disproportionate impact and, more importantly, meaning.

That’s in many ways the core dynamic of terrorism, whereby violence is utilised as a means of communicating an ideological or political agenda and is not an end in itself. The purpose of either beheading an innocent member of the public, of murdering a soldier, or shooting four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels, is not the killing itself, but the garnering of media coverage and exposure for the ideological cause which is cited as the justification for the acts. It also serves to reinforce the existing understanding of, and familiarity with, the message. Indeed, much of the world is now all too familiar with the black banner, cries of ‘allahu akbar’ and an entire lexicon related to jihadist ideas.

It’s that context, and the supporting media content produced by entities such as al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab or ISIS’ al Hayat Media Centre, that empowers and ‘legitimises’ those individual jihadists and their actions. That communicative dynamic of terrorism is exceptionally difficult to counter and as yet there’s been little in the way of successful counter strategies deployed. The increased capacity of terrorist networks, via social media platforms, to circumvent traditional news media and release their own content onto the Internet, has greatly enhanced the power of those narratives. When fused with sophisticated yet practical outputs, such as Inspire magazine, potential individual jihadists are readily exposed to content that informs them they are both obligated and permitted to undertake an attack, and provides them with a range of simple targeting and tactical options.

If the discrete violent acts that embody the majority of recent ‘home-grown’ terrorist acts are considered in isolation, they’re tragic, but not substantive threats to national security. It’s only when they’re contextualised within the narrative of the global jihadist idea that those acts obtain national security significance. It’s that intangible component of terrorist activity that’s challenging to confront. While Australia has been effective at disrupting and preventing in-country mass-casualty terrorism, the challenge of individual and small-cell jihadist terrorism is an all together different question. Part of the appeal of that approach to terrorist activity is the minimisation of exposure to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies by virtue of the absence of direct communication with any organisational structure and the simplicity of an attack. Such an approach minimises the capacity for the plotting of large-scale, mass-casualty events—but enables a proliferation of smaller-scale actions requiring fewer resources and lesser capabilities, while maintaining adequate political and media attention so as to ensure a continual reinforcement of the narrative.

That evolution of the terrorist threat, and the arrival in Australia of active, offensive, individual and small-cell jihadist terrorism, demands the permanent embedding of our counter-terrorism structures (and funding) into the normal operations of government. There’s a need to view instances of individual and small-cell terrorism as part of an holistic threat that evolves and adapts as necessary, living under the broad banner of global jihadist terrorism. Policy responses must resist transactional, isolated or reactionary responses that treat incidents as discrete activities. If, as Army Chief David Morrison suggests, we’re at the beginning of another ‘long war’ then these individual manifestations of war must be treated as such. Australian security agencies have operated exceptionally well in the years since 9/11. Governments must continue to ensure that they are adequately resourced, authorised and have sufficient manpower to continue to keep the Australian public secure. That’s, after all, the first duty of government.

Levi West is a lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, Charles Sturt University, Canberra. Image courtesy of Flickr user Neerav Bhat