Counter Points: Australia’s 2015 counter-terrorism strategy

Setting the scene

Isaac Kfir

Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

26 March 2019

In this special series, Isaac Kfir delves into Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy, the challenges it faces, and the changes that must be made. This first article takes a look at the country’s 2015 Strategy as well as recent developments in the world’s security landscape.

In 2015, a year after the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation raised Australia’s threat level to ‘probable’, the Abbott Government released Australia’s Counter-terrorism (CT) Strategy. The Strategy laid out jurisdictional and operational arrangements for preventing, preparing for, and responding to domestic terrorist attacks.

This Strategy amounted to a first whole-of-government attempt at countering, preventing, and dealing with terrorism. Its authors identified several issues that called for greater attention to transnational terrorism and the phenomena of the Islamic State, notably the willingness of Australians to travel to conflict zones and the willingness of some to engage in violent extremism.

It covered issues ranging from the need to challenge violent extremist ideologies through to the development of countering violent extremism programs. Some other aspects it looked at included disrupting terrorist activity within Australia through legislative and strategic reform, the need to continue playing a role in the international campaign against Salafi-jihadism, as well as Australia’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack.

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The Strategy listed what actions the government intended to take, but failed to explain why and which actions or areas were the most pressing.

At the time, my colleague Anthony Bergin, while commending the government on the Strategy, was also quick to identify several weaknesses – especially its failure to prioritise issues.

The 2015 Strategy was more about what Australia needed to improve with its previous approach to CT being so disaggregated. A central reason for this fragmentation was the country’s lack of experience with terrorism and its lack of understanding as to why and how such extremist ideas were appealing to Australians.

By 2019, new and effective CT initiatives have caused great losses to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Rather than surrendering, however, these groups appear to have chosen to engage in a strategic pause.

Domestically, security services and police have disrupted more than 14 terror plots and have broken down many extremist cells. The success, however, has come at a cost. As seen over the last few years, terror attacks are now more likely to be conducted by lone-actors who have been individually radicalised, often without any links to ISIL or al-Qaeda. This makes it more difficult to identify and track potential extremists.

The new wave of Salafi-jihadis raises several concerns that point towards the need for a new CT Strategy.

Firstly, al-Qaeda has resurged and ISIL is likely to resurge as well. ISIL still relies on some 21,000 to 30,000 fighters, roughly the same number of fighters it had a few years ago, whereas al-Qaeda draws on around 40,000 fighters.

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With al-Qaeda’s resurgence, mainly in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, Australia could well be tempted to push harder in its commitment to the global war on terror. This needs to be tempered by the fact, however, that al-Qaeda’s activities in Africa, where there’s been a rapid growth in the group’s brand, currently have a limited impact on Australia.

If Australia is to help contribute in some way, it must be remembered that Africa has a high youth population, a high level of unemployment, porous borders, as well as intra- and inter-state conflicts.

There is an endless list of pull-and-push factors that Salafi-jihadis could exploit as they seek to establish new bases.

What must be addressed, therefore, are the underlying structural problems that can’t always be solved using hard power. In other words, we must effect change with our soft power and experience in preventing violent extremism.

Secondly, between 2001 and 2019, some 58 Australians have been convicted and sentenced for Commonwealth terrorism offences in Australia, with over 80 per cent of the convictions made over the last three years. A large percentage of those convicted were under the age of 21 when committing the offence.

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Most notably, many of those were inspired by ISIL as opposed to al-Qaeda. This raises the question as to whether we are using the right mediums in our intervention programmes.

We must also ask whether we can really expect or ask more of Muslim community leaders, especially when we aren’t, as a community, addressing many of the issues around social cohesion and foreign policy that feed the violent extremism and Islamophobia

The 2015 CT Strategy largely disregarded the fact that Western states’ foreign policy – which includes the invasion of Iraq, ignoring the plight of the Rohingya, and the general repression of states in the region – feeds the Salafi-jihadi narrative. According to this narrative, the West is disinterested in Muslims and the abuses inflicted upon them.

Moreover, there is a general failure to grasp the fact that cuts to the foreign aid budget, often used to reconstruct broken down societies, undermine CT efforts. This is still the case despite there being sufficient empirical evidence – explained here and here – to suggest that foreign aid can help limit and reduce domestic terrorism.

In 2019, with civil conflict coming to an end in Syria, with Libya still reeling from the toppling of Qaddafi, and with sluggish reconstruction efforts in Marawi, a more nuanced discussion on aid, reconstruction, and conflict-prevention is missing from the Australian CT community.

The 2015 Strategy highlighted that the government recognised that terrorism posed a major threat to Australia. Four years on, many lessons have been learnt and many ideas have been tested. But with the drastically changing nature of the threat, it is high time we revisit our approach to countering terrorism.

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