Cat Barker, Foreign
Affairs, Defence and Security
Terrorism continues to evolve and several factors have resulted in increased threats internationally and domestically in recent years. This is a persistent threat that will require ongoing attention and resources.
Domestic coordination and international cooperation, particularly within the region, are important components of an effective response. Australia will need to remain responsive in a rapidly changing environment. However, consideration could be given to a strategic plan that would provide direction for, and foster coordination of, countermeasures over the longer term.
During the 44th Parliament, many countries,
including Australia, became increasingly concerned about, and took additional
steps to counter, domestic and international threats. These include nationals
fighting with overseas terrorist and insurgent groups (‘foreign fighters’) and
different forms of ‘homegrown’ terrorism—whether it be individuals associated
with particular groups, or so-called ‘lone wolf’ or ‘lone actor’ threats.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the
‘Islamic State’ group (IS) and its declaration of a caliphate in June 2014 are
key factors in the heightened terror threat the world currently faces. While a
small number of countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa continue to
account for a high
proportion of attacks and resulting deaths, terrorist attacks around the
world (including in Western nations) have increased in both their
frequency and, somewhat less consistently, their severity.
situation and outlook
In September 2014,
Australia raised its terror threat level for the first time since the system
was introduced in 2002. The decision was made in light of the number of
Australians who were joining conflicts in Iraq and Syria (and potentially
returning); supporting overseas extremist groups from Australia; and
potentially planning domestic attacks (including those ‘prevented from travel’).
The National Terrorism Threat Level remains at ‘probable’, meaning there is
credible intelligence indicating individuals or groups have both the intent and
capability to conduct an attack.
Since the threat level was
raised, there have been several successful and foiled attacks in Australia. These
have included the stabbing of two police officers in Melbourne in
2014, the murder of a police accountant in Parramatta in
2015 and the disruption of attacks allegedly planned for Anzac Day and Mother’s Day in 2015.
The number of Australian civilians involved in the Syrian and Iraq
conflicts has plateaued, remaining at around 110 for around 18 months.
This is due to a range of factors, including battlefield deaths and people
being prevented from travel by the interventions of families, communities and
Police and security agencies are particularly concerned about a
trend towards individuals becoming involved with extremist groups and
ideologies at younger ages. This presents particular challenges, and even the
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has emphasised the need for an approach that is ‘far
broader and more sustained than simply a security and law enforcement
ASIO has assessed that while the more likely form of terrorist
attack in Australia remains a ‘low capability attack against a “soft” target [such
as a shopping centre or sporting event], perpetrated by a lone actor or small
group’, the threat of a more complex attack remains. The recent completed and
foiled attacks have been of the smaller scale, lower capability type. Lone
actors and smaller informal networks are more difficult for police and security
agencies to detect in advance, and low-capability attacks can move quickly from
idea to action as they require less planning.
Challenges for the coming
years include managing the threats associated with returning foreign fighters
and individuals prevented from travel, potential radicalisation in prisons, and
managing the release of terrorism offenders back into the community.
situation and outlook
Many existing terrorist and extremist
groups throughout Southeast Asia have pledged their allegiance to or support
for IS, and some have indicated a wish to establish an official IS province in
the region. IS has recently increased its propaganda efforts in the region,
including through videos featuring Indonesians and Malaysians—at least one of
which urged militants in the region to unite
behind the leader of the Philippines-based
Abu Sayyaf Group—and the release in June 2016 of its first
Malay language newspaper. In 2016, both Indonesia and Malaysia
have experienced successful IS-related attacks.
In Indonesia, after largely successful
counterterrorism efforts over several years, the al-Qaeda aligned group, Jemaah
Islamiyah, is reportedly rebuilding and preparing for attacks. It
has been recruiting again—with membership estimated to be back to around 2,000
(matching pre-Bali bombing levels)—raising funds, and sending fighters to train
The number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria originating from
Southeast Asian nations is estimated to be in the range 700–1,000.
While this is small proportionally, authorities are nonetheless concerned about
the threats posed by returning fighters.
There have also been concerns
raised about how effective
Indonesia’s deradicalisation efforts are, with the head of an organisation that
assists parolees estimating that around 40 per cent of 400
militants released as at December 2015 have returned to a radical network.
One of the attackers in a January 2016 incident in Jakarta had been
released from prison several months earlier.
In light of increased threats and activity, the
Australian Government provided additional
funding of $630.0 million for counterterrorism
and countering violent extremism (CVE) in August 2014, supplemented by an
additional $326.4 million (excluding defence spending) in the 2015–16
Budget. The bulk of that funding went to the intelligence and law enforcement
agencies for counterterrorism purposes. Less has been allocated to CVE
measures, though the spending and focus on this area has also increased
compared to previous years. The 2016–17
Budget included an additional $5.0 million for
CVE, including $4.0 million to ‘establish and trial community
support and advice services’ with the states and territories.
Specific funded initiatives included:
- interventions to prevent Australians becoming foreign fighters,
including a Community Diversion and Monitoring Team in the Australian Federal
Police, a multi-agency disruption group and additional investigators and
analysts for the Australian Crime and Intelligence Commission
- the Australian Border Force establishing counterterrorism
units at Australia’s eight international airports
- a revised and expanded CVE
for the establishment and initial operations of the Australian Intervention Support Hub (AISH).
There has been increasing recognition
of the need to work effectively across the spectrum, from prevention and early
intervention, through to responding to actual attacks. This is reflected in the
revised CVE programme, which comprises four main streams of work—social
inclusion; targeted work with vulnerable communities and institutions;
addressing online terrorist propaganda; and diversion and deradicalisation.
This has generally been welcomed by experts in the field, though there have
also been calls for Australia not to repeat the mistakes of the UK’s Prevent
strategy. Prevent, the CVE component of the UK’s counterterrorism
strategy, has been criticised by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, amongst
others, as having become ‘a more significant source of grievance in affected
communities than the police and ministerial powers’.
CVE initiatives are relatively new in Australia, with Australian
Government efforts dating back only to 2010. It will be
important during the process of expanding Australian CVE and deradicalisation
initiatives to deal with the current and future threat environment to continue
learning from overseas experience. Interventions need to be adapted to the
Australian context and tailored to each individual’s particular circumstances.
However, lessons can be drawn from the UK’s experience as well as European
countries, such as Germany and Denmark, which have had some success addressing
far-right, far-left and religious extremism.
Some work remains in responding to the recommendations
of the Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery and the report
on the joint Commonwealth-NSW review of the Martin Place siege (both released
February 2015). The ongoing coronial inquest into the deaths that occurred
during the Martin Place siege may identify further issues requiring a response.
In addition, in July 2016, the Prime Minister asked
the National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator for advice on several matters to guide
efforts to prevent lone actor attacks. Among the matters the Coordinator will
report on are the vulnerability of soft targets and the means to protect them;
measures to ensure vulnerable individuals who come into contact with the
justice and health systems are identified by security authorities; and how
agencies are responding to the challenges presented by rapidly radicalised lone
While many of the fundamentals remain the same, Australia’s
counterterrorism framework underwent significant changes during the last
parliament, and many of those changes took place quickly in a reactive
environment. While it will remain important for Australia to be responsive in
this policy area, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has suggested
it is time for Australia to take a step back and spend some time formulating a strategic
plan for counterterrorism. Such a plan would go beyond the Counter-Terrorism
Strategy agreed to by governments in 2015, by providing a framework to guide
future work across different levels of government and ensuring it remains
coordinated and directed towards shared goals.
Australia has been working for
some time with countries in the region both bilaterally and multilaterally
through forums including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the
Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation and more recently, the Global
Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). Australia and Indonesia’s joint investigation of
the 2002 Bali bombings built a strong foundation for cooperation, and Indonesia
has been a key focus of Australia’s bilateral capacity-building and cooperation
on counterterrorism. Australia has also worked closely with Malaysia, Thailand,
and the Philippines.
developments and attention, there was somewhat of a shift in Australia’s
regional engagement during the last parliament, with a greater focus on: CVE, including online;
deradicalisation; foreign fighter issues; and countering terrorism financing. Australia
hosted a regional
summit on CVE in June 2015
and co-hosted a counterterrorism
financing summit in
November 2015 with Indonesia. The latter will become an annual summit,
with the next one to be held in Indonesia in
August 2016. Australia
and Indonesia also co-chair the GCTF Detention and Reintegration Working Group
and Australia has been keen to learn from Malaysia and Singapore about their approaches and programs for
The current security
environment highlights the importance of Australia’s continued engagement and
cooperation with regional partners.
See also the separate articles
in this Briefing Book on national security and counterterrorism laws, and Iraq
and Syria (for information on military involvement).
C Barker, Australian Government measures to counter violent extremism: a quick guide, Research paper series, 2014–15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2015.
Council of Australian Governments (COAG), Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy, COAG, 2015.
S Zeiger and A Aly, eds, Countering violent extremism: developing an evidence-base for policy and practice, Curtin University, Perth, 2015.
JC Liow, ‘ISIS in the Pacific: assessing terrorism in Southeast Asia and the threat to the homeland’, Brookings Institution, 27 April 2016.
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