Countering terrorism and violent extremism

Cat Barker, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key Issue
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.

Domestic 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 authorities.

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 response’.

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.

Some key figures

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.

Regional 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 in Syria.

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.

Domestic countermeasures

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 programme and
  • funding 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 actors.

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.

Regional cooperation

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.

Mirroring international 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 deradicalisation.

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).

Further reading

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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