COUNTER-TERRORISM WHITE PAPER
Securing Australia | Protecting Our Community
Chapter 2: The Threat
The threat of terrorism to Australia and our interests is real. Terrorism has become a persistent and permanent feature of Australia’s security environment. It threatens Australians and Australian interests both at home and overseas. The Government’s intelligence agencies assess that further terrorist attacks could occur at any time.
Over the past century the world has seen a succession of terrorist campaigns supporting various ideological or nationalist causes. Methods of attack have evolved and terrorists have proved innovative, adaptive and ruthless in pursuing their goals.
Terrorism affected Australia before the 11 September 2001 attacks against the United States. Various overseas terrorist groups have long had a presence in Australia – focused largely on fundraising and procurement, occasionally escalating to violence. But prior to the rise of self-styled jihadist1 terrorism fostered by al-Qa’ida, Australia itself was not a specific target. We now are.
Terrorist attacks in Australia before 2001
Terrorist attacks conducted in Australia before 2001 include:
- the 1972 bombing of the Yugoslav General Trade Agency in Sydney;
- the 1978 bombing of the Sydney Hilton hotel during a Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting;
- the 1980 assassination of the Turkish Consul-General in Sydney;
- the 1982 bombing of the Israeli Consulate and the Hakoah Club in Sydney; and
- the 1986 bombing at the Turkish Consulate in Melbourne.
Since 2001, more than 100 Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks overseas. Numerous other attacks have been thwarted in Australia. Thirty-eight people have been prosecuted or are being prosecuted as a result of counter-terrorism operations, 35 of whom were prosecuted for terrorism offences pursuant to the Criminal Code Act 1995 (the Criminal Code). A number of these prosecutions are ongoing. Twenty people have been convicted of terrorism offences under the Criminal Code. More than 40 Australians have had their passports revoked or applications denied for reasons related to terrorism.
The main source of international terrorism and the primary terrorist threat to Australia and Australian interests today comes from people who follow a distorted and militant interpretation of Islam that calls for violence as the answer to perceived grievances. This broad movement comprises al-Qa’ida, groups allied or associated with it, and others inspired by a similar worldview but not formally linked to al-Qa’ida networks. Their constituency, while small in global terms, shows every sign of persisting even if al-Qa’ida’s current senior leadership were to be killed or captured.
Al-Qa’ida has been the vanguard of an international movement of like-minded groups and influences its direction through both propaganda and actions. Its extremist ideology, goals and interpretations of world events allow local grievances to be worked into its global vision. This message resonates with jihadist terrorists around the world and continues to attract new adherents. Their activities challenge governments and communities globally, and threaten prosperity and security in various parts of the world.
Al-Qa’ida remains a significant, but not the only, threat. It has links to other extremist groups operating in various parts of the world. Some of these have entered into a formal association with core al-Qa’ida and adopted names that reflect this, such as ‘al-Qa’ida in Iraq’ and ‘al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’. Others have remained independent but have ongoing operational, training, propaganda or logistic cooperation with al-Qa’ida. ‘Lone wolf’ attackers with no group affiliation but motivated by the same ideology can emerge at any time.
A distorted narrative
Many distinct terrorist networks with differing and often local objectives share a broadly common set of beliefs that narrowly and simplistically interprets history and current affairs through the lens of the alleged oppression of Muslims, principally by the West. Groups like al-Qa’ida want people to believe:
- the West, led by the United States of America, is engaged in the systematic exploitation and repression of Muslims;
- governments in Muslim majority countries are illegitimate, corrupt and un-Islamic;
- the solution is the removal of Western interference in Muslim majority countries and the establishment of ‘truly Islamic’ systems of governance; and
- it is the religious duty of all Muslims individually to use violence to attack the political, military, religious and cultural enemies of Islam anywhere around the world.
2.1.1 A persistent threat
Personal and social connections between groups and networks have been central to the rise of the so called ‘global jihad’. These connections form the platform for the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. It is in these extra-organisational networks that much of the current threat subsists. This relative lack of formal structure contributes to the movement’s resilience and complicates counter-terrorism efforts. While fragmentation and autonomy impose certain operational constraints on terrorist groups, it also makes it easier for them to evade detection by security agencies and to adjust their tactics in response to successful counter-terrorism measures.
Although damaged by the death or capture of many of its leading figures, al-Qa’ida has shown the capacity to regenerate quickly. As the al-Qa’ida core leadership in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has come under increasing pressure, its ability to train new terrorists, move them to the West and successfully launch attacks has been degraded. But it still has a substantial pool of operatives capable in their own right of planning and conducting attacks and helping other like-minded extremists across the globe. It continues to run a global propaganda campaign and remains an inspiration to other like-minded networks and individuals operating outside its direct control.
Any reduction of the ability of core al-Qa’ida to project terrorism beyond its immediate region has been offset by the rise of those affiliated with, or inspired by, its message and methods. The ability of some of these to reach into the West is increasing. We are seeing more real and potential threats to the West from countries such as Somalia and Yemen. A major concern is that this represents a new generation committed to terrorism.
These groups are a determined and capable adversary that has proved highly adaptive. They have the capacity to learn from their mistakes, adapt to counter-terrorism measures, and to regenerate. And they are innovative in their tactics and methods and have shown a dogged persistence in pursuing their goals, repeatedly following up failed attempts with successful attacks.
The scale of threat cannot be estimated with certainty beyond the next few years. It may expand or contract in response to political, social or geo-strategic events. If global counter-terrorism efforts gain more ground, it may subside. But we can confidently assume that some violent jihadists will retain an abiding motivation to continue their attacks. Periodic attacks or attempted attacks, including those inflicting mass casualties, can be expected for some time to come.
2.1.2 The international threat
Since the last counter-terrorism White Paper the geography of the threat has changed. Counter-terrorism efforts have had an impact, as have groups exploiting lawless spaces, poor governance and regional grievances. Over the past five years some parts of the world have remained constant areas of concern while other, newer areas such as Somalia and Yemen have risen to prominence.
The unstable environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the potential for political violence there to spread more widely in South Asia and beyond, is of the greatest concern globally. The threat of terrorism in South Asia, a region with nuclear arms, is compounded by the continued safe haven that al-Qa’ida and other jihadists have found there. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish e Mohammed are likely to continue to train militants within Pakistan, maintain links with al-Qa’ida and stage attacks in neighbouring India.
Jemaah Islamiyah and its offshoots
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has been the most prominent terrorist group in South-East Asia since the late 1990s. Its roots lie in Indonesia’s Darul Islam movement, formed in the 1940s, which sought to create an Islamic state in Indonesia. The involvement of JI’s founding members in the Afghan-Soviet conflict and the personal connections they formed at that time galvanised their belief that their cause is part of an international struggle.
JI, or its offshoots, have been responsible for most of the major anti-Western attacks affecting Australians, including:
- The 12 October 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
- The 5 August 2003 JW Marriott bombing in Jakarta that killed 12 people.
- The 9 September 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that killed 10 people.
- The 1 October 2005 Bali bombings that killed 26 people, including four Australians.
- The 17 July 2009 JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotel bombings that killed 7 people, including three Australians.
South-East Asian countries, notably Indonesia, have had significant success against terrorism in recent years. But the Jakarta hotel attacks in July 2009 underscore the ongoing threat to Indonesians, Australians and others from terrorism in our region. The region has become home to loosely affiliated terrorist networks, including those associated with Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group. Despite continued regional counter-terrorism successes, including the killing in 2009 of terrorist leader Noordin Mohammed Top by Indonesian security forces, these groups will continue to adapt, combining local and international agendas in unpredictable ways. So the danger to Australian lives and interests in the region will persist.
The Middle East and the Gulf host a variety of different terrorist groups. Most countries in the region have firm measures to strictly control their activity, but it remains latent and could recur. In the likely absence of political and social reform or an economic renaissance, the region is likely to witness cycles of terrorist activity and ruthless repression. Most recently the emergence and growth of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) poses a significant threat to an already unstable Yemen. AQAP has already conducted attacks in Saudi Arabia and claimed responsibility for the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing of an airliner bound for Detroit.
The challenges seen in the Middle East also occur in North Africa. Groups such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb have proved particularly adept at reinventing themselves, adopting local grievances and extending their field of operation into other parts of Africa, particularly the Sahel countries such as Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Terrorist operations against Western interests there will recur and North Africa’s greater connection to Western Europe allows local al-Qa’ida-inspired groups to pose a recurring threat to the European continent.
Terrorist activity in Somalia has intensified in recent years with the growth and consolidation of the al-Shabab group. No early return to stable government is in sight in Somalia and terrorist activity within the country and the adjoining region can be expected for years to come.
The continuing resonance of the violent jihadist message within sections of Muslim communities in the Western world (including Australia) will lead to the creation and activity of new violent cells. This will include groups with little or no contact with core al-Qa’ida or its affiliates. The emergence of these groups is likely to be uneven across the West – indications are that for now, the phenomenon may have the biggest impact in the UK and parts of Europe but the US and Australia will not be immune. The scale of the problem will continue to depend on factors such as the size and make-up of local Muslim populations, including their ethnic and/or migrant origins, their geographical distribution and the success or otherwise of their integration into their host society.
2.1.3 The international and domestic threat to Australia
Australia is a terrorist target. Public statements by prominent terrorist leaders and other extremist propagandists have singled out Australia for criticism and encouraged attacks against us both before and after 11 September 2001. Although al-Qa’ida has not itself launched a direct attack on Australia, it has shown an operational interest in doing so. We know that in 2000 Australian national Jack Roche was tasked by senior al-Qa’ida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to identify Israeli and Jewish targets in Australia, and in 2001 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed applied for and was granted a visa to visit Australia (cancelled before he could travel).
We continue to see terrorist planning within Australia by terrorists inspired by al-Qa’ida. This is an important shift since the publication of the last White Paper. The 7 July 2005 bombings of the London transit system highlighted the threat of globally-inspired but locally generated attacks in Western democracies. This is a threat to which Australia is not immune.
- In 2005, nine men in Sydney were arrested and charged with terrorism offences. All nine were convicted of terrorism offences.
- In 2006, Australian national Faheem Lodhi was convicted of planning terrorist attacks in Australia during 2003. Lodhi was working with French national Willie Brigitte who had been sent to Australia by a senior Lashkar-e-Tayyiba member. Brigitte was subsequently convicted on terrorism charges in France.
- In September 2008, a Sydney man was convicted of collecting or making documents likely to facilitate terrorist acts.
- In 2006, 13 men in Melbourne were arrested and charged with terrorism offences. Nine were convicted of being members of a terrorist organisation.
- Other terrorism-related cases are currently before the courts.
So far, terrorist attempts in Australia have been disrupted by the coordinated and highly professional efforts of Australia’s security agencies and police services, with support from international partners. But this success should not give us any false confidence that all plots here can be discovered and disrupted.
There remain a significant number of Australian extremists radicalised to the point of being willing to engage in violence to advance their political aims. There is also a wider, but still small, group sympathetic to al-Qa’ida’s beliefs, some of whom may be further radicalised in the years ahead. Australians sympathetic to terrorist causes also continue to provide financial support for terrorist groups overseas.
A number of Australians are known to subscribe to the violent jihadist message. Many of these individuals were born in Australia and they come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The pool of those committed to violent extremism in Australia is not static, over time some move away from extremism while others become extreme. Since the last counter-terrorism White Paper, security investigations have identified many new individuals of security concern.
Some have travelled overseas, or facilitated the travel of others, to engage in terrorist training and fighting – and it is likely that others will seek to do so in the future. It is also possible that Australians travelling or living overseas will be exposed to extremist ideas, become radicalised, connect to terrorist networks and engage in terrorism. Regardless of where radicalisation occurs, Australian extremists have engaged in terrorist activity, not only in Australia but also in other countries. We expect this to continue.
The conviction of individuals in Australia on terrorism charges and ongoing investigations clearly demonstrate that there are Australians who are committed to supporting or engaging in violent jihad in Australia and elsewhere. Most of these were born in Australia or have lived here since childhood. The emergence and activity of terrorist cells in Australia, inspired by the narrative espoused by al-Qa’ida, is likely to continue, including those with little or no contact with core al-Qa’ida or its affiliates.
2.1.4 Other forms of terrorism
Jihadist terrorism is the predominant focus of Australia’s current counter-terrorism efforts due to its spread, impact and explicit targeting of Australians. But terrorism motivated by other beliefs has affected Australia in the past and will affect us in the future.
Australia is currently home to a small number of people who support other causes that involve active terrorist campaigns overseas. The terrorist movements they support do not necessarily see Australia or Australians as a target for their violence but some might see that Australia could be used as a suitable or convenient location for an attack on their enemies. This includes groups with a long history of engaging in terrorist acts and a current capability to commit them, such as Lebanese Hizballah’s External Security Organisation.
Future geo-political events could mean other terrorist movements with a presence or support base in Australia could become willing to engage in operational activity here. And in the future new terrorist threats could manifest themselves in Australia, either as a by-product of events overseas or as a result of a political grievance within Australia. There will always be the disaffected and disempowered, often but not always at the fringes of communities or the followers of radical ideologies, who mistakenly see advantages in the use of terrorist tactics.
Attacks using CBRN
The attacks on 11 September 2001 highlighted how creative and ruthless terrorist attack planning can be. The potential for terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons is of particular concern. We know that a small number of terrorists seek CBRN weapon capabilities and would use them if they could. While the risk is small, the consequences of any such attack would be devastating.
The acquisition of a nuclear weapon is currently beyond terrorist capability though a crude, low-yield nuclear device is possible. An attack with a radiological dirty bomb, biological materials or industrial chemicals is feasible and could have a significant impact even if it only succeeded in generating widespread panic. But obtaining, producing, handling and deploying such weapons is difficult. Domestic and international efforts to secure CBRN materials are crucial to limit the risk of a CBRN attack.
Al-Qai’da and like-minded terrorist groups and individuals have suffered setbacks but continue to adapt to counter-terrorism efforts and exploit changing geo-political circumstances. The nature of the beliefs that inspire them and their emotional appeal in some quarters means that such groups will remain a security threat for years to come. Adherents believe that they are fighting a war that will last for generations, so setbacks are accepted and persistence is expected.
Al-Qa’ida has not given up its goal of conducting catastrophic attacks in Western countries, despite pressures on it. And planning for further attacks by globally-inspired local individuals who subscribe to the same worldview is unlikely to decline in the short to medium term.
2.1.6 A long-term challenge
Coordinated counter-terrorism efforts will continue to be vital to curb the threat of terrorism. To be successful, our efforts need to be conducted on many levels. Finding and bringing terrorists to justice, and improving controls over financial flows, border movements and communication channels constrain the ability of terrorist groups to operate. Important progress has been made on these fronts but many terrorists have proved adept at finding ways to circumvent counter-terrorism measures and remain free and operationally active.
Terrorism will continue to pose a serious challenge to Australia and to international security. Terrorist networks will continue to aspire to conduct further attacks and to alter their methods to defeat counter-terrorism measures. We must remain ready to meet this challenge and work productively with the international community and the governments of Australia to thwart terrorist groups and lessen the appeal of their extreme views.
1. The term ‘jihadist’ is an imperfect descriptor that has multiple meanings. It is, however, a term that has been appropriated by many terrorist groups to describe their activities, and it is commonly used by security services and public commentators across the world to describe them.