Australian Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, His Excellency Bill Paterson PSM: 'Transnational Terrorism: Evolving Challenges'
What is terrorism?
Terrorism is a tactic, not a global war. It has been long used by politically-motivated but weak groups to deliver an asymmetric impact against their opponents (i.e. a result out of all proportion to the input). It principally targets civilians, not combatants, to magnify fear, uncertainty and disruption.
Terrorism is often a tactic used in an insurgency – and the lines between terrorism and insurgency often shade into one another. Contemporary examples where terrorist acts form part of a wider insurgency might include Afghanistan, the former LTTE campaign in Sri Lanka, and the separatist insurgency in southern Thailand. Insurgency normally involves the intent to hold and capture territory, and the attempt to expand that space through imposing governance.
Islamist terrorism presents a new challenge – it is transnational, religiously-based and draws on a sense of grievance across the global Muslim community – informed by a deceptively simple narrative. Its literalist interpretation of Islam is rooted in the seventh century, but it is empowered by 21st century globalisation and modern technology. But it has resonance with only a tiny minority of Muslims
Terrorism as a national security issue
AQ-led, associated or inspired transnational terrorism will remain an enduring and evolving security threat internationally – and Australia will remain a target
- terrorism affects Australian interests and those of our allies and friends, but it does not represent an existential threat or a territorial threat to Australia or Australian interests
- hence it is best considered as one of a number of enduring security challenges or contingencies with which we must deal and for which we must plan
- it must also be dealt with as a potent form of criminality and not dignified by religious purpose.
Terrorism presents unique challenges for the security policymaker: it is both global and local, it is evolving and adapting, developing in terms of its use of technology, its operational security, its complexity, the nationalities involved, and its geographic nodes
- it creates pressures for tougher countermeasures which can impact on rights, freedoms, convenience and costs
- it is thus a more diffuse, dispersed and complex target than it may at first have seemed, and as such has become, as the Australian government’s recent White Paper on Terrorism said, ‘a persistent and permanent feature of Australia’s security environment’
- it is also still close to the top of foreign policy priorities identified by Australians in the recent annual Lowy Institute poll of public opinion toward foreign policy issues, ranking only behind protecting the jobs of Australian workers and strengthening the economy.
Where are we at?
The post-911 response globally was led and defined by the Bush administration’s ‘global war on terror (GWOT).
- The Obama administration specifically narrowed and focussed the objectives – dropping the propagation of democracy and societal transformation - and formally changed the overall objective to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat’ AQ and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world’. It has continued an intelligence-led precision military approach to the elimination of al Qaeda leadership and known operatives, those of its affiliates and associates, and its safe havens
- It has changed the language used - from GWOT to the avoidance of messages which alienate Muslims – and committed to a return to orthodox legal process
- but as recently as 6 October last year President Obama described AQ as ‘the principal threat to the American people’ - and Afghanistan as ‘a war of necessity’ (17 August 2009)
- on 27 May President Obama submitted a new national security strategy for the United States. The statement noted that ‘this is not a global war against a tactic – terrorism , or a religion – Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al Qai’da, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies and partners’
- a series of investigations and disrupted or unsuccessful incidents in the US has brought about a belated recognition that this is not simply an external problem. The US itself is not immune from home-grown terrorism.
- preventing attacks on the homeland has been central to US counter-terrorism since 911, but has been given new urgency by these incidents.
- Bruce Hoffman, Anthony Cordesman and other US commentators have argued that failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give AQ new momentum and greater freedom of action. It would also strengthen the hand of the Pakistan Taliban and the growing extremist alliance and capability in Pakistan.
- Hence the commitment of Australia and others to this task. We know from experience that this has directly impacted on Australians and Australian interests.
In the end, we are dealing with a globalised extremist movement, and if it is not addressed and neutralised at source, its credibility as well as operational capability will be sustained and potentially enhanced.
So where are we at in addressing the terrorist challenge?
Positives and progress
- Muslim masses – the ummah - have not been mobilised by AQ’s narrative – increasing awareness that terrorists kill mostly innocent Muslims and are most active in Muslim majority countries
- last year, in Pakistan, 87 suicide bombers killed 1300 people, 90 per cent of whom were civilians
- AQ’s narrative justifying violence and targeting the West and ‘apostate’ Muslim governments has failed to resonate
- but extremists still play with some effect to perception that Muslim lands have been occupied and injustices done, rallying a sense of Muslim group identity and grievance.
Steady elimination of AQ senior leadership:
- AQSL preoccupied with survival (and propaganda) – its outlook is bleak, but not yet terminal
- AQSL no longer a ‘doer’ but largely a commentator
- this has implications for the brand’s stature, unity and appeal
- nevertheless, AQ been durable and capacity to regenerate should not be underestimated
- been around 20+ years, and the ideology will likely outlast the leadership.
The decline of AQ in Iraq (AQI):
- invasion/occupation/ humiliations served as catalysts
- but in the end Iraqi tribes’ interests were essentially local and they did not embrace the AQ narrative
- AQI still deadly, but significantly diminished – key senior leaders have recently been killed
- and AQI is domestically-focussed.
Dismemberment of JI and (some of) its splinters in Indonesia:
- SEA’s apparent success story (in world’s largest Muslim country)
- important because JI had links to AQ and shared its ideology and aspirations
- 17 July 2009 Jakarta attacks served as a wake-up call, demonstrating the durability and organisational skill of splinter groups which survived the pressure which had been placed on JI by Indonesian police
- but it was followed by an impressive and effective Indonesian-led response, including after exposure of a major new terrorist training camp in Aceh.
- the Aceh camp is indicative of the likely enduring nature of the extremist fringe in Indonesia.
Pre-emption/prevention of key plots:
- through increasingly smart intelligence and investigation
- and enhanced protective security measures
- but the Abdulmuttulab/Detroit plot on 25 December, in particular, pointed to gaps in information sharing and the translation of intelligence into pre-emptive action
- remedial steps being implemented in many countries hopefully will ensure our ability to detect and intervene before commission of terrorist acts continues to improve
- but there is a common expression in the CT world that the terrorist has to succeed only once, whereas we have to do so every time.
Improved counter-terrorism capability in many partner countries:
- including the development of intelligence, law enforcement, forensics and biometrics, financial tracking, aviation security, protection of critical infrastructure, accounting for and management of explosives, chemical, biological agents and radioactive materials.
The indicators of progress I’ve listed are qualified: we are dealing with a complex set of issues and it is not possible to declare that any part of this problem has been solved or eliminated. Indeed, we face significant challenges ahead.
At 9/11 we had one apparent adversary: we now face a more diffused and diverse threat with affiliates, franchises, fellow travellers and self-radicalised individuals operating over a wide geographic area – harder to detect and hence harder to pre-empt. It will be with us for a generation, or perhaps longer. And there may be no point at which victory can be declared.
‘The Afghan-Pakistan border is the modern epicentre of jihad’ (US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, 5 October 2009) and it remains the destination of choice for extremists from elsewhere to link up and to train.
- The UK claims more than 70 per cent of the terrorist cases it has under investigation have links to Pakistan. A similar pattern is emerging in the US.
- Pakistan goes beyond simply an AQ problem: Pashtun Taliban and groups such as Lashkar e Tayyiba now have a life of their own. Pakistan presents a very diverse spectrum of militant Islamist organisations
- in some cases groups created by or tolerated by Pakistan as assets against its adversary India, have built the ability to mount structured assaults both in and beyond Pakistan, and are no longer fully under government control.
- Despite Indonesia’s CT successes, it presents a diffuse and persistent extremist landscape, hardly surprising in a large and diverse democracy
- and one with a background of communal conflicts and durable, if small, extremist strains within Indonesian Islam
- the recent discovery and disruption of a major extremist camp in Aceh arguably illustrates Indonesian CT success but also the durability and evolution of the challenge
- the risk of regeneration remains – and key individuals are still at large.
The European dimension – ‘home grown’ terrorism in immigrant communities:
- complex issues of identity – or multiple identities – and issue of sharing of values, particularly evident in Muslim communities
- socio-economic deprivation, community isolation and consequent youth alienation likely contributing factors to extremism.
Spreading extremist violence in North Africa and south into Sahel:
- with the potential to play back into France, Denmark, Netherlands Belgium and the UK.
Somalia is increasingly being drawn into the AQ franchise network, with growing numbers of foreign fighters involved:
- And some émigré Somalis returning to join jihad
Yemen has effectively become a new safe haven, with a distracted government fighting two rebellions internally. AQ-linked terrorists pose a particular threat to Saudi Arabia as well as to targets in Yemen itself:
- Yemen may increasingly be serving as a magnet or hub for extremists elsewhere to congregate, plan and train, in much the same way Afghanistan was used during the 1990s.
Lebanon remains host to extremist activity – both Sunni and Shia. Sunni sectarianism and militancy is growing, including in Palestinian refugee camps.
Local Muslim separatist insurgencies in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines are long-standing, intractable and violent. Local frustration could lead to building or restoring international links.
AQ influences also play out in Australia in local plots – domestic terrorist cases have had Mid East South Asian and North African links. AQ is a global brand and it has had a small following in Australia.
Spread and durability of AQ ideology and the franchise:
- will setbacks undermine their attraction?
- the Israel/Palestine issue and western presence in Muslim lands is a rallying point for Muslim grievance
- the internet, contact via pilgrimages, unregulated madrassah education, migrant workers and student flows can transmit radical ideas
- and adaptability and resilience of terrorists – learning organisations often led by university-educated ideologues.
Radicalising power and operational value of the internet:
- and key to the development of a new generation of ‘self- radicalised’ extremists, dispersed, unaffiliated and largely invisible to intelligence or law enforcement agencies
- proliferation of jihadist websites – they number in the thousands
- technology is accessible, low cost, immediate, portable, unregulated, global
- internet is a propaganda and recruitment tool, source of data and knowledge transfer, fundraiser / medium of funds transfer, used for operational planning
- opportunities for social networking via You Tube, Face Book, Twitter provide more opportunities for terrorist communication.
Growing lethality: 911was a paradigm shift in terrorism (transnational, franchised, mass casualty, IT-empowered):
- CBRN can be hard (least likely but biggest impact), but the others have proven effective (low cost, high impact) and are growing in sophistication
- aviation (and mass transport) will remain an attractive target
- physical attacks rather than cyber, for instance, will probably continue to be preferred to inflict casualties and get media attention.
- Increasing evidence of radical Islamist ideas being spread in prisons by convicted terrorists
- while many detained or convicted terrorists are now completing terms in detention and re-entering civilian life
- patchy efforts at de-radicalisation or disengagement programs have so far produced mixed results.
Disrupting terrorist financing:
- Terrorist attacks often cost relatively little
- But groups need money for travel and to support the families of martyrs
- Informal channels (eg hawala) and cash couriers difficult to stop
- porous borders, expatriate labour, connections to other criminal activity and to smuggling present major law enforcement challenges.