Skip to content
Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2004

ISBN 1 920959 04 1

Chapter 1


Australians are confronted as never before by terrorism. Our sense of vulnerability to attack is new. So are the force, global reach and ambition of the distinctive threat from transnational terrorism now perpetrated in the name of a Muslim extremist cause. Understanding these changes is the first challenge. That is not easy for a nation neither expecting nor used to being targeted like this. But it is essential to maintaining an effective national response.

Open and pluralist societies like ours are now confronted in fundamental ways. These terrorists seek to undermine our security and prosperity. They feel threatened by the values and aspirations that make us an open, tolerant and creative country with a confident future. Australians know that preserving these qualities is vital to our health as a community in all its diversity. It is central to our resilience in the face of this threat. It is the key to our appreciation of the many Muslims who are part of us and to the continuing strength of our links with Muslim-populated countries overseas.

But, naturally enough, we struggle to come to grips with the dimensions of contemporary terrorism. It is not easily understood as a nationalist or political campaign such as Irish, Basque or Tamil separatist terrorism. It bears little resemblance to familiar examples in the public memory when Australians were occasionally incidental victims. While these previously known forms of terror continue, they are peripheral to the nature and scale of the security challenge Australia now confronts.

We find it hard to comprehend the rhetoric of these terrorists, who condemn anyone who does not agree with their approach to Islam. For us, the terrorists' assertions of an international conspiracy to repress and defeat Islam makes no sense. It has no connection to everyday reality, however much we understand and sympathise with the plight of Muslim and other communities in distress. We cannot easily relate their assertions to a territorial dispute, political ideology or historical injustice.

For Australia, these are no longer issues of global distance - or ones that can be left for others to contemplate. The terrorists' challenge is now direct and immediate. Their goals confront us. They want to drive the West's presence and influence from Muslim lands. They want to replace governments there with regimes that reflect their extremist interpretation of Islam. Ultimately, they want to reshape the international order to accommodate a pan-Islamic super-state. Their objectives are inherently political regardless of their religious trappings. To achieve this they are set on intimidating those who do not support them - Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

For the first time, Australians are having to come to terms with a security threat neither constrained nor defined by national borders, traditional power structures or formed armies - one that is neither dependent on sponsoring nation states, nor responsive to traditional deterrence. Rather, it is driven by an ideology that is inaccessible to reason, and with objectives that cannot be negotiated.


There is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism. Not even the United Nations has been able to achieve consensus on this contentious issue. The old adage that 'one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist' goes to the root of the ongoing debate. Individual states, therefore, have been compelled to develop their own definitions for the purposes of enacting legislation to counter the threat.

In Australia, what constitutes an act of terrorism is defined in Commonwealth legislation. The Criminal Code Act 1995 states that a terrorist act means an action or threat of action where the action causes certain defined forms of harm or interference and the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. Further, the Act states that 'the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

i. coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

ii. intimidating the public or a section of the public;

and where the action

(a) causes serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or

(b) causes serious damage to property; or

(c) causes a person's death; or

(d) endangers a person's life, other than the life of the person taking the action; or

(e) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public; or

(f) seriously interferes with, seriously disrupts, or destroys, an electronic system including, but not limited to: (i) an information system; or (ii) a telecommunications system; or (iii) a financial system; or (iv) a system used for the delivery of essential government services; or (v) a system used for, or by, an essential public utility; or (vi) a system used for, or by, a transport system.

The Criminal Code makes it an offence if a person commits a terrorist act, provides or receives training connected with terrorist acts, possesses a thing connected with terrorist acts, collects or makes documents likely to facilitate terrorist acts, or does any act in preparation for or planning of terrorist acts. The penalty for engaging in a terrorist act is life imprisonment.

The penalty for other terrorism-related offences outlined above ranges from ten years to life imprisonment.

We have to adjust to a threat that is not only alien, but unconventional and unpredictable. Its presence is largely unseen and unknown. But it commands frequent headlines and commitment of our resources on a national scale. We seek to protect and defend ourselves in the knowledge that there can be no guarantees from successful attack in open societies like ours. This is an 'asymmetric' threat with disproportionate advantage to the smaller but determined aggressor operating beyond any accepted rules of behaviour.

Our exposure is magnified by globalisation. An interdependent world allows terror to be transmitted to remote victims. Borders and distance offer little protection to a terrorist enterprise proficient at using technology to recruit, communicate and operate transnationally. With more extensive international interests than ever before, we must increasingly work with international partners to protect ourselves. Our economy is linked to global systems that are exposed to terrorist sabotage. The networks we rely on for transportation, energy, finance and communication can be protected, but not made immune. More so than in the past, Australia's people, its economic links and its contributions to international security and prosperity have spread to parts of the world where the terrorist danger is even more direct - and where we have less control over how we are protected.

We must adapt to living in a more dangerous world. These new terrorists have used aircraft as weapons. They have used public transport to kill indiscriminately. They have made bombs from materials used in farming and mining. They have experimented with chemical and biological weapons. They are limited only by imagination and opportunity.

And we must adapt to these harsh new realities in a changed strategic environment. These changes began with the end of the Cold War and the new strategic uncertainties that followed. The emergence of the United States as the pre-eminent military and economic power remains the overwhelmingly dominant factor in the global strategic balance today. The balance it struck with other big powers brought advantages and opportunities for countries like Australia, open and capable, and committed to the benefits of international cooperation in an increasingly globalised world.

The deadly and unprovoked terrorism of 11 September 2001 has further recast these international settings - for the United States, Australia and the broader international community. Not only did a potent new enemy demonstrate strategic reach, but it wrought unprecedented damage on the homeland of the world's biggest power, exposing unimagined vulnerabilities. In doing so, it instantly created an adversary determined not only to remove terrorist enemies but to confront existing and potential security threats with great vigour and resolve.

The menace to Australia of weapons proliferation has also been compounded by this new form of terror. We must address the possibility that these transnational terrorists may acquire and use chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear capability. This prospect presents us with dangers of grave proportions. These twin dangers remain key drivers of United States strategic policy, as they do for Australia and other key partners.

The asymmetric nature of the threat posed to Australia demands a disproportionate scale of response. National security is higher on the Australian Government's policy agenda than it has been for decades. The national resources deployed to counter the threat are major - and still growing.

The transnational terrorist capacity to inflict harm disproportionately, without restraint or warning, means Australia's response must be broad-spectrum. It has demanded adjustment to the conventional defence posture we maintain to fight conventional wars. And it has put a new cast on our broader security policies, including our approaches to other transnational issues, such as people smuggling, money laundering and organised crime. Good intelligence has become an even more vital element to our protection. So too has better law enforcement and improved counter-terrorist legislation.

Our counter-terrorism response has meant changes to the environment in which Australians lead their everyday lives. Protection against terrorism is essential to preserving the right of each Australian to security. This allows us to participate freely in a society based on shared values of freedom and respect for the dignity of human life. We need to recognise this - and to make sure the inevitable cost of our preparedness does not also tax our values, our tolerance and our fundamental way of life.


The extent to which Australia has been affected by terrorism significantly changed with the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States and the Bali bombings of 12 October 2002, in which a combined total of 98 Australians were killed.

In the past, few Australians had been killed as a result of terrorism. Most of those few were killed overseas and not deliberately targeted as Australians. Two Australians killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Netherlands in 1990 were the victims of mistaken identity, the terrorists believing them to be British.

In Australia, past acts of terrorism have generally involved attacks against foreign interests - including those of Turkey, Iran, India and Israel. Although Australians were killed in these attacks, Australia was not itself the target. Rather, Australia was the venue for the expression of extremist violence directed at other nations' governments in reaction to events overseas. The bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney on 13 February 1978, in which three Australians died, was targeted at Indian officials attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Australia is now a target of transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism and Australians are being targeted overseas.

The threat Australia faces is enduring. It requires a sustained national response. While we have already made many changes in order to better protect ourselves, we may need to make more. We can expect our national resilience to be put to future tests. The dynamic nature of the threat will continue to demand heightened awareness and vigilance of all Australians.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade