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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 2


Transnational terrorism confronts us with a new kind of foe. It is diverse, complex, adaptable and continually evolving. It is uncompromising, global in reach, and its operations are highly networked. Its approach is asymmetric, using unconventional and unexpected means to wreak maximum damage. It is of a previously unknown scale.

It is being perpetrated in the name of an extremist Muslim cause but it is a type which, in a future world order, could be applied by others. It signals a new era of conflict.


Terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare: an approach that uses non-traditional methods to counter an opponent's conventional military superiority. It uses unconventional means to attack unexpected targets. It turns perceived strengths into weaknesses and exploits vulnerabilities to deadly effect. It may also involve the capability to attack an adversary with means for which they are unprepared or incapable of responding in kind.

The new transnational terrorists have adopted a strategy that responds to the unprecedented dominance of the United States and other highly developed Western countries in all aspects of conventional military power. The terrorists therefore seek means other than conventional warfare with which to confront the West.

Terrorism pits clandestine methods against open societies. It uses small teams whose operations are cheap, but demands a response that is enormous in scale and expensive in resources. It exploits the foundations of civil society, such as principles of human rights, efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and adherence to the rule of law - including the laws of armed conflict.

The terrorists' asymmetric approach demands a sustained, comprehensive and coordinated response at national and international levels, incorporating a wide range of Australia's assets.

An extreme ideology

As with most previously known forms of terrorism, extremist ideology is the driver. The threat we face today is driven by an extremist interpretation of Islam. This form of extremism is absolutist. It leaves no room for compromise and it seeks no place at the negotiating table. It uses violence to signal its committed path to a final end. It is not bound by social norms, laws or values.

These terrorists justify and feed their ideology through skilful exploitation of dynamics within mainstream societies. They use adverse political, social and economic conditions as a rallying cry to recruit and motivate their members. They exploit distrust of the West and

feelings of humiliation and anger. They invoke events that resonate with most Muslims, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq, as justifications for their ideological cause.

They are also driven by a need for continued action. Militant jihad - as interpreted by transnational extremist-Muslim terrorists - is a process of constant struggle against their enemies. They therefore seek to constantly strike their enemies to maintain the momentum of their cause.

Global goals and scope of operations

Although they act in the name of a religious cause, these terrorists have political goals. They want ultimately to establish a caliphate - a pan-Muslim super-state that unites all Muslims and all lands now or ever part of the Islamic world. This includes the Middle East and North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic coast. It includes Andalusia in Spain, parts of the Balkans, Central and South Asia through to the Indonesian archipelago, and parts of the Philippines in South-East Asia.

They seek to drive the West's presence and influence from these lands. They oppose governments in Muslim countries - criticising them for being 'un-Islamic' and therefore illegitimate - and seek to replace them with ones that accord with their extremist views. Their operations are global in scope. They do not limit their attacks to previous theatres of 'militant jihad'. Al Qaida's so-called fatwa (religious decree) of February 1998 called on supporters everywhere to attack the United States and its allies - including civilian targets - anywhere in the world. Terrorism previously directed against Western interests in other countries has since spread to Western countries themselves.

The illustrates the global reach of the new terrorism since 1992. The network of these terrorists is also global. There are extremist-Muslim terrorist elements and supporters - with varying degrees of connection - in the Middle East, South, Central and South-East Asia, North Africa, Europe and North America.

This network extends to Australia. Some terrorist groups have small numbers of supporters in Australia and some Australians have trained in extremist camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. We know the terrorists have considered planning attacks in Australia.

The new enemy also recruits globally. That means Western countries are a source. There is no simple 'terrorist profile' based on nationality or ethnicity.

Terrorist operations - some features

A network of networks

Transnational terrorist operations are highly networked. Small, dispersed teams and individuals work semi-autonomously to achieve a general goal. Leaders communicate their intentions periodically and non-specifically, including through public pronouncements.

Map: Major attacks linked to transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism since 1992


Larger map

Groups are affiliated through both formal and informal links. Decision-making and operations are often highly decentralised.

Al Qaida is the most visible manifestation of the terrorist threat, but the new transnational terrorists are not organised as a hierarchy with Al Qaida at their head. The threat comes from a 'network of networks', made up of dispersed groups and movements. Some of these groups are themselves a network, with limited central command and control.

The autonomy of small teams within this loose structure helps the terrorists survive. Even if the heart of a network is destroyed, the small teams can survive, operate independently, and tap into another part of the network. When a terrorist group is destroyed or its capability degraded, other groups or teams can take over their functions relatively easily.

Networked operations make it more difficult to identify indicators and forewarnings of terrorist attacks. They also make it harder to target the threat. But understanding how the networks operate is critical to devising a strategy to deal with them.

A skilled enemy

Many of the methods applied by these transnational terrorists are sophisticated. The New York and Washington attacks of 11 September 2001 showed an ability to plan, coordinate and execute multiple, simultaneous attacks. We have seen further examples in East Africa, Riyadh, Casablanca and Madrid.

Many are technically skilled, intelligent and educated people. Some have received professional military training, including in Western forces. Many more have had professional instruction in advanced terrorist methods in training facilities in Central, South and South-East Asia and the Middle East. They are good at planning and logistics. They use modern technology to their advantage.

Their security practices are also well developed. Their cell structure, combined with good counter-intelligence tradecraft, keep their identities, operations and methods secret. Not everyone in a team knows the plan or the mission (e.g. the target and the exact method or timings). This is sometimes only revealed at the last moment - lessening the risk that the exposure of part of a plan, or the capture of one terrorist, will undermine an operation.

They are often knowledgeable about Western countries, customs and culture. Some were born or live in the countries they target. Their knowledge and familiarity helps them maximise physical harm and psychological impact. It also allows them to live in target countries without arousing suspicion and plan for terrorist attacks undetected.

They use converts to Islam for terrorist operations - including those from European backgrounds. People from such backgrounds can attract less security scrutiny than those who meet certain nationality and ethnic profiles used in some countries.

Table 1: Major attacks linked to transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism since 19922 [ PDF ]

Above all, the new transnational terrorists are patient. They strike at times and by means of their own choosing. They conduct meticulous long-term planning. There may be years between conceiving and conducting a major attack. Plans that in the past proved impractical are often revisited. Targets are pursued with great persistence, and planning is developed and refined - we know this from examples like the World Trade Centre in New York, which was first targeted in 1993.

Resources are sometimes moved to target locations well before an attack - in some cases years ahead. These terrorists may infiltrate and obtain the necessary documents, vehicles, weapons and explosives well in advance.

The targets of terrorism

These new terrorists deliberately attack civilian targets to cause, where they can, mass casualties. The September 11 attacks in the United States caused human casualties on an unprecedented scale for a terrorist attack. The 2002 Bali attacks presented terrorism of a scale previously unknown in our region. The more recent Madrid attacks deliberately targeted a crowded urban public transport system. Based on recent experience and terrorist statements, we can expect more attempted mass casualty attacks in the future.

As defences improve, the terrorists have demonstrated a willingness to widen their focus from well-protected, or 'hard', targets to also include less well-protected, or 'soft', targets. 'Soft' targets such as restaurants, bars and clubs also afford the potential for causing mass casualties.

'Hard' targets, however, remain attractive to terrorists. Destroying well-protected high-value targets - such as diplomatic missions and military facilities - has great symbolic value. Table 1 illustrates the scale of impact of global terrorism since 1992 in terms of loss of human life.

We know that terrorists have also sought to target critical infrastructure in a deliberate attempt to cause maximum damage and disruption to facilities and services vital to a nation's government and economy. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia are examples of how the terrorists have targeted the oil industry sector. These attacks have served the multiple purposes of singling-out and killing Westerners, undermining confidence in the Saudi economy, and having a global economic impact on oil prices.


The Australian Government defines 'critical infrastructure' as physical facilities, supply chains, information technologies and communications networks which, if destroyed, degraded or rendered unavailable for an extended period, would significantly impact on the social or economic well-being of the nation, or affect Australia's ability to conduct national defence and ensure national security.

Critical infrastructure includes:

  • communications (telecommunications, electronic media, postal services)
  • finance (banking, insurance, trading exchanges
  • transport (air, sea, road, rail
  • utilities (water, waste water)
  • energy (oil, gas, electricity)
  • health (hospitals, public health, laboratories)
  • food supply (bulk production, bulk storage)
  • manufacturing (defence industry, heavy industry, chemicals)
  • government services (parliament, defence, intelligence, law enforcement, fire services, also including foreign missions in Australia
  • community assets (national icons, buildings, sports facilities).
Terrorist methods

Transnational terrorism is highly lethal, using old and new weapons to devastating effect. Advances in weapons technology are making them more lethal than ever before. The range of weapons at the terrorists' disposal is wide and increasing.


Transnational terrorists have access to weapons of unprecedented lethality.

Access to a vast array of new, highly lethal weapons is spreading, aided by the transfer of knowledge, funds and weapons systems internationally. These include anti-aircraft and anti-armour missiles, and enhanced-blast explosive devices. Many of these weapons are cheap, readily available and can be carried, concealed and operated by a single individual. The terrorists have already used some of these weapons.

The use of hand-held missiles to attack aircraft is an example of the greater lethality able to be posed by a single individual with sufficient training in their use.

The transnational terrorists' preferred method of attack is bombings. They have hijacked aircraft and used them as weapons. Assassinations, kidnappings and hostage-taking are also used, although to a far lesser extent. Terrorists will use whatever methods suit their purpose at any given time.

Training in techniques and tactics covers the use of a range of weapons and explosives, vehicles and other craft. One preferred method is the truck or car bomb. These enable terrorists to deliver substantial quantities of explosives to the target. They are often, but not always, conducted by suicide bombers. Terrorists also use remote control to detonate their bombs, demonstrating a degree of sophistication in their operations.

The transnational terrorists have demonstrated maritime attack capability. On several occasions they have used small boats packed with explosives. Since January 2000, there have been maritime attacks against the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 and against the French-owned oil tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen in October 2002. Further attacks have been planned but disrupted. Most attacks occur (or are planned) in coastal waters.

Use of 'stand-off' weapons such as rockets, missiles and mortars are also part of their methodology. They enable the attackers to keep a safe distance from any defensive countermeasures. These weapons are readily available in some parts of the world and have been acquired and used by these terrorists, including surface-to-air missiles against passenger aircraft.

Suicide tactics

Suicide tactics further boost the lethal reach of these terrorists. The willingness of extremists to die in the act of terrorism makes planning easier, because the attacker has only to reach the target. There is no need to plan for escape, one of the most difficult stages of an attack. Suicide tactics are not new, but they are a major feature of the new transnational extremist-Muslim terror.

Innovative forms of attack

Transnational terrorists are innovative in developing new forms of attack. They adapt their methods to specific targets. If a hard target is of high symbolic importance, the terrorists will build on experience and develop new methods of attack. They showed this by using several teams to breach the multi-layered defences of hardened targets in the Middle East. Innovative approaches turn everyday items into lethal weapons. For example, in the September 11 attacks individual terrorists used box cutters to seize control of passenger aircraft with full tanks of fuel, turning them into large flying bombs. They have also manufactured explosives from everyday chemicals and garden fertilisers.

Non-conventional weapons

Terrorists have shown a growing interest in chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear (CBRN) terrorism - adding a significant new dimension to the threat. If the terrorists obtained chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or materials, there is little doubt they would use them.

Transnational terrorists have sought chemical, biological and radiological materials capable of causing human casualties and economic harm.

So far, all known large-scale chemical, biological or radiological attack plans initiated by the terrorists have failed or have been disrupted. We expect more such plans will surface. Any successful chemical, biological or radiological attack by these terrorists would be a grave development and would likely encourage others.


The terms weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons are often used interchangeably.

WMD refers literally to any device that causes large-scale destruction, but is commonly taken to mean weapons capability employing chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials.

Chemical and biological agents may cause mass casualties but this need not always be the case. Terrorists might equally use them to assassinate one, perhaps high-profile, individual. Radiological weapons cause no physical destruction as such. But radiological materials, in combination with conventional explosives, can contaminate an area (the so-called 'dirty bomb') and may have lasting effects which result in casualties. Radiological weapons are not a serious part of any country's weapons program.

Transnational terrorist groups have ready access to information on chemical, biological or radiological materials and, to some extent, nuclear weapons, via publicly available information, including on the Internet. The spread of information from state programs producing CBRN materials has further increased the potential for terrorists to develop or acquire offensive CBRN capabilities.

A range of terrorist plans involving chemical and biological capability have been disrupted in recent years. It appears that years of research and training were to be translated into practice in late 2001 when extremists in Italy discussed plans to transport 'a liquid that suffocates people'. This was reportedly with intent to attack a cathedral in Paris with 10 litres of an unknown chemical agent. In December 2002, French authorities disrupted a network and found materials suggesting it was planning a cyanide gas attack. And in January 2003 UK authorities arrested a group of extremists apparently planning a ricin attack in London.

Users of the tools of a globalised world

The tools available to a globalised world are used to great effect by transnational terrorists. The Internet, mobile telephones and satellite telecommunications give them a truly global reach. They can run their networked operations more smoothly and coordinate action between geographically dispersed groups. They use the Internet to collect information and for operational planning. They conduct research and reconnaissance, identifying targets and vulnerabilities. They have access to a wealth of public information they can exploit.

So one-time reassurances - such as distance and geographic isolation in the case of Australia - provide little or no protection against the new transnational threat. Attacks can be coordinated and launched 'virtually'. Theatres of operation are no longer limited by geography.

Propaganda is an important weapon in the terrorists' arsenal. It helps them issue threats, spread disinformation and create terror. The threat of violence, to coerce or intimidate opponents, is a form of terrorism in itself. Terrorists have always used fear as a tactic, but modern technology has made it much more powerful. We see increasingly adept use by transnational terrorists of the mass media to get their fear-inducing headlines. Both the media and the Internet have proven similarly effective in conveying the terrorists' message to their supporters worldwide - and boosting their global recruitment efforts.

Globalisation has made financing transnational terrorism easier. Financiers can transfer funds electronically and rapidly to operational elements across international boundaries. International money-laundering to support terrorist operations is also easier.

All these aspects of globalisation have helped reduce the terrorists' dependence on state sponsors. Past terrorists often relied on state sponsors for capability beyond geographic borders. Today's transnational terrorists do not. Before the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan provided a useful base of operations and training. But it was not essential for the terrorist network's survival or its ability to plan for and conduct complex operations.

Areas outside effective government control, such as tribally administered territories in parts of South Asia, or areas where civil government is weak, remain important to terrorists as a base for training and operations and a source of recruits. This is why failed and failing states pose such a risk - they may easily develop into safe-havens for terrorists.

While transnational terrorists are adept in using the tools of globalisation they also use 'low-tech' means that make them harder to detect. For example, in transferring money they use personal couriers and traditional banking networks that operate outside international financial controls. Using these methods, funds can be transferred rapidly and reliably with a limited or no audit trail. That makes it harder for government agencies to identify terrorist funding channels.


Muslim extremists call it 'cyber-jihad' - an actual or threatened attack on a computer network to coerce or intimidate governments or the public. While there have been no instances of cyber-attack by terrorists to date, this remains a potential threat against which we must protect ourselves.

We know some extremists view computer network attack as a means of waging asymmetric warfare. Direct physical attack - which often results in human casualties and physical damage - will remain the terrorists' preferred method in the medium term. But computer network attack on critical infrastructure offers the potential for significant damage of its own kind.

Cyber attacks can be launched from anywhere in the world and from multiple locations at the same time. They could cause serious damage or disruption to critical infrastructure. Since our critical infrastructure is more and more interlocked with its underlying information infrastructure, that information infrastructure may be one avenue through which to attack a high-value target. The possible consequences include disruption to e-commerce resulting in financial and economic loss, and an undermined public confidence in information technology systems.

Terrorists may seek to mount cyber-attacks in combination with a physical attack to intensify its effects. They could also use cyber-attack to provide a decoy or cover for a physical attack.

Individuals and groups sympathetic to terrorist causes have engaged in cyber activities, including website defacement and multiple messaging intended to deny service for a period.

An adaptable enemy

These terrorists are highly adaptable to changes in the strategic environment. They shift regional hubs of operations in response to changes in political and security circumstances. Their networked mode of operations makes this easier for them. They understand their environment and readjust their strategy accordingly.

They are particularly adept at responding to change in tactical circumstances. Their planning is flexible and unforeseen considerations are incorporated in the planning process. They have shown they can learn from experience and mistakes. They have demonstrated a capacity to identify and exploit weaknesses in security arrangements and they continually seek new methods to defeat countermeasures.

The adaptable nature of these terrorists means that their past actions will not always be a useful indicator of their future plans.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade