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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 6


Australia - a terrorist target

Australia is a terrorist target, both as a Western nation and in its own right. Intelligence confirms we were a target before the 11 September 2001 attacks, and we are still a target. Our interests both at home and abroad are in the terrorists' sights.

Al Qaida leaders threaten publicly and frequently. Their declared rationale is often misleading, but their intentions are clear.

Before 11 September 2001, Usama Bin Laden referred to the United States and its allies, mentioning Israel and the United Kingdom by name. Since then, he has more clearly identified those countries he considers to be 'allies'. Australia has been referred to in six separate statements issued by Bin Laden himself or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

  • On 3 November 2001, Bin Laden said: The Crusader Australian forces were on the Indonesia shores ... they landed to separate East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world.
  • In an interview released in mid-November 2001 concerning the war in Afghanistan, Bin Laden said: In this fighting between Islam and the Crusaders, we will continue our jihad. We will incite the nation for jihad until we meet God and get his blessing. Any country that supports the Jews can only blame itself ... what do Japan or Australia or Germany have to do with this war? They just support the infidels and the Crusaders.
  • Bin Laden made further reference to Australia in a videotape released in the United Kingdom in May 2002 in which he said: What has Australia in the extreme south got to do with the oppression of our brothers in Afghanistan and Palestine?
  • On 12 November 2002, Bin Laden made a statement that gave more prominence to Australia than any other non-US Western country and reaffirmed Australia as a terrorist target: We warned Australia before not to join in [the war] in Afghanistan, and [against] its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali. Its government falsely claimed that they were not targeted.
  • On 21 May 2003, in an audiotape, Ayman al-Zawahiri said: O Muslims, take matters firmly against the embassies of America, England, Australia, Norway and their interests, companies and employees.
  • On 18 October 2003, in an audio message addressed to the American people concerning the war in Iraq, Bin Laden stated that: We maintain our right to reply, at the appropriate time and place, to all the states that are taking part in this unjust war, particularly Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy.

Another statement attributed to Al Qaida was issued through Al Jazeera television in December 2002. This statement reinforced the threat. It stated that Al Qaida would attack vital economic centres and strategic enterprises of the 'Jewish - Christian Alliance', including operations on land, at sea and in the air. Australia has also been mentioned in statements attributed to Al Qaida on the Internet.

Jemaah Islamiyah also has Australia in its sights. It perpetrated the October 2002 Bali bombings - a stark testament to the threat it poses to Australian people and interests. The bombings were a deliberate attempt to inflict mass casualties on Western civilians. Australians were clearly likely to suffer the heaviest impact. We do not know whether direct targeting of Australia was part of the original intent but this has been subsequently claimed by some of those convicted.

The Bali bombers - including Mukhlas and Amrozi - have spoken to the media about their actions. Mukhlas stated in an interview with Australian television in May 2004:

... In Australia ... this [is] a curse from God that they be afraid of their own shadow ...It's the victory for the terrorists.

There are almost certainly other groups seeking to harm us, both in Australia and overseas. Most are likely to draw influence or inspiration from the likes of Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, but their secretive methods mean that we may not be aware of their existence until they attack.

Why are we a target?

Australia is a target for complex reasons. But we can distil all the invective and rhetoric to a basic premise. These terrorists feel threatened by us, and by our example as a conspicuously successful modern society. We are in their way.

Transnational extremist-Muslim terrorists imagine us as part of a Zionist - Christian conspiracy aimed at bringing impiety, injustice, repression and humiliation to the Muslim world. Weakening the influence of the West would advance their political goals by helping undermine those Muslims they view as corrupt and open to Western influence. We are seen as standing in the way of their goal to transform the Muslim world into a Taliban-style society. According to their simplistic worldview, we are part of the Christian West which, to them, is un-Islamic and therefore illegitimate.

The core values we hold and which are intrinsic to our success as a liberal democratic culture are anathema to these extremists. For them, our beliefs in democratic process, racial and gender equality, religious tolerance and equality of opportunity are mere human inventions at odds with God's law. These values impede their political goals. They are confronted by the reality that it is not only people of the West who value such freedoms.

And we advance our values through an active foreign policy. We energetically support democracy, human rights and religious freedoms in our international contribution and through our participation in international forums like the United Nations. Our close alliance with the United States, our role in East Timor, our early and active engagement in the war in Afghanistan, and our involvement in the Coalition in Iraq are often cited by transnational terrorists as reasons for targeting us.


Bali bombings

Bali bombings (Photo: Australian Federal Police)

On 12 October 2002, two bombs exploded at Kuta in Bali. The first, inside Paddy's Bar, was detonated by a suicide bomber. It was apparently intended to move people onto the street towards a second, larger device in a van outside the Sari Club. This device, also triggered by a suicide bomber, was detonated within a minute of the first explosion. Less than a minute later another device exploded, without causing casualties, near the US Consulate in nearby Denpasar.

The official death toll for the Bali attacks was 202, including 88 Australian citizens. The Bali attack was a sophisticated operation. The team that conducted it was coordinated by Jemaah Islamiyah member, Imam Samudra. It brought together logistics specialists, bomb makers, a support team, and the actual attackers - including two suicide bombers.

The attack was a Jemaah Islamiyah operation, but it is thought that Al Qaida helped with advice and training. Al Qaida and senior Jemaah Islamiyah member Hambali (arrested in Thailand in August 2003) provided funds. Jemaah Islamiyah leaders, including Hambali and Samudra, received training in Afghanistan - probably from Al Qaida.

The Australian Federal Police and the Indonesian National Police conducted a joint criminal investigation into the bombings. This led to the identification and arrest of most of those who took part in planning or executing the attack. By April 2004, 33 people had been convicted by the Indonesian courts for involvement in the attack. Three have been sentenced to death and four were given life sentences. Indonesian authorities have arrested several others who provided assistance to the Bali bombers.

Our actions are cited as evidence of the imagined conspiracy against Muslims as the terrorists attempt to draw support for their extremist views. They do this cleverly, invoking causes which resonate strongly and authentically in the broader Muslim community. But the essence of their objections is not our actions. Rather, it is our example as a people and as a society, and the values we stand for.

Australia's global interests

Australia's interests are global. As a fully integrated member of the international community, we have a major stake in the global campaign against terrorism. To protect our interests we need the support of other countries that share our values, just as they need ours. The terrorist threat to our global interests can only be defeated through a comprehensive and effective international response. There is no room for complacency.

Australians have a significant presence abroad. Over 3.5 million of us travel overseas each year - around one million at any one time. Some 720 000 Australians or almost 4 per cent of the population live overseas. About 120 000 of us move overseas on a long-term or permanent basis each year.

Australia has an extensive diplomatic network of 86 overseas posts as well as other official representations. About 2000 Australian Defence Force personnel are deployed on more than ten operations and training activities around the globe, including in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South-East Asia and the Pacific. The Australian Federal Police maintains a significant overseas presence, through its International Network and with personnel currently deployed in Cyprus, East Timor and Solomon Islands. Australian non-government organisations also maintain significant overseas representation. A total of 2289 Australians worked overseas through a non-government organisation in 2003.

We have extensive global economic and business interests. Australia's trade and foreign investment is a key to our economic prosperity. Exports account for around 20 per cent of annual gross domestic product. The jobs of one in five Australians now depend directly or indirectly on the export of Australian goods and services. In 2003, Australia's two-way trade in goods and services was valued at $304 billion, including $140 billion of Australian exports. In the same year, Australia invested $152 billion abroad while international investment in Australia totalled over $233 billion. The Australian dollar is the world's seventh most traded currency.

These figures show that terrorism threatens not only the physical security of Australians travelling and living abroad. It also threatens our international economic and commercial interests. The threat of terrorism raises the cost of trade and travel and undermines investor and consumer confidence. Lower rates of economic growth are the result, particularly in an economy like Australia's, with our heavy reliance on trade and foreign investment. And the interdependence of national economies means economic disturbance is felt throughout the global marketplace.


Terrorism impacts on world economic activity in several ways. The immediate impact includes loss of life, damage to property and infrastructure and disruption to financial markets. Other short-term costs include rescue efforts and post-attack consequence management as well as the costs of remedial measures.

In the medium to long term, terrorism creates uncertainty, reduces confidence and increases risk perceptions and insurance premiums. Investors seek lower risk and shorter-term investments. These typically have weak rates of return. The cumulative effect is to reduce overall investment and slow rates of economic growth. The IMF estimates that the loss of US output resulting from terrorism-related costs could be as high as 0.75 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, or US$75 billion per year. Any decline in US real GDP compounds and prolongs the adverse impact of economic uncertainty on Asian countries and Australia.

Increased spending on counter-terrorism may provide a boost to some businesses. But there is an overall decline in economic productivity as resources are diverted to security from more productive activities. Pressure is also exerted on state budgets. Productivity losses from the threat of terrorism can be offset by improving risk perceptions. If properly managed, security measures can facilitate and secure trade and investment. New technologies introduced to strengthen trade security can increase efficiencies in trade and decrease trade costs through reduced theft, shorter delays and lower insurance costs.

Economies which fail to adopt new trade security measures or fail to cooperate in multilateral counter-terrorist measures run the risk of marginalising themselves from many international transactions.

Source: Combating terrorism in the transport sector, Economic Analytical Unit, DFAT, June 2004

Terrorism also places Australia's international relations under stress. Well established international practices, relationships and conventions are challenged by the threat of terrorism. The need for a robust response to terrorism challenges long-standing international patterns of behaviour. Australia's relationships with other countries can come under pressure because of the need to respond to situations which, while internal to a particular country, can affect our security. Overall, the international system becomes less predictable and less easy to manage.

The nature of the terrorist threat to Australian interests


The threat to Australian interests is higher overseas than at home. Australian interests overseas are often less well protected and within easier reach, making them an easier target. Our interests are at particular threat in South-East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. The extent and complexity of the overseas threat is recognised in the travel advisory system developed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The volatile international security environment has resulted in raised threat levels for Australia's interests overseas in recent times.

Australian interests are at threat from terrorists wherever Western interests are targeted. A more dangerous international environment also means Australians may accidentally get caught up in attacks directed primarily at others. Terrorist attacks against Western interests in Europe or the United States could involve Australian casualties - as in the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

Australian interests can be targeted directly. This was the case in December 2001 when a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to bomb the Australian, British and United States diplomatic missions in Singapore was foiled by the Singapore authorities. Similarly, in June 2003 the Thai police uncovered a plan by Jemaah Islamiyah to bomb the Australian Embassy in Bangkok together with the embassies of the United States and United Kingdom. Australia has also been named as the primary target for terrorists in Indonesia by an Al Qaida manual titled Targeting the cities.

Australian counter-terrorism activities abroad may also be targeted. Also, peace-keeping, military, law enforcement and development cooperation projects, and the people who carry them out, can challenge the capacity of terrorists to operate freely. Threatened by this, terrorists may target these activities in an attempt to break Australian resolve. Australian interests can also be attacked if they present a 'soft' target. Should a non- Australian higher-profile target be too difficult to attack, Australian interests could be targeted instead. In these circumstances, our interests may be seen as an easier option for the terrorists.

South-East Asia

Australia has significant engagement with the countries of South-East Asia and we have a major stake in the region's security.

Despite the Bali tragedy and ongoing terrorism concerns, the region remains a popular destination for Australians. Four of the top ten destinations for Australian travellers are in South-East Asia. Around 45 000 Australians live in the region and many Australians have family there.

Australia has substantial commercial and diplomatic interests in South-East Asia as well as an overall interest in the region's security. Trade between South-East Asia and Australia now exceeds $40 billion a year - Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia feature in the top 15 destinations for Australian exports. The region encompasses important communication links, air routes and sea lanes vital for our trade.

Terrorists in South-East Asia have demonstrated an interest in targeting Australia and our overseas interests. As well as the threat from Jemaah Islamiyah and other known groups, there is a more diffuse threat from tomorrow's terrorists - militant groups that may commit terrorist acts in the future.

Since September 11, information indicating terrorist plans to attack Australian embassies in South-East Asia has come to light. The symbolic value of bombing diplomatic missions will ensure that they remain a likely terrorist target.

Key economic and commercial interests, including airports, airlines, shipping and transport infrastructure, have also been identified as targets. In April 2002, regional authorities disrupted a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to hijack a plane and crash it into Singapore airport. The magnitude of the terrorist threat to Australia's interests in South-East Asia depends on the effectiveness of action by countries in the region to counter that threat. Jemaah Islamiyah and other terrorist groups in the region will look for and exploit any weaknesses in the region's counter-terrorism response. The precise nature and location of the threat to our interests is likely to vary.

Pacific islands

There is no current evidence of terrorist activity in the Pacific island countries but they remain vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist networks and even terrorist attacks. Apart from its direct consequences, a terrorist attack in the Pacific would also have a major impact on the region's important tourism sector, along with possible longer-term economic and social damage. Pacific island countries recognise their vulnerability and are working with Australia and other countries to rectify them.

At home

The terrorist threat extends to Australia's shores and a terrorist attack on our soil is possible. This reality underpins Australia's National Counter-Terrorism Plan - to prepare for, prevent and respond to acts of terrorism and their consequences within Australia.

In the past, Australia was geographically insulated from areas that were a focus of terrorism, including the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe. This helped protect it from the terrorist threat. But globalisation means we are within easier reach. Today geography is no defence. The protection once afforded by the so-called 'Sea-Air Gap' no longer exists.

Terrorists do not necessarily need to enter Australia in order to launch an attack against our territory or our interests. This means that Australia's security environment has become less predictable since September 11 and the Bali bombings.

Extremists with links to transnational extremist-Muslim terrorist groups have shown interest in undertaking terrorist attacks in Australia. Al Qaida explored possible targets in Australia in 2000 and an associated group has recently been active. This suggests a serious intent to undertake terrorist attacks here.

In May 2004, Australian citizen Jack Roche pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit offences against the Crimes (Internationally Protected Persons) Act 1976. Roche was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment. Roche associated with Jemaah Islamiyah in Australia, trained in Afghanistan, and met with and took direction from Hambali and other extremist identities, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Roche videotaped the Israeli embassy in Canberra and the Israeli consulate in Sydney in June 2000 as a preliminary measure to support a possible future terrorist attack in Australia.

Following the listing of Jemaah Islamiyah as a terrorist organisation by the government, the residences of individuals with suspected links to Jemaah Islamiyah were searched in October 2002. Although no evidence of operational planning in Australia was found, these searches confirmed links between Jemaah Islamiyah members in Australia and senior Jemaah Islamiyah figures in South-East Asia.

References made by Al Qaida and affiliated groups, targeting Western countries in general and Australia in particular, highlight the enduring terrorist threat to Australian domestic interests.

Some transnational terrorist groups have small numbers of supporters in Australia. A small number of Australians have trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The prospect of Australia being a source of funds for overseas terrorist activities is also of concern.

Strong border control measures are essential in securing Australia against external terror threats. But the terrorist threat to Australia does not only come from external sources. It can also come from people living and working in Australia.

Although we have much greater control of our security at home than abroad, the threat of the unknown remains. We have identified and successfully disrupted the activities of some groups but we must remain alert and adaptable to deal with new threats should they emerge.

The threat from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear terrorism

The acquisition of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons by transnational terrorist groups would add a new dimension to the terrorist threat to Australia. It would seriously compromise the physical security of the Australian community. Although the range of damage that can be inflicted by this form of terrorism varies enormously, even a small incident would cause significant alarm.

We know Al Qaida has shown interest in both acquiring and developing expertise in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism. The growing black market in the technology to support these weapons underscores the need for quick international action against proliferation threats.

The threat to Australian values

Muslim extremist terrorists threaten Australia's core values as much as our security. The views they espouse challenge our way of life as a tolerant, open and diverse society. Terrorists attack democratic societies by using their very openness as a weapon against them. They prey on both fear and ignorance. In threatening us, they challenge us to abandon our fundamental freedoms, community tolerance and the open nature of our civil society. They present us with the risk that, in framing a counter-terrorist response, we may sacrifice, prejudice or compromise our basic values.

The long-term threat

The ambiguities of the longer term present us with the most difficult challenge. The transnational terrorist threat is evolving rapidly. The structure and capacity of groups such as Al Qaida is changing and new terrorist groups are emerging. Some of these new groups are acting autonomously and adopting new tactics.

The existence of highly capable transnational terrorist groups means Australian interests will continue to be at heightened threat from terrorist attack. Together with our global partners, we have had significant successes in disrupting the operations of transnational terrorist groups. But Al Qaida and terrorist groups associated with it retain the intent and capacity to carry out sophisticated attacks. Both their rhetoric and their behaviour signal that they are in for the long haul.

Intelligence is one of our best defences. It provides us with an understanding of our security environment, allowing us to work effectively with like-minded countries to disrupt and defeat terrorist attacks before they occur. It gives us early warning of threats as they develop but it will never be able to provide the complete picture. The further we look into the future, the more difficult this becomes. No defences are foolproof.

And as we become more accustomed to living under the shadow of transnational terror, we also face the threat of our own complacency. We cannot allow further tragedy to be our wake-up call.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade