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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


A new threat

Australia's security environment has changed. We are now directly threatened by a new kind of terrorism. It is transnational and it is perpetrated in the name of a Muslim extremist cause (The adjective 'Islamic' refers to the faith of Islam, representing an ideal that Muslims strive to achieve. In this paper, we use 'Muslim' adjectivally to describe Muslims' deeds and actions, which can fall short of the Islamic ideal. So, where necessary and appropriate, we refer in the text to 'extremist-Muslim terrorism'. While it is perpetrated by Muslims, we do not argue it is Islamic). It is epitomised by Al Qaida and, in our region, by Jemaah Islamiyah. But it is being adopted and adapted by other sympathisers. Australia is a target.

This new threat challenges us in ways which demand new and innovative forms of response. The many other manifestations of terrorism and its extremist drivers - while often better known and more easily understood - are peripheral to our changed strategic environment. They no longer shape our main counter-terrorism response. Our focus is now on a more audacious and fundamental challenge to Australia's security.

Facing the change

The first challenge Australians face is to understand the changing threat we confront.

  • This is essential to our security and the development of a strategic and sustained national response.
  • It is also important for a clearer and better articulated appreciation of tolerant, peaceful and law-abiding Muslims within Australia and to our international relations with Muslim nations.

This form of transnational terrorism presents Australia with a challenge previously unknown. Its aims are global and uncompromising: to fight its enemies wherever it is able, and ultimately to establish a pan-Muslim super-state. Its battlefield is also global. And it strives, where it can, for large scale, maximum casualty impact. We saw this on 11 September 2001. We felt it a year later in Bali.

Australia must also now face the threats of ambiguity and the unknown. This is part of the 'asymmetric' nature of terror. This transnational terrorism works through loose networks rather than through hierarchy or within borders. It is neither dependent on nation-state sponsors, nor responsive to conventional deterrents. To defeat one is not to defeat all. It is constantly evolving, with a capacity to regenerate and adapt where its forces are degraded. There will be new individuals, groups and networks that we simply do not know about. Australia can draw little from its historical experience with terror to understand and meet the current challenge. Unlike many European and Asian countries, twentieth century Australia lived relatively free of the scourge of terror. Our limited in-country experiences were centred on other nationalities and ethno-national causes. Incidents involving Australians abroad were largely cases of mistaken identity or accident. And the terrorism we understood and managed to keep mainly beyond our borders was different. These forms of terrorism still exist. But, kept within their normally specific confines and objectives, they form only a small part of the security challenge Australia now confronts.

Globalisation has put Australia well within the transnational terrorists' reach. Borders and geographic distance do not present the same barriers they used to. And our interests are no longer just focused at home. We are international traders. We travel extensively. We engage internationally as peace-keepers and peace-makers.

We must develop our response within a changed strategic environment. The post-Cold War period has opened up opportunities for new - including non-state - international players. The United States' unequivocal international response to the September 11 attacks has further changed the strategic landscape.

The prospect of chemical, biological or radiological terrorism presents a real and growing menace - including to Australia. Other non-conventional forms of warfare are also now at play. We face the challenge of making our defence and security posture more adaptable to the asymmetric nature of terrorism. Yet we must also maintain an appropriate conventional capability.

The scale of this asymmetric threat demands a dimension of government and national response to terrorism previously unknown to Australia. So does its enduring nature. The protection of our freedoms and security has brought changes to our living environment. Further adaptation may be required. But it will not be at the expense of our fundamental social values or civil liberties.

Understanding the threat...

Neither terrorism nor its driver - extremist ideology - is new. Over history both have taken on many forms. This new manifestation is highly threatening. Its extremist goals are global and its application transnational.

The demands of these terrorists are absolute. Unlike other known forms of terror, they are not contained by geography, political dispute or particular historical grievance. Their rhetoric often seeks to exploit local populist concerns to their own ends. They do not allow for remedy or compromise.

Their views on means and ends differ from previously known forms of terrorism. They know their goals cannot be achieved through persuasion. Their violence is not designed to get a seat at a negotiating table. It signals a committed path to their final ends. Operations aim for mass civilian casualties where possible. We saw this in the 1998 East Africa bombings, on September 11, in Bali and, most recently, in Madrid. And it remains a feature of plots that have been disrupted and defeated.

Non-adherents to the transnational extremist-Muslim terrorist cause are deemed legitimate targets. This includes other Muslims. Many of their terrorist operations are perpetrated in predominantly Muslim-populated countries.

These terrorists have international reach. They achieve this through a loose link of clandestine networks. They are constantly shifting and changing in form. Some operate individually, only looking to 'leaders' for inspiration and example.

And they use modern tools. Many of their known leaders and adherents are highly educated, well funded, and well versed in technology. They use all forms of information technology for operational planning and communications, to study targets, to transfer funds and to convey their message of threat.

They have learned to fly aircraft to use them as instruments of terror. They have accessed and used military weapons ranging from 'low-tech' to 'high-tech'. We know some have tried to develop chemical, biological and radiological capability. And we have every reason to believe they would use it.

... and where it comes from

The doctrine advanced by these terrorists is far removed from the tolerance towards other faiths that has been so important in Islamic tradition. Islam has a rich history, which has embraced diverse theological perspectives. It provides some of the earliest examples of pluralist tradition and some of the earliest codes of human rights. It has played an important role in shaping and nurturing human civilisation. The Quran explicitly endorses the notion of diversity, compassion, forgiveness and restraint. Islam forbids murder. The terrorists' advocacy of violence is at odds with mainstream Islam and the concept of jihad (struggle).

Al Qaida is the best known example of this extremist ideology. It is therefore our most helpful route to understanding it. Al Qaida, under the leadership of Usama Bin Laden, has played an organising and catalytic role in the development of this extremist militant terror in the years since the Soviet - Afghan war.

But Al Qaida's domain is not exclusive. It is better studied as part of an evolutionary process. It has built links among Muslim extremist groups, spreading its influence and radicalising other loosely connected affiliates. Many act alone, inspired only by example. This is a movement that is amorphous, widely dispersed and constantly regenerating and evolving. And it is succeeding in embracing more localised groups into its fold. As Al Qaida loses its Afghanistan-veteran leaders, its influence may cede to other lesser known forces.

Al Qaida's development stems from its successful exploitation of the Soviet - Afghan war as a rallying cry for militant recruits around the globe. The victory of the mujahideen over the Soviet Union was a powerful stimulant to Muslim extremists. Al Qaida's network spread rapidly as its trained and indoctrinated fighters returned to their home countries, with

fanatical zeal, military expertise and global connections. In Sudan and then the Taliban's Afghanistan, Bin Laden accelerated Al Qaida's operations and intensified its focus against the West.

But, beyond this, Al Qaida has extended its influence as an extremist movement, winning support for its powerfully simplistic world view. It has continued to prey on popular frustrations and grievances to validate its goals and rationalise its actions. It invokes the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the toppling of Saddam's regime in Iraq as evidence of a conspiracy to conquer the Muslim world. It exploits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to similar effect.

Al Qaida's goals are uncompromising. It wants to recover all 'lost' Muslim lands, expelling all Jews, 'Crusaders' and 'idolaters of democracy'. It sees the West as its adversary. It has directly threatened Australia. And, despite being damaged, Al Qaida remains operational, well-funded and ambitious.

Whether or not it survives the assault upon it, Al Qaida has built a legacy designed to be self-perpetuating. It already functions as much through influence and inspiration as through direct links. Its shadow - if not its direct hand - is now cast throughout the world. We have seen this in the terror of Jemaah Islamiyah and many others. And, increasingly, we see it in the activities of previously localised groups in South Asia, South-East Asia and North Africa. Al Qaida has set the model for transnational terrorism. Whatever causes might choose to adopt its methods in the future, it has ushered us into a new era of conflict. Our South-East Asian neighbourhood

South-East Asia is now a key focus in the international counter-terrorism effort. Transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism seeks to advance a purist, intolerant and violent form of extremism that is foreign to the region. It threatens the predominantly mainstream and tolerant Islam of South-East Asia and Islam's important place there. It threatens regional political and economic stability. And it threatens the extensive Australian interests which reside there.

The nature of Muslim militancy in South-East Asia has transformed over the past decade. Terrorism has become more frequent, widespread and lethal - and more focused on targeting the interests of the West. Most significantly, Muslim militancy has become more transnational in nature. Local groups with local grievances are increasingly forming international alliances in pursuit of their goals and in assisting each other with financing and training.

Al Qaida has been a key influence. This dates back to the return of South-East Asian veterans of the Soviet - Afghan war - and to Al Qaida's early efforts to operate beyond the Middle East. Al Qaida capitalised on the relatively open economic, political and legal systems of South-East Asia to establish business and support activities.

Jemaah Islamiyah is the principal terrorist threat in South-East Asia. It preaches the goal of a unified South-East Asian Islamic state. Its roots stem back to 1950s Indonesia and the separatist Darul Islam movement - later spreading its influence to Malaysia and developing links with Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines. Links with Al Qaida followed the Soviet - Afghan war. Like Al Qaida, Jemaah Islamiyah has developed a pervasive system of networks and influence.

Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the horrific bombings in Bali which took the lives of 88 Australians, three Australian residents, and 111 people from 18 other countries. This was a tragedy we shared with our neighbours. It put our vulnerabilities in sharp relief, challenging all regional governments to recognise the gravity and proximity of the threat. And it showed us that our collective security is the sum of the collective response. Transnational terror - be it regional or global - must be met with a transnational, coordinated and strategic response.

It also showed that we must recognise our weaknesses. In our region, different levels of resources, different experiences, different political and security cultures and circumstances continue to pose challenges - and opportunities for terror. And the long-term nature of the threat demands a long-term collective commitment. Jemaah Islamiyah remains dynamic and focused on the long term. Where regional cooperation has succeeded in disrupting or degrading, Jemaah Islamiyah has responded by adjusting its methods and diverting its targeting. It maintains the capability and intent to strike again.

And it is not a lone threat. There are signs that its links and influence with other groups within and beyond the region are increasing.

The threat to Australia and our interests

Australia and Australians are directly threatened by transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism. We have been named as a target. This has been verified by our policing and intelligence work and through our cooperation with our regional and international partners. We know some of the reasons. We are now well familiar with the uncompromising rhetoric of Al Qaida, Jemaah Islamiyah and the like. Those who do not support their cause are deemed obstacles to their objectives and legitimate targets. They extend their contempt for moderate, tolerant Muslim society to their hostility towards the West.

They feel threatened by our values and the place we take in the world. Our international alliances and our robust foreign policy are opportunistically invoked in the name of their 'war'. Our conspicuous example of economic and social prosperity is deemed a threat to their cause. We hear our values and social fabric attacked.

Australia's substantial overseas presence means the threat is not simply directed at our own soil. We are a global stakeholder in the fight against transnational terror. Indeed, the threat to

our interests overseas is higher than at home. There we are within easier reach - and often less well protected. Wherever Western interests are targeted, we are at risk. Our overseas interests extend beyond the physical. Transnational terrorism challenges core tenets of international alliances and geopolitical balance. Its sheer scale means it can influence the global economy. It has already shown it can damage the confidence of the marketplace. And it has diverted significant government resources in many countries to the campaign against it. Australia has to adapt and respond to these global economic and strategic shifts to protect its own interests.

Our interests within our region are extensive. And we have a high profile there. South-East Asia is an important economic partner. Our expatriate community in the region is large. Many Australians have family there. We have a strong and high-profile regional diplomatic presence. The economic and security well-being of the region can impact directly on Australia.

The extent of the transnational terrorist threat to Australian interests abroad is only mitigated by the level of international cooperation to fight it. Complacency, denial or delusions of immunity do not only reduce international cooperation to a dangerously low common denominator: they draw the danger to the areas where resistance is weakest.

Australia assumes direct control over its security at its borders. We have a proud history of protecting our soil from previously known forms of terrorism. But we know the terrorist threat to our nation is now higher than it has ever been. Our security authorities have disrupted activities by terrorist group members and supporters in Australia. We know that some transnational extremist-Muslim terrorists have shown interest in conducting attacks in Australia.

These terrorists know no boundaries either in target selection or in means of attack. Australia is not immune. This understanding is a key underpinning of Australia's National Counter- Terrorism Plan to prepare for, prevent and respond to the transnational terrorist threat. Our nation's values and social fabric are also a potential casualty. They cannot be protected by physical barriers. Our democratic values and our open, pluralistic society are anathema to the transnational extremist-Muslim terrorist. Fear, division and intolerance are their means to weaken us.

Countering the threat

The Australian Government is committed to the robust defence of its people and its interests - wherever they may be. This must be underpinned with pride and conviction in what Australia is and what it represents. We must stand our ground. To do so, we must draw from the depth and breadth of our substantial national resources. Such is the scale of the threat - and such are the stakes.

While we have had some wins, the threat and the campaign are enduring. There will be no early, decisive defeat of this threat. This is a long-term challenge that can only be overcome with a strategic response.

For Australia, this has meant coordinating, planning and operating strategically - at the global, regional and domestic levels. It has meant both integrating and widening existing counter-terrorism and security strategies. It has meant developing existing international cooperation arrangements - and initiating new ones. It has meant addressing the short term while planning for the long term. It has also meant publicly declaring and explaining our commitment, both in Australia and abroad.

Australia's security alliance with the United States is a vital dimension to our counter- terrorism strategy. The United States brings vast resources and commitment to the global campaign against transnational terrorism. Its intelligence capability surpasses by a long way that of any other country. Our alliance enables us to draw on these strengths for the protection of all Australians. Our common values and our shared outlook are a target. It is for this reason Australia invoked the ANZUS Treaty in response to September 11.

Australia has other important bilateral security partnerships that are dedicating increasing resources to our collective counter-terrorism efforts. These are also key components of our own strategic defence. Intelligence is a vital element of this. The Australian Government is devoting increasing resources to intelligence capability, building our national capability and contributing to a more comprehensive international network. This not only aids stronger national defence, but benefits the broader international intelligence effort against terror. Responding as a global player

Transnational terrorism must be defeated on a global basis. Strong international coordination and cooperation are essential to success. This understanding forms a basic element of Australia's counter-terrorism strategy. We are working on a variety of international and multilateral platforms.

We are prepared to engage militarily. In 2001 we joined the coalition against the Taliban in Afghanistan, breaking up Al Qaida's haven for coordination and training. And Australian forces remain part of a high-stakes contest with terrorism in Iraq. Australia strongly supports the counter-terrorism activities of the United Nations, including its valuable work on capacity-building and prevention of the financing of terrorism. We played a lead role in listing Jemaah Islamiyah as a terrorist organisation with the UN. We are also tackling transnational terrorism through a comprehensive approach to the non- proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This includes through chairmanship of the Australia Group and support for its outreach activities in the Asia - Pacific region.

Australia's regional commitment

But it is in our own region where Australia has its greatest commitment and contribution to make. It is here where we can best deploy our own substantial resources to contribute to awareness raising, information exchange, capacity-building, and regional coordination and cooperation. It is here where we have to explain and advocate our own security concerns to protect our collective interests. We do this both bilaterally and through regional forums, including through the advocacy of Australia's Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism.

Our regional cooperation agenda is activist. Australia has established nine bilateral counter- terrorism arrangements that underpin practical, operational-level cooperation between Australian agencies and their overseas counterparts. They also help us raise awareness in the region.

Our bilateral capacity-building programs draw on a wide range of Australian government expertise. The variance of national capacities among the countries of the region presents a serious collective weakness. But progress is being made - and can serve as an example to others.

Bilateral cooperation between Australia and Indonesia is an encouraging example. We have drawn on the shared experience of Bali to strengthen collective resolve and cooperation. Effective cooperation between our police forces contributed to the detection and capture of perpetrators of the bombings. Improved capacity saw Indonesia successfully prosecute, convict and sentence the Bali killers. This was a significant and symbolic victory in the regional war against terror.

The establishment of the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, under Indonesian leadership, is another important step forward in regional cooperation and capability development. The Australian Government is committed to the further development of such initiatives, recognising the extent of the work that remains ahead.

The regional ministerial counter-terrorism meeting in Bali in February 2004 showed regional recognition of the seriousness of the threat and the need for a collective response. The Australian Government will work to ensure that this momentum is maintained and developed.

Australia has also successfully encouraged greater prominence of security and counter- terrorism issues on the agendas of established forums such as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and, in the Pacific, through the Pacific Islands Forum. Protecting our nation

Australia's domestic response to the terrorist threat is comprehensive. It includes the development of stronger intelligence, law enforcement and military counter-terrorism capabilities; new anti-terrorism laws; improved measures to protect critical infrastructure; and tighter financial, transport and border protection measures. This is complemented by the support and resolve of the Australian people.

An enduring campaign

The ambiguities of the longer term pose the greatest challenge to Australia's counter- terrorism strategy. The self-perpetuating nature of the threat makes it an enduring one. But its changing and amorphous form makes it difficult to know from where or how the next strike will come. This demands a strong defensive posture.

But there are also ways we are taking the offensive. One is by arguing back. We must not let these terrorists set the agenda. We must fight the battle of ideas. They should not be allowed the final word. Those who might be swayed by their rallying cries must hear voices of reason.

We must also show that we are resolute in our determination and confident in our values - especially our social values. We must show tolerance, respect, appreciation and understanding to the peaceful, law-abiding Muslim members of the Australian community, ensuring that all Australians can live without fear or prejudice. We must make it clear that we take no issue with Islam.

We must advance the same values in the conduct of our relations abroad - building, where we can, bridges of understanding. Our message must be heard and understood clearly, strongly and widely. And we must also listen. We achieve this through both institutional and people-to-people contacts.

Australia must also, where it can, help address the problems often invoked and exploited in the rallying cries of transnational extremist-Muslim terrorists. These concerns are important in their own right. This involves contributing to international peace-keeping and peace-making. It means assisting developing countries in the building of governance structures that will enable them to participate more fully in the international economy and reap the consequent economic, social and political benefits.

Stronger measures are required in the case of failed or failing states. They are vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists. We have seen how Afghanistan's Taliban emerged from a failed state to provide a haven for Al Qaida and other terrorist groups. We joined the campaign to defeat it and rebuild from its legacy of social, political and economic devastation. Iraq must not go the same way. The government will contribute to international efforts to ensure that Iraq does not become another failed state and haven for crime and terror.

These are risks that we also face closer to home. The South Pacific is an important security front whose well-being is threatened by poor governance and institutional weakness. The government has recognised and responded to this. We are committed to working especially closely with the governments of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to strengthen governance and institutions, thereby reducing opportunities for exploitation by foreign criminal or terrorist elements.

An investment in our future

Our campaign is resource-intensive. This is because of the complex, multifaceted and enduring nature of the threat. Our national and international commitments are wide-ranging and strategic. And they are predicated on a rapidly changing security environment. We must continue to plan for a range of contingencies. And we must be prepared to react to the unforeseen.

The government is committed to dedicating the resources necessary to defend Australia and its global interests. We cannot - as a nation or a member of the international community - afford failure. The price is too high, whether it be through further loss of Australian lives or through a future living in fear.

Australia is well equipped to meet these demands. We have a wide range of national resources we can draw upon. We have economic, social and intellectual wealth. Our arms of government are adaptable and flexible. We can draw on strong international relationships. We derive both strength and resilience from our rich and pluralist society. Over and over, these assets have served us well in times of adversity.

All these resources are most effectively deployed when the government and the people of Australia work together as a nation. This is essential to our own protection and the ultimate defeat of transnational terror. And it is why the government is committed to an ongoing process of informing, consulting and working with Australians to ensure a truly national response to this fundamental threat to Australia's national and international interests.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade