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The Australian Perception of the Threat and Appropriate Responses

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Speaker: Mr Les Luck, Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, to the Cityforum Round Table on Homeland Security


Photo - See caption below for description


It is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to speak to a British audience about Australia's perspectives on the contemporary threat from transnational terrorism. Aspects of this global threat present grave challenges to both our countries. In tackling them we take comfort in our long friendship – and strategic partnership - with the United Kingdom.

In a somewhat condensed way, I'd like to give you a sense of the way in which we in Australia view this threat, how it impacts on us and our own region, and the essence of the Australian Government's response.

The threat from transnational terrorism

Much of our detailed understanding of the contemporary terrorist threat has been learned in the past few years, partly as a consequence of the grim reality that Australia had become – and remains – a target. The recent attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta is the latest manifestation of this reality but we have been a target since before 9/11.

The pre-dominant terrorist threat we face – and that the world faces at the moment – is from transnational terrorists operating in the name of an extremist-Muslim cause. If we are to have any hope of combating this threat effectively, we need to develop a clear understanding of its full dimensions.

In the Australian Government's view, the contemporary threat has a number of characteristics which distinguish it from the many examples of terrorism in history.

  • It is global in its ambitions and presence, and transnational in its dynamic.
  • It is not limited by territory or geography nor defined by the bounds of a particular geo-political conflict
    • although evidently it can coopt more regional or localised causes.
  • This threat is audacious in its scale and ambitions, seeking transformation of the Muslim world and much of the international geo-political landscape.
  • These goals are essentially political and strategic in nature although they are projected in a religious guise in the interests of an extremist-Muslim cause.
  • Those interests allow no remedy except subjugation or annihilation; they are goals which are not amenable to negotiation or compromise.
  • They will attack anywhere opportunity presents, most often with fellow Muslims as victims.
  • The threat is directed at mainstream Muslims and secular governments as much as it is directed at the West.
  • It is an asymmetrical threat capable of wreaking disproportionate damage, not only in human and physical terms but in an areas of economic confidence and social harmony.
  • It is both a threat to our security and an assault on the values of tolerance, pluralism and openness which underpin competent societies like ours, confidentially making their way in the world.

In the face of such unexpected and unprovoked aggression – and the sheer obscenity of the terrorists' methods – it is natural to wonder what we might have done to bring this on ourselves, or whether there is anything we can do to avert it. Is there something we can do to rectify the situation?

To answer this question we must first understand what is driving this extremist ideology within an obscure and largely marginalised religious fringe.

At the core, these extremists are contemptuous of the observance of Islam in Muslim countries and would transform them by force. They are also convinced that their destiny is to contain and eventually overshadow the democratic West, which they despise, not least because of the competing example it provides. The West is in the way of the terrorists' ambitions to radically transform the Muslim world.

They regard democracy as an abomination and pluralistic societies as doubly decadent. Our open societies' success is seen as an implied judgement on the closed theocracies they dream of establishing. Our very existence challenges the validity of their world-view.

So the offence is irreparable and trying to destroy us has a twisted logic to it. Obviously these attributes of our societies are not ones which we can or should offer up as some kind of 'remedy'.

Nor is this extreme agenda going to be satisfied by addressing the various issues often described as the 'root causes' of terrorism – such as poverty, disadvantage or hopelessly entrenched political impasses. There are many such issues that are important in their own right and deserving of international attention. Undoubtedly, they can give oxygen to extremist views and recruitment. But they are not the well-spring of terrorist motivation and fixing them will not remove the threat. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe Al Qaida when it says that there can be no negotiation and that it will not compromise over its goals.

The terrorist threat in Australia's region

The threat based on the Al-Qaida model has continued to evolve, often spreading to more localised causes and autonomous groupings which broadly share Al Qaida's agenda. And in looking for global partners to advance its terrorist campaign, Al-Qaida has found willing allies in South-East Asia focused on the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah or JI as it is known.

South-East Asia has become a front-line in the global fight against terrorism largely as a result of the attacks conducted by JI. It was responsible for the Bali nightclub bombings in October 2002 that resulted in the deaths of 202 innocent people, many Australians and a number of British citizens. It also carried out the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in August 2003 which killed 12 people and injured 150. And the Australian Embassy bombing, which killed nine Indonesians and injured many others, has all the hallmarks of a JI attack.

While JI and Al-Qaida operate largely independently of each other, there are close and direct links. JI leader, Hambali, who was captured in Thailand in August 2003, is widely understood to have been Al-Qaida's South-East Asian operations chief, and certainly provided ongoing contact between JI and Al-Qaida. The relationship between JI and Al-Qaida is more a loose alliance forged through a shared ideology – and shared experiences and connections often formed in Afghanistan – rather than a hierarchical structure of command and control. But Al-Qaida is a potent inspiration and example to South-East Asian Muslim militants, and has provided resources for their terrorist operations.

JI has its origins in the Darul Islam separatist movement in Indonesia. But its tentacles have spread throughout South-East Asia as it pursues its goal of creating a regional Islamic caliphate covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. It goes wherever shortcomings in effective government control present themselves. It goes where it can operate and train freely alongside other extremist Muslim groups. It has, for example, forged training and logistics links with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippines, a region of increasing security concern to Australia and other countries in the region.

The Philippines has been targeted by international terrorist networks, including Al-Qaida, for funding, networking, recruiting and planning since at least the early 1990s. The difficulties of maintaining central government control over parts of the southern Philippines have contributed to its use for terrorist training camps. The Philippine Government, which is engaged in peace negotiations with the MILF, has acknowledged publicly that elements of the MILF have been developing links to JI.

The Abu Sayyaf Group's Islamic rhetoric and violence has brought it into contact with Al-Qaida and enabled it to attract donations from the Middle East. The ASG started out as a kidnap-for-ransom criminal group, using Islam and a loose separatist agenda as a justification for its extortion and piracy. But there is evidence that it may be expanding its links with transnational terrorist organisations, and developing its own terrorist repertoire.

JI and other known terrorist groups remain the primary threat to Australia in South-East Asia but they are not the only potential partner in the region for Al-Qaida or another transnational terrorist group. In South-East Asia, small militant Muslim groups have formed that are not linked in any substantial way either to JI or to each other. There is evidence that physical and bomb-making training has been carried out for such groups by graduates of the Soviet-Afghan war.

The danger is that these groups, with local grievances and the capacity to wreck havoc, might become attractive to international terrorist partners. The reality that local and international agendas can fuse means these radical fringe groups are of significant concern. The recent violence in southern Thailand, for example, which was carried out by militant Muslim groups, could serve as a beacon for extremists elsewhere.

And to complicate the picture even further, there is evidence of links have been developed between terrorist groups in South Asia, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), and South-East Asia. JI's links with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba in Pakistan and Kashmir are particularly significant for our region. In 2003 a JI cell in Karachi, which was found to contain South-East Asian university students being groomed as future JI leaders, was disrupted. JI's South Asian connections show how transnational terrorist networking is not a one-way flow. International extremist groups reach into South-East Asia but groups from within our region can also reach out to connect with counterparts elsewhere.

Australia's response

Obviously, this analysis of what we are up against is central to shaping our response. Internationally, a crucial element of our national response has been effective cooperation with neighbours, as well as partners further afield. Within the Australian system, this is an area of policy for which I have direct responsibilities. A transnational threat demands effective cross-border collaboration. For Australia, we can only aspire to be effective in the international dimensions of our counter-terrorism engagement to the extent that we are able to work with and through other governments and constituencies.

The details of the Australian Government's counter terrorism policy response are set out in two recent documents released by the Government: Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia, which focuses on the international dimensions of the terrorism problem, and Protecting Australia Against Terrorism, which contains details of Australia's national counter-terrorism policy and arrangements. Both documents can be accessed on the government's national security website ( For present purposes I will outline only some key themes. But before doing so I should emphasise that it would be wrong to think that no progress is being made in disrupting terrorist groups in our region.

In fact, over 300 JI suspects have been detained and most of those responsible for the Bali bombings have been captured and convicted. Moreover, governments in South-East Asia have taken a number of important steps to combat terrorism and to reduce the vulnerability of the region to terrorism. In Indonesia, for example, the government has enacted new anti-terrorism laws and has established a financial intelligence unit to restrict the flow of funds to terrorists.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the focus of our international counter-terrorism response is on our immediate region, although by no means exclusively. This is where our interests are most extensive and where we can make our most significant contribution to the global campaign against terrorism. In the absence of the more developed security frameworks of the kind found in Europe, our approach has been to pursue tangible results at the operational through well-targeted, practical cooperation with our regional partners, often driven at the agency-to-agency level. This has especially been the case in relation to the law enforcement dimension of our counter-terrorism effort.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP), our lead international law enforcement agency, has worked hard over a number of years to establish solid working relationships with regional police services. The AFP's practical, hands-on approach, based on close collaboration with the host authorities, paid dividends in the highly successful joint investigation with the Indonesian police into the Bali bombing. The emphasis is on building local capacity so that local police are better equipped to anticipate and respond to terrorist threats and situations. Our intelligence, border management, transport security and anti-terrorist financing agencies have adopted a similar approach with their counterparts with some promising results.

A network of bilateral counter-terrorism arrangements smoothes the path for practical cooperation between Australian agencies and their regional counterparts. These arrangements help support increasingly productive intelligence and security relationships as well as measures to strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities. A number of Australian government agencies have also concluded cooperative arrangements directly with their counterparts.

We are also active at the political and strategic levels, building and sustaining the political momentum behind regional counter-terrorism efforts. For example, together with Indonesia we hosted a regional ministerial meeting on counter-terrorism in Bali in February this year. Not only did that lead to further practical initiatives aimed at strengthening counter-terrorism legal frameworks and law enforcement, it also endorsed an Indonesia-Australia initiative to establish a new counter-terrorism centre in Indonesia, the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation.

Much of our international counter-terrorism engagement, especially with neighbours, has been achieved bilaterally, but we also take opportunities to work globally, regionally and multilaterally. For example, we are a strong support of the United Nations and work through regional forums such as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum as the pre-eminent regional security forum, and the Pacific Islands Forum to advance our counter-terrorism objectives.

At the national level - and I am conscious that homeland security is the theme of this roundtable - the terrorist threat demands a broad spectrum response; involving the military, law enforcement (police, immigration, customs, border control), transport security, financial transparency, emergency response and many other areas of national administration. It also demands enhanced coherence and coordination among all relevant areas of government, at all levels. In Australia's case, this includes the states.

We have good reason in Australia to adopt a strong national response to the threat from transnational terrorism. Australia and Australians have been 'legitimised' as terrorist targets by Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaida leaders on a number of occasions. It is apparent that JI has Australia in its sights, and there are almost certainly other groups seeking to harm us, both in Australia and overseas. Late last year, for example, Australian security authorities disrupted in Sydney what, we believe, was planning for a terrorist attack. In May this year an Australian citizen, Jack Roche, was sentenced to nine years gaol in a case that involved plans to support a possible terrorist attack against Israeli interests in Australia. Roche associated with JI in Australia, trained in Afghanistan, and met with and took direction from Hambali and other Muslim extremist identities.

Since September 2001, the Australian government has implemented dozens of separate measures and committed around $3.3 billion in additional funds to better protect the Australian community from terrorist attack. Its approach has encompassed:

  • tougher anti-terrorism laws;
  • better resourced agencies to ensure maximum preparedness and prevention coupled with the ability to reduce the impact of an incident;
  • improved domestic coordination arrangements;
  • better border protection;
  • effective agency-level partnerships with state and territory governments;
  • strong partnerships with industry, and
  • more protection for critical infrastructure.

A well informed public is also a central element of Australia's national counter-terrorism response.

Naturally, there have been new pressures for agile and effective responses from government agencies, including for careful assessment and judicious public use of threat-related information. The relative importance of intelligence in the counter-terrorism equation – and the fragmented and uncertain picture often presented - poses its own set of challenges.

Of course, the challenge goes beyond the core task of making it more difficult for terrorists to operate, to proselytise and recruit, to train, to plan, to move funds and resources, and to attack. At least as challenging is the 'battle of ideas' – a contest which most of all needs to be taken up by mainstream Muslim leaders against those who would appropriate their religion in the cause of extremism and terrorism.

In this struggle our greatest allies will be those mainstream Muslims and moderate Muslim leaders and politicians best placed to assert orthodox values in the face of fanaticism and stare down terrorist sympathisers.

An activist foreign policy can assist in generating and sustaining effective and genuinely cooperative relationships against terrorism. This by no means a straight forward task. But in our experience good progress can be achieved by stripping the problem down to its essentials; to see it as a crime and encourage communities to stigmatise and isolate fanatics seeking to invoke religious or moral authority to try and justify their criminal violence.

An important guiding principle in this regard is to be clear that the transnational terrorism conducted by a minority extremist Muslims is distinct from Islam, as one of the world's great religions.

A purposeful and creative foreign policy can also help in providing aid and other forms of targeted assistance in communities where extremism might otherwise flourish. Similarly, there are cultural, administrative and religious divides where we can build bridges linking the Muslim world and the West. Australia has active programs for this.

One practical form of bridge-building is to equip countries with stronger, fairer and more resilient instruments of governance. Another is by expert advice to help them deal more effectively with the consequences and opportunities of globalisation.


In conclusion, the magnitude of the terrorist threat and its obscure origins demand resolute, ambitious and imaginative responses. An important part of this will be our continued ability to work in partnership with other affected communities. We need to be sure to preserve the values and qualities that make those communities strong.

Forums such as this are vital in allowing our understanding and experiences to be shared. I would like to thank the organisers for providing an opportunity for Australia to participate. I congratulate them on their success in bringing together such a diverse community of interested people.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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