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The Current National Security Environment – the International Perspective

News, speeches and media

'National Security for a Diverse Community' Forum


Speaker: Mike Smith, Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism


Four weeks
ago, here in Canberra, the Prime Minister delivered an important
speech on national security. He explained that currently
Australia faces a complex and challenging strategic environment but
one that we can nonetheless address with confidence as a result of
the sound policies that the country has in place. He went on
to identify different components of that security environment
– mentioning amongst other things, changing power
relativities in the world, the enormous stake we have in the
maintenance of stability in North East Asia; the leadership role of
the United States; and the impact of developments in the Middle
East, including our involvement in the coalitions working to build
a stable democratic Iraq and to support the democratically elected
government in Afghanistan against challenges from the
Taliban. He also spoke of other developments, closer to home,
such as our involvement in the Regional Assistance Mission to the
Solomon Islands and in East Timor, that impact on our national

In his speech
the Prime Minister touched on the problem of terrorism, noting that
nation states will continue to be challenged by terrorist
organisations and other non-state entities. He underlined
that most conflicts today, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan,
now involve non-state groups which are becoming more and more adept
at using 'asymmetric' methods of attack. He noted
that these groups exploit the openness of our societies, our
technologies and our values to attack us where we are most
vulnerable. An unfortunate by-product of globalisation was
that it can facilitate terrorism and other forms of trans-national
crime as well as the proliferation of the technology and materials
necessary to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

comments by the Prime Minister are I think a useful lead-in to my
presentation this morning. He was painting a broad canvas but
I want to focus more specifically on the challenge of terrorism,
particularly the international aspects of this. I want to
explain what the threat is and how it is evolving. I also
want to look at the strategies we, collectively as an international
community, regionally as members of various Asia Pacific
associations and bilaterally with neighbouring countries, are
adopting to respond to this. I hope that this will be a
useful backdrop to the discussions you will all be conducting over
the next day and a half as you review and dissect the topic
'national security for a diverse community'.

So what is
the nature of the current terrorist threat? Well it's worth
remembering that historically terrorism – violence by
non-state actors aimed at civilians to achieve a political end
– is neither particularly new nor particularly attached to
Muslim causes.

Over the last
century the world has seen examples of terrorism in just about
every decade. European anarchists, Jewish nationalists,
Palestinian nationalists, German and Italian leftists, Irish
republicans, Tamil separatists, and ultra-right nationalists just
to mention a few, have carried out assassinations, kidnappings,
bombings of hotels and cafes and hijackings of aircraft.
These sorts of groups and this type of what is sometimes called
'single issue' terrorism remains a threat that we need
to be aware of and have measures in place to check.

But the
terrorist threat that preoccupies governments today is
qualitatively different from those examples. It derives from
a particular extremist ideology that perverts and misuses Islam to
build support for its agenda and to inspire its recruits. Why
is it different from the other examples? I think for 5
specific reasons:

  • Firstly, it is
    truly global in scope and ambition
  • Secondly, as I
    mentioned while it is driven by a twisted and fanatical
    interpretation of Islam that appeals to very few, it cleverly
    exploits much more widely felt senses of grievance and injustice
    that exist in many mainstream Muslim communities in the world
  • Thirdly, while
    in many ways anti-modernist, it uses the tools of globalisation,
    (mass air travel, the internet, mobile phones, laptop computers),
    to carry out its attacks, to promote its goals and to recruit new
    foot soldiers
  • Fourthly, it
    cannot be negotiated with. It regards all who do not share
    its extremist agenda as enemies and legitimate targets. That
    includes the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, indeed it
    includes the vast majority of Australians, Muslim and non-Muslim
  • And finally,
    its ambitions to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and
    nuclear (CBRN) weapons technology threaten to increase the scale of
    destruction of its violence.

For these
reasons, it is arguably a greater challenge than any terrorist
threat we have faced before.

Progress in tackling terrorism since 9/11

So how
successful has the international community been in meeting the
challenge of terrorism since that dramatic morning on 11 September
2001 when the twin towers fell? Well there have been
significant successes.

Ø When Coalition forces toppled
the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda lost its principal
state sponsor. Since then,many Al Qaeda leaders have been
arrested or killed. Dozens of conspiracies have been
uncovered and millions of dollars that would have been used to fund
terrorism have been intercepted.

Ø In SE Asia, the activities of
Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, the extremist groups
with links to AQ that have carried out most of the terrorist
attacks in the region, have been significantly disrupted.
Thanks in part to Australian assistance, authorities, particularly
in Indonesia and the Philippines, have succeeded in stopping many
attacks, and have arrested and prosecuted or killed many of the key

Ø In Indonesia, polling
indicates that over the last 5 years support in the population for
the Jemaah Islamiyah ideology and agenda, and for the use of
violence to promote their political goals, has dramatically
dropped. Support for democracy and pluralism – both of
which are denounced by the extremist ideologues – meanwhile
continues to be very high.

Ø Internationally, there has been
an unprecedented level of practical cooperation between countries
on counter-terrorism, including exchanges of intelligence and
information, exercises and training, swapping of best-practice and
offers of assistance to strengthen infrastructure.

Worrying Trends

But we are
seeing a number of negative trends that suggest we need not only to
maintain the CT efforts we have expended so far, but expand them
and target them more creatively. Terrorist groups may have
suffered setbacks, but they are rebuilding and regrouping, and
even as our capacity to stop them improves, their methods and
abilities become more sophisticated. So what are these
worrying trends?

Firstly, Al
Qaeda has re-grouped and is reasserting itself. It has
reasonably secure safe-haven on the border between Afghanistan and
Pakistan; it has reorganised its leadership, it has greatly
improved its public information campaign and it remains intent on
conducting mass casualty attacks in the countries it is
targeting. Moreover it has a steady stream of new recruits
whom it is indoctrinating, training and preparing for

Moreover it
has 'franchised' the AQ brand, most notably in Iraq and
in North Africa where groups associated with it have carried out
terrorist attacks in its name and using its rhetoric.

Secondly, the
internet is increasingly a critical tool for extremist groups and
this is proving extremely difficult to combat. It is used by
terrorist organisations:

  • as a propaganda device (through
    its broadcast of images of attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and
  • as a recruitment tool, by
    attracting young people to radical so-called 'jihadi'
    websites and sucking them into a virtual world that, to a 16 year
    old, might look glamorous and adventurous. The websites direct
    them to chatrooms where skilled recruiters can identify them and
    follow up the contact or in some cases these recruits seek to
    conduct attacks on their own initiative
  • as a training device
    – the detailed instructions for manufacturing bombs and for
    carrying out certain types of attack available on certain websites,
    have made it easier for individuals to plot attacks
  • for communication
    – to share experiences, to maintain morale and to seek
    religious justifications for its planned attacks
  • as an
    operational medium, allowing through pass-worded sites and other
    means, terrorists in different places to plan and organise a
    specific attack.

I should add
that one of the benefits of the internet for the extremists is that
it protects their anonymity and thereby reduces the danger they
face in researching targets, communicating with each other and even
in coordinating internationally, because it means they do not have
to cross borders as frequently. It also helps to make
terrorism cheaper.

Thirdly, the
process of radicalisation has, in many instances, become more rapid
and more difficult to detect. Today's terrorists do not
fit an easily-recognisable mould of educational or linguistic
background, family or business links, nationality or psychological
profile. (At the same time there are some fairly
well-recognised pathways to radicalisation or recruitment that we
can recognise. These include prisons – where
individuals are vulnerable to pressure from fellow-prisoners; the
internet as mentioned earlier; contact with a particularly
charismatic radical figure; and extremist social or family

And finally,
as mentioned earlier, Al Qaeda and similar groups show a persistent
desire to master CBRN technologies. Terrorism is about
theatre: it is about creating fear, panic and chaos.
Using a chemical or radiological dispersal device in place of a
conventional car or backpack bomb would compound the public trauma,
even if it killed no more people. It would also potentially
greatly expand the economic impact of such an attack by
contaminating possibly a whole section of a city. While the
ultimate nightmare scenario, notably detonation of an improvised
nuclear device in a crowded city, remains highly unlikely, a
radiological or chemical attack is considered well within the
bounds of possibility.

agents likewise represent a threat we need to be aware of and take
measures to contain. You may recall that at one stage the
9/11 bombers considered using a crop dusting aircraft to disperse
anthrax or some other biological agent but decided in the end that
the technical challenges and uncertainty about how meteorological
conditions would impact on its effectiveness, to shelve the
project. But given the right circumstances, and importantly
the right recruit with expertise in producing and handling
biological agents, this option could very easily come back on the

International Response – Multilateral System

So how are we responding, collectively as an international
community and in our region, to the challenges posed by these
worrying trends?

At the global level

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (which happened to occur
in New York city a week or so before the opening of the UN General
Assembly), an unusual consensus was forged at the United Nations on
the need to address this new and dangerous phenomenon. Within
days of the attacks the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1373
which obliged all member states of the UN to:

  • Deny all forms of
    financial support to terrorist groups
  • Suppress the provision of
    safe haven or support for terrorists
  • Share with other
    governments information about any groups they know are planning
    terrorist operations
  • Pass legislation to
    criminalise terrorism

But even
before 9/11 the UN had over a period of more than 30 years provided
the forum where the international community had negotiated and
adopted a range of international treaties, dealing with different
aspects of terrorism. These included conventions on air
hijacking, killing of diplomats, sabotage of civil aircraft, the
taking of hostages, attacks at airports, the marking of plastic
explosives, terrorist financing, protection of nuclear materials,
and attacks on ships and maritime oil production platforms.
Currently there are some 13 of these treaties in place.

In addition
to this, last September the UN General Assembly adopted a Global
Counter-Terrorism Strategy, supported by a very detailed Plan of
Action. This sets out a whole raft of things that states
might consider doing to address the problem under headings such

  • Measures to address the
    conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism
  • Measures to prevent and
    combat terrorism
  • Measures to build states
    capacities to prevent terrorism
  • Measures to ensure respect
    for human rights and the rule of law.

These actions
are important as they underline that in all countries, in all
cultures everywhere, terrorism is outlaw behaviour that can never
be justified. Moreover they underline that other countries
stand ready to help when any member of the UN suffers a terrorist
attack. This declaratory function, in fact is what the UN
does best. Sometimes it takes its time, but when it
establishes and promotes a global norm of behaviour, a powerful
message is sent out and governments take notice.

What the UN
is less good at doing – because it largely operates by a
consensus of its 193 members – is enforcing those
norms. More often than not therefore, countries affected by
terrorism look for help in their efforts to deal with this
challenge, to regional mechanisms, (such as NATO or the EU), or to
other friendly countries, (such Australia in the case of Indonesia
and the Philippines).

Ad Hoc Groupings – the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

We have also
seen ad hoc groups of countries form to address particular aspects
of the terrorist threat, for example the Global Initiative to
Combat Nuclear Terrorism. This grouping grew out of a G8
initiative sponsored by the US and Russia and brought together,
initially, 13 countries including Australia to look at what more
could be done collectively to address the frightening possibility
of nuclear terrorism. At its first meeting in Rabat last
October and then in Ankara in February, the group adopted a
Statement of Principles and a voluntary Program of Work. The
Statement emphasised the importance of members

  • tightening control over
    nuclear reactors and nuclear and radiological materials
  • improving their ability to
    detect such materials being smuggled across borders
  • strengthening legal
    frameworks to deal with these situations, and
  • promoting information
    exchanges, including through exercises and training.

The Global
Initiative now has 55 members and a work program of more than 2
dozen practical activities, mostly focusing on training and
information-exchange, scheduled out to 2009.

Regional Responses

In the
Asia-Pacific region there are several forums where terrorism is
actively debated and responses developed. APEC is mainly
focused on an economic agenda but it has what is called the
Counter-Terrorism Task Force which over recent years has been
addressing issues such as mitigating the terrorist threat to food
supply in the region; facilitating the recovery of international
trade in the event of disruptions caused by terrorist attacks; and
the role and responsibilities of financial intelligence units in
monitoring transactions involving non-profit organisations and
alternative remittances systems.

In addition
in June this year, Australia as this year's chair of APEC,
hosted a joint government-private sector conference in Sydney under
the heading 'Secure Trade in the APEC Region' (STAR)
that looked at practical challenges in this field, specifically
supply chain security and identity security. Both issues
address trans-national crime problems but to the extent that the
initiatives discussed and ideas exchanged make it more difficult
for criminals to hide their identity or to smuggle contraband
between countries, they benefit our collective counter-terrorism

This week at
the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in the Philippines, Australia hopes
to garner support for an initiative to examine what we can do to
address the problem of the internet and radicalisation. And
at the Pacific Island Forum, Australia for several years has been
working with NZ and the UN to help Pacific Island countries to
draft and adopt the legislation necessary to implement relevant UN
Conventions and resolutions in the field of counter-terrorism.

particularly since the first Bali bombing in October 2002,
Australia has been an active partner with regional governments in
their efforts to address the terrorism threat, indeed over that
time we have committed some $450 million to such cooperation.
I will leave it to Commissioner Keelty to talk about what the AFP
has been able to achieve in Indonesia and elsewhere, though I will
note that the relationship between the AFP and the Indonesian
Police is one of our strongest CT assets in the region. The
Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, (JCLEC), a joint
venture between Indonesia and Australia, has also over the last 3
years, grown into one of the most important law enforcement
training institutions in the region.

Aside from
the police, Australian intelligence agencies, the Australian
Customs Service, DIAC, Austrac, the Attorney-General's
Department, DOTARS, AusAID and Defence have all been involved in
programs to better protect regional countries against terrorism
through building capacity and improve coordination in the local
systems. Other Australian agencies have been involved in
raising awareness of the CBRN threat and building capacity to
defend against that. All this work has made a real
contribution to our national security and to that of countries in
the region.

Now this
level of cooperation does not happen naturally. It requires a
great deal of effort at the political level to build an umbrella of
confidence and trust under which counter-terrorism activities can
take place. That process has involved repeated visits to the
region by the Prime Minister, (most recently last week), the
Foreign Minister, the Attorney-General and other relevant Ministers
and it has involved negotiating counter-terrorism cooperation
agreements with many of our partners – of which currently we
have 13 in place.

As part of
this process Australia organised and co-hosted a regional
Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism in Bali in February 2004,
(which led to the establishment of JCLEC and began a process of
much more detailed coordination and cooperation on legal and law
enforcement issues). Then in March this year Mr Downer
co-hosted with his Indonesian counter-part, Dr Wirayuda, a
sub-regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism involving the
Foreign and Justice Ministers or Police Chiefs from the six
countries most affected by terrorism around us – namely
Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and
Australia. This meeting agreed on the conduct of a range of
more focused activities including in the fields of the internet and
terrorism, the role of the media in countering terrorism,
cooperation to limit the movement of small arms and light weapons
that could be used by terrorists, counter-radicalisation and
cooperation on emergency responses in the event of a terrorist

Addressing the Ideological Challenge

Of course all
of this activity to build capacity and strengthen responses to
terrorist attacks, essential though they are, will not alone solve
the problem. For this to happen we will have to see
communities reject and expel the ideology underlying this form of
terrorist violence.

This area of
counter-terrorism work is sometimes called the 'battle of
ideas' and up to now the international community has not done
so well against Al Qaeda and similar groups – in part because
we did not recognise as quickly as they did that counter-terrorism
is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is a police action
against criminal behaviour. Osama Bin Laden's Deputy,
Ayman al Zawahiri, in a private letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi
dated 9 July 2005 made the point that more than fifty percent of Al
Qaeda's fight takes place in the media. Underlining
this, over the last 3 years Al Qaeda has ramped up its public
information capability, through its public relations arm Al Sahab,
and is now distributing a steady stream of messages and radical
commentary through a range of media including audio and video
tapes, podcasts, the internet and mainstream television stations
such as Al Jazeera.

Moreover the
quality of production of this material is increasingly first class
and more and more of them are either produced in English and
languages other than Arabic, or offered with subtitles to make them
accessible to an ever wider audience. These statements
increasingly address contemporary issues - such as the election of
Hamas, the war in Lebanon or the situation in Somalia – to
try to guide opinion on political issues and to insert religion
where it is not necessarily a factor.

and counter-acting this media offensive is essential but extremely
difficult. Often governments, particularly Western
governments, do not have the credibility with those who are
influenced by Zawahiri and others, to be able to make an impact
with that audience. Moreover for us one of the biggest
challenges is to ensure that in challenging AQ's ideas we do
not alienate or offend the people we are trying to connect

This is where
others need to play a part. And in many countries they
are. For example in Egypt the venerable Islamic educational
institution Al Azhar puts on its website interpretations of
religious passages that contradict the interpretations of some of
the radical Islamist religious teachers. Prince Ghazi,
religious adviser to King Abdullah of Jordan, similarly has a
website that contains thousands of pages of commentary that aims to
dispute the incorrect religious interpretations that Al Qaeda and
others rely on to lure people into their false and misleading

In other
countries in the Middle East, programs have been launched where
reformed terrorists dispute the arguments of the radical extremists
in internet chat-rooms, a process that can have a significant
influence on the sometimes hundreds of observers who log onto these
chatrooms just to follow the debates.

In Indonesia
the principal popular religious movements, Muhammadiyah and
Nahdhlatul Ulama, which together account for over a third of
Indonesian Muslims, are working to promote messages of tolerance
and pluralism in religious schools and in mosques across the
thousands of islands in that vast country.

In Bangladesh
and Pakistan government agencies, with the support of international
aid donors, are working to broaden the curriculum at madrassas and
improve the training of their teachers. The hope is that
students when they graduate will have the knowledge and skills to
help them get a job and be a productive member of society, rather
than young men with a limited and narrow vision and little prospect
of anything but menial work – people who are then vulnerable
to the extremist message.

also plays a role in this. For example we have been a strong
supporter of the regional interfaith dialogue process, the third
meeting of which was held in Waitangi New Zealand in May –
some of you may have been involved. This enabled
representatives from different religious traditions, cultural
perspectives and national backgrounds to come together in respect
and with open minds, to discuss how to promote greater
understanding between the peoples of the region. And the
outcome of that meeting – the Waitangi Declaration – is
a very worthwhile document, with valuable proposals for reflection
and practical follow-up in areas such as religious education, youth
development and the establishment of internet interfaith

We are also
having a positive influence through our aid program in addressing
problems of development and governance, issues that groups like JI
have exploited in the past to recruit young people to their

And above all
of this, we as Australians can be an example that puts the lie to
the world view that Al Qaeda propagates, which claims that there
are irreconcilable differences between religions and cultures; that
there is only one way and therefore no tolerance should be shown
towards alternative views or different religious
interpretations. We can show that not only does tolerance and
pluralism work – but it makes for stronger societies.
We can demonstrate by our example that countries are made more
dynamic and effective through religious and cultural
diversity. We can show that a country can be so much more
than the sum of its parts; that individuals can and do thrive in
this environment; and that citizens in such a place can lead rich
and fulfilled lives no matter what their religion or their ethnic
background is.


I am very
conscious that I have ranged over a lot of ground in my
presentation this morning and that for many this will have been
difficult to absorb. For that I apologise but I felt I had to
at least put all this material on the table so you can draw on it
in the discussions to come.

really do not expect you to remember all the organisations,
groupings, resolutions, forums and programs I have mentioned.
Instead I will be happy if, when we break for coffee shortly, you
carry out of here a recognition that there is an enormous, perhaps
bewildering, range of activity that is going on to address this
issue out there in the world. Moreover that work is being
done collectively and cooperatively by an impressively wide range
of countries, groups and organisations.

And this
underlines the second point I hope you will take out from this
session: that none of us can do this alone. No one
government can do it – the threat crosses too many borders
for that to work. It takes a cooperative effort by many
countries. Perhaps more importantly than that, in each
country governments alone cannot deal with the challenge. The
response to be effective must involve all parts of society and the
community. It should involve parliaments as well as
governments; it should involve the press and the judiciary.
It will draw in civil society it will affect business. And
most importantly it will involve community at the

That is where this group comes
in and why this meeting is important. We all need each
other's help and each other's insight if we are
collectively to defeat this threat.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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