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Working in Partnership with Regional Governments to Counter Terrorism

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Speaker: Mr Les Luck, Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to the Security in Government Conference


Photo - See caption below for description

Good morning distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I have been asked to speak to you about the international dimensions of Australia's counter-terrorism policies and measures - more specifically how we are working with our neighbours in the region to better combat the spread of terrorism.

It might help you interpret my perspectives on this subject to know that within the Australian Government I have responsibilities for policy development and implementation of Australia's international counter-terrorism engagement. I focus very much on ensuring a coherent and effective approach to our counter-terrorism cooperation with both regional and extra-regional partners, in identifying needs and opportunities for practical and effective action against the terrorist threat and on maximising Australia's capacity to respond to these internationally.

Naturally, this entails a great deal of contact with our international partners and advocacy of Australian capabilities and objectives on behalf of the Government.

I work very closely with an array of Australian agencies. For many of these a primary focus is naturally Australia's domestic security needs. But, self-evidently, a transnational threat such as the present one from international terrorism demands that our national capacities are also brought to bear against our offshore vulnerabilities. In this way we are able to serve our own direct interests as well as those of our neighbours and other international partners.

At the outset, I want to suggest there are several premises - based on our experience of the past few years - underlying our international CT engagement.

First, a substantial part of Australia's exposure to the threat from contemporary transnational terrorism accrues through our extensive presence and interests internationally. Harsh experience has demonstrated this all too clearly. Naturally our immediate region is a particular focus of Australian effort, but we must be alert to the global dimensions of this threat. We do not have the option of 'leaving well enough alone'.

Second, our ability to diminish that exposure inevitably depends on our ability to work with and through international partners, whether our near neighbours or countries further a field.

Third, all the indications are that transnational terrorism represents a complex and persistent threat which may last many years.

Fourth, many of the ways in which we can respond are likely themselves to have a fairly long wave-length; with the implication that any capabilities Australia can bring to bear internationally will need to be sustained over an extended period.

Fifth, our response - and that of our international partners - must cover a broad front, engaging many aspects of national capability such as law enforcement and intelligence, diplomacy, elements of military capability, border and transport security as well as prevention of terrorist financing and related crime. Less directly, our international support for education, governance, the rule of law and development assistance in the broad - as well as the quality of international relationships at the community level - will all have a bearing on our international counter-terrorism efforts.

Nature of the terrorist threat

Before I proceed to talk in more detail about the Government's international and regional CT efforts, I would like to make clear what I mean when I talk about the terrorism we face. Specifically I want to talk about that form of contemporary terrorism which threatens Australia.

This is the brand of transnational terrorism - as distinct from the many other examples in history - which gained prominence in the late 1990s, directed and inspired by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida with affiliated groupings across many parts of the world. It is the terrorism which declared its brutal and uncompromising agenda most starkly on 9/11.

It is the same terrorism which perpetrated the attacks in Bali in 2002 and again last year; and against the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004. The terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah - or JI as it has become known all too well - was responsible for those attacks, and of course, a number of others. JI is the major, but not the only, South East Asian regional grouping affiliated with Al Qaida, with whom it shares many of the same objectives.

This brand of terrorism seeks to appropriate Islam, albeit in an extreme and distorted form, to justify indiscriminate murder - of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Assertions of religious justification for their cruelty often cloud the fact that the objectives of Islamist terrorists are inherently political. They seek to transform by force the way in which Muslim communities everywhere are governed; to impose austere, authoritarian forms of governance much like existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

They seek to do this through violent intimidation of those Muslim communities; and also of western democracies whose links with the Muslim world they resent. For the ideologues of Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, the values of tolerance and pluralism, of freedom of religious practice, and of democracy itself, are anathema.

We should never lose sight of the fact that this tyrannical agenda lies at the heart of contemporary terrorism. It is the ideological constant which underpins the linkages we see between Al Qaida and Islamist terrorist networks in many regions of the world, whatever particular local influences and motivations are also in play.

My Colleague, Peter Varghese, Director-General of the Office of National Assessments will have more to say about the drivers of contemporary terrorism later in the day. Suffice for my present purposes to say that the quest to understand the causes of terrorism will prove futile if this core ideology is ignored.

In our own region, this translates to a wish by terrorist groupings such as JI to impose through violent coercion an Islamic caliphate encompassing Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and southern Thailand.
We know all this because they tell us so themselves. Their political agenda is spelled out in countless statements, writings and websites. There is no ambiguity. Nor should the sheer audacity of their goals tempt us to imagine that they would willingly accept anything less.
To justify their actions Islamist terrorists assert a broad western conspiracy to denigrate Muslims. Yet the primary targets of these terrorists are the very communities they profess to defend. Through their actions they undermine the prosperity, the aspirations and the coherence of communities in countries where they operate.

They pursue an uncompromising, non-negotiable and fundamentally anti-democratic agenda. They resort to terror in the knowledge that their extreme prescriptions would find no acceptance through normal political processes.

It is obvious that the West generally - and Australia itself - is targeted by this brand of transnational terrorism. But in many respects we are not its primary target. Rather, it is in the Muslim world where transnational terrorists' main targets lay. Secular states in the Muslim world - Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq - bear a heavy burden of terrorist atrocities.

Evolving and long-term threat

When I began to prepare this presentation, it seemed 2006 had so far been mercifully free of any major terrorist attacks.

Tragically the bombings in Dahab, Egypt - once again killing innocent tourists and Egyptians trying to make a living, and injuring two Australians - have rendered that reflection inaccurate.

While it is still unclear who perpetrated the Dahab attacks, they are a reminder that periodic lulls in overt terrorist activity should not obscure the fact that planning and preparations for attacks continue.

Notwithstanding the degradation of Al Qaida in recent years, and the pressures put on affiliated groups such as JI in our own region, the continuing attacks - in Amman, Bali, Sharm el Sheikh and London in the course of 2005, many of them inspired, if not directed, by Al Qaida - indicate that transnational terrorism is likely to confront us over a prolonged period of many years.

Other speakers have explained that the terrorist threat is an evolving one - as global counter-terrorism efforts have increasingly made an impact on their operating environments, terrorists have proven resilient and adaptable. For example, in our region, following the excellent work since 2002 of authorities in Indonesia and elsewhere in arresting more than 300 JI members, JI has worked to develop more loose and amorphous networks - making more difficult the police and intelligence task needed to prevent and detect planned attacks.

The second Bali bombings in October 2005 were a clear demonstration of JI adapting to its changed circumstances. The three suicide bombers and the bombs they carried represented a shift in tactics by JI to better target their attacks and avoid detection. The bombers themselves appeared to have been especially chosen and indoctrinated, in the hope of protecting the main perpetrators.

But we know, thanks to efforts of the Indonesian police, that JI leader Azahari, who was subsequently killed, provided crucial support and direction for those attacks. It is noteworthy, too, that videoed statements by the bombers provided salutary and compelling evidence to ordinary Indonesians - who again bore the brunt of the attacks - that this vicious crime was committed by fellow citizens in an Islamist cause.

The July 2005 London bombings, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, sent the world a different kind of wake-up call - that a real and serious threat to the West can arise from the 'home-grown' variant of Islamist terrorism. These examples indicate the potency of militant Islamist ideology even when there is perhaps little external support or direction from the transnational terrorist networks.

The power of this ideology to engender division, hatred and intolerance is perhaps most frighteningly relayed to us in the words of one of the extremist Hofstadt group - almost all of whom were born and bred in the Netherlands - which planned and committed the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

On trial for terrorism offences, one member sent a chillingly blunt message to Dutch society - "we reject you, we reject your system, we hate you". Another member noted calmly that all people who respect Western laws are legitimate targets for killing. At one level this is simply crude aggression, pathetically, if menacingly expressed. But it also hints at a crisis of identity and values, fuelled by a cruel and alien ideology, which we are all challenged to comprehend and contest.

Another aspect of the evolving terrorist threat which warrants close attention is the potential for terrorists to make good their threat to attack using chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear (CBRN) weapons and materials.

Al Qaida has made clear in a statement from as far back as the late 1990s that it would seek to acquire and use CBRN weapons in a terrorist attack. And we know that Al Qaida and other groups have been trying to develop CBRN programs. Despite the obvious challenges involved in doing so, it would be a mistake to see this as a hollow threat.

Contemporary terrorists seek to terrify and destabilise secular and pluralist societies as much as they seek to maximise casualties - and this makes the use of CBRN weapons particularly attractive to them. The long-term psychological, economic and social - not to mention human - impact of a CBRN terrorist attack, or a credible threat of one, could potentially be enormous.

While we must be realistic about the difficulties involved in terrorists acquiring and operating CBRN weapons - the technological, regulatory and economic impediments are significant - there is a heightened awareness globally that more can and should be done to prevent and prepare for a possible CBRN terrorist incident. More so than with conventional terrorist attacks, the risks involved with terrorists succeeding just once with a CBRN attack are simply too great for governments not to take all steps possible to prevent this becoming a reality.

CT efforts to date

Almost five years on from 9/11, and four years since the first Bali bombings, we are faced with a persistent, long-term but evolving terrorist threat. But we have the advantage of having developed in the space of only a few years, what is a sound, effective and quite extensive network of practical CT relationships internationally - with our neighbours in South-East Asia and with our many partners further a field.

Today I do not want to provide you with a laundry list of all of the work that has been done and continues to be done by Australia in collaboration with our regional CT partners.

Nor would I want to give the impression that we simply need to keep doing what we are doing and all will be well. That is certainly not the case.

The persistent and evolving nature of terrorism today sends a clear challenge to all governments that they must be adaptable and committed to meet the terrorist threat with ever more concerted, coordinated and targeted CT policies and measures at the regional and global level.

Today I want to provide you with an overview of what Australia is doing with our regional partners to consolidate, enhance and expand on our counter-terrorism cooperation to meet the evolving terrorist threat.

Building on the basics

As I noted earlier, the first Bali bombings of October 2002 sparked close operational-level cooperation between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Indonesia National Police - which continues to strengthen and remains what might be called the 'flagship' of Australia's international CT engagement. The AFP has worked hard since 2002 to develop its working relationships with other regional police services. And this practical, hands-on approach, based on close collaboration with the host authorities, is paying valuable dividends. Typically this collaboration involves a blend of both capacity building and direct operational support.

Since 2002 the Australian government has developed and implemented regional CT initiatives that have broadened beyond the area of law enforcement and moved beyond Indonesia to encompass the key CT areas of intelligence, border security, defence, legal infrastructure, transport security and counter-financing of terrorism. This work must remain a priority for the coming period.

Australia's network of bilateral CT arrangements - some 12 CT MOUs with countries in the Asia Pacific region - smooths the path for practical cooperation between Australian agencies and their regional counterparts.

Our joint regional efforts with Indonesia following the 2004 Bali Regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism have also been pitched at the political and strategic levels to build and sustain political momentum behind regional CT efforts. A great deal of practical activity has taken place under the umbrella of the Bali CT process in the past two years, arguably the best example being the establishment of the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation in 2005 - a joint Australian-Indonesian initiative, which has already become a valuable regional resource for training and development of regional CT practitioners.

Much of our international CT engagement, especially with our neighbours in South East Asia, has been achieved bilaterally, but we also take opportunities to work regionally and multilaterally. For example, we are a strong supporter of the UN 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 CT objectives.

Extension of CT Cooperation

On budget night two days ago the Government announced the third successive cross-portfolio regional CT assistance package totalling
$92.6 million over four years.

This brings to a total of more than $ 400 million committed by the Australian Government to develop and bolster regional counter-terrorism capabilities since 2004 alone.

This new package builds on, and enhances our regional CT efforts to date. It is a further practical demonstration of the Australian Government's continued commitment to intensify its regional CT efforts in collaboration with our neighbours.

The new package is the outcome of a process of review and assessment of our CT work to date in the region and of the remaining CT gaps and weaknesses. It has involved extensive consultation domestically across what is now a large group of agencies, with our neighbours in the region and also with the other key contributing countries.

Additional priorities identified for the coming period include:

  • strengthened measures against potential terrorist acquisition of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) capabilities;
  • increased attention to the subversive and ideological dimensions of the terrorist threat;
  • strengthened emergency response capabilities;
  • continuing leadership in addressing this challenge politically and diplomatically.

Key elements of the new CT package are:

  • Enhanced law enforcement counter-terrorism capacity and liaison networks, and expanded intelligence cooperation capabilities ($34.5 million over four years);
  • Customs initiatives to improve border control capability and coordination in the South-East Asian region ($7.1 million over three years);
  • Support for the further development of the APEC Regional Movement Alert System ($10.9 million additional funding for DIMA over four years) and enhancing Indonesia's border alert system at major ports ($9.8 million over two years to be funded by DIMA with existing resources);
  • DFAT initiatives to build awareness of the WMD and terrorist threats and cross-agency efforts (ANSTO/ASNO/ARPANSA) to strengthen regional safeguards for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials ($5.1 million over four years);
  • Increased capacity for DFAT to progress Australia's expanded international counter-terrorism effort, improve coordination with other counter-terrorism donors, build regional emergency response coordination mechanisms, and work with regional governments to promote tolerance and counteract terrorist propaganda ($35 million over four years).

I will touch briefly on one element of this new package to be taken forward by my own agency - the program to counter terrorist propaganda and radicalisation.

Immediately following the shock of 9/11 (and, for us, the first Bali bombing) the immediate focus was on upgrading physical protection, law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. But as those responses have gained traction, attention has shifted towards ideological, social and other factors which may be in play. For CT academics, experts and policy makers this is proving to be a bonanza of dispute and debate. And frankly, some of the discussion of so-called "root causes" has obscured more than it has revealed.

In seeking to make some practical contributions, we have tried to view the problem from the perspective of those communities in our region that have been targeted for radicalisation. They have seen the gradual introduction of simplistic, subversive ideas, which cleverly distort traditional Islamic concepts of piety and self-sacrifice. They have seen this happening via the internet, at schools and universities, and through a range other institutions. And they have become increasingly shocked to recognise the terrible effect this has had on some of the young and vulnerable members of their communities. They are now worried enough that they want to push back - to reclaim the symbols of their religion and reassert its traditional values.

Obviously we ourselves have neither the capacity nor the standing to become directly engaged in these debates. But, to the extent we can, we are ready to assist and we will be guided by our friends and partners in the region on how best to do this. The Government already has considerable experience in terms of our delivery of educational assistance, governance programs and our work in promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue in the region. Obviously this will not be easy. And the extremists have a bit of a head start. But unless we and our friends succeed in this effort our grandchildren will be attending conferences like this one and hearing the same speeches.


The counter-terrorism relationships Australia has developed with regional partners since Bali I have brought about a level of international engagement for many of our government agencies - both state and federal - that is unprecedented. An important challenge for those agencies - and indeed for me as Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism - is to ensure our engagement has a practical impact on the insidious threat we face from terrorism; and that our capacity to achieve this offshore in partnership with others is sustainable over what may be many years. Additional measures announced in the Budget will be directed to these ends.

It has become a truism for agencies tackling terrorism that a highly-coordinated approach across Australian different government capacities is essential - the idea of 'joined-up' government. That phrase might have become something of a cliché. But the approach is certainly vital for counter-terrorism. It applies also to the quality of our international links - that is obvious when we are confronting a transnational threat.

Of course, much effort goes into ensuring a high degree of coordination in Australia's domestic counter-terrorism approaches, at all levels of government and also in ensuring effective links to the private sector and the public. It is best to see our international engagement as a natural extension of that national effort, through the international partnerships we have forged. Many of the same national assets will be needed offshore.

I am certain that this collaboration will produce more insights and ideas about ways in which we must address the terrorist threat.

In is in that spirit that I thank you for the opportunity in this forum to share perspectives on the big challenges still before us.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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