Australia’s new counter-terror efforts designed to confront rising threat

Feb 24, 2015 | Sharyn Mittelman

Australia's new counter-terror efforts designed to confront rising threat

In the wake of terror attacks in France, Denmark, Israel, Canada and Australia, Western leaders around the world are deliberating on how best to deal with the threats of terrorism, in particular from “home grown” terrorists. On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott outlined the Australian Government’s position in a speech highlighting the steps the Government has taken and will take, in the fight against terrorism in this new environment.

Abbott said the Government has invested $630 million in a range of counterterrorism measures, including: Counter-Terrorism Teams which operate at all major international airports; a new “violent jihadist network mapping unit” in ASIO to improve intelligence; a Foreign Fighters Task Force; legislation to cancel the welfare payments of individuals assessed to be a threat to security, and making it easier to prosecute foreign fighters by making it illegal to travel to a declared area overseas. The Government also intends to pass legislation to refuse protection visas to people who destroy evidence of their identity, and its Data Retention Bill. In addition, Abbott said the Government will appoint a National Counter Terrorism Coordinator, and flagged the option of revoking or suspending Australian citizenship of dual nationals who engage in terrorism.

Most alarming was Abbott’s assessment that the “threat to Australia is worsening”. Explaining why this was the case, the Prime Minister said:

“The number of foreign fighters is up. The number of known sympathisers and supporters of extremism is up. The number of potential home grown terrorists is rising. The number of serious investigations continues to increase… we have witnessed the frenzied attack on two police officers in Melbourne and the horror of the Martin Place siege. Twenty people have been arrested and charged as a result of six counter terrorism operations conducted around Australia. That’s one third of all the terrorism-related arrests since 2001 – within the space of just six months…
Already at least 110 Australians have travelled overseas to join the death cult in Iraq and Syria. At least 20 of them, so far, are dead. Even if the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq stopped today, there’s an Australian cohort of hardened jihadists who are intent on radicalising and influencing others. The number of Australians with hands-on terrorist experience is now several times larger than those who trained earlier in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of that group, two-thirds became involved in terrorist activity back here in Australia. The signs are ominous. ASIO currently has over 400 high-priority counterterrorism investigations. That’s more than double the number a year ago.”

The Prime Minister’s speech was criticised by some commentators for suggesting he was playing politics and for creating divisiveness. However, it should be noted that Abbott’s speech was largely based on the findings of his Department’s “Review of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Machinery”, a report released yesterday. The report – prepared by impartial and respected public servants, not political operatives – noted that while the Commonwealth has well coordinated counterterrorism arrangements, the problem of local extremists is worsening, it states,”We are not ‘winning’ on any front”.

Its executive summary included the following sobering assessment:

“The threat of terrorism in Australia is rising and it is becoming harder to combat.

  • There are an increasing number of Australians joining extremist groups overseas.
  • There are an increasing number of potential terrorists, supporters and sympathisers in our community.
  • There is a trend to low-tech ‘lone actor’ attacks which are exponentially harder to disrupt: there may be no visibility of planning and no time delay between intent and action.
  • There is now an intergenerational dimension, with the families of known terrorists increasingly radicalised and involved.
  • The international forces driving terrorist ideology and capabilities are stronger, and extremist narratives have increasing appeal in the Australian community.
  • Terrorists are using sophisticated technologies and methodologies to stay under the radar.
  • Terrorists are now adept at exploiting social media to distribute polished propaganda products.

Reflecting this environment, there is an increasing requirement for early disruption of terrorist plans to best ensure public safety. This comes at the cost of securing sufficient evidence to prosecute.

  •  This leaves potential terrorists at large. It also erodes trust, confidence and relationships with at-risk communities. It may also undermine public confidence in national security agencies and the Government generally.

Winning many battles – but not the war
Despite improvements in CT capability, a terrorist attack is possible. All of the terrorism-related metrics are worsening: known numbers of foreign fighters, sympathisers and supporters, serious investigations. We are not ‘winning’ on any front.”

Abbott repeatedly referred to threats from “Islamist” terrorism in his speech – which stands in contrast to US President Barack Obama, who has been subject to some criticism for refusing to use such terminology in recent speeches on terrorism (see here and here, for example) such as at the recent Summit on Violent Extremism.

However, Abbott courted controversy in his inelegant reference to the role of local Muslim leaders: “I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it”.  This statement could have been put better and should have acknowledged that many Muslims leaders have consistently condemned terrorism.

Working with local communities is central to countering terrorism, as the Department’s report noted: “To counter violent extremism we must work with our at-risk communities. We must build resilience to terrorist ideology and assist individuals to disengage and de-radicalise from violent extremist beliefs and influences.”

Abbott’s speech did not discuss this issue in detail, but the report on p.30 notes that Australia is failing in this area:

“Our efforts in this area have not yet been effective. All of the metrics we have on the terrorism threat to Australia are worsening. We have a growing number of foreign fighters, terrorist sympathisers and supporters.
With operational agencies confronting unprecedented risk, we need to limit and reduce the pool of potential terrorists. Without this mitigation, resource pressures will continue to grow…

CVE [Counter Violent Extremism] efforts to date
Much of the work to date has been to strengthen relationships between the Government and communities at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism. This has included funding small-scale community activities to build resilience to violent extremism. These are activities such as:

• mentoring for youth vulnerable to extremist influences
• intercultural and interfaith education in schools
• online resources and training.

Not all of these programmes have been successful. Some of the efforts may also have been somewhat piecemeal or short term. In summary the programme of activities did not constitute a comprehensive approach to all priority individuals, locations and organisation.”

This finding was supported by a report in the Daily Telegraph today, which noted there had been no funding allocated for deradicalisation programs. It states:

“A federal government counter-terrorism program to stop young Sydney men becoming jihadists has not allocated a single dollar in promised community grants to fight extremism since it was set up last year. The fund, part of a $14 million program countering violent extremist, was created to help local Muslim communities, particularly in Western Sydney, to deradicalise kids and stop them leaving the country to join terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The Daily Telegraph has confirmed that the program has yet to award a single grant…

The Living Safely in the Community grants, which was established last August, was extended last month because it had failed to attract any submissions. Submissions now close in a week but government officials were not confident that all, if any, of the funds would be allocated. It is believed that some submissions had been rejected as they did not meet the criteria, but there was also a deep suspicion of the government within the Islamic community.”

A comprehensive approach is needed and part of this approach needs to address the self-radicalisation that occurs via the internet. The Government has recognised this problem and last week when attending the White House’s summit on countering violent extremism, Attorney-General George Brandis, announced that Australia will invest $18 million to create a body to monitor social media and take down terrorist propaganda. Brandis said, “One of the learnings from this conference in Washington today is that social media, the internet, cyberspace, are one of the most sophisticated techniques and tools that terrorist groups like ISIL take advantage of.”

The Prime Minister’s speech also discussed the role of the internet in incitement to terrorism:

“This new terrorist environment is uniquely shaped by the way that extremist ideologies can now spread online. Every single day, the Islamist death cult and its supporters churn out up to 100,000 social media messages in a variety of languages. Often, they are slick and well produced. That’s the contagion that’s infecting people, grooming them for terrorism.”

In addition, Abbott addressed the need to stop racial and religious incitement as part of counter-terror efforts, he said:

“We will also clamp down on those organisations that incite religious or racial hatred. No-one should make excuses for Islamist fanatics in the Middle East or their imitators here in Australia… For a long time, successive governments have been concerned about organisations that breed hatred, and sometimes incite violence. Organisations and individuals blatantly spreading discord and division – such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – should not do so with impunity. Today, I can confirm that the Government will be taking action against hate preachers. This includes enforcing our strengthened terrorism advocacy laws. It includes new programs to challenge terrorist propaganda and to provide alternative online material based on Australian values. And it will include stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred. These changes should empower community members to directly challenge terrorist propaganda.”

The Government’s recognition of the need to stop racial hatred highlights the importance of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – which the Government intitially planned to amend before abandoning those plans last year.

The Goverment is also right that social media is becoming a major new vector for hate speech and terrorist incitement, and the two are clearly linked.  Incitement to terrorism on the internet frequently includes hate speech against Jews, Christians and other faiths. Tragically, Jews have become a preferred symbolic target for attack by Islamist extremists, as seen in the terror attacks in France and Denmark where Jews were targeted following attacks on other symbols of freedom of expression – at Charlie Hebdo, and at the café where a discussion on freedom of expression was taking place.

Antisemitism is easily found on the internet and social media platforms including in Australia. In the latest edition of the Australia/Israel Review (March, 2015) out this week, I documented how articles regarding Holocaust commemorations on Australian media websites and Facebook pages were littered with arguably antisemitic content, including Holocaust denial. For example, on the Guardian Australia Facebook page under the article “Auschwitz: a short history of the Nazi concentration camp”. As of Feb. 13, there were at least three people who invoked Holocaust denial, with comments including:

“There was no Mass murder, they didn’t gas any JEWS. History is a LIE. A tottal estimate of 125 thousand jews did die however at the hands of the Allies because they bombed Germany cutting vital supplies.” January 27 at 8:42pm

“there must be millions of us grade a idiots as historians and just plain smart researchers have shown over and over there were no gas chambers,,,there were no more deaths than any other people in any other war…” January 27 at 9:26pm

Holocaust denial is a form of antisemitism because as Deborah Lauter, the US Anti-Defamation League’s director of civil rights and its cyber-hate response team has pointed out, “It’s anti-Semitism per se because it serves as a powerful conspiracy theory that basically says the Jews have manipulated history to advance their own worldview, whether to create sympathy or world domination.” In Australia, Holocaust denial material has been found to be unlawful under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.  Australian media organisations have both a legal and moral obligation to remove antisemitism and other forms of hate speech through the monitoring of their webpage and social media platforms.

The internet is a lawless international breeding ground for terrorism. AIJAC welcomes the Government’s investment in counterterrorism strategies, including its commitment to address incitement to terrorism on the internet – which can often begin with incitement to religious and racial hatred.

Sharyn Mittelman






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