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    HomeFeatured ArticlesAustralia And Counter-Terrorism In The Asia-Pacific Region: Progress And Challenges
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Australia And Counter-Terrorism In The Asia-Pacific Region: Progress And Challenges

Nine years after the September 11 attacks, and eight after the first Bali bombing, significant gains have been made against the challenge from the new

Bill Paterson



Nine years after the September 11 attacks, and eight after the first Bali bombing, significant gains have been made against the challenge from the new and potent forms of terrorism these attacks represented. Our successes in combating terrorism have been greatly assisted by government attention to enhanced intelligence capabilities, the use of new and innovative technologies, effective criminal investigations, and the strengthening of law enforcement relationships within and between

governments. For all of the progress made and enhancements in counter-terrorism capabilities, the international community now faces a more diffuse and diversified terrorist threat. The challenges ahead suggest that transnational terrorism will remain a first order security issue for governments for at least a generation. We are a long way from fully understanding the pathways to radicalisation and extremism, and research so far shows that these can indeed be divisive and highly individualised. The radicalising power of the internet, its widespread availability and utility to terrorists will present an additional complexity.


Keywords: Terrorism, Counter-terrorism, Al-Qa’eda, Australia, United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, intelligence, law enforcement, radicalisation, internet, prison, threat 


Terrorism has long been used by politically-motivated but weak groups to deliver an asymmetric impact against their opponents – an impact massively out of proportion to the input. Terrorism has principally targeted civilians, and not combatants, to magnify fear, uncertainty and disruption. Australian Prime Minister Rudd told the UN General Assembly in September 2010 that terrorism “continues to challenge civilised norms, to generate fear and insecurity, and to take innocent civilian lives in many parts of the world”.


The challenge for governments worldwide relates to the brand of terrorism inspired and propagated by Al Qa’eda (AQ). The AQ brand is transnational, religiously-based and draws on a collective sense of both Muslim community and perceived grievances across the ummah. The brand is informed by a deceptively simple narrative. AQ’s literalist interpretation of Islam is rooted in the seventh century, but is empowered by 21st century globalisation and modern technology. The issue has a particular complexity because a toxic political ideology has been built from an absolutist interpretation of a religious faith. Hence opposition to the violent ideology is painted by AQ’s followers as being anti-Islamic. 


While it should be set in context, transnational terrorism can have a disproportionate impact and present unique challenges for the security policymaker. It is both global and local, it is evolving and adapting, and is developing in terms of its use of technology, its operational security, its complexity, the nationalities involved, and its geographic nodes. It creates pressures for tougher countermeasures which can impact on rights, freedoms, convenience and costs. It is thus a more diffuse, dispersed and complex target than it may at first have seemed.


Terrorism as an Australian National Security Issue

AQ-led, associated or inspired transnational terrorism will remain an enduring and evolving security threat internationally. While terrorism does not represent an existential threat or a territorial threat to Australia or Australian interests, it affects Australian interests and those of our allies and friends. For this reason, it is best considered as one of a number of enduring security challenges or contingencies with which Australia must deal and for which Australia must plan. The Australian Government’s recent White Paper on Terrorism regarded terrorism as “a persistent and permanent feature of Australia’s security environment”.


Terrorism matters to the Australian people. It was still close to the top of foreign policy priorities identified by Australians in a recent poll by Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy measuring public opinion toward foreign policy issues. Concerns about terrorism ranked only behind protecting the jobs of Australian workers and strengthening the economy. 110 Australian citizens have lost their lives in nine major international terrorist attacks since and including the September 11 attacks. Many more have suffered injury and loss. In addition, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was badly damaged by a terrorist attack in 2004. Australia, too, has not been immune to the development, evident elsewhere in the Western world, of a small number of “home grown” terrorists within the Australian community.


The Evolution of US Counter-Terrorism Policy

The Obama administration in the United States has narrowed and focussed the Bush administration’s comprehensive response to the events of September 11 and the challenge they represented, not only to the United States, but to global order and security. President Obama articulated his administration’s objective as being to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa’eda and other extremist networks around the world”. The US has continued an intelligence-led, precision military approach to the elimination of AQ leadership and known operatives, those of its affiliates and associates, and its safe havens. It has sought to integrate policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan as two aspects of the one problem. It has focussed on matching public messaging with resources. As recently as 6 October 2009 President Obama described AQ as “the principal threat to the American people”, and on 17 August 2009 he described Afghanistan as “a war of necessity”. His administration committed to a return to orthodox legal process and has sought to cast the challenges of terrorism in language that is forthright, but not offend particular constituencies.


On 27 May 2010 President Obama released a new National Security Strategy for the United States. The statement noted that “this is not a global war against a tactic – terrorism, or a religion – Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’eda, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies and partners”. A series of investigations and disrupted or unsuccessful incidents in the US has demonstrated that this is not only a problem external to the United States. The US itself is not immune from home-grown terrorism – even if external links are evident in nearly all the cases discovered so far, a pattern replicated in other Western countries. Preventing attacks on the homeland has been central to US counter-terrorism since September 11, but has been given new urgency by these incidents.


The US-led strategy, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, has changed from one driven by a counter-terrorism imperative, and implemented through essentially conventional warfare and the application of overwhelming and hi-tech force, to a sophisticated counter-insurgency (COIN) model. This approach is focussed principally on population protection and the provision of services, and building Afghan security forces and institutions will undertake the long-term law and order and stability task. An almost separate element, as this policy has evolved, is the precision targeting of key AQ leadership figures and their havens in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. The aim of these twin drivers is to build security as well as create the conditions for economic and political progress to ensure that the local populations will deny AQ renewed safe haven.


Commentators including Bruce Hoffman and Anthony Cordesman have argued that failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give AQ new momentum and greater freedom of action. It would also strengthen the hand of the Pakistan Taliban and the growing extremist alliance and capability in Pakistan. In the end, we are dealing with a globalised extremist movement, and if it is not addressed and neutralised at its source, its credibility as well as operational capability will be sustained and potentially enhanced.


What Progress has been made in Addressing the Terrorist Challenge?

AQ and its affiliates have failed in their transnational aspiration to establish a caliphate. The Muslim masses have not been mobilised by AQ’s narrative. There is increasing awareness that terrorists kill mostly innocent Muslims and are most active in Muslim-majority countries. In 2009 in Pakistan, 87 suicide bombers killed 1300 people, 90 per cent of whom were civilians. This pattern is replicated elsewhere. AQ’s narrative justifying violence and targeting the West and ‘apostate’ Muslim governments has simply failed to resonate with the wider Muslim community.


There has been a steady elimination of AQ’s senior leadership. AQ’s sanctuary in the FATA in Pakistan is being squeezed and the core leadership steadily eliminated. AQ’s senior leadership is effectively no longer in Afghanistan. Only small numbers of lower-level fighters remain. The senior leadership is by necessity preoccupied with survival (and propaganda). Its outlook is bleak, but it is not yet terminal. AQ’s senior leadership is arguably no longer a ‘doer’ but a commentator and propagandiser. Its operational relevance is diminished. This naturally has implications for the brand’s stature, unity and appeal, and its ability to recruit and attract finance. Nevertheless, AQ has proven durable and its capacity to regenerate should not be underestimated.


The presence of AQ in Iraq (AQI) has declined. The occupation of Iraq and a sense of Sunni disenfranchisement had acted as catalysts for the growth of AQI. But AQI’s sectarianism and extreme violence has alienated the people of Iraq. The interests of Iraqi tribes were essentially local and they did not embrace the AQ narrative. The people of Iraq have a strong desire for peace after an extended period of hardship and turmoil. AQI remains a shrunken but still violent force, and there is potential for AQI to rebuild as a focus of sectarian violence if the Iraqi political systems were to fail.


The dismemberment of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and some of its splinter groups in Indonesia has been a significant achievement. Over 450 members or affiliates of JI have been arrested and more than 200 jailed. The international significance of this achievement is that JI had links to AQ and shared AQ’s ideology and aspirations. The attacks in Jakarta on 17 July 2009, however, served as a wake-up call, demonstrating the potency, durability and organisational skill of splinter groups which have survived the pressure which had been placed on JI by Indonesian police. The 17 July attacks were followed by an impressive and effective Indonesian-led response, with the elimination of Noordin Top and, more recently, Dulmatin, following exposure of a major new terrorist training camp in Aceh in February this year. Despite the success, this discovery in Aceh served to remind us of the enduring nature of the extremist fringe in Indonesia.


Elsewhere, governments, including through improved international collaboration, have successfully pre-empted or prevented key plots. Prevention and disruption are often not evident to the general public, but significant successes have been achieved. These include the Trans- Pacific and Trans-Atlantic multiple aircraft liquids/gels plots, the LAX millennium plot, the shoe bomber, and attack planning plots in Australia, the US, the UK and elsewhere. Increasingly smart intelligence and investigation techniques have helped to uncover cells, as have enhanced protective security measures which act as a deterrent. The Abdulmuttulab/Detroit plot on 25 December 2009, however, pointed to gaps in information-sharing and the translation of intelligence into preemptive action. Remedial steps being implemented in many countries

hopefully will ensure our ability to detect and intervene before the commission of terrorist acts continues to improve. However there is a common expression in the CT world, originally ascribed to the IRA, that the terrorist has to succeed only once, whereas we have to do so every time.


Improved counter-terrorism capabilities in many partner countries also have played a significant role in combating terrorism. These capabilities include the development of intelligence, law enforcement, forensics and biometrics, financial tracking, aviation security, protection of critical infrastructure, and accounting for and management of explosives, chemical, biological agents and radioactive materials. 


But all these indicators of progress do not amount to victory or a time to lessen our focus or vigilance: we are dealing with a complex set of issues and it is not possible to declare that any part of this problem has been solved or eliminated. Indeed, we face significant challenges ahead. 


The Challenges Ahead

For all of the progress and enhancements made in counterterrorism capabilities, the international community now faces a more diffuse and diverse terrorist threat. Affiliates, franchises, fellow travellers and self-radicalised individuals are dispersed over a wide geographic area – harder to detect and hence harder to pre-empt. Attacks may increasingly be small-scale, opportunistic, with little preparation, training or lead-times. Failed attacks may be considered successful due to their disruptive effects, demonstration of vulnerability and generation of fear and uncertainty. The spectrum of possible modes and scale of attack has also widened – from extensively planned mass casualty attacks, which are now harder to undertake as they more likely to be detected, to ‘micro-terrorism’ – simple local actions on the part of individuals radicalised, for instance, over the internet. The threat can often be linked to failing or deeply troubled states, to separatist insurgencies and sometimes to state actors – but the new paradigm is that it can also arise internally in developed and democratic societies.


The Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains central to international efforts to combat terrorism. In October 2009 US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said “the Afghan-Pakistan border is the modern epicentre of jihad”. It remains the destination of choice for extremists from elsewhere to link up and to train. The challenges in Pakistan go beyond dealing with AQ, and have been deepened by the natural disasters and political upheavals Pakistan has faced in recent years. The Pashtun Taliban and groups such as Lashkar e Tayyiba now have a life of their own, drawing some public support from their social networks and capacity to provide services where government services are lacking. Pakistan presents a very diverse spectrum of militant organisations. The groups potentially represent a threat to the stability and effectiveness of elected government in Pakistan.


In Indonesia, despite the impressive record of successes, a diffuse and persistent extremist fringe is likely to persist, which is hardly surprising in a large and diverse democracy. The recent discovery and disruption of a major extremist network in Aceh arguably illustrates both Indonesian counter-terrorism success, but also the durability and evolution of the challenge. The Aceh coalition of extremists was surprisingly large, committed, experienced and aimed at developing an AQ affiliate in Indonesia. It was ambitious, experienced and was planning a Mumbaistyle armed assault, including a plan to kill President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Aceh demonstrates that extremist capability may have been reduced but has not been eliminated. The risk of regeneration remains, and key individuals are still at large.


The geographic spread of terrorism is increasing. AQ-related terrorism in Europe has generally been ‘home grown’, mainly amongst immigrant communities. The sharpest domestic security threat in the UK has come from the British Pakistani community. Prosecutions in the UK have shown evidence of links between extremist groups in Pakistan and expatriate communities in the UK. Complex issues of identity, integration, employment and social opportunity are involved, as elsewhere in Europe and the Western world.


Evidence of AQ-related extremist violence is increasing in Africa. AQ in the Magreb (AQIM) is active in the largely ungoverned spaces in North Africa and south into the Sahel. Somalia is increasingly being drawn into the AQ franchise network. There are a growing number of foreign fighters involved and some émigré Somalis have returned to join violent jihad. The attacks in Uganda at the time of the 2010 World Cup, and previous attacks in Kenya, demonstrate the growing reach of Somali or related groups into East Africa. 


Yemen has become a worrying safe haven for terrorists. AQlinked terrorists in AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) pose a particular threat to Saudi Arabia as well as to targets in Yemen itself. Yemen may increasingly be serving as a magnet or hub for extremists elsewhere – including non-Arab ‘cleanskins’ – to congregate, plan and train, in much the same way Afghanistan was used during the 1990s. Lebanon, too, remains a crossroads for extremist activity. Militancy is growing, including in Palestinian refugee camps. 


AQ influences and its extremist narrative have also informed cases of violent extremist activity and attack planning in Australia. Domestic terrorist cases have had international links. AQ is a global brand and it has had a following in Australia.


The extent to which AQ’s attraction will be undermined by setbacks and the loss of experienced leaders will be a key question for analysts and policy makers. How resilient will AQ be, and how potent its message, with its operational capability reduced? What impact would elimination of its “iconic” leadership have? The AQ narrative will outlast the leadership but it may lose much of its revolutionary force and attraction.


The radicalising power of the internet, its widespread availability and utility to terrorists presents a major challenge. The internet will be used by violent jihadists to develop a new generation of ‘self- radicalised’ extremists, dispersed, unaffiliated and largely invisible to intelligence or law enforcement agencies. The internet is a propaganda and recruitment tool, a source of data and knowledge transfer, a fundraiser, a medium of funds transfer, and is used for operational planning. The technology is accessible, low cost, immediate, portable, unregulated, and global. Opportunities for social networking via You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter provide additional opportunities for terrorism-related communications. Difficulties arise for governments, particularly in liberal societies, in disrupting or manipulating the messages sent via the internet, particularly given the rate of proliferation of jihadist websites which number in the thousands.


September 11 represented a paradigm shift in terrorism. It was transnational, franchised, aimed at causing mass casualties and was empowered by information technology. What methods can we expect in the future? Mass casualty-styled attacks or ‘loners’, structured armed assaults (fedayeen attacks), suicide bombers, or improvised explosive devices? The use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials (CBRN) in a terrorist attack, while less likely, would have the biggest impact in terms of casualties. Other methods, which are low cost but have high impact, are growing in sophistication. Cheap off-the-shelf technology can be used as an enabler. For example, in the Mumbai attacks, we saw the use of relatively cheap and commercially available technologies such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), Google Earth, Voice Over Internet Protocol, Twitter, mobile phones, commercially-available encryption, remote control units, and digital watches as triggers. Aviation (and mass transport) will remain attractive targets, and physical attacks rather than cyber, for instance, may be preferred because they inflict casualties, cause physical damage and get media attention. Devices concealed in body cavities, used in at least two attacks or attempts in the last two years, represent a new challenge to detection.


There is increasing evidence of violent extremist ideas being spread in prisons by persons convicted of terrorism offences. Patchy efforts at de-radicalisation or disengagement programmes have so far produced mixed results. Another dilemma for governments is how to manage the interaction of the prisoners. Should persons convicted of terrorism be separated or allowed to mix with persons convicted of other offences, thus enhancing the opportunity for them to radicalise other prisoners? Or should they be detained together, and separated from the rest of the prison population? Both approaches have risks and benefits. Even more challenging, many detained or convicted terrorists are now completing terms in detention and re-entering mainstream civilian life. 


Issues surrounding the financing of terrorism are likely to impact on both terrorist organisations and on governments. Although terrorist attacks are relatively cheap to carry out, groups still need money for travel, training and the acquisition of material. Terrorist organisations have historically sought funding from followers to support the families of martyrs. Informal channels of money transfer, for example hawala, and cash couriers are difficult for law enforcement officials to stop. Porous borders, expatriate labour, connections to other criminal activity and to smuggling present major law enforcement challenges.


The continuing impact of the global economic crisis on government budgets, combined with other expensive commitments and competing interests, may cause governments to lose interest or scale back their involvement, particularly if AQ were to be largely neutralised. Public opinion is already negative about extended military involvements, and the absence of attacks within countries could lead to – or demand – some reordering of priorities. In many countries, including Australia, pressure is

on police and intelligence agencies to shave budgets and personnel, and for police to restore focus on other forms of crime.


The Effectiveness of Government Policies

Efforts by governments to combat terrorism have been greatly assisted by enhanced intelligence capabilities, the use of new and innovative technologies, effective criminal investigations, the strengthening of long-term law enforcement relationships, and physical security measures. Counter-terrorism is an intelligence-led discipline, but its reach remains limited, by legal limitations, by technology and geography, and by the scarcity of human intelligence. Since September 11, intelligence capabilities have been greatly enhanced in size and reach. This has significantly enhanced pre-emption and prevention. Surveillance technologies, including the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has had a significant effect on the AQ core and on other high value targets, including in Yemen and Somalia. The use of other new technologies, including fusing information derived from biometrics, forensics, mobile phone tracking, and information from computer hard drives with more conventional human intelligence are potential multipliers.


Effective criminal investigation, prosecution and conviction in Indonesia, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere have been important in building public understanding and support for robust government action. Building long-term law enforcement relationships, within and between countries has contributed to the success in prosecutions, including through undermining silos and mistrust. The Joint Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) in Indonesia has proven to be a good model for building relationships and capabilities. The works of the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT) in Kuala Lumpur, and the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok (ILEA), have also built regional networks and skills. Physical security measures and measures to protect critical infrastructure and the integrity of identity have undoubtedly also reduced points of vulnerability, strengthened law enforcement, and acted as a deterrent.


While counter-terrorism capabilities have significantly improved, government efforts to establish effective counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation programmes have perhaps been less successful. Counterradicalisation is a developing discipline of as yet uncertain impact. The attenuation of contributing social conditions in vulnerable communities, including marginalisation, alienation, poverty, unemployment, lack of access to modern education – has a long way to go. Deprivation cannot justify terrorism, but it fosters grievance and recruitment and can play to the AQ narrative. Counter-terrorism policies need to blend tough law enforcement or military action with other instruments of state power such as development assistance, and law enforcement, access to justice and social support mechanisms.


Australian assistance to international counter-radicalisation efforts has focussed on assisting community groups in building community resilience, conflict resolution, and promoting inter-faith dialogue. Our approach is to work with credible local leaders to support them in finding local solutions to local problems. Programmes of school-building and basic education have a secondary counter-radicalisation dimension, offering skills which enhance employment opportunities and connections with the community. Prison reform or prisoner rehabilitation is potentially an area where significant gains might be made. Like education, its impact would extend beyond counter-radicalisation and represent progress more broadly in development and governance.


De-radicalisation, or disengagement programmes for convicted terrorists, is an uncertain science, but a developing one. Recidivism is evident, but government efforts may assist in limiting spread of extremism through detention, and re-integration after release. Frustration and exhaustion with violence in communities affected by terrorist activity may be encouraging local leaders more robustly to challenge the terrorist narrative. Importantly, terrorism must be dealt with as a potent form of criminality, and not dignified by religious or political purpose.


Nine years after 9/11, and eight years after the first Bali bombing, significant gains have been made against the challenge from the new and potent forms of terrorism these attacks represented. But we are a long way from fully understanding the pathways to radicalisation and extremism, and research so far shows that these can indeed be diverse and highly individualised. Our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities and international collaboration, too, have contributed to counter-terrorism successes. But the challenges ahead suggest that transnational terrorism will remain a first order security issue for governments for a least a generation.

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