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Current Trends In International Terrorism: An Australian Perspective

Carl Ungerer


When young analysts join an intelligence agency, the first thing they are taught is that strategic threat assessments are based on a simple calculation: capability plus intent equals threat. That formula may have been fine when calculating the state-based conventional military threats of the Cold War. However, such calculations are increasingly unsuitable to the nature of the contemporary threats from transnational, religiously based terrorism and violent insurgencies.


As Peter Clarke of the British Metropolitan Police has noted, ‘the current terrorist threat is of such a scale and intractability that we must not only defeat the men…who plot and carry out appalling acts of violence. We must find a way of defeating the ideas that drive them. The corrosive ideologies that justify them must be defeated’ (Clark 2007). Intent may not be known before the actual event. And, as the events of September 2001 in the United States showed, capability can be as rudimentary as a box knife.


It is clear that the threat we face from violent religious extremism is different from previous ideological challenges to liberal democracy. As an ideological movement, violent Islamism is decentralised and amorphous. Unlike Stalinism, Fascism or Maoism it does not require a Moscow, Berlin or Beijing as its organisational or ideological focus. The ‘Solid Base’ (Al-Qaeda) is everywhere and its attempt to promote a revitalised caliphate through a global network of mosques, sympathetic non-governmental organisations, failed states, universities and internet sites, is facilitated by the processes of globalisation. Moreover, its strategists exploit the technology and infrastructure of global connectivity. Networks operating informally from Western capitals and in a manner loosely connected to Al-Qaeda and capable of independent and devastating effect have proved notably difficult to identify and disrupt (Bergin, Jones & Ungerer, 2007: 2).


In light of this, I would like advance five propositions concerning the current nature of the terrorist threat, namely:

  • Home-grown radicalisation is now the primary source of the terrorist threat to many countries, including Australia.

  • As a tactic, terrorism is not only ‘accessible to any group or individual with a grievance’, as Bruce Hoffman once observed, it is becoming a preferred form of criminal violence.

  • As a result, the geography of international terrorism is changing, although the Middle East and Southwest Asia will remain central to global terrorism.

  • The use of unconventional weapons, including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons will remain a distant but serious goal for terrorists.

  • Finally, counter-terrorism efforts are improving, but will need greater flexibility in order to prevent further terrorist attacks on home soil.

Let me briefly expand on each of these propositions.


Radicalisation at Home

From our recent research work on radicalisation, it is clear that security and law enforcement agencies around the world face a common problem – violent extremism driven by religious motives that seeks to influence the minds of young second generation Muslims living in the West. Fuelled by the writings of radicals such as the Egyptian Sayid Qutb and Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, radical Islamism seeks to engineer an apocalyptic confrontation with both the West and apostate governments.


In strategic terms, Islamism operates very differently from previous ideological threats to liberal democracy such as Communism or Fascism. Islamism’s supranational ideal and protean character means that it can organise, plan and recruit much more effectively in cosmopolitan cities such London, Paris or Sydney than from its more traditional homelands in the Middle East, South Asia or Southeast Asia.


As a matter of strategic preference, the committed terrorist prefers tactics translated from a transnational to a national battlefield as a means of subverting open democracies. Indeed, it is the inherent openness of modern societies that invites recourse to mass casualty attacks on soft civilian targets such as airlines and hotels. The threat is particularly acute in the UK, but similar processes of radicalisation are evident in The Netherlands, France, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, in Australia.


The processes of radicalisation, incitement and propaganda leading to violence have been a tactic employed by terrorist groups for well over two decades. In fact, Hezbollah established combat camera crews in the early 1990s to film attacks on Israeli military positions in Southern Lebanon. Similar tactics are used in Iraq and Afghanistan today. This footage is then used in television and internet videos as part of a wider propaganda effort.


In terms of radicalising young men in the West, however, it was the presence of charismatic ‘preachers of hate’ such as Omar Bakri in London and Abdul Benbrika in Australia that has been the key factor in turning some young men towards violence. As the former Hizb ut-Tahrir organiser in the UK Ed Husain (2007) explained in his book, The Islamist, groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir were able to manipulate the institutional machinery of local government, mosques, and universities to construct the violent and organised character of what they called the ‘British Jihadi Network’.


As a result, the British police have uncovered a bewildering array of plots since the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London including the Dhiren Barot plot to plant a radiological or ‘dirty’ bomb in London, the August 2006 ‘airlines plot’ and the botched plan to bomb London and the Glasgow airport. In July 2007, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued a statement on security in which he said that ‘the police and security agencies currently have to contend with around 30 known plots, monitor over 200 groupings or networks and around 2,000 individuals’. In a more recent speech, the head of the British secret intelligence service, Sir John Sawer (2010), outlined the shifting nature of the global terrorist threat,


Precisely because we are having some success in closing down the space for terrorist recruitment and planning in the UK, the extremists are increasingly preparing their attacks against British targets from abroad. It's not just the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa pose real threats to the UK. From his remote base in Yemen, Al-Qaeda leader and US national Anwar al-Awlaki broadcast propaganda and terrorist instruction in fluent English over the internet.

The overall assessment of the British intelligence agencies that the terrorist threat is intensifying, and that Al-Qaeda remains intent on using violent means to attack the west and to disrupt the global economy.


Although there are significant differences across jurisdictions, the threat in Australia remains real. A 2006 study conducted for the Australian Immigration Department found that up to 3,000 individuals in Western Sydney were potentially ‘at risk’ in terms of susceptibility to radical ideas and extremism. Currently, in Australia, around 30 individuals have either faced court or are awaiting trial on terrorism-related offences. And media reports suggest a further 80 individuals remain as ‘persons of interest’ to the intelligence and security agencies. It is increasingly clear the problem we face is a war of perception and propaganda.


Another study conducted by Monash University for the Victorian Police in 2007 found that young men from community groups – particularly from South Asia and the Middle East – believed that the national counter-terrorism laws were specifically aimed at them and that the police had a ‘right to shoot’ any Muslim. Countering these misperceptions and the processes of radicalisation will require a much stronger commitment from both the government and the community to denounce violent extremism and to expose the real purpose of Al-Qaeda’s ‘corrosive ideology’.


The recent debate between scholars Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman is interesting in this context (Sciolino 2008). Depending on which side you believe, the assessment that the principal terrorist threat we face remains Al-Qaeda, central in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan or just “bunches of guys” operating autonomously and independently of Al-Qaeda, has important implications for counterterrorism strategy and operations. In my view, the correct judgement is that both Hoffman and Sageman are right – Al-Qaeda clearly retains a degree of organisational coherence and can continue to operate in places such as Afghanistan and the horn of Africa. But the self-radicalised, informal networks which feed off Al-Qaeda ideology are increasingly of greater concern, particularly in the West.


The Australian government has only recently initiated a major, cross-jurisdictional programme to counter violent extremism in the community. Under the Attorney-General’s portfolio, the government will provide nearly $10 million in funding for projects that seek to lessen the appeal of extremist narratives and to offer alternative pathways for young individuals who might otherwise be at risk from Al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Measuring the success of such programmes is difficult. However, the government has acknowledged that the problem is one of competing ideological interpretations, and that young, vulnerable people in society need to understand that Al-Qaeda’s message of violence and destruction is not only wrong, it is ultimately futile.


Terrorism as Preferred Method of Violence

The second proposition here is that as terrorism becomes more diffuse, the tactic of terrorist violence can be employed by a growing number of criminal groups and individuals. As ASPI has documented in previous publications, there is an increasing intersection between terrorism and criminal activity around the world. Some terrorist groups want profits, and some criminal gangs seek to exploit public fear for ideological reasons.


Increasingly, as counter-terrorism policing constrains the activities of these networks, groups are turning towards criminal activities. For example, the extremists who carried out the Madrid train bombings in 2004 funded the operation through the sale of drugs. Economic motives are clearly a high priority for the piracy gangs operating with increasing sophistication off the horn of Africa. And a recent case of the stolen rocket launchers in Sydney, which linked a local crime group with former members of the Australian Defence Forces, highlights the potential seriousness of this linkage for security agencies. More recently, individuals associated with terrorist training camps in Aceh, Indonesia, stole more than $40,000 from a bank in Sumatra. Given that previous terrorist attacks in Indonesia have cost less than $20,000 to orchestrate, the consequences of these criminal activities are potentially grave.


The terrorist groups that have thrived in the past twenty years are those who have managed to cross the economic divide between hand-tomouth existence and long-term economic planning. And there is now a much higher degree of criminal sophistication in money laundering, largescale fraud and racketeering in association with terrorist groupings. All of which is facilitated by globalisation of credit and ease of internet banking. As a result, the dividing line between an act of terrorism and an act of criminal violence in support of a particular grievance or agenda has become less distinct.


Of particular concern in this regard, are the recent statements and actions of radical animal rights groups such as the North American Animal Liberation Press Office (NAALPO) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Both of these groups have openly declared that they will use ‘any means necessary’ to stop what they consider to be the ongoing torture of animals in farming. In March 2005, the Australian government publicly named PETA as a potential terrorist organisation.


In light of the economic damage caused by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK and the recent case of equine influenza in Australia, the prospect of a terrorist attack on the agricultural sector by these groups remains a possibility. However, other than some economic modelling done by the Productivity Commission, limited attention has been given to the potential threat from agro-terrorism in Australia. Given that the Australian agriculture sector is one of the most viable in the world, contributing around 4 per cent of GDP, a more prudential approach to understanding and mitigating the potential threat should be a higher priority for the government (Ungerer 2008).


Changing Geography

The third proposition is that the geography of terrorism is changing. In his book, Ed Husain (2007) notes that Islamist groups in the UK first exploited the perceived Western indifference to the plight of Bosnian Muslims to radicalise young British recruits. Once recruited, these individuals then started attending training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan to serve in the jihad in Bosnia.


The training of tens of thousands of mujahideen throughout the 1990s was instrumental in transferring Islamist political thinking back to metropolitan centres such as London, Paris and The Hague. The removal of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the alliance between Pakistan and the US had diminished many of the opportunities for jihadist training in West Asia. But, as the recent attacks in Mumbai and Lahore demonstrated, the infrastructure of terrorism throughout this region continued to provide the ideological and the physical training necessary for the continuing spread of extremist violence.


Indeed, geography may not be as important as it was 10 years ago. Global communications networks provided by the internet are now as important, if not more important, than physical training facilities. As Bruce Hoffman (2006) has noted, the ‘physical sanctuary provided by Afghanistan in the 1990s has been replaced by the virtual sanctuary of the internet’. The internet serves two useful purposes for terrorist groups. It provides a global outlet for propaganda activities and, increasingly, it serves as a tool for the radicalisation of individuals.


In order to facilitate the global Islamist insurgency and its appeal, its strategists have exploited the technology and infrastructure of global connectivity. According to one study, there are now over 4,800 activity terrorist websites worldwide, from jihadist groups in the Middle East to white supremacist groups in the US. Our recent study of internet radicalisation in Southeast Asia found that the terrorist presence on the internet was evolving rapidly from the computer hacking and bombmaking manuals of a few years ago towards sophisticated socialnetworking sites in which potential recruits were identified, groomed and radicalised.


One case study concerned a young law graduate in Singapore who attempted to join the Taliban in Afghanistan after viewing hours of material online. A more recent study on the posting and distribution of YouTube videos showed the potential radicalising influence of Web 2.0 applications that integrated information with social networking. In one example, a young male who identified himself as an Irish rugby fan posted a comment citing his wish to convert to Islam after watching a martyrdom video. Within weeks he was being targeted by other users, with radical links, whose aim, at a minimum, was religious conversion. Most analysts acknowledge that governments have so far failed to respond effectively to the new ‘virtual’ battleground of the internet.


In Australia, we are having a debate about internet censorship and the government has proposed the use of filters to ban certain materials. But the ease of access to violent extremist material around the world and the lack of uniform legislative controls mean that tackling the problem is difficult, if not impossible.


If terrorism can be characterised as ‘propaganda by deed’, then the increasing sophistication and speed of transmission provided by the internet is likely to continue to fuel global terrorism – possibly in countries or regions that were previously believed to be immune from such messages as the internet becomes more available to more users. The proliferation of ‘grey zones’ or an area of statelessness is another factor in providing opportunities for terrorist activity. In addition, the ongoing problem of the tribal areas in Pakistan and the resurgence of the Taliban in southern areas of Afghanistan, regions of endemic conflict such as southern Somalia and Yemen provide fertile ground for terrorist logistics, training and operations.


Such zones exist when states lack the capacity to exert real jurisdictional control in terms of competent law enforcement. Between the Balkans and Bangladesh there are large populations dissatisfied with their systems of government and inclined towards violent opposition. And Australia’s geostrategic isolation is becoming a less effective barrier to the sorts of transnational security threats facing other parts of the globe.



The fourth proposition concerns the potential terrorist use of unconventional weapons including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. Much media analysis has focused on this potential doomsday scenario. And, as the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once famously said, “We don’t want the next smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” But there is a great deal of misdiagnosis of the threat from CBRN terrorism.


Given the demonstrated capacity of sub-state actors to employ non-conventional tactics, such as the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo’s use of chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s or the anthrax letters used against political and media targets in the US in 2001, it would seem imprudent to discount the possibility of this kind of terrorism increasing in the future. However, the technical difficulties of acquiring, weaponising and disseminating these weapons remain the same problems that ultimately led the major powers to walk away from offensive military programmes in the 1950s and 1960s.


It is true that the information revolution has increased public knowledge about these types of weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency has noted that more than 40 terrorist organisations are actively seeking a CBRN capability. But, as yet, no terrorist group has mastered the complex technical difficulties to achieve a CBRN capability that would match the lethality of previous conventional plots.


That said, there is clear evidence that the Al-Qaeda network remains determined to achieve a CBRN capability. And even a low-grade chemical or biological attack using a simple method of dispersion can have a disproportional psychological impact. So for intelligence agencies around the world, the net assessment on CBRN remains ‘maybe’.


The combination of increasing lethality in terrorist attacks motivated by religious extremists such as Al-Qaeda, who view the world in apocalyptic, Manichean terms, combined with the relative ease of acquiring low-grade chemical or biological agents, suggests that this threat will remain at the forefront of intelligence and security considerations for many years ahead.


Counter-Terrorism Efforts Improving

The final proposition concerns the role of counter-terrorism strategy and operations in disrupting and defeating terrorism. Across the broad foreign and security policy community in Australia, terrorism was not considered a strategic threat before 9/11. The publication of first ever Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, In the National Interest, in 1997, correctly identified a number of potential non-military threats to Australia’s security interests. However, terrorism was not listed as one of them. Likewise, the 2000 Australian Defence White Paper made no mention of a terrorist threat emanating from either the Middle East or the Southeast Asian regions that would require the deployment of the Australian Defence Forces.


In hindsight, such a fundamental misdiagnosis of the emerging and future threats to Australian security interests appears both negligent and incompetent. However, Australia was not alone in misreading the emerging organisational and operational capabilities of the Al-Qaeda network and its regional affiliates. As the ‘9/11 Commission’ in the United States has stated, ‘the modest national effort exerted to contain Serbia and its depredations in the Balkans between 1995 and 1999…was orders of magnitude larger than that devoted to Al Qaeda” (9/11 Commission Report 2004: 340).


Notwithstanding its significant failings prior to 9/11 and the subsequent Bali bombings, the Australian government is investing heavily in the intelligence community as a key tool for combating this new transnational threat. Over A$10 billion in new funding has been provided to the national security agencies since 2001, with the intelligence agencies receiving the bulk of both this new money. The legislation governing terrorism has also been significantly amended.


In March 2006, ‘Jihad’ Jack Thomas was initially sentenced to five years in prison for receiving funds from a terrorist organisation, before being released on appeal, whilst in June 2006, Faheem Khalid Lodhi was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for preparing to commit a terrorist act in Sydney. More recently in Melbourne, 6 men associated with Abdul Benbrika were sentenced to up to 12 years jail for planning an attack on sporting and transport venues. An associated trial in Sydney is ongoing.


As this new security threat has evolved, it requires a police and intelligence response that is simultaneously global and local. This fact, as Peter Clarke observes, renders modern counter-terrorism efforts increasingly political. Religious extremism and violence conducted in major metropolitan centres, inevitably politicises the conventional policing of law and order in a democratic society. Such politicisation becomes more problematic when the use of violence and subversion serves an ideology that feeds off global and local perceptions of ethnic and religious grievance, the alienation of minorities and the escalation of identity politics.



We no longer talk about a ‘war on terrorism’. It was never a ‘war’ in the traditional sense anyway. But the international security environment will be dealing with terrorism and counter-terrorism issues as a first order priority for a generation or more. As the RAND analyst Brian Jenkins argues the ‘war on terrorism’ is a more like a ‘banner of many missions’. Those missions include the kinetic aspects of military force required to combat armed terrorist groups, but they also include the social and economic policies to lessen the appeal of ‘Al-Qaedaism’ around the world. Increasingly, counter-terrorism efforts will need to be focused more on the ideological aspects of this conflict as the internet becomes a more ubiquitous tool of radicalisation and propaganda.


A recent RAND study of how 268 terrorist groups ended between 1968 and 2006, found that in over 80 per cent of cases, it was policing and co-option into political processes that brought most terrorist groups to an end. The ultimate goal of counter-terrorism policing and intelligence, therefore, must be to reduce the risk of further terrorist attacks and to drain the ideological swamp from where notions that violence in support of religious or political goals is an acceptable and worthwhile course of action.



Bergin, Anthony, David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer. (2007,September). Beyond belief: Islamism, Radicalization and theCounter-Terrorism Response. ASPI Strategic Insight 37.

Clarke, Peter. (2007, April 25). Learning From Experience: Counter-Terrorism in the UK Since 9/11. Colin Cramphorn memorial lecture.

Hoffman, Bruce. (2006, May 4). The Use of the Internet by Islamic Extremists. Testimony to the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Husain, Ed. (2007). The Islamist. London: Penguin, 2007.

Sawer, John, (2010, October 28). Britain’s Secret Frontline. Speech to the Society of Editors. London.

Sciolino, Elaine. (2008, June 8). A Not Very Private Feud Over Terrorism. New York Times.

9/11 Commission Report. (2004).

Ungerer, Carl. (2008, August 19). An All-Hazards Approach to National Security: Preparing for and Responding to Threats to Australian Agriculture. ASPI Policy Analysis.

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