January 21st 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: B.A. Santamaria: the making of a political warrior

EDITORIAL: Unbalanced economy: the problems ahead

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The Coalition - a rocky road ahead for 2006

NATIONAL SECURITY: How Australia should fight terrorism

POLITICAL ISSUES: Muddled thinking in green politics and ecology

MEDICAL SCIENCE: D-I-Y abortion drug RU-486 endangers women's lives

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Western elites lack moral courage

The struggle against forgetting (letter)

Living standards and the labour market (letter)

A slogan for RU-486? (letter)

CINEMA: Paradise Now - Portrait of deranged killer as hero

CINEMA: C.S. Lewis tale brilliantly translated to big screen

BOOKS: JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker

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How Australia should fight terrorism

by Aldo Borgu

News Weekly, January 21, 2006
Australian defence and counter-terrorism expert, Aldo Borgu, discusses whether the West's War on Terror has evolved into a Cold War-style ideological struggle.

In the space of one recent week, it was easy to get the impression that we're currently under siege by terrorism from all over the world. In early November, we were faced with Australia's new counter-terror laws, the police raids in Sydney and Melbourne, suicide bombings in Jordan and the death of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) bomb-maker Azahari bin Husin. Is this perception of a terrorist siege, however, matched by reality?

Terrorist capability

Global counter-terrorism actions since the 9/11 attacks have certainly dented the capability of various terrorist groups, not least al-Qaeda proper. But these same actions have probably also inspired these groups - as well as new groups and individuals - to attack the United States and its allies. While the experience and quality of jihadists can be assumed to have decreased during this period, their overall numbers have probably increased.

Recent analysis by Israel and the US suggests that the war and insurgency in Iraq have radicalised many Muslims, spawning a new generation of terrorists and insurgents.

If unchecked, this could lead to an even greater terrorist threat in the next five to 10 years. This underscores the importance of preventing the rise of a second generation of terrorists even as we fight the current generation.

Iraq didn't create the terrorist threat, but it certainly seems to have increased it. It is simply inconsistent to maintain that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror yet at the same time has no effect on the threat of terrorism.

But, curiously, Iraq doesn't seem to have had much of an effect on regional terrorism, which is motivated by more local concerns. And, significantly, over the past few years, the terrorist threat overall has become more regional and local and less connected.

But, despite this commonly accepted fact, some commentators still characterise the threat as more of a formal global movement and phenomenon. Even before the attacks of 9/11, but more so now, al-Qaeda and like-minded groups can best be described as having the motivation and intent to wage a sustained global campaign against the US and its allies, but somewhat lacking the actual capabilities to do so.

Despite al-Qaeda's efforts around the time of 9/11 in training thousands of insurgents and terrorists through its training camps, the example of 9/11 is likely to have attracted to al-Qaeda's cause the many like-minded Islamist groups, such as JI, which were not necessarily prepared to wage a global jihad against the West.

In this sense, 9/11 can possibly be seen as an attempt to jump-start an Islamist revolution. In all probability, we are still witnessing the development of these various groups, as they are still in their training, mobilisation, radicalisation and recruitment phase.

Al-Qaeda, and like-minded groups such as JI, don't seem to have the resources to wage a global campaign. Rather, they use terrorism and its broad psychological effects as a means to create the wider perception of such a campaign.

To mount a proper global campaign would require a far greater degree of centralised planning, direction and coordination than seems evident at present. A perceived common commitment to a broad ideology isn't enough to make a global movement.

So we might yet witness a re-centralisation effort by al-Qaeda and its successors in the future in pursuit of their stated goals.

The campaign is also becoming more factionalised, with rifts over whether the jihad should be local or global, and over whether the targets of attacks should be governments, civilians or foreigners.

Tactics are also changing. Some attacks are becoming smaller scale, the recent JI use of backpack-type bombs being one example.

But smaller-scale attacks can also mean more frequent attacks on more specific targets with less chance of collateral damage. Further moves towards smaller scale tactics could see groups like JI making greater use of focused and targeted bombings, assassinations, shootings, armed attacks and kidnapping.

In the longer term, terrorist groups might also begin to develop their political strategies rather than rely on just terrorism.

Threats to Australia

Australia faces a terrorist threat on three levels:

First, there is the global threat from al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. Ten Australians died in the 9/11 attacks on the US. One died in a bombing in Turkey in 2003, one in Saudi Arabia in 2004, and one in the London bombings of July this year.

Second, we face a threat from jihadist groups in our immediate region, particularly Indonesia but also the Philippines. Eighty-eight Australians died in the 2002 Bali bombings; another four were killed in the 2005 attacks; and our embassy in Jakarta was directly targeted in 2004.

Third, we face a threat from so-called home-grown terrorism, the perception of which increased after the July London bombings and was brought home to the public by the recent raids and arrests of suspected terrorists in Sydney and Melbourne.

Immediate threat

Based on public information at hand, and despite the views of some commentators, the most immediate and serious terrorist threat we face is from terrorism in our region, not at home. That also seems to be a view held by the Prime Minister who has stated on a number of occasions that the terrorist threat is "much greater" in Indonesia than it is in Australia and that an attack against Australians is less likely in Australia than it is in Indonesia.

JI and like-minded groups and individuals are still a force with which to be reckoned after the death of Azhari some weeks ago. There are a number of key JI leaders at large that are equally or even more capable than Azhari.

It's also likely that Azhari trained a number of people to succeed him. The presence of some 30-odd bombs in the hideout where he was killed would point to their aim to intensify their bombing campaign as opposed to JI's past campaign of only one major bombing per year.

Given Azhari's death, the new generation of leaders will be keen to demonstrate their relevance. They could also return to past tactics. A wave of smaller bombings against Christian churches at Christmas would see JI's return to the operations that heralded their arrival as a terrorist group and which are aimed at encouraging sectarian and communal violence to regenerate their ranks.

But the threat isn't just factionalised, it is also diversified. Just as the post-9/11 counter-terrorist efforts have largely shaped al-Qaeda's evolution and the diversification of the global terrorist threat, it is just as likely that regional counter-terrorist efforts following a number of JI plots and operations have directly affected JI's organisation and structure today.

What we're dealing with now may well be a network of ad hoc and loose alliances involving elements of JI and other like-minded groups and individuals that can be brought together for particular operations and disbanded immediately after.

Given that our intelligence agencies originally failed to observe the development of JI as a terrorist group with the intent and capability to threaten Australian interests, we now need to ensure that we don't become so JI-centric in our analysis that we fail once again to identify other emerging organisations that might threaten us.

The July 2005 London bombings point to the possible likelihood of continual acts of terrorism, even if mainstream groups such as al-Qaeda (or JI) are unable to undertake their own centrally-directed attacks. Groups of like-minded individuals and amateurs who can independently undertake their own operations are just as deadly as groups of professional and organised terrorists.

That being said, any attack on Australia soil, no matter how destructive, would have a far greater psychological effect on Australians than any type of attack overseas, particularly if carried out by Australian citizens.

Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. The psychological effect of attacks is usually out of proportion to the actual physical damage caused.

When discussing the terrorist threat to Australian interests, the Commonwealth Government repeats an often-quoted statement that there has been at least one aborted, disrupted or actual terrorist attack against Australian interests every year since 2000.

In 2004 - the year that witnessed the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta - the US's National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) estimated that Iraq was subject to 866 terrorist incidents; India suffered 358; and Russia, 162. That in itself should place the threat Australia faces in some perspective. The threat is real, but it doesn't quite match the media's sensationalism or the Government's rhetoric.

If one examines what terrorists, or would-be terrorists, are trying to achieve - namely, fear, shock, distrust, suspicion and alienation - then arguably they didn't need to even construct or let off a bomb in Sydney or Melbourne. Instead, they managed to achieve all of that by presumably just talking about it. And we - government, media and commentators alike - helped them achieve those psychological effects.

The US national strategy on combating terrorism says that we'll achieve victory when terrorism no longer defines our daily lives. But, given how most people have publicly reacted to the home-grown threat, it's likely that the above definition of victory will be a long time coming, no matter what the reality of the terrorist threat actually is.

Counter-terrorism laws

Most of the attention on the new domestic counter-terrorism laws has focused on civil liberty issues and has been argued from a legal perspective. Not much has been said about whether the laws are proportionate to the threat of terrorism and how effective they will be in combating the threat.

Preventative detention for 14 days has been used by a number of European countries to combat terrorism, and makes some sense. However, the disclosure laws on such detention, control orders and sedition offences make less sense, particularly as a means of combating radical Islamism.

It's difficult to find an essay, article or official policy dealing with contemporary counter-terrorism without finding some reference to, or emphasis on, the need to fight a battle, or even war, of ideas.

We are told that this is a political or ideological struggle, akin to that fought against Nazism in World War II or communism during the Cold War.

We're also told that, while military, police and intelligence action may deal with the immediate threat of terrorism, waging the war of ideas is necessary to prevent future generations of terrorists replacing those killed, captured or turned.

There also seems to be a growing sense of recognition that, while the first four years of the so-called "global war on terror" has emphasised military action, the next phase needs to be more political and ideological in nature.

Campaign against terrorism

The Australian Government has continually made its case that the campaign against terrorism isn't a war on Islam.

Reading the Government's White Paper on terrorism, it's easy to come to conclude that we're not overly worried about the development of political Islam or its future prospects. Rather, it's the use of violence by jihadists about which we seem to be more concerned.

In 2003, Prime Minister John Howard went so far as to state that we are engaged in a struggle against the "ideology of terrorism", which would suggest even as insofar that we accept this is a fight of ideas, it is the idea related to the tactic that concerns us.

In fact, the vast bulk of the funding provided since 9/11 to combat terrorism has been focused on preventing and combating terrorism, rather than the ideology of radical Islam.

However, the Australian Government might even now be moving more towards adopting the American position. In a recent speech, Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill stated that it was useful to put the terrorist threat squarely in the broader context of Islamic extremism and the desire of extreme groups to establish an Islamic caliphate. Increasingly, calls are heard within government of the need to wage a "battle of ideas".

In June 2005, during Pakistan President Musharraf's visit to Australia, Prime Minister Howard said:

"I think the fight against terrorism involves not only winning the military side of it, which is very important, but it also involves winning the battle of ideas. It involves addressing the sources of denial and under-privilege that are exploited by the terrorists."

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in a speech in 2003, stated that "just as we cooperate in efforts to combat the terrorists, Muslims and non-Muslims must work together to find ways to combat the terrorists' ideas".

In 2004, Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock said that the "war against terrorism is just as much about ideas and ideologies, as it is about weaponry and military strategies". He added that that "victory will ultimately depend upon winning the hearts and minds of all those who are susceptible to terrorist propaganda".

Nevertheless, despite the importance being placed on the "war of ideas", there are limits to our ability to effectively wage it.

We don't necessarily have an attractive ideological alternative to offer Muslims who might be tempted to follow radical interpretations of Islam - nor, for that matter, do moderate Muslims.

And as the 9/11 Commission concluded, our own promotion of these messages is limited in its effectiveness simply because we are its carriers.

War of ideas

That being said, a war of ideas, no matter how difficult, must still be waged, if only to deny future recruits to the terrorist cause.

But one doesn't effectively combat an ideology by banning it, jailing or fining its proponents, or deporting its spokesmen.

If the Government is so convinced that this is an ideological struggle akin to the Cold War, then perhaps they should pay more attention to the strategies the West utilised in prevailing in that "war".

  • Aldo Borgu is a terrorism analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). He has written widely on terrorism and counter-terrorism issues and is co-author of the recently released report, Local Jihad: Radical Islam and Terrorism in Indonesia. The views expressed here are his own.

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