The Current National Security Environment – the International Perspective

‘National Security for a Diverse Community’ Forum


Speaker: Mike Smith, Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism


2 August 2007

Four weeks ago, here in Canberra, the Prime Minister delivered an important speech on national security. He explained that currently Australia faces a complex and challenging strategic environment but one that we can nonetheless address with confidence as a result of the sound policies that the country has in place. He went on to identify different components of that security environment – mentioning amongst other things, changing power relativities in the world, the enormous stake we have in the maintenance of stability in North East Asia; the leadership role of the United States; and the impact of developments in the Middle East, including our involvement in the coalitions working to build a stable democratic Iraq and to support the democratically elected government in Afghanistan against challenges from the Taliban. He also spoke of other developments, closer to home, such as our involvement in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands and in East Timor, that impact on our national security.

In his speech the Prime Minister touched on the problem of terrorism, noting that nation states will continue to be challenged by terrorist organisations and other non-state entities. He underlined that most conflicts today, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, now involve non-state groups which are becoming more and more adept at using ‘asymmetric’ methods of attack. He noted that these groups exploit the openness of our societies, our technologies and our values to attack us where we are most vulnerable. An unfortunate by-product of globalisation was that it can facilitate terrorism and other forms of trans-national crime as well as the proliferation of the technology and materials necessary to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

These comments by the Prime Minister are I think a useful lead-in to my presentation this morning. He was painting a broad canvas but I want to focus more specifically on the challenge of terrorism, particularly the international aspects of this. I want to explain what the threat is and how it is evolving. I also want to look at the strategies we, collectively as an international community, regionally as members of various Asia Pacific associations and bilaterally with neighbouring countries, are adopting to respond to this. I hope that this will be a useful backdrop to the discussions you will all be conducting over the next day and a half as you review and dissect the topic ‘national security for a diverse community’.

So what is the nature of the current terrorist threat? Well it's worth remembering that historically terrorism – violence by non-state actors aimed at civilians to achieve a political end – is neither particularly new nor particularly attached to Muslim causes.

Over the last century the world has seen examples of terrorism in just about every decade. European anarchists, Jewish nationalists, Palestinian nationalists, German and Italian leftists, Irish republicans, Tamil separatists, and ultra-right nationalists just to mention a few, have carried out assassinations, kidnappings, bombings of hotels and cafes and hijackings of aircraft. These sorts of groups and this type of what is sometimes called ‘single issue’ terrorism remains a threat that we need to be aware of and have measures in place to check.

But the terrorist threat that preoccupies governments today is qualitatively different from those examples. It derives from a particular extremist ideology that perverts and misuses Islam to build support for its agenda and to inspire its recruits. Why is it different from the other examples? I think for 5 specific reasons:

  • Firstly, it is truly global in scope and ambition
  • Secondly, as I mentioned while it is driven by a twisted and fanatical interpretation of Islam that appeals to very few, it cleverly exploits much more widely felt senses of grievance and injustice that exist in many mainstream Muslim communities in the world
  • Thirdly, while in many ways anti-modernist, it uses the tools of globalisation, (mass air travel, the internet, mobile phones, laptop computers), to carry out its attacks, to promote its goals and to recruit new foot soldiers
  • Fourthly, it cannot be negotiated with. It regards all who do not share its extremist agenda as enemies and legitimate targets. That includes the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, indeed it includes the vast majority of Australians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
  • And finally, its ambitions to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons technology threaten to increase the scale of destruction of its violence.

For these reasons, it is arguably a greater challenge than any terrorist threat we have faced before.

Progress in tackling terrorism since 9/11

So how successful has the international community been in meeting the challenge of terrorism since that dramatic morning on 11 September 2001 when the twin towers fell? Well there have been significant successes.

Ø When Coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda lost its principal state sponsor. Since then,many Al Qaeda leaders have been arrested or killed. Dozens of conspiracies have been uncovered and millions of dollars that would have been used to fund terrorism have been intercepted.

Ø In SE Asia, the activities of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, the extremist groups with links to AQ that have carried out most of the terrorist attacks in the region, have been significantly disrupted. Thanks in part to Australian assistance, authorities, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, have succeeded in stopping many attacks, and have arrested and prosecuted or killed many of the key leaders.

Ø In Indonesia, polling indicates that over the last 5 years support in the population for the Jemaah Islamiyah ideology and agenda, and for the use of violence to promote their political goals, has dramatically dropped. Support for democracy and pluralism – both of which are denounced by the extremist ideologues – meanwhile continues to be very high.

Ø Internationally, there has been an unprecedented level of practical cooperation between countries on counter-terrorism, including exchanges of intelligence and information, exercises and training, swapping of best-practice and offers of assistance to strengthen infrastructure.

Worrying Trends

But we are seeing a number of negative trends that suggest we need not only to maintain the CT efforts we have expended so far, but expand them and target them more creatively. Terrorist groups may have suffered setbacks, but they are rebuilding and regrouping, and even as our capacity to stop them improves, their methods and abilities become more sophisticated. So what are these worrying trends?

Firstly, Al Qaeda has re-grouped and is reasserting itself. It has reasonably secure safe-haven on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; it has reorganised its leadership, it has greatly improved its public information campaign and it remains intent on conducting mass casualty attacks in the countries it is targeting. Moreover it has a steady stream of new recruits whom it is indoctrinating, training and preparing for operations.

Moreover it has ‘franchised’ the AQ brand, most notably in Iraq and in North Africa where groups associated with it have carried out terrorist attacks in its name and using its rhetoric.

Secondly, the internet is increasingly a critical tool for extremist groups and this is proving extremely difficult to combat. It is used by terrorist organisations:

  • as a propaganda device (through its broadcast of images of attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan)
  • as a recruitment tool, by attracting young people to radical so-called ‘jihadi’ websites and sucking them into a virtual world that, to a 16 year old, might look glamorous and adventurous. The websites direct them to chatrooms where skilled recruiters can identify them and follow up the contact or in some cases these recruits seek to conduct attacks on their own initiative
  • as a training device – the detailed instructions for manufacturing bombs and for carrying out certain types of attack available on certain websites, have made it easier for individuals to plot attacks
  • for communication – to share experiences, to maintain morale and to seek religious justifications for its planned attacks
  • as an operational medium, allowing through pass-worded sites and other means, terrorists in different places to plan and organise a specific attack.

I should add that one of the benefits of the internet for the extremists is that it protects their anonymity and thereby reduces the danger they face in researching targets, communicating with each other and even in coordinating internationally, because it means they do not have to cross borders as frequently. It also helps to make terrorism cheaper.

Thirdly, the process of radicalisation has, in many instances, become more rapid and more difficult to detect. Today’s terrorists do not fit an easily-recognisable mould of educational or linguistic background, family or business links, nationality or psychological profile. (At the same time there are some fairly well-recognised pathways to radicalisation or recruitment that we can recognise. These include prisons – where individuals are vulnerable to pressure from fellow-prisoners; the internet as mentioned earlier; contact with a particularly charismatic radical figure; and extremist social or family links.)

And finally, as mentioned earlier, Al Qaeda and similar groups show a persistent desire to master CBRN technologies. Terrorism is about theatre: it is about creating fear, panic and chaos. Using a chemical or radiological dispersal device in place of a conventional car or backpack bomb would compound the public trauma, even if it killed no more people. It would also potentially greatly expand the economic impact of such an attack by contaminating possibly a whole section of a city. While the ultimate nightmare scenario, notably detonation of an improvised nuclear device in a crowded city, remains highly unlikely, a radiological or chemical attack is considered well within the bounds of possibility.

Biological agents likewise represent a threat we need to be aware of and take measures to contain. You may recall that at one stage the 9/11 bombers considered using a crop dusting aircraft to disperse anthrax or some other biological agent but decided in the end that the technical challenges and uncertainty about how meteorological conditions would impact on its effectiveness, to shelve the project. But given the right circumstances, and importantly the right recruit with expertise in producing and handling biological agents, this option could very easily come back on the agenda.

International Response – Multilateral System

So how are we responding, collectively as an international community and in our region, to the challenges posed by these worrying trends?

At the global level

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (which happened to occur in New York city a week or so before the opening of the UN General Assembly), an unusual consensus was forged at the United Nations on the need to address this new and dangerous phenomenon. Within days of the attacks the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1373 which obliged all member states of the UN to:

  • Deny all forms of financial support to terrorist groups
  • Suppress the provision of safe haven or support for terrorists
  • Share with other governments information about any groups they know are planning terrorist operations
  • Pass legislation to criminalise terrorism

But even before 9/11 the UN had over a period of more than 30 years provided the forum where the international community had negotiated and adopted a range of international treaties, dealing with different aspects of terrorism. These included conventions on air hijacking, killing of diplomats, sabotage of civil aircraft, the taking of hostages, attacks at airports, the marking of plastic explosives, terrorist financing, protection of nuclear materials, and attacks on ships and maritime oil production platforms. Currently there are some 13 of these treaties in place.

In addition to this, last September the UN General Assembly adopted a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, supported by a very detailed Plan of Action. This sets out a whole raft of things that states might consider doing to address the problem under headings such as:

  • Measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism
  • Measures to prevent and combat terrorism
  • Measures to build states capacities to prevent terrorism
  • Measures to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.

These actions are important as they underline that in all countries, in all cultures everywhere, terrorism is outlaw behaviour that can never be justified. Moreover they underline that other countries stand ready to help when any member of the UN suffers a terrorist attack. This declaratory function, in fact is what the UN does best. Sometimes it takes its time, but when it establishes and promotes a global norm of behaviour, a powerful message is sent out and governments take notice.

What the UN is less good at doing – because it largely operates by a consensus of its 193 members – is enforcing those norms. More often than not therefore, countries affected by terrorism look for help in their efforts to deal with this challenge, to regional mechanisms, (such as NATO or the EU), or to other friendly countries, (such Australia in the case of Indonesia and the Philippines).

Ad Hoc Groupings – the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)

We have also seen ad hoc groups of countries form to address particular aspects of the terrorist threat, for example the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. This grouping grew out of a G8 initiative sponsored by the US and Russia and brought together, initially, 13 countries including Australia to look at what more could be done collectively to address the frightening possibility of nuclear terrorism. At its first meeting in Rabat last October and then in Ankara in February, the group adopted a Statement of Principles and a voluntary Program of Work. The Statement emphasised the importance of members

  • tightening control over nuclear reactors and nuclear and radiological materials
  • improving their ability to detect such materials being smuggled across borders
  • strengthening legal frameworks to deal with these situations, and
  • promoting information exchanges, including through exercises and training.

The Global Initiative now has 55 members and a work program of more than 2 dozen practical activities, mostly focusing on training and information-exchange, scheduled out to 2009.

Regional Responses

In the Asia-Pacific region there are several forums where terrorism is actively debated and responses developed. APEC is mainly focused on an economic agenda but it has what is called the Counter-Terrorism Task Force which over recent years has been addressing issues such as mitigating the terrorist threat to food supply in the region; facilitating the recovery of international trade in the event of disruptions caused by terrorist attacks; and the role and responsibilities of financial intelligence units in monitoring transactions involving non-profit organisations and alternative remittances systems.

In addition in June this year, Australia as this year’s chair of APEC, hosted a joint government-private sector conference in Sydney under the heading ‘Secure Trade in the APEC Region’ (STAR) that looked at practical challenges in this field, specifically supply chain security and identity security. Both issues address trans-national crime problems but to the extent that the initiatives discussed and ideas exchanged make it more difficult for criminals to hide their identity or to smuggle contraband between countries, they benefit our collective counter-terrorism efforts.

This week at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in the Philippines, Australia hopes to garner support for an initiative to examine what we can do to address the problem of the internet and radicalisation. And at the Pacific Island Forum, Australia for several years has been working with NZ and the UN to help Pacific Island countries to draft and adopt the legislation necessary to implement relevant UN Conventions and resolutions in the field of counter-terrorism.

Bilaterally, particularly since the first Bali bombing in October 2002, Australia has been an active partner with regional governments in their efforts to address the terrorism threat, indeed over that time we have committed some $450 million to such cooperation. I will leave it to Commissioner Keelty to talk about what the AFP has been able to achieve in Indonesia and elsewhere, though I will note that the relationship between the AFP and the Indonesian Police is one of our strongest CT assets in the region. The Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, (JCLEC), a joint venture between Indonesia and Australia, has also over the last 3 years, grown into one of the most important law enforcement training institutions in the region.

Aside from the police, Australian intelligence agencies, the Australian Customs Service, DIAC, Austrac, the Attorney-General’s Department, DOTARS, AusAID and Defence have all been involved in programs to better protect regional countries against terrorism through building capacity and improve coordination in the local systems. Other Australian agencies have been involved in raising awareness of the CBRN threat and building capacity to defend against that. All this work has made a real contribution to our national security and to that of countries in the region.

Now this level of cooperation does not happen naturally. It requires a great deal of effort at the political level to build an umbrella of confidence and trust under which counter-terrorism activities can take place. That process has involved repeated visits to the region by the Prime Minister, (most recently last week), the Foreign Minister, the Attorney-General and other relevant Ministers and it has involved negotiating counter-terrorism cooperation agreements with many of our partners – of which currently we have 13 in place.

As part of this process Australia organised and co-hosted a regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism in Bali in February 2004, (which led to the establishment of JCLEC and began a process of much more detailed coordination and cooperation on legal and law enforcement issues). Then in March this year Mr Downer co-hosted with his Indonesian counter-part, Dr Wirayuda, a sub-regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism involving the Foreign and Justice Ministers or Police Chiefs from the six countries most affected by terrorism around us – namely Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia. This meeting agreed on the conduct of a range of more focused activities including in the fields of the internet and terrorism, the role of the media in countering terrorism, cooperation to limit the movement of small arms and light weapons that could be used by terrorists, counter-radicalisation and cooperation on emergency responses in the event of a terrorist attack.

Addressing the Ideological Challenge

Of course all of this activity to build capacity and strengthen responses to terrorist attacks, essential though they are, will not alone solve the problem. For this to happen we will have to see communities reject and expel the ideology underlying this form of terrorist violence.

This area of counter-terrorism work is sometimes called the ‘battle of ideas’ and up to now the international community has not done so well against Al Qaeda and similar groups – in part because we did not recognise as quickly as they did that counter-terrorism is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is a police action against criminal behaviour. Osama Bin Laden’s Deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, in a private letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi dated 9 July 2005 made the point that more than fifty percent of Al Qaeda’s fight takes place in the media. Underlining this, over the last 3 years Al Qaeda has ramped up its public information capability, through its public relations arm Al Sahab, and is now distributing a steady stream of messages and radical commentary through a range of media including audio and video tapes, podcasts, the internet and mainstream television stations such as Al Jazeera.

Moreover the quality of production of this material is increasingly first class and more and more of them are either produced in English and languages other than Arabic, or offered with subtitles to make them accessible to an ever wider audience. These statements increasingly address contemporary issues - such as the election of Hamas, the war in Lebanon or the situation in Somalia – to try to guide opinion on political issues and to insert religion where it is not necessarily a factor.

Challenging and counter-acting this media offensive is essential but extremely difficult. Often governments, particularly Western governments, do not have the credibility with those who are influenced by Zawahiri and others, to be able to make an impact with that audience. Moreover for us one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that in challenging AQ’s ideas we do not alienate or offend the people we are trying to connect with.

This is where others need to play a part. And in many countries they are. For example in Egypt the venerable Islamic educational institution Al Azhar puts on its website interpretations of religious passages that contradict the interpretations of some of the radical Islamist religious teachers. Prince Ghazi, religious adviser to King Abdullah of Jordan, similarly has a website that contains thousands of pages of commentary that aims to dispute the incorrect religious interpretations that Al Qaeda and others rely on to lure people into their false and misleading vision.

In other countries in the Middle East, programs have been launched where reformed terrorists dispute the arguments of the radical extremists in internet chat-rooms, a process that can have a significant influence on the sometimes hundreds of observers who log onto these chatrooms just to follow the debates.

In Indonesia the principal popular religious movements, Muhammadiyah and Nahdhlatul Ulama, which together account for over a third of Indonesian Muslims, are working to promote messages of tolerance and pluralism in religious schools and in mosques across the thousands of islands in that vast country.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan government agencies, with the support of international aid donors, are working to broaden the curriculum at madrassas and improve the training of their teachers. The hope is that students when they graduate will have the knowledge and skills to help them get a job and be a productive member of society, rather than young men with a limited and narrow vision and little prospect of anything but menial work – people who are then vulnerable to the extremist message.

Australia also plays a role in this. For example we have been a strong supporter of the regional interfaith dialogue process, the third meeting of which was held in Waitangi New Zealand in May – some of you may have been involved. This enabled representatives from different religious traditions, cultural perspectives and national backgrounds to come together in respect and with open minds, to discuss how to promote greater understanding between the peoples of the region. And the outcome of that meeting – the Waitangi Declaration – is a very worthwhile document, with valuable proposals for reflection and practical follow-up in areas such as religious education, youth development and the establishment of internet interfaith networks.

We are also having a positive influence through our aid program in addressing problems of development and governance, issues that groups like JI have exploited in the past to recruit young people to their cause.

And above all of this, we as Australians can be an example that puts the lie to the world view that Al Qaeda propagates, which claims that there are irreconcilable differences between religions and cultures; that there is only one way and therefore no tolerance should be shown towards alternative views or different religious interpretations. We can show that not only does tolerance and pluralism work – but it makes for stronger societies. We can demonstrate by our example that countries are made more dynamic and effective through religious and cultural diversity. We can show that a country can be so much more than the sum of its parts; that individuals can and do thrive in this environment; and that citizens in such a place can lead rich and fulfilled lives no matter what their religion or their ethnic background is.


I am very conscious that I have ranged over a lot of ground in my presentation this morning and that for many this will have been difficult to absorb. For that I apologise but I felt I had to at least put all this material on the table so you can draw on it in the discussions to come.

I really do not expect you to remember all the organisations, groupings, resolutions, forums and programs I have mentioned. Instead I will be happy if, when we break for coffee shortly, you carry out of here a recognition that there is an enormous, perhaps bewildering, range of activity that is going on to address this issue out there in the world. Moreover that work is being done collectively and cooperatively by an impressively wide range of countries, groups and organisations.

And this underlines the second point I hope you will take out from this session: that none of us can do this alone. No one government can do it – the threat crosses too many borders for that to work. It takes a cooperative effort by many countries. Perhaps more importantly than that, in each country governments alone cannot deal with the challenge. The response to be effective must involve all parts of society and the community. It should involve parliaments as well as governments; it should involve the press and the judiciary. It will draw in civil society it will affect business. And most importantly it will involve community at the grassroots.

That is where this group comes in and why this meeting is important. We all need each other’s help and each other’s insight if we are collectively to defeat this threat.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014