Highlights from the INSLM’s latest annual report

The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) is the most important national security oversight body in Australia. Its role is to review the appropriateness and effectiveness of Australia’s national security legislation, and it has broad mandate for going about this.

Unlike the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the INSLM can look deeply into how the police, security and intelligence services actually conduct their operations. Unlike the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), the INSLM can propose changes to the law rather than just examining whether the law was followed. Like a Royal Commission, the INSLM has the legal power access all information relevant to its investigations and can compel government officials to answer questions if needed. The main limit on its role, and an appropriate one, is that the INSLM can only make recommendations. Unlike a judicial authority, the INSLM cannot make rulings.

Despite its importance, the INSLM’s annual reports tend not to receive any media coverage, unlike ASIO’s annual reports (or the saturation coverage received by ASIO’s annual threat assessments).

This is unfortunate, because the INSLM’s annual reports are not dry documents full of legal or financial minutiae. Instead, they routinely provide new information important for ensuring that Australia’s national security is protected consistently with liberal democratic principles.

For that reason, this post shares highlights from the INSLM’s latest annual report, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Annual Report 2021-2022, released on 14 December 2022. The report provided three important updates on:

  • the almost-completed review into the Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Act 2016 (the HRTO Act);
  • the upcoming review into the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (the NSI Act); and
  • a future review into the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 (the EFI Act).

High Risk Terrorism Offenders Act review

The Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Act 2016 (the HRTO Act), allows for the federal government to apply for continuing detention orders (CDOs) and extended supervision orders (ESOs) against convicted terrorists who have finished serving their sentences. The INSLM has been reviewing the Act for some years and the submissions and public hearing transcripts are available online.

The Annual Report 2021-2022 announced that the INSLM was continuing this review and explained some of the delays. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the change of government complicated this review. The incoming Labor government included ministers, particularly the new Attorney-General mark Dreyfus, who had been highly critical of the Coalition government’s use of the HRTO Act. So after the 2022 election, the INSLM announced that it would allow government agencies to provide new submissions before the next public hearing, anticipating that the new government may have a different position on the HRTO Act.

However, due to the changes to the Attorney-General’s and Home Affairs portfolios (transferring law enforcement from the latter to the former), the next public hearing was postponed even longer. The INSLM website announced that “unfortunately due to the Machinery of Government (MoG) changes following the election, the government agencies are not in a position to provide the INSLM with supplementary submissions ahead of this hearing taking place.”

The hearings resumed on 21 November 2022, and for those who follow this area they were extremely interesting. The INSLM asked the Attorney-General’s Department and Home Affairs officials difficult questions about due process, research integrity, and the breadth of the legislation. The INSLM raised the question of proportionality, noting that HRTO restrictions could not only apply to people perceived to pose a risk of perpetrating a terrorist attack after serving their sentence, but people perceived to pose a risk of carrying out almost any terrorism offence, including the less serious offences like advocacy, associating and membership. The INSLM also questioned whether CDOs were necessary at all, pointing out that:

The United Kingdom, for instance, has experienced many acts of violent extremism that have resulted in spectacular and coordinated violent events. Many lone wolf attacks, hundreds of deaths, and countless serious injuries and damage to property. Yet the United Kingdom does not have anything like a continuing detention order and I’ll be interested to hear people’s views as to whether that is relevant to the task before me.

I also note that in the recommendations of the New Zealand Royal Commission into the terrorist attack in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, there were no recommendations in that royal Commission for the institution of a post-sentence detention regime for terrorist offenders. And, as I understand it, there is no equivalent to continuing detention order in Canada. So I will be interested in people’s views as to whether those matters are relevant to the task before me.

Most of the non-government submissions raised concerns about the human rights implications of CDOs, which can keep convicted terrorists detained long after their prison sentences have expired. I’m personally unconvinced of the need for CDOs, for similar reasons to those outlined in Rodger Shanahan’s submission. It will be interesting to see where the INSLM lands on this.

National Security Information Act review

In June 2022, the INSLM completed a report on “the operation of Part 3, Division 1 of the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004” (the NSI Act). The NSI Act imposes a greater level of secrecy over court proceedings than would usually be the case, and can restrict information from the person being prosecuted. The INSLM’s review covered one specific trial, the “Alan Johns matter”, where a former Australia Secret Intelligence Service officer was prosecuted in “unprecedented secrecy”. However, the INSLM has since begun a review of the entire NSI Act.

One comment in the INSLM’s annual report, although it discussed a case that did not specifically involve the NSI Act, foreshadowed the direction the review could take. This was the case of SDCV v Director-General of Security & Anor where the Security Appeals Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal upheld ASIO’s cancellation of a man’s visa. The visa cancellation was upheld based on information the man could not see, which is not unusual, but in this case the man had lived in Australia for many years. This INSLM had this to say:

I expect that it would trouble many that a decision to deport a person from Australia can be made based on evidence of which the person and their legal advisers are unaware and where that evidence was not even tested on their behalf by an independent counsel. Troubling or not, these are the kinds of difficult issues that will arise in the review of the NSI Act.

The reference to the prospect of evidence being “tested on their behalf by an independent counsel” is worth noting. Whatever the INSLM review concludes, it is unlikely to call for complete transparency. To stick with this ASIO security assessment example (even though it doesn’t involve the NSI Act), it is impossible to imagine a scenario where the government would require ASIO to share all the intelligence on which it based an adverse security assessment with the very person who was adversely assessed.

However, there is a long history to the idea of nonetheless having some independent entity, who can see the intelligence, assigned to represent the person’s interests. This is evident in the use of “special advocates” in the UK, and has been discussed in relation to Australia’s counter-terrorism and national security laws before. I would not be surprised if the review revisits these ideas and ends up recommending something similar.

Espionage and Foreign Interference Act review

Finally, the annual report also mentioned that the INSLM will review the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 (the EFI Act). The report stated that the “review of the EFI Act will be formally announced in due course, though work on it has commenced and continues.”

A review like this happened to be on my “national security law wish-list” for the new government. Espionage and foreign interference are real threats, and Russia’s role in the 2016 US election was just a particularly blatant example. However, the concept of foreign interference is inherently tricky.

Foreign interference was added to ASIO’s legislation as a security concern in 1986, but only became a criminal offence with the passing of the EFI Act in 2018. Foreign interference is defined in slightly varying ways on the Home Affairs website, the ASIO website, and the Commonwealth Criminal Code. It is a broad concept that covers activities such as disinformation, mal-information (like hack-and-leak operations), agents of influence, front organisations, and more.

The dangers of foreign interference are most apparent when it involves transnational repression (authoritarian regimes operating across borders to coerce, blackmail, harass, intimidate, threaten, assault, kidnap, torture or murder dissidents). This is the most visceral form of foreign interference, far removed from the grey zone where there can be reasonable debate about what distinguishes legitimate influence from illegitimate interference (something Justice Hope had to wrestle with in his second Royal Commission into Australia’s intelligence agencies).

Yet until relatively recently, transnational repression (and the crossover with terrorism) did not feature heavily in Australia political discussions over foreign interference, despite events like the Russia’s poisoning of Skripal in the UK, Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi or Iran’s assassination and kidnapping plots in multiple countries.

The proposed review of the EFI Act is worthwhile. While the threat of espionage and foreign interference is real, like the threat of terrorism, some of the legislation appears to have the same problems of vagueness, complexity and press freedom implications as some counter-terrorism legislation has had.

Moreover, it is unclear how much this legislation has actually helped Australia to counter transnational repression, in my view the most serious type of foreign interference. According to Malcolm Turnbull’s recent testimony at the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, a closely related piece of legislation (the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018, passed by his government) has demonstrated similar problems by placing a regulatory burden on all sorts of domestic institutions without actually undermining influence operations by authoritarian regimes.

It is better to review the legislation as soon as possible than wait many years and risk Haneef-style scandals or discover only too late that the legislation might not be fit for addressing the most serious threats. So the annual report’s announcement the INSLM will be reviewing the 2018 EFI Act is exceptionally good news.

January 2023 publications update

Starting 2023 with a quick update on some of my research interests.

I’ve had two new publications recently. The first was this Lawfare post co-authored with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Emelie Chace-Donahue and Madison Urban from Valens Global, on types of violent extremism that challenge traditional categories and involve an amalgamation of ideologies or accompanying sentiments.

From the introduction:

… British counterterrorism officials created the mixed, unstable, or unclear ideology category to include extremists who did not fit other counterterrorism categories (for example, the extreme right). The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2019 counterterrorism strategy addresses targeted violence alongside terrorism, in recognition of the fact that many acts of targeted violence bear the hallmarks of terrorism even if they may not be categorized as such. The FBI has also begun to employ the phrase “salad bar extremism” to describe a trend of ideological mixing. In recent congressional testimony, for example, FBI Director Christopher Wray described extremists who hold a “weird hodgepodge blend of ideologies,” noting that this trend is producing challenges in “trying to unpack what are often sort of incoherent belief systems, combined with kind of personal grievances.” Other government officials and private-sector researchers have used a variety of different terms to discuss the same phenomenon, including ideological mixing and ideology à la carte. While government officials and experts have highlighted the particular challenges that this phenomenon poses for law enforcement and prevention practitioners, the trend as a whole is insufficiently conceptualized and lacks a framework for understanding distinct elements within. 

Recognizing the reality and urgency of this challenge, we introduce the term “composite violent extremism” (CoVE) and provide an accompanying typology as a mechanism for more rigorously conceptualizing violent extremists who defy neat categorization.

We will be working more in this area and hope to have a journal article out, so watch this space.

I also published a chapter (page 95) in the ASPI Counterterrorism Yearbook 2022, discussing the relationship between strategic competition and counter-terrorism. It builds some ideas raised in this AVERT post and contributes to debates among scholars and practitioners about what the changing international order means for counter-terrorism.

From the introduction:

… Several US-based analysts have produced valuable work on the relationship between strategic competition and CT. They’ve tended to argue that CT efforts can be advantageous for relationship-building in strategic competition and that CT tools can be adapted to strategic competition by giving special operations forces a central role in combating grey-zone activities.6 Some have argued that policymakers shouldn’t divert too many resources from CT to strategic competition, given the potential threat from Islamic State affiliates in Africa or the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.7 Others have argued that terrorism should be deprioritised and treated as just one of many irregular threats that exist alongside strategic competition, such as insurgents, drug cartels and militias.8 However, few accounts examine the specific dilemmas that strategic competition raises for CT beyond the challenges of threat prioritisation and resource constraints.9

In this chapter, I outline five ways that strategic competition can influence terrorist threats and pose new CT challenges. First, international CT cooperation is itself increasingly becoming an arena for competition. Second, foreign-orchestrated disinformation can exacerbate terrorist threats and complicate responses to terrorist attacks. Third, strategic competition can contribute to the narratives that domestic extremists use to mobilise supporters. Fourth, when strategic competition is waged through proxy warfare, it can escalate civil wars that provide new opportunities for transnational violent extremist movements and foreign-fighter mobilisations. Fifth, strategic competition can prompt states to increase sponsorship of terrorism or directly engage in terrorism-like actions.

I plan to write more on several of themes raised in the chapter, particularly on proxy warfare and international counter-terrorism cooperation.

Also, the tragic and contested attack in Queensland puts a big question mark over the positive tone of my last blog post.

Finally, I’m still undecided about maintaining this blog. However, I’m keeping it up for the meantime, particularly with the uncertainty over Twitter’s future.

Table: Quick context for ASIO’s lowering of the National Terrorism Threat Level

On 28 November 2022, the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) announced the lowering of the National Terrorism Threat Level from Probable to Possible. This was the first change to the Threat Level since it was raised to High or Probable on 12 September 2014,[1] which was quickly followed by the first Appleby plot foiled on 18 September 2014, the Numan Haider stabbings on 23 September 2014, the Lindt Cafe siege on 15-16 December 2014 and the second Appleby plot foiled on 18 December 2014. ASIO had anticipated, accurately, that Islamic State’s transnational mobilisation would result in a far greater frequency of terrorist plots in Australia.

This table shows how many apparent terrorist plots (including foiled plots along with attacks that succeeded in harming people) Australia has experienced since the Threat Level was first raised in September 2014. I say “apparent” because some of these cases are unresolved. The overwhelming majority are now proven, but some are still before the courts (either criminal trials or coroners’ inquiries).

The lack of plots in the last year has been part of the reasoning behind ASIO’s decision, and reflects that the wave of plots associated with Islamic State has dissipated. Australia has experienced a surge in far-right violent extremism in recent years, as plots inspired by Islamic State declined, but the extreme-right threat has fortunately not made terrorist plots as frequent in Australia as they were at the peak of Islamic State’s global rise (2014-4017). However, apparent extreme-right plots contributed significantly to number of incidents in 2020 and 2021, and should not be overlooked (particularly with the Christchurch massacre tragically showing how much harm a single attack can cause).

Apparent terrorist attacks and plots in Australia since September 2014[2]
YearTerrorist attacks
(proven or alleged)
Foiled terrorist plots
(proven or alleged)
Total incidents
2022 (as of 30 November)000

Note that these figures, based on public information, suggest ten terrorist attacks in Australia and 22 foiled plots since 2014, which is slightly inconsistent with ASIO’s statement that “[s]ince 2014, there have been 11 terrorist attacks on Australian soil, while 21 significant plots have been detected and disrupted.” I suspect that the difference is due to the ambiguity over which specific incidents ASIO has assessed as terrorist attacks occurring in 2021.

Update 1: The tragic Wieambella terrorist attack on 12 December 2022 clearly changes the figures for 2022. In February 2023 I added “as of 30 November” (the date the post was originally written) to reflect this.

[1] At the time it was called the National Terrorism Alert Level (a system originally introduced in 1978 then altered in 2003), and it was changed from Medium to High, before the system and its categories were changed in 2015. However, Medium was essentially synonymous with Possible and High with Probable.

[2] For a complete list of all these incidents, with sources, see this table. For many incidents in Australia since September 2014 that resemble terrorism but were not treated as terrorism by the courts or coroners, see the discussion underneath the table in the same post. For some of the debates about whether events such as the Sydney Siege should be characterised as terrorism, see here, here, here and here.

[3] This column includes incidents listed as “tentative” in see this table, with the exception of the 2016 firebombing of the Imam Ali Islamic Centre in Melbourne as explained below.

[4] Note that for 2016 I have excluded one incident that the courts have treated as a terrorist attack, which was the firebombing of a Shia mosque (the Imam Ali Islamic Centre) in Melbourne on 11 December 2016. I am excluding it because:

  1. It did not injure or kill anyone, and therefore more clearly resembles the sort of ideologically motivated firebombings that do not usually result in terrorism charges (such as white supremacist Ricky White’s burning of a Church in 2016, or the Australian Nationalists Movement’s foiled plan to firebomb four Asian restaurants in 2004) rather than a clear terrorist attack.
  2. Several of the people responsible were part of the Federation Square bomb plot that same month, so including it would risk double-counting (by listing an activity that could arguably amount to part of the same plot).
  3. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation did not appear to include the incident in its official figure of “seven attacks” in Australia between  September 2014 and April 2019.

[5] One was extreme-right.

[6] This excludes the Christchurch massacre, perpetrated by an Australian white supremacist in New Zealand, killing 51 people and wounding many more. It is excluded because it did not occur within Australia, but should still be considered the most important terrorism event for Australia in 2019.

[7] One was extreme-right.

[8] ASIO has stated that two terrorist incidents occurred in Australia in 2021. I suspect that one of the events I have listed as a plot is listed by them as an attack. I am sticking to my original figures to avoid double-counting and because I think ASIO may use a broader definition than I use of what constitutes an attack.

[9] Two were extreme-right.

A brief return

Time to return to this neglected blog to share some personal updates.

First, I recently completed the PhD. I submitted it for examination in November 2021, passed with minor amendments in March 2022, then submitted the amendments and had my doctorate conferred in April 2022.

I first posted about it here back in 2015, when I had started it at Melbourne University. I ended up finishing it at Monash University. It was an exhausting journey, through difficult personal circumstances at times, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have seen it through. Here is the abstract:

What did you do in their war? Roles and agency in transnational support for armed movements

The majority of armed conflicts across the world, since the end of the Cold War, have involved at least one side that mobilises support from non-state actors located abroad. This thesis helps build scholarly knowledge on the phenomenon of transnational support for armed movements, within the academic discipline of political science, particularly the fields of civil war studies and terrorism studies.

Focusing on two crucial but understudied aspects of transnational support, roles and agency, the thesis provides a systematic and granular understanding of the phenomenon. There are many ways that people can support armed movements based in other countries, such as by lobbying, sending money, carrying out violence within their host state, or travelling to the conflict zone to fight on the frontlines, provide medical support, or assist with technical skills. While many scholars have sought to understand why people become involved in providing such support, relatively few have examined what influences the specific roles people adopt once they have become involved. This thesis also examines the extent to which individual transnational supporters can exert agency over which roles they adopt, and how they fulfil them, given overarching factors that can shape and constrain their individual preferences.

This thesis provides a new theoretical contribution for understanding these transnational dimensions of violent conflicts. It strengthens the empirical grounding of this theoretical contribution by conducting a mixed methods case study of Islamic State’s mobilisation of transnational support, specifically from within Australia between 2013 and 2018. The case study includes a historical outline of the evolution of jihadist armed movements and the rise of Islamic State, a broadly focused qualitative analysis of Islamic State’s transnational mobilisation, a detailed quantitative analysis of Islamic State’s mobilisation of transnational support from within Australia, and an in-depth qualitative analysis of one specific Islamic State support network in Sydney.

Through this empirically substantiated theoretical contribution, the thesis finds that the roles adopted by an armed movement’s transnational supporters are influenced by factors occurring at multiple levels of analysis: personal characteristics and circumstances at the micro-level, the preferences of the armed movement’s organisational leadership at the meso-level, and the host state security environment at the macro-level. The thesis also identifies how the preferences of the armed movement’s organisational leadership, and the host state security environment, influence not only which roles individuals adopt but also how the individuals fulfil their roles. It identifies mechanisms through which the preferences of the armed movement’s leadership influence role adoption and role fulfilment via the transnational exercise of organisational control. It similarly identifies mechanisms through which host state security measures make some transnational support roles more feasible to adopt than others, and some ways of fulfilling support roles more realistic than others. This shows that efforts to understand which roles an armed movement’s transnational supporters adopt cannot focus solely on the individuals’ initial preferences or on micro-level factors, as this would assume an unrealistic amount of agency and fail to account for the crucial influence of these broader factors. 

I undertook the thesis to make a strong contribution to both terrorism studies and civil war studies, and to broader political science efforts to bridge the gap between the two fields. Of course, the ultimate test of that will be when I publish parts, or all, of the PhD, and build off these ideas in future work, to open these arguments to further scholarly scrutiny. That lies ahead.

I’m now employed as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Victoria University, working with a great team and continuing my research on terrorism and security issues.

I have also joined the editorial board of the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism. This follows the special issue I co-edited with Professor Debra Smith and Dr Joe Ilardi on the topic of Navigating the Divide: cooperation between academia and national security practitioners.

Regular readers of this blog will know that this a topic that has fascinated me for years. This is partly for personal reasons because several of the projects I’ve worked on over the last decade, at both Monash University and Victoria University, have been partnered with government agencies such as Victoria Police and Defence Science and Technology (DST). This fascination is also because of the practical, political and ethical questions raised by such research. Academic-practitioner cooperation, particularly on national security issues, has a long and contested history in the social sciences.

It was really enjoyable to address this topic in the special issue, thanks to the excellent articles submitted, and indispensable support from Julian Droogan, Nell Bennett and the peer reviewers. Here are all the articles:

I also published four Commentary pieces last year for the the Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism (AVERT) Research Network:

I have not done many media interviews for several years, but some recent exceptions are:

At Victoria University I’ve been doing work on a range of topics that I haven’t published on yet: terrorist target selection, threat assessment tools, and planetary health. That last one was a great detour from my traditional research area, and one I’m keen to return to. I’ve also been continuing my research on jihadism, far-right violent extremism, and other terrorist threats, while Professor Debra Smith and I have returned to working on our book on the history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Australia since the 1960s.

Finally, I have some decisions to make about this blog. Having not updated it in well over a year, I might formally close it down. I would keep a public archive of it, as I’ve loved posting here over the past ten years, but might otherwise call it a day for The Murphy Raid.

On the other hand, there have been so many developments I would like to post on: two new counter-terrorism strategy documents, the High Court’s decision on citizenship revocation, the Federal Court’s decision on an indefinite detention based on an ASIO security assessment, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s inquiry into the High Risk Terrorism Offenders legislation, the Brereton inquiry, the many implications of the change of government on the politics and practice of national security in Australia, the question of the next Independent Intelligence Review, and so on.

Yet I haven’t kept up casual posts and regular updates here, so I have some decisions to make about this blog in the weeks ahead. Thanks so much to all of you who have been reading it. And a huge thanks to all of who have made any supportive remarks on my PhD journey over the past years.

PhD and publications update

I haven’t been blogging here much as I am still yet to finish the PhD. However, I want to re-share things I published or produced during 2020:

  • An episode of the podcast Sub Rosa, “Technology adoption and organisational learning by terrorists and start-ups, with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Carolina ‘Nina’ Ponzeto”, January 2020.
    • We covered a lot in this conversation, including similarities between how terrorist groups and commercial start-ups adopt new technologies, ways that running one sort of organisation can give insights into other organisations, the arguments in Dan Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry, the weaponisation of commercial drones, and a whole lot more. We also discussed virtually planned (or cybercoached) terrorist attacks, where the perpetrators were guided through online communication with Islamic State operatives who provided encouragement or instructions. Given that we discussed whether many of these attacks had actually managed to kill people, I should mention that since the episode was released new evidence has emerged strongly suggesting that the December 2019 Pensacola attack, which killed three US Air Force members and injured eight others, was virtually planned by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, the September 2020 Akouda attack in Tunisia, which killed one person and injured another, also appears to have been instigated through this approach.

  • An article for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, “Operation Silves: Inside the 2017 Islamic State Sydney Plane Plot”, April 2020.
    • This article revisited the most ambitious jihadist terrorist plot Australia has faced (which was also one of Islamic State’s most innovative external operations). The article provides a detailed account of how the plot developed, the advantages the plotters had (relative to comparable plots), and how these advantages were fortunately insufficient to overcome all the obstacles the plotters faced. It is relevant to the earlier discussion on Islamic State’s virtually planned attacks and how Islamic State’s external threat evolved as its territorial fortunes declined.

  • A post for AVERT Commentary, “Taking stock of terrorism amid uncertainty”, June 2020.
    • This post looked back at developments during 2019 (particularly the tragic attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka) to provide a clear picture of how the terrorist threat facing Australia had evolved before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It does not directly engage with the debate over how the pandemic may reshape the terrorist threat, but for an important contribution to that debate see this article by Sam Mullins and Michael King.
  • A small number of posts on this blog, the most detailed of which was “Resources: Concepts behind Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update”, July 2020.
    • This post was just incredibly fun to write.

  • A correspondence piece for Australian Foreign Affairs, “Response to Kim McGrath’s ‘Drawing the Line’”, October 2020.
    • This was a response to Kim McGrath’s important essay on the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s alleged bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet office and the subsequent prosecution of “Witness K” and Bernard Collaery. I approached the issue from a position of strong moral agreement about the injustice of many Australian government policies towards Timor-Leste (both historic and current) but also skepticism towards some of the essay’s arguments and recommendations (though not its core recommendation of upgrading the next independent review to a Royal Commission and including the “Witness K” scandal in its terms of reference). You can see the sources used in my response here.

I also worked on several projects at Victoria University last year, some of which will come out in publications. For example, Debra Smith, Gaetano Joe Ilardi and I have co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Policing Intelligence and Counter Terrorism which should be out in April. The special issue has a great range of contributors addressing the topic of Navigating the divide: Cooperation between academia and national security practitioners.

I will also soon resume blogging for the Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism (AVERT) network.

My top priority for the next three months is to finish the PhD, What did you do in their war? Roles and agency in transnational support for armed movements. I am excitingly close to the finish line but frustratingly not quite there yet! So I will continue to only post here sporadically for the near future.

Sources for Australian Foreign Affairs correspondence on Timor-Leste and the Witness K scandal

I have a correspondence piece published in the 10th edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, responding to Kim McGrath’s excellent essay “Drawing the line: Witness K and the ethics of spying”.

You can read McGrath’s original essay here, my response here, John Hewson’s response here, Jenny McAllister’s response here and McGrath’s response to our responses here.  Or you can purchase a physical copy of the journal, which is well worth doing.

This post provides the sources behind several points raised in my response, as I couldn’t put hyperlinks in the piece itself:

  • For Coral Bell’s warning in October 2004 that Australia’s approach to the Timor Gap negotiations was “contrary to the national interest”, see here (pages 3 and 4).
  • For the argument that Australia’s excessive maritime claims in the Timor Gap undermined Australia’s critiques of China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, see Rebecca Strating’s work here.
  • For Peter Edwards’ call to upgrade the next Independent Intelligence Review to a Royal Commission, see here.
  • For the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s denial that Witness K raised an operation in Timor with the office, see here and here.
  • For former ASIO, DFAT and Defence head Dennis Richardson disputing that any such operation would have diverted ASIS resources from counter-terrorism, see here.
  • For the long history of unjust Australian policy towards Timor-Leste, there are countless sources. Start here and here.
  • For former New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Anthony Whealy speaking out about the Witness K scandal, see here.
  • For Anthony Whealy being an authoritative voice on both national security and justice, see the 2012 COAG Review of Counter-Terrorism Legislation (which he chaired) here and his reflections on overseeing terrorism trials and the use of National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 here.
  • For former Independent National Security Monitor (INSLM) Bret Walker speaking out about the Witness K scandal, see here.
  • For Bret Walker being an authoritative voice on both national security and justice, see his INSLM annual reports here, here, here and here. His first report remains one of the most detailed and thoughtful reflections on Australian counter-terrorism laws I have ever read, even though it is nearly ten years old.
  • For former Labor MP John Faulkner’s 2014 paper Surveillance, intelligence and accountability: an Australian story, see here.
  • For former INSLM James Renwick’s announced review into the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (which was halted when Renwick’s term ended in June), see here. The new INSLM has now resumed this review. The review is focused on the Witness J affair, not the Witness K affair, but it will look into the how the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act was used.
  • For some detailed discussions of Australian intelligence oversight arrangements, and comparisons with some other democracies, see here and here.
  • Finally, you can read an extract of Kim McGrath’s original essay here, but I recommend subscribing to the journal and reading it all.

Resources: Concepts behind Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update

On 1 July the Australian government launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and accompanying 2020 Force Structure Plan, which led to plenty of great commentary pieces and podcast episodes discussing it (see this collection for example).

Defence policy is not one of my main research areas, but I follow these debates closely and find them incredibly interesting. Papers like this are not produced in an intellectual vacuum, they build off (but also help to shape) the ideas of a defence-oriented knowledge community as well as broader political imperatives. The Strategic Update is particularly interesting for showing (often implicitly) where the government itself has come down on particular debates, as well as how the government conceptualises the state of the world and Australia’s place in it, the potential for future conflict, the appropriateness of military force, and the expectations to be placed on the Australian Defence Force.

So for anyone similarly interested, this post provides a collection of resources on some of the core concepts used in the Strategic Update.

A few caveats. First, the resources do not discuss the Strategic Update itself. Most were written beforehand, and many are not concerned with Australia. Second, most of them are open-access, but unfortunately not all (it notes which ones are paywalled). Third, it cannot be assumed that the authors of the Strategic Update would see all these concepts in the same way as the authors of these (mostly academic) resources. The Strategic Update’s authors would presumably have drawn heavily on intellectual work developed inside the Department of Defence, much of which would not be public. Fourth, the selection is not comprehensive, I’ve only chosen concepts that I’m familiar with. So there’s nothing on multi-billion dollar procurement projects, as worthy of debate as they are.

Instead, this resource collection covers coercion, defence diplomacy or building partner capacity, the grey zone, maritime strategy, the defence industrial base, and some miscellaneous points.



The Strategic Update has a large focus on coercion (meaning coercive diplomacy or coercive statecraft), often explicitly but also implicitly through its emphasis on deterrence.

The Texas National Security Review recently published a valuable primer on the concept of coercion, in terms of statecraft, drawing on Thomas Schelling’s work that treats deterrence and compellence as the two defining sides of coercion:

Robert Ayson and Manjeet S. Pardesi wrote a great journal article in 2017 that also draws on Schelling’s work. It applies these concepts to Asian geopolitics, with both a historical focus (such as America’s nuclear threats against China in the 1950s) and a current focus (on China’s island-building and maritime threats):

Defence diplomacy / building partner capacity

The Strategic Update divides Australia’s approach to Defence strategy into three core components: shaping, deterrence and response. It states that the effort to “shape Australia’s strategic environment” will involve being “an active and assertive advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our immediate region”

Much of this “shaping” activity will involve defence diplomacy or building partner capacity missions. This refers to working with other militaries, either for limited aims (maintaining good relations) or highly ambitious aims (defeating an insurgency or helping to prevent new ones from arising). These efforts have received a fair amount of attention in the academic literature.

In 2015 Daniel Baldino and Andrew Carr wrote a journal article that dug deep into the concept of defence diplomacy, examining to what extent it fulfils its promises:

Tom Frame edited a book on Australia’s building partner capacity missions. The contributions come from practitioners with experience in such missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pacific countries, and some forgotten historical examples such as Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin:

Looking beyond Australia, the Irregular Warfare Podcast recently hosted a conversation on building partner capacity missions, featuring political scientist Stephen Biddle and practitioner Matt Cancian. They discuss whether such missions work, and in what circumstances. They focus heavily on the efforts to help Kurdish military forces fight Islamic State but also on historical examples like the Korean War:

The grey zone

The Strategic Update also discusses grey zone activities, which it defines as “activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict. Examples include using para-military forces, militarisation of disputed features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers.”

This is a broad and contested concept. Depending on which authors you draw on, the “grey zone” can potentially cover everything from large-scale proxy warfare and smaller-scale clandestine military actions, to political assassinationshostage diplomacydebt diplomacydisinformationagents of influencecyber sabotageeconomic coerciondisruption of shippingharassment of fishing vesselsconstruction of artificial islands to make territorial claims, and much more.

North Korea, Iran, Russia and China, all countries of concern for the United States and its allies such as Australia, have engaged in many of these activities (China being the implicit, and sometimes explicit, focus of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update). Yet countries on more friendly terms with “the West” such as Saudi ArabiaTurkeyIndia and Israel have carried out these sorts of activities as well. The United States and its allies have also engaged in such activities, sometimes successfully and sometimes disastrously.

Australia’s most significant experience of both countering, and engaging in, grey zone activities would likely be konfrontasi, the low intensity conflict with Indonesia over the formation of Malaysia from 1963-1966.

It was hard to choose what to recommend for the “grey zone”. I’ve selected a couple of resources that take a holistic look at this contested idea, followed by some that look more closely at either particular conflicts or particular types of grey zone activities.

The (US) Naval War College Review published a detailed critique of the grey zone concept. I don’t fully agree with their critique, and I have a pragmatic sense that the term grey zone is here to stay and that there are no clear better alternatives (I prefer it to “political warfare” for example). But the authors make a strong critique that’s worth reading:

Adam Elkus and Michael P. Noonan provide an extremely interesting big-picture look at what they term “competitive shaping”, drawing on eclectic material. Their report rarely uses the term grey zone (which Elkus, like Stoker and Whiteside, has critiqued) but it covers a lot of the same sorts of activities. Competitive shaping could be understood as the driving purpose behind much grey zone activity:

Some RAND Corporation reports directly build on the grey zone concept to make sense of current conflicts and crises:

ANU scholars have been doing some great work on the information/cyber side of this:

It’s also worth reading Seva Gunitsky’s paper “Is Digital Authoritarianism Still a Useful Concept?”  and his accompanying War On The Rocks piece. Also, this new report just came out:


There’s a strong maritime focus in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, because of its emphasis on Australia needing to be prepared for independent action in what it defines as the immediate region, “ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.”

This implies maritime preparedness, rather than either prioritising land operations elsewhere as part of multinational coalitions (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) or alternatively as seeing the region as something to defend the Australian continent against. In this way the Strategic Update builds off of years of debate over the value of developing an explicit maritime strategy for Australia.

A lot has been written on this, but I particularly recommend the work of Rebecca Strating because it explains the core ideas well without assuming too much prior knowledge on the reader’s behalf (particularly the functioning of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS).

Her work also looks at angles that a lot of Australian writing overlooks, such as how America’s interpretations of key UNCLOS concepts such as “innocent passage” (the basis of its Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs in the South China Sea and elsewhere) are not universally held. Strating points out while Australia tends to supports the US interpretation of “innocent passage” (that it allows warships to pass through particular waters without prior notification), some nominally likeminded states such as India have a less expansive interpretation.

So I recommend these articles:

Also, a lot of work on maritime strategy focuses on protecting shipping. This report based on the 2019 Goldrick Seminar helps explain what that would specifically mean for Australia:

Defence industrial base

The Strategic Update calls for expanding Australia’s defence industrial base, proposing that “the cultural shift to a genuine partnership between Defence and industry is critical to ensuring the expertise resident in our industrial base effectively supports Australia’s national security”.

There is of course a long history of research and commentary that conceptualises the idea of a defence industrial base in much more sinister terms, as a “military-industrial complex” that distorts democracy. The term “military-industrial complex” was first popularised by President Eisenhower’s farewell address, but the concept was developed further by the sociologist C. Wright Mills who tied it into his “power elite” critique of American society.

I cannot recommend David T. Smith’s journal article (which reviews four books) on the history of these debates highly enough:

Meanwhile, Brendan Thomas-Noone has written good reports on Australia’s defence industrial base and its relationship with America’s:


There are two more resources I want to share that provide more background for the Strategic Update.

Unfortunately though, there’s no online version of the first one I wanted to share, Sarah Percy’s chapter at the end of the edited collection After American Primacy. It’s an excellent chapter, which argues that Australia’s defence debates tend to focus on the prospect for future conventional conflicts and overlook the activities that the Australian Defence Force actually engages in day-to-day. She argues that this neglects “the sort of unconventional threats that pose regular challenges, and those rare threats that pose unusual but very serious challenges”. The chapter also argues that these debates neglect questions of identity despite their importance for prospective alliances:

Finally, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update should also be understood in the context of a history of these papers gaining increasing policy, and political, importance. Peter Edwards has written a short history of Australia’s Defence White Papers (the Strategic Update is like a sub-White Paper) that is well worth reading:

Many updates

In November I said that I would be blogging less to focus on finishing my PhD. To my surprise, I stuck to that, and only published one post since.

I’m nearing the end of the PhD, and successfully passed the pre-submission seminar in early March. There’s a lot to do over the next three months, so blogging will still be rare. But there’s a bunch of terrorism and security updates from the past few months I want to share, so this is another post of resources that may interest regular readers.


The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor James Renwick has been reviewing Australia’s encryption legislation, and the public hearings provide the most informative discussions I’ve ever seen on the topic. See:

Renwick also published his latest annual report.


The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held public hearings as part of its review into Australia’s data retention legislation. Stilgherrian wrote an interesting piece about the social license implications and you can read the full transcripts here:

The 28 February transcript is particularly worth reading for Mark Dreyfus and Anthony Byrne’s contributions, seeking answers as to why so many more agencies are about to access the data than was initially suggested when the legislation was introduced.


On 24 February the new Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, gave a public speech to deliver his first Annual Threat Assessment. The speech highlighted the threat of extreme-right terrorism and foreign interference, along with longstanding concerns about the threat posed by jihadist movements such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda as well as traditional espionage.

He then testified at a Senate estimates hearing on 2 March 2020.


Federal Member of Parliament Tim Watts, from the Australian Labour Party, gave an important speech to the National Press Club on 27 February about disinformation and democracy. Watts plays an extremely valuable role in Australia’s national security debates and is worth following on Twitter. On this topic it’s also worth reading:


There’s also been some new security-focused journals and outlets released:


Most importantly, it will soon be the one year anniversary of the Christchurch massacre, when an Australian white supremacist carried out a mass shooting attack against worshippers at two mosques, murdered 51 people and injured nearly 50 more.

The attack should be considered the most significant development in Australian terrorism in recent years. I will discuss it more in my next AVERT post, but in this post I want to share some resources focused on the victims.

The 7am podcast has released a 3-part series on the massacre, hosted by Osman Faruqi, which I highly recommend:

The New Zealand Journal of Psychology published this special issue in 2019, with every article examining the massacres, its context, and the aftermath.

The Guardian published this valuable article on 8 March:


Books I read in 2019, with recommendations

Contradicting my previous post on blogging less, I want to end this year (like last year) by sharing the books I’ve been reading and some thoughts on them.

Listed below are the books I finished reading this year, ordered chronologically. Then there’s a list of books I read a lot of and enjoyed but did not read in full this year (this excludes books I dipped in and out of for the PhD and other projects). This is followed by a bunch of comments and recommendations about the ones I finished, because I greatly hope you enjoy some of these books too.

Books I’ve finished reading in 2019:

America vs the West, by Kori Schake

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (fiction)

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm

City Life: The New Urban Australia, by Seamus O’Hanlon

Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Steve Coll

The French Art of War, by Alexis Jenni (fiction)

Out of the Wreckage, by George Monbiot

The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, by John Gaskin

Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, by Sebastian Smee

Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, by John Hirst

The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, by Eric Hobsbawm

The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (fiction)

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (fiction)

The Overstory, by Richard Powers (fiction)

Van Diemen’s Land, by James Boyce

Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, by Annabel Crabb

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, by Tom Griffiths

Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age, Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré

Books I’ve been reading (or re-reading) large sections of, but did not finish this year:

Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World, by Andrew Lambert

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, by Amartya Sen

The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad

Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste, by Sara Niner

Highways to a War, by Christopher Koch (fiction)

Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy (fiction)

The Mind of God, by Paul Davies

Ruling Class, Ruling Culture: Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australian Life, by R. W. Connell


I enjoyed my first book for the year, Kori Schake’s America vs the West. It’s largely a defence of the idea of “liberal international order” against realist critics such as Patrick Porter, and a call for action to sustain remnants of that order. Though I tended to agree with its position, I’m not sure how compelling it would be for a sceptical audience, and it would  have been better if the book engaged more with people who critiqued the idea of liberal international order from the left.

The next book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, was incredibly fun and informative. It had a bold and even evangelical tone at times, and made some big over-simplifications, but it was a great book that covered so many different examples of how social media has created new arenas for transnational conflict. I strongly recommend it as an engaging introduction to the topic.

John Lewis Gaddis’s book On Grand Strategy was enjoyable, and contained several interesting historical snapshots, but it often wasn’t clear what the overall argument holding it together was. I also wasn’t sure what Gaddis’s use of Isaiah Berlin’s “foxes and hedgehogs” framing really added. I plan to revisit some of the chapters to see if I get more out of this book on a second read.

Steve Coll’s Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan was compelling, though a bit of a slog to read. I recommend it, and wrote much more about it here. The book certainly provides the necessary context for the Afghanistan Papers.

This books were all the sort of books I often read, non-fiction books on various international security issues. But I’m glad I didn’t just stick with that sort of reading for the year. John Gaskin’s The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, and Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet were quite different to my usual sort of reading. In different ways the three books all focused on the notion of inner life and asked whether it is under challenge these days, and were quite informative about classical history, art, and 20th century history respectively.

I’ve also found myself increasingly interested in economics; not the academic discipline but histories of how economic changes shape daily life and transform politics. Eric Hobsbawm’s classics, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empires, and the more recent and local focus of Seamus O’Hanlon’s City Life on Melbourne and Sydney, were all valuable for this.

John Hirst’s The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy was a hidden gem and I definitely recommend it. It similarly had a strong economic focus, but also paid a lot of attention to the personalities of key political participants, and covered a lot of angles that I don’t normally see highlighted when people discuss how democracy evolved in Australia. As a conservative historian, Hirst has quite different takes from most other Australian historians which means that you can find ideas in his work which are hard to come across elsewhere.

However, the best history books (and the best non-fiction books altogether) I read this year were James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land and Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel.

Van Diemen’s Land made me look at entire section of Australian history in a new way. The book is about the colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in the early 1800s.

Instead of the common story of privation, Boyce starts by describing how the island was abundant in fresh water and food (particularly wallabies and kangaroos that could be easily hunted on grasslands maintained by Aboriginal fire-stick farming), though it also had formidable mountainous terrain and thick bushlands. This meant that it was easy for individuals to live off the land, but hard for the nascent state institutions to govern the territory as a tightly-controlled British colony.

As a result, many of the colonists (mostly convicts but also some other settlers, along with the sealers and whalers) gained a remarkable level of economic and social independence. Bush-ranging became rife at times, and the government’s direct authority did not stretch far. Yet society functioned well due to various chains of inter-dependencies (Boyce explains this effectively when describing the sheep economy) and because officials found inventive ways to govern. At this stage, colonial authorities were also cautious about venturing too far across the land, to avoid inflaming too much conflict with the native communities (for practical, not moral, reasons).

From 1803 until the mid-1820s, the new society’s social order grew increasingly different from that in the mother country. While Britain began to experience the industrial revolution and became more urbanised, stratified and gradually puritanical, Van Diemen’s Land remained pre-industrial and was seen by the colonial elite (and new British settlers) as anarchic and degenerate.

By the 1820s there was a concerted effort to crush this perceived widespread deviance and turn the island into a Little England. The establishment of Port Arthur was part of this process.

By the 1830s, Little England had triumphed. As Boyce tells it, this violent reshaping of the social order transformed “Van Diemen’s Land” into “Tasmania”. So the book tells a story of competing social orders, of a clash between pre-industrial and industrial value systems, of the ruthlessness of state-building, and of the natural environment shaping political developments.

It also tells a story the brutal impact of colonisation, so Boyce includes a lengthy appendix to delve deeper into the genocide of the Aboriginal population. A key component of the effort to crush “Van Diemen’s Land” was an increase in the migration of free settlers, which helped lead to the genocide as these newer settlers not only spread out over much more of the land but asserted exclusive ownership of it. That said, Boyce also covers atrocities against Indigenous population, and acts of resistance, before the 1820s. He does not suggest any natural affinity between the convicts and the original inhabitants, or prospects of them joining forces against the free settlers.

It’s hard to explain quite how compelling this book was. It has been called an “ecologically based social history of colonial Australia”, which describes it well but doesn’t quite capture how unique this book felt.

Tom Griffiths’ book The Art of Time Travel was even more exceptional. It is a meta-history of approaches to Australia history, which might not sound like something that could be written in a deeply moving way, but it was. Each chapter discusses the life and work of a different Australian historian. It defines historians broadly and encompasses adjacent crafts and disciplines such as archeology, art and fiction, because one its underlying questions is “what is a historian?”. Like Boyce’s book, Griffiths’ book has a strong focus on environmental history, as well as social and political history. The chapters were mostly self-contained, so you can read them out of order, but Griffiths threads a coherent meditation on the craft of history throughout the whole book.

My best reading decision this year (with my wife’s encouragement) was to read more fiction, and specifically to read different types of fiction from what I used to normally read (spy novels). Two of the novels I read this year, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Richard Powers’ The Overstory, were simply stunning.

The Overstory is not an easy book to explain. It is essentially a novel about trees, told through the stories of nine human characters. Each of these characters’ lives are shaped by trees in different ways, and the novel follows these characters as their lives intersect and they come together to try to save the natural world.

The novel draws heavily on real historic events and on a large body of scientific literature (using pseudonyms for the authors) and essentially creates an entire philosophy to underpin its story. I’ll provide a few quotes for a taste, but it’s no substitute for reading it.

First, it treats trees as components of giant systems which sustain natural life across the planet:

Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us – bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal – are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

The book also uses trees as a central metaphor, drawing analogies with all aspects of human society, including technological development. For example, character Neelay (a tech genius who builds a hugely-successful game that’s like a combination of Minecraft and Second Life) often sees trees in terms of computer programming:

The father lays it out: All the world’s trunks come from the same root and are rushing outward, down the spreading branches of the one tree, trying for something.

Think of the code that made this gigantic thing, my Neelay. How many cells inside? How many programs is it running? What do they all do? Where are they trying to reach?

And this is how it describes Neelay watching a stop-motion video of a chestnut tree growing (created from photos taken once per year, for well over a hundred years, by another character and his paternal ancestors):

He starts the clip again. The tree fountains up once more into a crown. The upward-wavering twigs reach for the light, for things hidden in plain sight. Branches fork and thicken in the air. At this speed, he sees the tree’s central aim, the math behind the phloem and xylem, the intermeshed and seeth­ing geometries, and that thin layer of living cambium swelling outward.

Code – wildly branching code pruned back by failure – builds up this great spiraling column from out of instructions that Vishnu managed to cram into something smaller than a boy’s fingernail.

So it’s an unusual story. I like to think that the book’s central philosophy could be called something like “arbornetics”, as it uses trees as a central metaphor for complex systems and focuses on how human societies survive in tree-dependent eco-systems, much like the idea of cybernetics uses the machine as its central metaphor and looks at interactions between machine systems and human systems.

I’ve no clue how well-formed that idea is, but that’s part of the fun of reading well outside my research area. It’s a thought-provoking novel and absolutely worth reading.

My favourite novel for the year, A Gentleman in Moscow, had a much simpler premise. It is about a Count who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole shortly after the Russian Revolution.

He survives and thrives for decades confined inside the hotel, determined to master his circumstances. I was given the book as a Christmas present last year (possibly because the title and cover makes it look like a spy novel) and was not sure what to expect. The book was not plot-driven, as it was focused on the Count’s inner life, which sat really well with the books I’d been reading by Gaskin, Smee and Judt.

So rather than reading with an urge to rush through and find out what happened next, I found I greatly enjoyed almost every paragraph. The Count was just such an interesting and admirable character, and there was something both calming and exciting about the story.

In short, I began this year by reading the sort of books I normally read (security-related non-fiction books) but then broadened to try some other options, which absolutely paid off.

For fiction, my number one recommendation is A Gentleman in Moscow, followed by The Overstory. For non-fiction, I recommend The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft followed by Van Diemen’s Land, probably followed by LikeWar. The natural environment turned out to be a key theme in this year’s reading, as did technology, both in fiction and non-fiction.

There aren’t any books listed here that I would say aren’t worth reading. Feel free to ask any questions (through here, Twitter, or elsewhere) about any of these books, including those not mentioned in these concluding thoughts.

I hope you enjoy reading some of these too, and thanks for reading this blog!

Updates on Sub Rosa, AVERT posts, and PhD

Another quick post of updates.

First, Kate Grealy and I have recorded two more Sub Rosa episodes, which we will release soon. Kate’s episode will be out first:

Politics of the label radical

Second, I’ve had a new AVERT post published, looking back at controversies over neo-Ustasha terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, and their relevance to current debates about revoking citizenship:

One prominent feature of the debate is that both sides often treat the involvement of Australians in violent extremist groups like Islamic State (IS) as a radically new dilemma. The debate lacks a strong sense of history.

On the few occasions when historical analogies have been made, it is usually to compare IS fighters with people who fought for the Nazis in the Second World War. Those who draw such comparisons argue that it has long been the case that Australian citizenship could be revoked for dual-nationals who serve in “the armed forces of a country at war with Australia”, and that revoking citizenship for suspected involvement in terrorist activity logically follows. Abbott made this argument in 2015, stating that the laws “reflect modern conditions where often people don’t go and fight against us in a foreign army, they fight against us in a terrorist group”.

The resort to analogies with state-based armies implies that Australia has never faced another situation comparable to the current IS threat. However, Australia has faced threats from transnational non-state violent extremists on many other occasions.

For this post, I look back at the spate of violence Australia experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, involving neo-Ustasha groups at war with the government of Yugoslavia, to show how Australia once responded quite differently to a situation somewhat similar to that seen today.

Third, I plan to be posting much less often on this blog over the next 3-6 months, because I will be focused on finishing my PhD:


The PhD has been a tremendous journey (which involved transferring to a different university mid-way through) and I am finally reaching the end. It will be my number one professional priority until then. This doesn’t mean I won’t still write the occasional post here when something interesting crops up, but it will be less frequent.