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.



New resources on Australia’s extreme-right, FARC, cyber security and more

Another quick post of updates about new publications.

I’ve published a new AVERT post, Learning the Rules: Resources on the Complexities of Counter-Terrorism in Australia:

If you search “Australian counter-terrorism” in Google Image, the results are usually pictures of heavily armed police officers or soldiers, possibly raiding a house, guarding an iconic location, or standing outside an armoured vehicle. There are good reasons for the popularity of such attention-grabbing images; they convey the idea of preventing deadly acts of terrorism more simply than images of people sitting behind desks.

However, while the police and military services both play crucial roles, counter-terrorism also involves many other parts of Australia’s system of government.

In this post, I share a collection of resources that provide an inside look at different counter-terrorism roles played by various government bodies, including the police but not limited to them. These resources provide insights from:

· Coroners who have led inquests when counter-terrorism has gone wrong and people have been killed;

· Police officers who have been involved in the monitoring, investigation and arrest of terrorist suspects.

· Judges who have presided over the trials of accused terrorists, which often involved new and untested laws;

· Statutory officials who have been tasked with overseeing the use of counter-terrorism laws and other national security powers;

Mario Peucker and Debra Smith have edited a new book, The Far-Right in Contemporary Australia, with lots of great authors:

This book is the first to elaborate on radical and extreme right movements in contemporary Australia. It brings together leading scholars to present cutting edge research on various facets and manifestations of Australia’s diverse far-right, which has gained unprecedented public presence and visibility since the mid-2010s.
The thematic breadth of the chapters in this volume reflects the complexity of the far-right in Australia, ranging from the attitudes of far-right populist party voters and the role of far-right groups in anti-mosque protests, to online messaging and rhetoric of radical and extreme right-wing movements. The contributions are theoretically grounded and come from a range of disciplines, including media and cultural studies, sociology, politics, and urban studies, exploring issue of far-right activism on the micro and macro level, with both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Alexandra Phelan has published an article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), called FARC’s Pursuit of “Taking Power”: Insurgent Social Contracts, the Drug Trade and Appeals to Eudaemonic Legitimation:

This paper argues that eudaemonic legitimation is a useful tool in understanding how insurgencies seek to justify their “effectiveness” and “performance” vis-à-vis the state in order to enhance authority and mobilise support for their strategic objectives. By examining primary FARC documents, conference and plenary findings, and select interviews with former and active FARC, ELN and M-19 members, it demonstrates how FARC constructed social contracts and integrated illicit financing into its operations as a strategy to appeal to its eudaemonic legitimation in its areas of proto-state influence, in turn aiming to mobilise support and consolidate a full-spectrum normative system. “Effectiveness” in FARC’s strategic approach through rule-setting allowed the organisation to expand to control significant portions of Colombian territory, which to a degree impacted positively on social mobilisation and challenged the government’s legitimacy by consolidating power structures in areas where there was a lack of government authority. FARC further appealed to social and economic “performance” by using revenue from its fundraising activities through engagement in the coca trade and kidnap for ransom to not only strengthen its military capacity, but also implement social initiatives and provide material goods. In turn, FARC was able to develop zones of security through the creation of social contracts in which stable economic practices were able to solidify, contributing in its effectiveness in providing proto-state authority and allowing for insurgent expansion.

Debra Smith & Steven Talbot have published an article in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, called How to make enemies and influence people: a Social Influence Model of Violent Extremism (SIM-VE):

This paper proposes a Social Influence Model of Violent Extremism (SIM-VE). In the context of increasing concern regarding the role of the internet in engaging people in violent extremist groups, particular attention is paid to the nexus between offline and online environments. The article addresses some of the barriers to developing predictive modelling to identify who will undertake an act of violent extremism and discusses how the SIM-VE model provides a conceptual framework to inform the development of online data gathering and information sorting processes that are relevant to enhancing structured professional judgement of risk. Strengths and limitations of the model are also discussed.

Finally, Katja Theodorakis and Clint Arizmendi have published a report, Cyber Security in a Contested Age – Geopolitical Challenges and Opportunities for Australia and Germany:

The publication originated as a result of the ‘1st Australia Germany 1.5 Track Cyber Security Dialogue’ held in Canberra in June 2018 – it is not a direct summary of the proceedings but draws on and further develops some of the key themes that emerged during the Dialogue. This Dialogue, titled “Mapping the Field: The New Ecology of Cyber Security Challenges”, explored crucial aspects of contemporary cybersecurity issues: geopolitical implications of a shifting global order; international cyber norms; military cyber operations; and public-private partnerships. The attendees, German and Australian cyber security professionals, government representatives, academic experts and private sector representatives discussed current and emerging threats and opportunities in cyberspace to enhance multi-agency and partner coordination and cooperation.

Several distinct trends identified through the Dialogue are addressed in this paper:

•Attribution, deterrence and the problems associated with these concepts a shifting operating environment;

•The effect such trends have upon traditional methods of diplomacy, especially when the integrity and privacy of such engagements is no longer guaranteed;

•What defensive measures should look like. Are methods such as ‘hacking back’effective and/ or productive?; What are our responsibilities and accountabilities, as democratic societies in choosing such measures?

Australia and Germany share similar challenges and approaches in this field. Questions at the forefront of policy-making debate query how governments can keep up with technology industry innovation that often out paces, if not drives, military adaptation. How can deterrence and attribution be used effectively – from a national security perspective – against a backdrop of societies that seek to be increasingly anonymous and where privacy legislation, such as the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), has global implications for governments and the private sector alike? At the same time, the two countries’ cyber security strategies also differ on a number of aspects; in this way, to compare and contrast approaches can be fruitful for gaining a deeper understanding of the problem-set and what can be done about it. Ultimately, the analysis paper will demonstrate that in order to effectively manage and mitigate within a cyber ecosystem, a combination of political leverage, diplomacy, dialogue and deterrence is required in order to safeguard State sovereignty.


Thoughts on Steve Coll’s Directorate S

I recently finished reading Steve Coll’s newest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Directorate S is Coll’s sequel to his excellent 2004 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The Cia, Afghanistan And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Ghost Wars covered US support to the mujahideen groups who fought the Soviets, the rise of the Taliban, and CIA operations against al-Qaeda. It was also great fun to read. Coll writes extremely well, and he created a compelling narrative history of the key events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

Directorate S continues Ghost Wars‘ focus on the CIA, but it also focuses heavily on the State Department and the military, which makes sense. After 9/11, Afghanistan was no longer a sideshow in US policy so the CIA was no longer the most important agency involved. Another change is that Directorate S focuses more on Pakistan than Ghost Wars did, precisely because the country has been so central to the Afghan conflict.

Directorate S was written in the same style as Ghost Wars, yet I found it a bit of an arduous read. This might just represent personal changes: I was much less busy back when Ghost Wars came out, and I was newer to reading things in this area. However, I think this also reflects how much this area of intellectual inquiry has changed.

Back in the mid-2000s, Ghost Wars sat on my bookshelf alongside the few other comparable books at the time, such as Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. There seemed to be no other book at the time providing such a detailed account of the covert side of US policy in Afghanistan. Many of the events that it covered were not in the media headlines when they happened.

Today, there’s much more writing available on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and US military and foreign policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the events covered in this book were reported while they were happening, in the news media, academic outlets, and think-tank reports. Many were also covered by specialist blogs at the time, such as the now-inactive Ghosts of Alexander and Registan, or Foreign Policy‘s similarly inactive AfPak Channel, or the still-running Small Wars Journal and Long War Journal. So Directorate S conveys less new and groundbreaking information than Ghost Wars did.

Nonetheless, I recommend it. There is still a great deal of new information in the book (Ghost Wars set a high standard), and Coll ties it all together coherently and insightfully.

The book’s core argument is convincing. In short, it argues that the misalignment of interests between the US, Afghan and Pakistani governments led to the failure of America’s war in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Most importantly, the way the US government saw the war differed greatly from how it was seen by Pakistan’s government, particularly by its powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and by its subsection Directorate S.

As you might imagine from the title, the ISI’s subsection Directorate S is the book’s key focus. Through Directorate S, the Pakistani state supported (but never controlled) the Afghan Taliban movement’s war against the US and Afghan governments. At the same time, Pakistan was itself at war with the Pakistani Taliban movement and al-Qaeda. These are the sorts of contradictions that the book navigates us through.

Coll does not ignore the many potential reasons for America’s failure in Afghanistan, such as the diversion of resources to the Iraq War, the resiliency and local embeddedness of the Taliban, military misconduct, or the hubris of attempting to build on a strong centralised state in a society where that had not been the norm. But he suggests that Pakistani government support for the Taliban, via Directorate S, was likely the core reason behind the failure. As mentioned, I find this argument compelling. However, I would want to read a lot more on the topic before judging whether I find it fully convincing.

It isn’t the book’s overarching argument that makes me recommend it though. Instead, I found the book’s greatest value lay in all the smaller stories that make up its detailed narrative of how the conflict played out from 2001-2016.

The book shows how US leaders and officials constantly wrestled with conflicting policy aims, and how US operatives on the ground tried to achieve policy-makers’ often amorphous goals. The book also looks into how Afghan and Pakistani officials tried to make sense of (and respond to) US actions, but to a much lesser extent as it mainly focuses on the US.

Through this narrative, the lack of coherence in US policy comes out clearly. The story contains example after example of divisions between government agencies, within government agencies, and between individuals with strong personalities (such as Richard Holbrooke) who operated across multiple agencies. Coll shows in great detail how individuals within the US government maneuvered against other individuals and how this shaped the resulting policy efforts and impacted people at other levels of government, officials of other governments, and many Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

This dramatic and people-focused narrative approach is a strength of Coll’s decades of work as a journalist, which is an approach often lacking in academic books I read. What I most valued was how well it conveyed the unrelenting uncertainty faced by everyone involved.

For every important fact that US policy-makers needed to know, the information was always unclear. Understanding the intentions of their nominal partner, the Afghan government, was never easy as the relationship was frayed by distrust. America’s intelligence services routinely intercepted Afghan government communications, but Afghan officials often assumed this was happening and spoke with their American audience in mind.

These officials were themselves were deeply divided, so the Karzai government itself didn’t necessarily have coherent intentions (just like the Pakistani and US governments). Karzai himself was prone to changing his mind, and CIA analysts devoted resources to trying to understand his mental state. Any illusions US agencies might have had that either their Afghan or Pakistani counterparts could be easily manipulated would not have lasted long.

Similarly, when the White House tried to find answers to pressing questions, such as how many provinces the Taliban controlled or what explained the surge in insider attacks (when Afghan soldiers turned on their international trainers), it never turned out to be simple. Different government agencies held different data, gathered it in different ways, and disagreed over how to interpret it. Outside analysts (such as Marc Sageman) were sometimes brought in to disentangle the competing claims, but their reports often become another weapon in the intra-bureaucratic battles.

Some of the most interesting chapters are the ones about the Obama Administration’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and they similarly show the constant uncertainty government officials faced. The negotiation efforts were slowed by the difficulty the White House faced simply when trying to figure out who actually represented the Taliban, and how to know whether their interlocutors were genuinely acting on behalf of the Taliban’s leadership.

These negotiation attempts persisted awkwardly for years. Miscommunication was a constant risk in each interaction. One supposed Taliban representative turned out to be a fraud. The Afghan and Pakistani governments often heard about these plans and, seeing themselves as the rightful brokers, objected to being left out.

One major initiative ended up being derailed when a planned opening of Taliban political offices in Qatar collapsed, because the Taliban’s representatives used a different flag to the one agreed on. Qatari officials had trouble believing that the US, as a superpower, did not have control of the minor details. But the book helps show why these sorts of problems are are an unavoidable part of the process.

So while I enjoyed Directorate S less than Ghost Wars, it’s definitely worth reading.

Coll’s overall argument, that the failure to find a solution to the misalignment of Afghan, Pakistani and US governments’ interests doomed the war effort, is compelling. The book shows how the inability to prevent Pakistan’s support for the Taliban lies behind much of the war’s ultimate failure. The smaller stories that woven into the narrative are both interesting and informative, and also help to convey the human tragedy.

The book won’t leave readers feeling very optimistic. The final chapter outlines potential lessons, much as the final chapter of Ghost Wars did. However, the stronger take-away might be the complexity of the conflict, the futility of ambitious goals, and the inherent dangers of trying to shape events in unfamiliar societies and dealing with political actors who don’t conform to outside views of what their interests should be.


More writing and other updates

Having not posted for a while, here is an update on some recent writings by myself, by some colleagues, by people in related research areas, and news on some Australian terrorism cases recently resolved in the courts.

I have published a new AVERT post, Captured Australian Islamic State members: whose problem? The post discusses the dilemmas involved in dealing with the 40-ish (so far) Australians captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in north-east Syria, arguing that more should be done to repatriate these Australians in order to prosecute the adults and protect the children. My aim is to convey how genuinely difficult the situation is, while nonetheless showing the practical and moral failings of Australia’s current approach.

For a detailed look at this international problem, see Brian Jenkins’ new CTC Sentinel article: Options for Dealing with Islamic State Foreign Fighters Currently Detained in Syria.

In other publication news, a report I co-authored with Michele Grossman, Susan Carland and Hussein Tahiri back in 2016-2017 has now been published: The roles of women in supporting and opposing violent extremism: understanding gender and terrorism in contemporary Australia.

Also, Judith Betts and Mehal Krayem have published a journal article about the demonisation of Lebanese-Australians, focusing on Peter Dutton’s 2016 characterisation of Australia’s intake of Lebanese migration during the late 1970s as a “mistake” (and the subsequent debates). One part of the article, which I greatly appreciate, addresses how the terrorist threat was used as proof of this “mistake” and how some of my own writing was used by commentators to support this flawed argument.

However, there’s a lot more to the article than that. Betts and Krayem also go back through the original Cabinet documents from the 1970s which are commonly cited to support the “mistake” argument and show how the documents have been been misrepresented. Betts and Krayem also show how misleading many of the talking points were. For example, Julie Bishop claimed that Dutton was being misrepresented and that he was merely decrying Australia’s inadequate settlement services for Lebanese people fleeing the civil war. If Dutton’s argument was indeed just that the Fraser government should have done a better job of providing settlement support, then I would  agree with him (as would Fraser, who said in 2009 that “If there was a failure of government in those early months it was in resettlement programs and planning”). However, Betts and Krayem diligently trawl through Dutton’s actual words and show that “[d]espite her assertion, we were unable to find any public acknowledgement on Dutton’s part of the lack of settlement assistance provided to Lebanese in the mid‐70s”.

Their main article is behind a paywall, but Judith Betts summarises its key arguments in this post on Pearls and Irritations. Betts also wrote a follow-up article in Inside Story, delving deeper into the Cabinet documents from 1976 to understand the decision-making process at the time, which resulted in the poorly-implemented settlement process, exacerbating social and economic disadvantage. Her Inside Story article also covers how Canada did a better job of facilitating Lebanese migration during same period, to help people flee the horrific civil war, and that those ” who went to Canada haven’t had to suffer the indignity of being labelled a mistake by their immigration minister.”

Meanwhile, there’s been a bunch of other new posts on the AVERT blog, mostly discussing the Christchurch terrorist attack. Debra Smith discusses some of her research (with Mario Peucker and Muhammad Iqbal) on Victoria’s extreme-right, and what insights it can provide in light of the attack. Michele Grossman answers some questions on what the attack tells us about social divisions. Jay Marlowe reflects on some problems with the “this is not us” response to the attack. And Matteo Vergani suggests that the media needs a new code of ethics for reporting on terrorism.

The University of Western Australia has published a radicalisation blog series, based on a recent symposium. There’s an introductory post by Shamit Saggar and Samina Yasmeen, followed by contributions from Shamit Saggar, Hass Dellal, Leila Ben McharekMichele Grossman, Raafia Raees Khan, and Rizwana Abdul Azeez.

Finally, several terrorism prosecutions came to an end recently:

  • Khaled Khayat has been found guilty for his role in the Islamic State plot to bomb an Etihad flight and then attack members of the public with a chemical weapon. The jury could not come to a verdict on his brother, Mahmoud Khayat, and he will be retried later this year.
  • Musa Cerantonio and five others have been sentenced for their attempt to join insurgents in the Philipines.
  • Ihsas Khan was sentenced for his Islamic State-inspired stabbing in Sydney.
  • Momena Shoma was sentenced for her Islamic State-inspired stabbing in Melbourne.
  • And NSW man Haisem Zahab was sentenced for trying to develop missile-detection and missile-guidance systems for Islamic State. This was an unusual case, and the sentencing document is extremely detailed and interesting.

Proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia since September 2014

This table presents proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia from September 2014 onwards.

An earlier version was published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019. However, this version functions as a living document so that I can regularly update it to include new events, and it contains all the sources. Thomas Hegghammer, among many others, has called for terrorism scholars to share their (open) sources better and I strongly agree. Part of my motivation for making this post is to share all the sources behind the ASPI version of the table and these two AVERT posts:

The table is divided into three sections: violent incidents (where an attack was carried out, though there are debates over whether all of these should be characterised as terrorism), terrorist plots proven in court, and alleged terrorist plots currently before the courts. The listings are based on Australia’s official legal definition of terrorism and the outcomes of court cases, but underneath the table I note some of the ambiguities this causes.

Also, rather than regularly detailing each update I make, like I was doing for this post, this time I just note the date on which I last updated it. If you find this table helpful for your research, please cite this post.

Proven and alleged terrorist plots in Australia since September 2014 (last updated 22 April 2020)
Violent incidents
Month of incident Incident
September 2014 Melbourne-based teenager Numan Haider was inspired by Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s global call to arms and stabbed two Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team (JCTT) officers before being fatally shot.
Finding – Inquest into the Death of Ahmad Numan Haider, 31 July 2017.
December 2014 Harun Man Monis used a shotgun to take hostages in the Lindt Café in Sydney shortly after pledging allegiance online to Islamic State. The 12-hour siege ended with the deaths of two hostages and Monis.
Martin Place Siege: Joint Commonwealth – New South Wales Review, 22 February 2015;
Inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege, May 2017.
October 2015 Fifteen-year old Farhad Jabar, who belonged to a group of Sydney-based Islamic State supporters, used a handgun to murder NSW police employee Curtis Cheng at Parramatta Police Station before being fatally shot. One accomplice, Raban Alou, pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence for conspiring in the murder. In March 2018, he was sentenced to 44 years imprisonment. Another accomplice, Talal Alameddine, pleaded guilty to supplying the handgun and was sentenced in May 2018 to 7 years’ and 2 months imprisonment. Milad Atai, who also pleaded guilty to a role in the murder, was sentenced in November 2018 to 38 years imprisonment. Mustafa Durani has also been found guilty of being part of the conspiracy, and was sentenced in August 2019 to 28 years imprisonment.
Two men arrested in relation to Curtis Cheng murder, 15 October 2015;
Two charged in Operation Peqin, 22 March 2016;
Man charged with firearm offence and breach of bail, 21 December 2016;
Four men charged with plotting Curtis Cheng terror attack, 27 April 2017;
Plan of Attack: the making of a teenage terrorist, 23 November 2015;
R v Alou (No. 4) [2018] NSWSC 221 (1 March 2018);
R v Atai (No. 2) [2018] NSWSC 1797 (23 November 2018);
R v Alameddine (No. 3) [2018] NSWSC 681 (18 May 2018);
R v Dirani (No. 34) [2019] NSWSC 1005 (9 August 2019).
September 2016 Ihsas Khan, believed to be inspired by Islamic State, stabbed a member of the public in the Sydney suburb of Minto. He acknowledged that he committed the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to terrorism offences on mental health grounds. On 2 May 2019 he was found guilty, and on 5 June 2019 he was sentenced to 36 years imprisonment.
Man charged with committing a terrorist act and attempted murder – Joint Counter Terrorism Team, 11 September 2016;
Ihsas Khan found guilty of stabbing his neighbour in Sydney terror attack, 2 May 2019;
R v Khan (No 11) [2019] NSWSC 594 (5 June 2019).
December 2016 In a somewhat anomalous incident, Islamic State supporters Abdullah Chaarani, Ahmed Mohamed and Hatim Moukhaiber, carried out an arson attack against a Shia mosque (the Imam Ali Islamic Centre) in Melbourne on 11 December 2016. They were charged with terrorism offences (possibly under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Kastelhom) and were found guilty in May 2019. Abdullah Chaarani and Ahmed Mohamed were also found guilty of a failed attempt to firebomb the Shia mosque sixteen days before their successful attempt, and they had earlier been found guilty of involvement in the December 2016 Christmas Day bombing plot (mentioned below). On 24 July 2019 the three of them were given prison sentences ranging from 16 years to 22 years. However, this whole incident does not appear to be included in the official figure of “seven attacks” in Australia since September 2014, possibly because politically-motivated arson attacks do not normally result in terrorism charges. I’ve included it here because of the court outcome, but I personally think of this incident as an act of violent extremism (and a hate crime) rather than a clear act of terrorism. Also, treating this arson attack as a separate terrorist incident to the Christmas Day bombing plot, when the events involved two of the same people and occurred almost within the same fortnight, risks double-counting.
Three men to be charged with committing a terrorist act, 20 August 2017;
‘IS-inspired’ trio face terror charges over arson at Melbourne Shiite centre, 20 August 2017;
Fawkner mosque arsonists were also behind Melbourne Christmas terror plot, 9 May 2019;
The Queen v Mohamed, Chaarani & Moukhaiber [2019] VSC 498 (24 July 2019);
Chaarani & Ors v The Queen [2020] VSCA 88 (17 April 2020).
June 2017 Yaqcub Khayre used a shotgun to murder a hotel clerk in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, before taking a hostage and seeking media and police attention. After the police arrived, he fired at them and was shot dead. He had claimed that the action was in the name of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Understanding Australia’s Brighton siege terror attack, 14 July 2017.
February 2018 Inspired by Islamic State, Bangladeshi student Momena Shoma stabbed a man in Melbourne’s Mill Park. She has pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence, and on 5 June 2019 she was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment.
Woman charged following terrorism-related stabbing in Mill Park, 10 February 2018;
Accused IS-inspired stabber Momena Shoma appears in court, 3 May 2018;
Bangladeshi student’s lone wolf terror attack in Melbourne left daughter with flashbacks, victim says, 30 January 2019;
The Queen v Shoma [2019] VSC 367 (5 June 2019).
November 2018 Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, believed to be inspired by Islamic State, drove a vehicle laden with gas canisters into Melbourne’s Bourke Street, set it on fire, and stabbed multiple members of the public. He murdered one person and injured two others before being fatally shot by police.
Revealed: Bourke Street attacker’s plan and why it failed, 10 November 2018;
Bourke Street attacker Hassan Khalif Shire Ali was radicalised and inspired by IS, police say, 12 November 2018.
Proven plots
Month of key arrests Incident
September 2014 A Brisbane-based man, Agim Kruezi, plotted to carry out an attack using firearms and Molotov cocktails while in contact with Islamic State supporters in Sydney. Kruezi was arrested under the Queensland JCTT’s Operation Bolton, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years and 4 months imprisonment.
Further charges laid in counter-terrorism operation, 17 October 2014;
Logan man Agim Kruezi jailed for 17 years over terror plot, 31 July 2018:
The Queen v Agim Kruezi [2018] QSC 806/955 (31 July 2018).
September 2014 Omarjan Azari was part of plot in Sydney to murder random members of the public. Under instructions from Syria-based Australian Islamic State member Mohamed Ali Baryalei, the plan was for the victims to be killed with a blade and for videos of the murders to be sent to Islamic State’s media agency. Azari was arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Appleby, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment.
UPDATE: Major Sydney counter terrorism investigation; two charged, 18 September 2014;
The order to kill that triggered Operation Appleby, 19 September 2014;
Sydney man Omarjan Azari spoke of plan to kill seven random Australians a month, terrorism trial told, 24 April 2017;
R v Azari (No 12) [2019] NSWSC 314 (29 March 2019).
December 2014 to May 2016 Six Islamic State supporters in Sydney were involved in a plot to attack government buildings, and were arrested over many months in a series of raids which were again part of the NSW JCTT’s Operation Appleby. All six pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms that ranged from 8 years to 22 years.
Man in court after Operation Appleby arrest, 10 January 2015;
Two Men charged in Operation Appleby investigation, 10 December 2015;
Update on additional charges in Operation Appleby investigation, 10 December 2015; Appleby terror cell a tough nut to crack, says top cop, 25 March 2016;
Operation Appleby investigators arrest Bankstown man, 26 May 2016;
R v Ghazzawy [2017] NSWSC 474 (8 May 2017);
R v Sulayman Khalid; R v Jibryl Almaouie; R v IM; R v Mohamed Rashad Al Maouie; R v Farhad Said [2017] NSWSC 1365;
Khalid v R [2020] NSWCCA 73 (17 April 2020).
February 2015 Two Sydney-based men, Omar al-Kutobi and Mohammad Kiad, plotted an attack while in communication with an Islamic State member in Syria (who turned out to be passing information about the plot to an informant). The plot involved firebombing a Shia institution and then attacking one or more people with a blade. Al-Kutobi and Kiad were arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Castrum, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
Two arrested at Fairfield on terrorism offences, 11 February 2015;
The monsters in the granny flat, 9 September 2017;
R v Al-Kutobi; R v Kiad [2016] NSWSC 1760 (9 December 2016).
April 2015 Sevdet Besim plotted to kill police officers in Melbourne on Anzac Day (25 April). He was in communication with two Syria-based Australian Islamic State members and a 14-year-old UK child pretending to be a significant Islamic State member. Besim was arrested in the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Rising, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, later changed on appeal to 14 years.
Media Release: Counter terrorism operation update, 21 April 2016;
Anzac Day terror plot: Blackburn boy sentenced to life, 2 October 2015;
The boy who wanted to spread blood and terror in the Anzac Day parade, 2 October 2015;
The Queen v Besim [2016] VSC 537 (5 September 2016);
DPP (Cth) v Besim [2017] VSCA 158 (23 June 2017).
May 2015 An unnamed 17-year-old male (“MHK”) plotted an attack in Melbourne involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) under instructions from Syria-based British Islamic State member Junaid Hussain. Targets are unclear, but there was discussion of a police station or train station. He was arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Amberd, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, later changed on appeal to 11 years.
Joint Operation Amberd, 9 May 2015;
Melbourne teen partially made explosive device similar to Boston bombings in terror plot, court told, 5 September 2016;
Teenager pleads guilty to planning Mother’s Day terrorist attack in Melbourne, 14 December 2015;
The Queen v M H K [2016] VSC 742 (7 December 2016);
DPP (Cth) v M H K (a Pseudonym) [2017] VSCA 157 (23 June 2017).
February 2016 An Islamic State supporting couple, Alo-Bridget Namoa and Sameh Bayda, planned a knife attack in Sydney. The two were arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Chillon, and one was convicted and sentenced for refusing to answer questions. Both then faced trial on terrorism charges and were found guilty by a jury. Sameh Bayda was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment while Alo-Bridget Namoa was sentenced to 3 years and 9 months imprisonment.
Man charged after Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation, 26 January 2016;
NSW JCTT charges Auburn woman, 6 February 2016;
JCTT charges 18-year-old woman as part of terrorism investigation, 23 February 2016;
‘Jihadi Bonnie and Clyde’ teens charged with planning Sydney terrorist attack, 8 February 2017;
R v Bayda; R v Namoa (No 8) [2019] NSWSC 24 (31 January 2019).
April 2016 An unnamed Sydney-based teenager (“AH”), inspired by Islamic State, plotted to carry out a shooting attack against people attending a memorial service for Anzac Day. He was arrested under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Vianden, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.
Teenager charged with a terrorism offence, 25 April 2016;
Western Sydney teenager pleads guilty to planning Anzac Day terror attack, 24 March 2017;
R v AH [2018] NSWSC 973 (22 June 2018).
May 2016 A Sydney-based man inspired by Islamic State, Tamim Khaja, plotted to attack targets such as Parramatta Court or an Army or Navy base. He was charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Sanandres, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 19 years imprisonment.
Teenager arrested for terrorism offences, 17 May 2016;
Tamim Khaja, 18, charged with planning terrorist attack over seven-day period, 19 May 2016;
Tamim Khaja pleads guilty to planning Sydney ‘mass murder’ terror attack, 31 October 2017;
R v Khaja (No 5) [2018] NSWSC 238 (2 March 2018).
August 2016 A far-right extremist in Melbourne is plotted a bomb attack against left-wing activists. He was charged under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Fortaleza and was found guilty on 5 December 2019.
Victorian man arrested in JCTT operation, 8 August 2016;
How Reclaim Australia hid a ‘terrorist, 13-19 August 2016;
‘Patriot’ accused of bomb plans, rewriting terror guide, assures magistrate of sanity, 31 October 2016;
Victorian extremist Phillip Galea planned to bomb leftwing premises, police say, 31 October 2016;
Far-right extremist Phillip Galea found guilty of plotting terror attacks in Melbourne, 5 December 2019.
September 2016 NSW prisoner Bourhan Hraichie pleaded guilty to plotting a terrorist attack targeting police in Bankstown. He plotted the attack both before he was imprisoned, and while he was imprisoned. In a separate incident (which did not result in terrorism charges) he attacked his cellmate, carving “e4e” (eye for an eye) into his forehead, and sent the Corrective Services Commissioner a letter declaring that he was inspired by Islamic State. He was charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Broughton and pleaded guilty to four offences. On 2 August 2019 he was sentenced for the terrorist plot and for several other violent offences. His combined sentences will not expire until 2052.
Man charged by NSW JCTT, 14 September 2016;
Man in Goulburn prison allegedly caught planning terrorist act from behind bars, 14 September 2016;
R v Hraichie (No. 1) [2019] NSWSC 319 (25 March 2019);
Inmate boasted of turning cellmate’s forehead into ‘Islamic State sketch pad’, court hears, 26 March 2019;
R v Hraichie (No. 3) [2019] NSWSC 973 (2 August 2019).
October 2016 Two unnamed Sydney-based teenagers, inspired by Islamic State, plotted to carry out a violent attack in Sydney using bayonets. They were charged under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Restormal in September 2016. One was found guilty at trial and sentenced on 11 December 2016 to 16 years imprisonment. The other faced a retrial and was found guilty on 7 April 2020. He is yet to be sentenced.
Two arrested in Sydney, 12 October 2016;
Sydney teens charged with terrorism offences – Joint Counter Terrorism Team, 13 October 2016;
Bankstown terror arrest: Teens were about to make ‘final prayers’, police believe, 13 October 2016;
R v HG [2018] NSWSC 1849 (11 December 2018);
Radicalised teen jailed over terror plot, 7 April 2020.
December 2016 Four men, Ibrahim Abbas, Hamza Abbas, Abdullah Chaarani and Ahmed Mohamed, plotted to detonate IEDs at popular locations in Melbourne’s central business district. They were charged under the Victorian JCCT’s Operation Kastelhom. Ibrahim Abbas pleaded guilty in February 2018 and was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment. The other three were found guilty by a jury on 2 November 2018 but have not yet been sentenced.
Seven people arrested in counter terrorism operation in Melbourne, 23 December 2016;
Three Charged Following Joint Counter Terrorism Operation, 23 December 2016;
Melbourne terrorist plot: What do we know about the alleged foiled Christmas attack?, 23 December 2016;
Second Abbas brother in court over Christmas terror raids, 24 December 2016;
Melbourne trio to stand trial over allegedly planning Christmas Day terrorist attack, 2 August 2017;
The Queen v Abbas [2018] VSC 553 (20 September 2018);
Trio guilty of Melbourne Christmas terror plot, 14 November 2018;
The Queen v Abbas, Chaarani & Mohamed [2019] VSC 775 (29 November 2019).
August 2017 Two Sydney men were accused of plotting to bomb a plane and then to build a chemical dispersal advice under instructions from Islamic State. They were charged with terrorism offences under the NSW JCTT’s Operation Silves and one of them was found guilty by a jury on 1 May 2019. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other accused man. He faced a retrial and was eventually found guilty. The two men were sentenced on 17 December 2019, one to 40 years imprisonment and the other to 36 years imprisonment.
Four arrested in major counter terrorism operation, 29 July 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation, 30 July 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation – 50-year-old man released, 2 August 2017;
Two Sydney men charged over planned terrorist acts, 3 August 2017;
UPDATE: Sydney counter-terrorism operation – final man released, 6 August 2017;
AFP and NSWP discuss the Two sydney men charged over alleged terrorist acts (video of press conference), 3 August 2017;
New developments in the Islamic State’s external operations: the 2017 Sydney plane plot, 18 October 2017;
Suspected Sydney plane bomb plot ringleader and Australian IS terrorist captured in Iraq, 18 April 2018;
Brothers plead not guilty to Sydney airport meat grinder bomb plot, 4 May 2018;
R v Khaled Khayat; R v Mahmoud Khayat (No 14) [2019] NSWSC 1817 (17 December 2019).
November 2017 Ali Khalif Shire Ali (brother of the Bourke Street terrorist mentioned above) plotted a shooting attack at Federation Square in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve. He was arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation San Jose and pleaded guilty on 15 May 2019.
Man arrested in counter terrorism operation in Melbourne, 28 November 2017;
UPDATE: Man arrested in Melbourne counter terrorism operation charged, 28 November 2017;
Arrested Australian terror suspect had British contacts, 28 November 2017;
Further warrants following counter terrorism arrest in Melbourne, 29 November 2017;
‘I thought I was in 007’: Terror plot accused said he was approached by ASIO, 29 November 2017;
Man admits to Federation Square terror plot, 15 May 2019:
How Melbourne teenager Ali Khalif Shire Ali became a terror plotter, 29 November 2019.
Alleged plots
Month of key arrests Incident
November 2018 Three men in Melbourne are alleged to have plotted a mass shooting attack against a public gathering. The suspects were arrested under the Victorian JCTT’s Operation Donabate and are facing trial.
Three men charged following counter terrorism operation, 20 November 2018;
Melbourne terror attack plot suspects arrested in police raids over mass shooting fears, 21 November 2018.
July 2019 Alleged plot by an Islamic State supporter, reportedly in contact with individuals overseas, to bomb locations in Sydney. Potential targets included churches and police stations. Three people were arrested in a NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation, one of whom was charged with preparing an attack and being an Islamic State member (another was also charged with being an Islamic State member, while a third was charged with non-terrorism offences).
Three men charged in NSW JCTT operation, 3 July 2019;
‘Wannabe ISIS warrior at heart of church, consulate bomb plot’, 3 July 2019;
NSW Police charge two men after Sydney terror raids, alleged mastermind still being interviewed, 3 July 2019;
Sydney counter-terror raids: third man charged over alleged Islamic State-inspired terror plot, 3 July 2019.
December 2019 Alleged plot by an alleged Islamic State supporter in Sydney to carry out some sort of attack, but details are very unclear. He was arrested under a NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation on 4 December 2019 and is yet to face trial.
UPDATE: Sydney man charged with multiple terrorism offences, 4 December 2019;
Alleged IS supporter charged with terror offences, 4 December 2019.
March 2020 Far-right extremists allegedly plotted a terrorist attack involving firearms or improvised explosive devices. Two men were arrested under a New South Wales Joint Counter Terrorism Team operation on March 2020 and charged with terrorism offences, while a third was charged with a weapons offence. All of them are yet to face trial.
NSW south coast man charged with terrorism offences, 16 March 2020;
Man charged after allegedly planning terror attack on NSW South Coast, 16 March 2020;
Second NSW South Coast man charged with a terrorism offence, 21 March 2020;
Third man charged following operational activity on the NSW South Coast, 23 March 2020;
Bail refused for third man charged after counter-terrorism operation on NSW South Coast, 23 March 2020.

Terrorism is a famously contested term. The table is based based on Australia’s legal definition of terrorism, and on prosecutorial outcomes since September 2014. The legal definition requires, among other things, that the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

(b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause;

And also prove that:

(c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

(i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

(ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public.

As such, the table leaves out many other incidents relevant for understanding violent extremism and counter-terrorism in  Australia.

For example, it leaves out:

Cases of terrorist-like tactics carried out for ambiguous purposes.
This includes two high-profile vehicle attacks against pedestrians in Melbourne. James Gargasoulas drove into pedestrians in Bourke Street, killing six people and injuring several more, in January 2017. Saeed Noori killed one person, and injured many others, by driving into pedestrians at Flinders Street in December 2017. These attacks echoed methods used by Islamic State supporters in France, Germany and Sweden, but did not result in terrorism charges. Similarly, in December 2016 Jaden Duong tried to kill himself by driving gas-canister-filled van into the Canberra offices of the Australian Christian Lobby. The tactic resembled terrorism, but the motivation was regarded as too unclear for terrorism charges. That the perpetrators, like anybody, had political and religious views (Duong was a gay rights activist, Noori believed ASIO was persecuting Muslims, Gargasoulas claimed to be the “second coming of Christ“) does not mean that their actions were necessarily attempts to intimidate a wider audience to further those beliefs. Therefore, they did not neatly fit under Australia’s legal definition of terrorism.

Cases of extremist individuals carrying out acts of family violence.
For example, an Islamic State supporter in Melbourne (associated with a terrorist cell disrupted in Melbourne in 2005) murdered his wife in June 2016 in front of their children. Also in 2016, Aryan Nations members in Perth murdered one of their spouses to steal his house and life insurance.

Lower-level acts of extremist violence, such as arson and assaults.
There have been several such acts carried out with apparent extremist motivation but which did not result in terrorism charges. These include cases of far-right violent extremism in recent years, such as when neo-Nazi Ricky White burned down a Sydney church in 2016 (he was jailed on an arson charge but later subjected to an Extended Supervision Order under the NSW Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Act 2017). There have similarly been some cases of intra-Muslim violence with ideological and sectarian undertones which usually do not result in terrorism charges, with the unusual exception one arson attack against a Shia mosque in Melbourne which was treated as terrorism (mentioned in the table above).

Cases of Australians supporting or perpetrating terrorist acts abroad.
Plenty of people in Australia have been charged for supporting armed groups in the Middle East. Most of these charges involve support for Islamic State, but some involve support for Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Kurdistan Workers Party. Several Australians travelled to join Islamic State and other groups, and sometimes carried out high-profile war crimes. Australians have also joined armed groups in Ukraine, including extreme-right groups. The most consequential case of an Australian carrying out a terrorist attack overseas was the Christchurch massacre, when an Australian white supremacist murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand on 15 March 2019.

Australians harmed or killed in terrorist acts abroad.
Most deaths of Australians in terrorist acts occur overseas. Two Australians were recently killed in the Sri Lankan church bombings which killed over 250 people. In 2017 four Australians were killed in terrorists attacks in Baghdad, Barcelona and London. Going back further, Australians were killed in terrorist acts in Paris in 2015, Mumbai in 2008, and many other attacks. The worst example is the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 88 Australians were among the 202 people murdered. Going back further still, in 1990 two Australian tourists in the Netherlands were killed by members of the Irish Republican Army who mistook them for off-duty British soldiers. And in 1985 two Australians were killed in a bombing at Frankfurt Airport and one Australians was killed in the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648 (these two terror attacks were carried out by the largely-forgotten Abu Nidal Organisation).

So these five types of incidents listed above are left out of the table, as are any events before 2014. The table covers proven and alleged terrorist plots inside Australia since September 2014, based on Australia’s legal definition of terrorism and how it has been applied so far, which is just one part of a much bigger picture.