Resources: Australia’s role in Afghanistan updated

The Australian government recently announced that it will withdraw the bulk of its military force in Afghanistan before the end of year.

For those interested in what the Australian Defence Force has been doing in Afghanistan and the context it operated in, here is an updated version of an older post of research resources on the topic.

The original post was motivated by our media’s unfortunate lack of in-depth discussion of this conflict, which partly result from the Department of Defence’s restrictive media policies.

Aside from tweaking the writing and fixing dead links, the main updates include:

  1. Replacing the older Parliamentary Library report with the more recent one.
  2. Adding a report from the Feinstein Centre.
  3. In the “further sources” section, adding a report from Save the Children report and several reports recommended by Tom Hyland.
  4. Removing the discussion of the TLO report controversy (still available at the older post).

This list is in two sections. For the sources in the “key sources” section, I have provided descriptions and some personal thoughts. The “further sources” section contains reports I have either not read or not thought worth including in the first section. I am not an Afghanistan specialist or a military specialist, so some of the “further sources” may be just as valuable as the “key sources”. All the key sources are open-access and in pdf format.

All the reports focus on Uruzgan province (the ADF’s main theatre of operations in the country) or on Australia’s role more broadly. None focus on the Afghan war in general (if you want that, see this mammoth bibliography), they have been chosen specifically for their relevance to Australian involvement.


Key sources:

Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: revised facts and figures
Nicole Brangwin, Marty Harris, Ravi Tomar and David Watt
Parliamentary Library
September 2012

This paper is what it sounds like. It contains key data on Australia’s contribution, not just from Defence but also the other government departments such as DFAT and AusAID. The paper presents funding figures, key dates, government statements and other information, along with many links for further research. Originally produced to help politicians prepare for the October 2010 Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, it has been thoroughly updated since.

It is a useful starting point for anyone writing on this topic.


Winning hearts and minds in Uruzgan province
Paul Fishstein
Feinstein International Center
August 2012

This paper presents the results of a large-scale study on the effectiveness of aid projects in promoting security. This paper focuses on Uruzgan, which was one of five Afghan provinces covered in the larger study. The researchers interviewed over 120 people in Uruzgan, both Afghans and internationals.

The results are not comforting. The paper finds “widespread negative perceptions of aid projects” as a result of aid becoming entangled in local power politics. Local powerbrokers, such as Jan Mohammad Khan and Matiullah Khan (discussed more in reports below) not only manipulated aid to their advantage, but also manipulated Western military forces. The report argues that they “pursued personal agendas and vendettas which they ‘sold’ to the international forces as pursuit of high value targets and Taliban.”

The paper also examined the different approaches of the three international military forces in Uruzgan (Dutch, American and Australian) and found that “dissatisfaction was largely directed at the Australians.”


Two Afghan views of Australia from Uruzgan
Omaid Khpalwak and Governor Mohammed Shirzad
Lowy Institute for International Policy
November 2011

The first half of this paper consists of notes taken by Afghan journalist Omaid Khpalwak, who was sadly killed by US forces on July 2011, after being mistaken for an insurgent.

He interviewed many locals about what they thought of the Australian presence in Uruzgan, with reactions ranging from firm support to strong criticism. The criticisms are mostly for their support of Matiullah Khan, but also for night-raids and civilian casualties.

The second half is an interview with Uruzgan Governor Mohammed Shirzad, conducted by Susan Schmeidl and Hekmatullah Aazamy. Shirzad is supportive of the ADF presence and confident of improvements in the security situation, though also critical about civilian casualties. He makes some suggestions regarding operations and development projects.

This paper differs from the others here by being brief, and light on details, but is important for showing the diversity of Afghan views on the ADF’s role.


Counterinsurgency in Uruzgan 2009
Colonel Peter Connolly
Land Warfare Studies Centre, Australian Army
August 2011

This paper examines Australian operations in Uruzgan in the second half of 2009, and is written by one of the commanders involved. It covers the role of the Second Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force in providing security for the elections and training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, in the context of an active “fighting season.”

The detailed and acronym-laden text is aimed at a military audience, but is otherwise readable and includes personal accounts of Peter Connolly’s service. It is valuable for covering the task force’s many adaptations in the six-month period. It also shows the difficult decisions ADF commanders have to make in operations, which is not easily conveyed in media coverage.


In it for the long haul? Delivering Australian aid to Afghanistan
Phil Sparrow
Australian Council for International Development
March 2011

If there has been little in-depth media coverage of the ADF’s role, there has been almost none of the role played by AusAID and various NGOs. That makes this paper on Australia’s aid programs in Afghanistan – government and non-government – particularly valuable.

Like the Parliamentary Library report above, this paper has a strong focus on facts and figures, and runs through the role of various government departments and NGOs. However, it also makes a strong analytic contribution. It discusses successes and failures and is particularly critical of aid programs being incorporated into counter-insurgency, instead of being needs-driven. It argues that this militarisation of aid undermines its purpose, which harms the stabilisation effort as a whole.


The man who would be King: challenges to strengthening governance in Uruzgan
Susan Schmeidl
Netherlands Institute of International Relations
November 2010

This paper and the next give detailed accounts of Uruzgan politics post-2001. They are indispensable for understanding the context the ADF operates in, and the impact the ISAF forces overall may be having on the local population. It is not a simple matter of the foreign forces being either occupiers or protectors. Rather, foreign forces are operating in an area with complex pre-existing power-structures, and their interaction with these power-structures will shape the war’s outcome.

This paper focuses on the failure to create effective governance in Uruzgan. It argues that this has allowed local strongmen to hold government positions while actually undermining the state, which the Taliban capitalise on for their own ends. One example discussed is again Matiullah Khan, who is now police chief of Uruzgan. Khan was regardedby Australia as a valuable ally, but by the Ducth as a dangerous warlord who should be kept at arm’s length. He has proven periodically controversial in the media, particularly after it was revealed that some of his fighters were taken to Australia for training.

The paper is a highly detailed account of the key actors in Uruzgan (not just Khan but many others), demonstrates how power functions in the province, and ends with recommendations for improving governance.


The battle for Afghanistan: Zabul and Uruzgan
Martine van Bijlert
New America Foundation
September 2010

This paper examines the Taliban’s resurgence in Uruzgan and the neighbouring province of Zabul. It attributes the insurgency’s strength to networks of fighters dating back to the Soviet occupation, neglect by the central government, and supporters based in Pakistan. Similar to Schmeidl’s report, it also argues that Karzai-era strongmen (who have become de facto ISAF allies) alienated particular communities who have then turned to the Taliban. In other words, it argues that much of the insurgency was avoidable.

While the previous paper was a lengthy, detailed analysis of power relations in Uruzgan, this more concise paper shows specifically how those dynamics affect the insurgency. It is based on solid research (including 300 interviews) and is possibly the best short-but-detailed account of insurgency in Uruzgan available.

I strongly recommend it.


Further sources:

Access restricted: a review of remote monitoring practices in Uruzgan province
Save the Children Australia
November 2012

Uruzgan: 18 months after the Dutch/Australian leadership handover
The Liaison Office
April 2012

Death of an Uruzgan journalist: command errors and ‘collateral damage’
Afghanistan Analysts’ Network
25 April 2012
(This report is on the death of Omaid Khpulwak, who was described as one of the most promising Afghan journalists of his generation and whose work featured in the above-mentioned Lowy report)

Backgrounder: Karzai appoints four provincial governors
Institute for the Study of War
23 April 2012
(This 3-page backgrounder provides some information on Matiullah Khan)

3D ‘The next generation’. Lessons learned from Uruzgan for future operations
Netherlands Institute of International Relations
December 2011

Mission Uruzgan: collaborating in multiple coalitions for Afghanistan
Amsterdam University Press
June 2012

The Australian Army after Afghanistan
Security Challenges Journal
Winter 2011

Exiting Afghanistan: challenges to transition
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
March 2011

The Dutch engagement in Uruzgan
The Liaison Office
May 2010

Australia in Afghanistan: quick guide
The Nautilus Institute
October 2010

Other reports and articles relevant to Australia’s role in Afghanistan can be found on the websites of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network, the Australian Army Journal and The Liaison Office.

Evan Smith on counter-terrorism policy under Whitlam and Fraser

Evan Smith from Hatful of History made a comment below “The Murphy raid” that’s worthy of a post in itself. This post presents the comment then adds some further points:

“….I’m very interested in how the Australian government reacted to the prospect of political violence in Australia in the 1970s. It seems that under the Gorton-McMahon governments, the primary concern was potential violence stemming from the left, such as the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements. Only under Whitlam is there any real assessment of the threat posed by Croatian nationalists and other anti-Communists in Australia.

When the Public Order Bill 1971 was introduced into Parliament (which included a Part dedicated to the protection of foreign embassies, consulates and representatives in Australia), Whitlam asked for the details of attacks upon foreign embassies and consulates over the last decade. The reply from the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates (written answers), 7 April, 1971, 1651-1652) showed that 22 attacks had occurred since 1966. Of the serious attacks (such as arson or bombings) the embassies of Yugoslavia and the USSR experienced more (5 each) than those of the USA, South Africa and South Vietnam (4, 1 and 2 respectively).

Labour MP Horace Garrick complained that despite the emphasis by the Liberal Government on the issue of ‘law and order’ and the protection of foreign representatives, it ‘was not interested in law and order… when bombs were thrown by Fascist terrorists into the Yugoslav Embassy in Hawthorn’, adding ‘it appears that the Government condones this type of violence, as the only reaction to date has been to declare the Embassy a public nuisance and to ask the occupants to vacate the premises.’ (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 20 April, 1971, 1711)

Shortly after the POA came into effect, an internal report by the Commonwealth Police showed that during 1971 there was an increase on attacks on the South African embassy, coinciding with the demonstrations against the Springboks rugby tour, but these were mainly limited to anti-apartheid slogans being painted on the embassy walls, compared with the bomb attacks directed against the Yugoslavia and USSR embassies (Commonwealth Police Force Central Crime Intelligence Bureau, ‘Politically Motivated Violence and Vandalism in Australia 1971’, January 1972, pp. 7-13, A432 1985/6648, NAA).

Despite Labor’s suspicion that the Liberal Party and the security forces were in close contact with Croatian terror groups, a secret Cabinet document on political violence and terrorism in Australia prepared by the Attorney-General, Ivor Greenwood, for the McMahon government shows that the A-G believed that the ‘Yugoslav problem’ was ‘the greatest single problem’ for Australia’s national security. However Greenwood did advise against a Royal Commission into terrorism and violence (into the Yugoslav migrant community and/or wider political/terror organisations). (Ivor J. Greenwood, ‘Terrorism and Violence in Australia’, 28 September, 1972, pp. 8-9, A432 1972/5776, NAA)

However the issue was taken more seriously by the Whitlam and Fraser governments, who were concerned with the rise in international terrorism during the 1970s and were particularly warned by ASIO about anti-Communist emigres and the Ananda Marga. Disturbances outside Old Parliament House in the late 1970s by both groups encouraged the government to believe that these groups both posed a significant security risk. Also, with the number of sieges occurring at embassies in Europe increasing during the 1970s, as well as the kidnapping of foreign representatives, the Fraser government introduced the Crimes (Internationally Protected Persons) Act 1976 to give greater powers to police to stop potential acts of terrorism against foreign representatives and far greater penalties for those found guilty of offences against the Act. Andrew Hiller observed, the maximum penalties for offences under the 1976 Act, such as assaulting an internationally protected person, were ‘considerably in excess’ of those offered under the Public Order Act. (Andrew Hiller, Public Order and the Law, Law Book Company, Sydney, 1983, p. 195) The Fraser government drafted a report to examine whether further powers were required to stop AM and the Ustashe from conducting attacks inside Parliament House, but National Archive records seem to show that the report was not followed up.

I think further research should be conducted into this topic (I have a paper currently under review relating to these issues, btw) and you are correct that the ‘Murphy raid’ should resonate more in the recent political history of Australia. It’s great to see someone drawing on the history of counter-terrorism in Australia to illuminate contemporary practices and concerns….”

This comment is most welcome. He has dug up a bunch of interesting sources and the data on attacks against diplomatic facilities is particularly useful.

I’d be interested to know whether the PLO threat has come up much in his research. The Munich Olympics terror attack certainly panicked the government (see below), and from 1972-73 letter bombs were being sent to Israeli diplomats and Jewish businessmen throughout Australia. One PLO faction, the May 15 organisation, is believed to be behind the 1982 bombings of the Israeli Consulate and the Hakoah Club in Sydney. This investigation was recently reopened.


Also, Evan Smith is correct to dispute “Labor’s suspicion that the Liberal Party and the security forces were in close contact with Croatian terror groups”. Many on the left at the time thought that ASIO and the Liberal Party were in cahoots with violent Ustasha groups. But they were not, which is why the Murphy raid didn’t uncover evidence that ASIO was concealing information about the threat.

As he points out, in these Cold War years the Liberal Party and ASIO nonetheless did tend to be dismissive about security threats from the right and paranoid about those from the left. Conceptions of national security are not simply ideologically-neutral, but are often shaped by the dominant political forces of the time. For an example from another context, see this passage from Robin Corey recently cited on Abu Muqawama:

“Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.

… At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.”

Similar cases can be found throughout Australia’s security history. The state’s dismissive approach to the Ustasha threat in the 1960s and early 1970s was a more recent, milder version of this.


For those interested in further research on the history of counter-terrorism in Australia, Professor Mark Finnane gave a fascinating talk which is available here. He argues that one of the first (pre-Whitlam) drivers for Australia’s counter-terrorism measures was neither Ustasha nor Ananda Marga activity, nor Cold War demagoguery. Instead it was the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics during the tail end of the McMahon Government.

The key book addressing the history of Australia’s counter-terrorism architecture is Terror Laws: ASIO, Counter-Terrorism and the Threat to Democracy by Jenny Hocking. However, its central arguments are unconvincing. In effect, it argues that counter-terrorism measures were introduced as a deceitful attempt by ASIO and conservatives to reintroduce “counter-subversion” (such as monitoring of dissidents) in the wake of the 1978 Hilton Bombing. She argues that a similar process occurred after 9/11. As Finnane’s talk shows, this version of events doesn’t match the empirical record.

Another flaw of Hocking’s book is that it portrays the 1954 Petrov defection as simply a plot by Menzies to win an election, when it was a genuine success against serious Soviet espionage operations. As David McKnight argues here (paywalled), abundant archival information released over past decades has made this dismissive view of Soviet espionage unsustainable.

While I agree with her take that the process of conceiving of national security priorities and developing policies is inherently political (as discussed above), it does not follow that security threats like terrorism and Soviet espionage were largely exaggerated or fabricated. One should be able to take a critical stance towards the state without disregarding actual threats or treating all security measures as sinister plots.

The book’s still worth buying, but read it (as always) with a sceptical eye.

I’d also recommend two articles by Mark Finnane. One is Long Gone, But Not Forgotten which is about the Queensland Special Branch, and the other is The Public Rhetorics of Policing in Times of War and Violence: Countering Apocalyptic Visions (paywalled).


Update 1:

Evan continues this discussion over at Hatful of History. Another relevant post of his is UK counter-terrorism and Israel in the 1970s: Correspondence from Christopher Mayhew to Lord Balniel 1973. It discusses of how the UK faced the dilemma of trying to stop the PLO using British territory as a base for violence, but also of stopping Israel assassinating PLO representatives in the UK. This resembles how Australia experienced violence by both Ustasha groups and Yugoslav intelligence in 1960s and 1970s.


Update 2:

In the comments below, Evan answers my question about the PLO threat.

The Murphy raid

As you can see, the blog’s title and header pictures have changed. I started blogging just under a year ago, and, having found that I enjoy it, decided to revamp the site.

The new title, “the Murphy raid” refers to a pivotal event in Australia’s security history. This post explains this bit of history, the pictures, how they relate to the blog, and reflects on my experience of blogging so far.


What was the Murphy raid?

On 16 March 1973, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy and senior Commonwealth Police officers forcibly entered ASIO’s headquarters in Melbourne. Murphy suspected ASIO was withholding information on terrorist threats and undermining the newly elected Whitlam government.

The Yugoslav Prime Minister was due to visit Australia and there were concerns that local Ustasha groups were planning to assassinate him. The Ustasha was a Croatian fascist movement that had been allied with Germany in World War Two and had active networks in Australia. Dreaming of overthrowing Tito’s communist regime, Ustasha supporters bombed Yugoslav diplomatic buildings and social clubs throughout Australia in the 1960s and 70s. In 1962 and 1973 they launched unsuccessful military raids into Yugoslavia.

But the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was relatively indifferent to this terrorist threat. ASIO was chiefly concerned with Soviet espionage and the perceived menace of the time, communist subversion. The NSW Police Force had uncovered evidence that a Ustasha group planned to assassinate the Yugoslav Prime Minister, which was passed through the Commonwealth Police to Murphy, but ASIO denied knowledge of these threats.

Not trusting ASIO’s assurances that they had no information to support these concerns about assassination threats, the Attorney-General entered their Melbourne headquarters on St. Kilda road. Murphy declared to the ASIO staff that “it is our policy to bring open government to Australia” and demanded to know if they had been hiding information from him. Murphy questioned the officers for hours while Commonwealth Police carted off documents.

It created a media storm, prompted a crisis in Australia-America intelligence relations, and became scandal for the Whitlam government (as the raid was accused of endangering security). Some ASIO officers were so outraged by the elected representative enforcing his authority that they speculated that Murphy was a KGB agent, and launched an investigation. Whitlam later described the raid as his government’s “greatest mistake”, but it marked the beginning of many positive changes.

The event, widely reported as “the Murphy raid”, is not widely known today. I wish it were better remembered, and so I’ve named my blog in honour of the event, which relates to the three key themes I blog about: security, terrorism, and human rights.



The Murphy raid was also a key event in making Australia’s security services more democratically accountable.

ASIO has had a shady history. Under the management of General Spry, a Cold War hardliner and partisan of Menzies, ASIO successfully foiled some Soviet espionage operations. However, it also carried out mass surveillance on political dissidents it considered “subversive”, usually on the left. The organisation also attacked perceived enemies by using intimidation, dirty tricks, selective leaks to friendly journalists, and damaged people’s careers.

For that reason, the newly elected Labor government was unable to trust ASIO’s judgements about the threat of Ustasha terrorism, believing that ASIO was in denial over a far-right terrorist threat.

The Murphy raid signified changing times for ASIO. From 1973 on, the Cold War hardliners were gradually purged and measure after measure was introduced to make ASIO and other agencies more accountable.

In 1974 Whitlam established the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which dug up, examined and condemned many of ASIO’s activities, leading to reforms.

In 1979 a new ASIO Act was passed, which narrowed the scope of “subversion” as a security concern and requiring ASIO to focus more on tangible security risks like “politically motivated violence”, while maintaining its focus on espionage and other traditional threats.

In the same year a Security Appeals Tribunal was established for citizens who failed ASIO’s security assessments, and the organisation was required to report to Parliament annually.

In 1983 Prime Minister Hawke established the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies (RCASIA). This was the second Royal Commission into ASIO, and the first one for the other agencies.

Following this second Royal Commission, Attorney-General Gareth Evans successfully pushed for amending the ASIO Act in 1986 to remove “subversion” as a security interest altogether.

In 1987 the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was established, which has been described as “a standing Royal Commission on all Australian intelligence agencies”, and celebrated 25 years of existence in February 2012.

In 1988 the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD was created, providing further oversight, and after the Cold War ended the security agencies experienced further reviews and inquiries, though no subsequent Royal Commissions.

So from the Murphy raid onwards, the trend has been one of increasing accountability for Australia’s intelligence agencies, even when accompanied by expanded budgets and new powers.  Unfortunately, there are still some areas where accountability is lacking, and overall Australian intelligence agencies are less open and accountable than those in some other Western democracies.

This is an important but under-studied issue. Intelligence-gathering is a necessary function of the state, and is vital for tackling crime and national security threats. Intelligence-gathering helps protect citizens’ security, rights and ultimately democracy, but only if there is adequate democratic oversight and accountability mechanisms.

The appropriate role of security agencies in a democracy is a key theme of this blog. It’s represented by the first photo, which shows the Wireless Message Sender used by Ivan Fedorovich Skripov, Soviet spy caught by ASIO.



The Murphy raid also marked one of the first times an Australian government regarded terrorism as a major security issue. In one sense the Murphy raid was a failure, as he did not find evidence that ASIO had been hiding information from him. However, he did find something damning.

What he found was that ASIO had little information on the Ustasha threat at all. This confirmed public perceptions that ASIO was neglecting a key security issue. There had been a surge of Ustasha bombings in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane during 1972 (which injured people and damaged property but fortunately cause no deaths) and the authorities appeared helpless. An editorial in the Sydney Mirror asked:

“Just what does the Australian and [sic] Security Intelligence  Organisation actually do?… At enormous expense ASIO screens migrants. At enormous expense it operates a network of spies and informers from its ugly, but expensive, headquarters in one of the choice parts of Sydney, Kirribilli. They’re a dab hand at tagging woolly academics; they’re adept at keeping an ear to the nations campuses. But when terrorists explode bombs in Sydney, ASIO hasn’t a clue”

The raid and subsequent events prompted security services to focus more on terrorism than before. Before the end of the year, a meeting between all Police Commissioners and Commonwealth officials established the first National Anti-Terrorist Plan, and much of the counter-terrorism architecture that has lasted to today. Later legislative changes ensured that terrorism would become one of ASIO’s prime security concerns.

This was a necessary change. Many acts of terrorism (both attempted and successful) were carried out in Australia over the following decades, by supporters of many causes: Ustasha, Ananda Marga, Armenian nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, far-right Australian nationalism, far-left extremism, opposition to the Family Court, anti-abortion zeolotry, and jihadism.

Fortunately, no single one of these post-Second World War acts of terrorism ever killed more than three people. Yet political violence is a serious, if intermittent, threat in Australia and several groups have plotted mass casualty attacks but been foiled by security agencies. Globally, terrorism remains a major transnational security concern, and will likely continue to.

Terrorism is a key theme of this blog, probably its most prominent theme. It’s represented by the second photo, which shows the aftermath of the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel in 1978. The attack occurred during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and killed three people. The perpetrators were never found. Instead, three people were wrongly imprisoned for the crime, having their convictions overturned seven years later.


Human rights

Less directly, The Murphy raid also relates to the final theme of this blog, human rights.

A month after the Murphy raid, Yugoslavia announced that it had executed three of the Croatian-Australians accused of carrying out an incursion into the Communist state. The Australian government rightly objected, highlighting a dilemma that recurs today.

Australia has an international obligation to prevent its citizens or residents from posing security threats to other countries (more so now with passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373). However, Australia also has an international obligation to promote human rights and a duty to protect its citizens from mistreatment.

Australian citizens are often arrested overseas on suspicion of terrorist activities (Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks are merely the most well known examples). Sometimes they are tortured or face less-than-transparent judicial proceedings, creating both moral and practical problems for counter-terrorism cooperation.

Moreover, Australia itself has not been innocent of human rights abuses, sometimes carried out in the name of counter-terrorism and security. This was also seen in the aftermath of the Murphy raid.

The Whitlam and then Fraser governments rightly cracked down on Ustasha terrorism, but the entire Croatian-Australian community became stigmatised even though only a very small number of people were involved in the violence. This has obvious parallels to the situation faced by Australian Muslims more recently.

Also, Tito’s Yugoslavia was a brutally repressive regime and assassinated its opponents abroad, including in Australia, and certainly didn’t distinguish between peaceful and violent opponents. Some of the incidents attributed to the Ustasha were actually set-ups by Yugoslavia’s State Security Administration (UDBA) and led to dodgy prosecutions. UDBA’s willingness to manipulate Australia’s legal system to take down enemies is in some ways similar to certain Mossad activities, and to the suspicions that Sri Lanka might be feeding false information to ASIO about Tamil refugees.

Human rights have rarely been an explicit theme in my writing, with the exception of articles on refugees who are detained indefinitely after receiving adverse ASIO assessments. More often human rights are an implicit theme of this blog, particularly in posts concerning the role of security agencies in a democracy. As discussed above, without democratic oversight and accountability mechanisms, security services can pose a threat to their own citizens and to democracy.

Human rights are represented by the third photo, which is an ASIO surveillance photograph of citizens peacefully protesting against the Vietnam War. At the time such surveillance was routine. This was chosen to contrast with the first photo, which represented an example of legitimate ASIO activity.


What’s it all for?

So that’s how the new title and pictures encompass the key themes I’ve been blogging about for nearly a year. This blog will continue to address these themes, and continue focusing largely but not exclusively on Australia.

Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading this blog, if I didn’t have readers I probably wouldn’t continue doing it.

I had a few key goals when I started blogging: to get feedback on ideas while they were still in the formative stage, to make myself write more, and discuss issues of interest online in greater depth than I was able to on Twitter.

It’s been a success in those ways; my only disappointment is that I’ve posted far less frequently than I had planned. Otherwise I’ve greatly enjoyed it and hope you have enjoyed reading it and that you continue to.

Finally, the 40th anniversary of the Murphy Raid passed last Saturday without any mention in the media. This is a shame. Discussion of current security controversies should be informed by past experiences, and hopefully this blog can help that to happen.

What happened to the stories about the Australian SAS in Africa?

One year ago today, Rafael Epstein and Dylan Welch reported that the SAS were engaged in espionage operations in Africa, which constituted “an unannounced and possibly dangerous expansion of Australia’s foreign military engagement.”

According to their report, the SAS were carrying out secret operations in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya, “gathering intelligence on terrorism and scoping rescue strategies for Australian civilians trapped by kidnapping or civil war.”

I have no idea how accurate the story is, but bring it up to make a separate point: since this story broke on 13 March 2012 there has been no further information on this issue.

In contrast with the huge amount of detailed reporting (of varying quality) available on US special forces, no one in the Australian media has confirmed or contradicted anything about these reported SAS operations in Africa. The government provided only the vaguest of responses, and felt under no pressure to divulge anything.

Instead, the story was quickly forgotten about, leaving a year-long silence.

This is further evidence of a problem that journalists, academics and others have highlighted for years: Australia’s unusually high level of secrecy on national security matters. The Australian Defence Force’s restrictive media approach mean we have far less idea what our special forces are up to compared to some other democracies like the United States.  This is similar to how our intelligence agencies have blanket 20-30 year freedom-of-information exemptions that aren’t seen in comparable countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand. We also have only a handful of committed and experienced national security focused journalists digging away at these issues.

This is a shame.  The story raised serious questions, such as whether SAS soldiers have adequate legal protections for espionage operations, and what their status is if captured.

It also raised the question of whether decisions to deploy the military will be wise if they are made secretively and only among a small group of people, which is particularly relevant on the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war.


Update 1:

A Lowy Institute submission reported in The Age on Thursday made a similar point about Australia’s excessive military secrecy. It stated that “Australia often lags behind our allies when it comes to defence transparency.”


Also, here are two reports about Australian strategic interests in Africa, which can provide some context for whatever deployments may or may not be happening:

AFRICOM and Australian Military Engagement in Africa
MAJ Matthew J. Cuttell, Australian Regular Army
School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Africa and Australia’s Interests
Multiple authors
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
May 2009

Has online jihadist radicalisation been overhyped?

A recent blog post by Cristina Archetti argued that online radicalisation is getting too much attention relative to other factors behind jihadist terror plots.

I agree with that, and this post present some of my own thoughts on online radicalisation (some pulled from earlier writings), and I would like to hear recommendations of further research sources from the readers.


Public discussion of online radicalisation

To argue that the role of the internet in violent extremism has been exaggerated, Archetti used the example of the jihadists recently convicted of planning a bombing attack in the UK.  She argued that the British media focused overwhelmingly on the plotter’s use of extremist material like Inspire magazine, as if it had a greater radicalising influence than their offline activity (which included training trips to Pakistan). This approach assumes “that stumbling on Al Qaeda cleric’s online sermon (or even consuming that material over time) will turn an ordinary individual into a radical bent on the mass slaughter of fellow citizens.”

Her argument counters a good deal of public discussion on the jihadist threat, including in Australia. In 2011 an Australian security specialist called for banning online extremist material, arguing that “the growing risks of internet radicalisation, especially among vulnerable youth in the West, now outweigh both the argument of security agencies in favour of monitoring online material for intelligence purposes, and the civil libertarian argument concerning free speech.”

So, is Archetti correct? Has the internet’s role been overhyped in discussions of jihadism?


Existing research

Plenty of current scholarship supports Archetti’s point. Tens of thousands of people might view online extremist material but only a very small number of them engage in violence. It’s necessary to identify what differentiates the violent few.

One large-scale research project by the UK think-tank Demos, which interviewed terrorists and compared them with non-violent control groups, found that members of the control groups had also often viewed online extremist material. The difference was that the violent ones were more likely to have shared the material with each other and discussed it as a group, showing the importance of social dynamics in radicalisation.

This can be combined with other research to show that if the group in question has access to training camps and conflict zones or includes people with previous jihadist involvement, they are far more likely to turn to violence than the many other people who view online extremist material.

For example, a recent UK Home Office report found that “the internet does not appear to play a significant role” in jihadist radicalization compared to “personal attachments to radicalizing agents.” Recent research by Thomas Hegghammer found that 46% of all jihadist plots in the West between 1990 and 2010 included a “foreign fighter”, someone who had trained or fought with a jihadist movement overseas.

While this does mean that 54% of plots occurred without the involvement of someone with overseas jihadist experience, those plots were less likely to be effective. Similarly, Anne Sternersen and Petter Nesser have shown that jihadists have not been able to acquire valuable terrorist skills through the internet. Gaining effective skills for violence usually requires physical travel.

None of the above suggests that the internet doesn’t play a role, simply that additional factors are usually needed for people to turn from online activity to terrorist plots.


Australian examples

This has particularly been the case in Australia. While Hegghammer found that 46% of jihadist plots in the West involved a foreign fighter, his data indicates that 100% of Australian plots did.

Furthermore, in Australia’s four major plots the jihadists do not appear to have first met each other online, communicated extensively online, or partaken in technologically sophisticated plots. While the publically available information on some of these plots is limited, the evidence so far suggests the internet has been less important for jihadist radicalisation in Australia than real-world social networks that include people with experience in (or access to) camps and conflict zones.

For example, the Pendennis plotters’ certainly downloaded extensive extremist material (including instructional material), and were particularly enamoured with the works of Abu Musab al-Suri. But they were also part of tight-knit like-minded groups which included multiple members had trained in al-Qa`ida and LeT camps, and had a self-taught religious leader providing a theological basis for violence in Australia. This makes it doubtful that the internet was the decisive factor behind their radicalisation.


Where to now?

If the internet’s role in jihadist radicalisation is so often overhyped, where should we turn for reliable information on what actual role it plays?

Aaron Zelin’s report on The State of Global Jihad Online is very valuable, and Peter Neumann’s Countering Online Radicalization in America looks promising but I haven’t read it yet.

Beyond those, I can’t think of other examples. I’m also conscious that there may be compelling scholarship that I’m unaware of arguing that online radicalisation is a major factor. After all, on some rare occasions individuals have radicalised online by themselves, as seen with Jihad Jane or Roshonara Choudhry.

So, readers, what further sources would recommend? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter.


Update 1:

On Thursday, Extremis Project published a post titled Al-Qaeda’s Cyber Warfare: The Virtual World of Extremism, which provides a good example of the viewpoint I am arguing against: “The recent case of the 3 men convicted of terrorism offences in Birmingham highlights how easily people can be radicalised through the Internet by websites and online videos/sermons.”


Anne Sternerson has a new journal article out titled ‘Bomb-making for Beginners’:Inside an Al-Qaeda E-Learning Course. It builds on the her 2008 article which I cited above:

“An article published in 2008 argued that while there is an abundance of training literature on radical forums online, the Internet does not function as a “virtual training camp” for Al-Qaeda – mainly, because there is no organized effort on part of Al-Qaeda Central to train people online. Others have argued that Internet training would never really replace real-life training because the Internet training can only transfer implicit but not tacit knowledge, i.e. the skills that can only come from hands-on experience.[13]


This paper argues that Al-Qaeda Central is still not making a determined effort to train followers online. However, online training courses organized by “jihobbyists” and forum administrators have become somewhat more professionalized over the past three years.”


Also, in the comments below Ramananda Sengupta provided the following links: