Good riddance to 2014

2014 has not been a good year in the areas I blog about.

This post looks back at some of my writing and lists five reasons why it’s been a bad year for Australia in terms of terrorism and human rights. It ends with some suggested organisations to donate to, for anyone feeling the same way.

 

  1. The Sydney siege.

With regard to this blog’s main theme (terrorism in Australia) the biggest development has been the horror of the Sydney siege, which ended with the deaths of two hostages.

There is some debate over whether it should be considered a terrorist incident, given that the gunman Man Haron Monis was acting alone and that there was a mix of motivating factors, including mental health issues, attention-seeking, and his losing battle with the justice system over sexual assault and murder. Terrorism is a very subjective term, so I’ll briefly explain my reasons for including it here as a terrorist incident.

First, because it was an act of serious violence aimed at impacting a wider audience than the immediate targets (the hostages).

Second, because there are many indications of political motivation:

  • The demand that the police provide him with an Islamic State flag.
  • The attempts to contact the Prime Minister during the siege.
  • The gunman’s insistence that the hostages call him an IS member and claim the attack in IS’s name.
  • His pledge of allegiance to IS on his website before the attack.
  • His public postings of enthusiasm for IS and other Sunni jihadists for about a month before the attack.
  • His attendance at rallies and political events, including a Hizb ut-Tahrir rally, where he told a journalist that “I believe a speech is not enough. We have to do something.”
  • His history of politically-motivated crime, back when he was a Shia, which included sending offensive letters to the families of Australian Defence Force members and terror victims.

That doesn’t mean that a terrorism paradigm completely explains his actions, or that the political response should be framed primarily in counter-terrorism terms rather than addressing mental health or misogynist violence. Defining this as a terrorist incident does not mean that it was only a terrorist incident and that other factors didn’t play a huge role.

The point is that the other factors don’t rule out the political motivation, and therefore terrorist aspect, of the crime.

There was a recent Blogs of War: Covert Contact podcast episode on the false dichotomies used in public discussion of these sorts of events. Ie: was he mentally ill or a terrorist? Was it personal or criminal or political or religious etc? The categories aren’t mutually exclusive, and mixed motivations are common to human behavior. An act can still count as terrorism if the person is deranged and acts alone.

In fact it’s not that unusual. Research by Paul Gill and Emily Corner found that mental illness was quite common among lone-actor terrorists. Ramon Spaaij’s book on lone-actor terrorists found that they often had an idiosyncratic mix of motivations, often including mental health problems and personal grievances along with ideology.

Admittedly his political motivation is less clear-cut than, for example, Brievik. However, he also clearly has more political motivation than Martin Bryant did. He’s on the borderline, and just hits the threshold of being a terrorist.

For some alternative views, arguing against calling the Sydney Siege a terrorist incident, see these pieces by Anne Aly, James Brown, @EX_V19 and Clarke Jones.

To me, it’s the second fatal terrorist attack in Australia this century, the first being this anti-abortion attack in 2001.

For an article placing this attack in the context of similar recent attacks by unstable individuals taking up IS’s call to arms, see The Islamic State’s Irregulars by J.M. Berger.

 

  1. The increased jihadist threat.

Most of my published writing has been on the threat of jihadist terrorism in Australia, and it’s something I’ve become increasingly pessimistic about. At the end of 2012 I wrote a threepart piece on the state of Australian jihadism, and while it noted the transformative potential of the Syria mobilisation, it didn’t conclude that the threat was growing:

However, it does not follow that Australian jihadist activity is rising. Risa Brooks has shown how US analysts drew poorly-founded conclusions from a perceived spike in US jihadism in 2009. Clint Watts has written several posts on the problems of identifying trends in year-by-year measurements of low-frequency events like jihadist plots.

My view is while Australian jihadism is definitely at a lower level than during 2003-2005, it remains persistent and the Syria conflict in particular has created the potential for growth.

We will have to wait and see the impact the events in Syria have. Overall, we are still dealing with a very small, low-tech, interlinked and closely-monitored (though possibly more diffuse) extremist fringe. 2012 has simply delivered a few new angles to watch.

By November 2013, it became clearer that the Syria mobilisation was having a large impact, but not necessarily that things were dramatically worsening:

The Syrian conflict is having an impact well beyond its borders, by drawing in neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon, becoming a magnet for jihadists around the world, and exacerbating sectarian tensions. For Australia, this has resulted in a foreign fighter mobilization on a scale not previously seen, sparked sectarian violence in Sydney and Melbourne, and provided a cause that could expand the country’s traditionally small jihadist scene. This has been a dramatic development for jihadist activity in Australia, and therefore poses a key concern for security agencies.

The actual extent of the threat, however, remains unclear. For example, local sectarian violence has recently declined despite continuing tensions. The most serious threat posed is that some returning fighters will have the intention, and increased capability, to attack Australia. This possibility, however, depends on the numbers of people actually fighting, the groups with which they are fighting, and to who else they may be connected. Reliable information on these details is currently limited. What is clear is that the Syria mobilization could radically reshape jihadist activity in Australia, a security concern that needs to be closely monitored.

But by late 2014, the outlook was far bleaker:

Australia’s jihadist foreign fighters pose an ongoing and increasingly complex national security threat. Australians have continued to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, with many joining ISIL. Some of the fighters have been involved in war crimes, some have made explicit threats against Australia, some have played leadership roles, and some have returned to Australia. Evidence has also emerged of active recruitment networks, connections to earlier terrorist plots, and of violent plans within Australia.

At the same time, the threat has become a greater political priority, resulting in escalating countermeasures, extra resources to security agencies, and attempts at legislative changes. Several of the proposed legislative changes, however, are highly contentious and might complicate counterterrorism efforts. The continuing foreign fighter problem has prompted a high-level response, but elements of the response pose their own problems. On the whole, the situation has substantially worsened during the past year.

From following open-source information on Australian jihadism for the past few years, the threat has clearly grown. This is why I don’t share the view that ASIO’s raising of the threat level was a political stunt.

 

  1. The government’s response.

However, as the conclusion quoted above shows, the problem is not only the increased threat but the response to it.

Australia had a chance early this year to address many of the widely-known problems with the counter-terrorism legislation rushed through parliament after 9/11, and to update it in light of technological changes and an evolving threat. Several independent reviews had come out in 2012 and 2013 from the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).

The reviews made a strong case for change, but also pointed out (particularly the PJCIS report) that change should be made slowly, cautiously, and with extensive consultation, to make sure we get the laws right.

However, for the first half of this year, these reviews were ignored by the Abbott Government (just as they had been by the Gillard and Rudd governments). In early 2014, I wrote that:

This is really unfortunate. These are extremely valuable reports, and where they have made recommendations to remove existing powers they have also provided detailed arguments that doing so will not harm national security, which at the very least deserve a similarly detailed response and not just assertions of ‘national security’ back.

Moreover, most of the recommendations were actually about more mundane issues, such as that some of Australia’s counter-terrorism legislation is so poorly-worded as to make it unusable, or that some bits leaves dangerous gaps.

Then around mid-way through the year, the government did respond, but not in a good way. First, it tried to abolish one of Australia’s most valuable oversight mechanisms, the INSLM (fortunately it backtracked).

Then, the government rushed extensive new national security legislation through Parliament with little time for public submissions, creating a whole range of new infringements on liberties, and some laws that may turn out to be as unworkable as some of the older ones.

There are plenty of critiques of these new laws around, of varying quality. The strongest come from the Gilbert and Tobin Centre for Public Law. See here, here and here.

 

  1. The anti-Muslim backlash.

Following the counter-terrorism raids in early September (as part of Operation Appleby, which has so far resulted in eleven people being charged, some with terrorism offences), Australia has seen a wave of harassment, sometimes violence, towards Muslims.

This has included assaults, death threats, graffiti, and property damage. There’s no shortage of incidents, but that doesn’t stop columnists from pretending they aren’t happening, referring to an “imaginary backlash” and “theoretical victims“.

It mirrors the way some leftists and civil libertarians dismiss the terror threat and respond sarcastically to every arrest and every announcement. The difference is that the jihadist threat is already taken very seriously by the bulk of the media, but Islamophobia is not.

 

  1. The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

One issue I use to write about was how Australia placed certified refugees in indefinite detention if they failed ASIO security assessments. This is still happening today, and it remains a horrendous and unnecessary policy, leading to “extraordinary rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm, including one man repeatedly beating his head with a toilet door.” One of them has killed himself, and a quarter of them have attempted or threatened suicide.

When I first wrote on this, these 50-odd adversely-assessed refugees were among the only people Australia was detaining indefinitely. I honestly thought there were strong prospects for change, given High Court rulings and dissent within both major parties.

Instead, we’ve gone backwards again. These adversely assessed refugees remain stuck, and now many more asylum seekers are receiving the same treatment. In 2013 the Gillard government introduced “No Advantage”, and then we saw Rudd’s “PNG Solution”, followed by Abbott’s “Operation Sovereign Borders”. The result is that Australia is in effect holding thousands of asylum seekers in indefinite detention (as their refugee claims are not being assessed).

We are inflicting a mental health crisis on them. People have been raped and murdered in our detention centres.

I haven’t written on this issue in ages. It seems so self-evidently wrong that arguments shouldn’t be necessary. I’ve disengaged entirely. I’m not proud of it, and greatly admire those who continue to fight against these policies.

 

So, for all those reasons, it wasn’t a great year.

I’m ending it by making some donations, hoping it will help make 2015 a slightly better year for some. Links are provided below if you would like to donate too.

  • Donate to the World Food Programme’s Syria Emergency Appeal here.
  • Donate to the Society for Mental Health Research Fund here.
  • Donate to the Refugee Council of Australia here.

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