I didn’t do my usual end–of–year post in December, so this is a short post to reflect a bit and look ahead.
This blog ended 2014 on a pessimistic note, and that hasn’t changed much. I was more optimistic about the terrorism threat when I began blogging in 2012. Recent years haven’t given strong reasons for hope, certainly not 2015. The year began and ended with major attacks in France which undermined expectations that the jihadist threat in the West had become reduced to amateurish plots by “lone wolves” or very small ad-hoc cells.
The attacks were also a reminder of the well-known risk that returned foreign fighters can pose. Eight of the nine terrorists who perpetrated the November Paris attacks are suspected to have trained in Syria with the “Islamic State” (IS). Tens of thousands of foreign fighters have joined IS and other Sunni jihadist groups in the region, and even though most won’t later prove a theat to their home countries, a small portion already has. For well over a year, the group’s violence has not been confined to Iraq and Syria. It had engaged in violence in countries such Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt, and been targeting Western countries for some time.
Of course, IS isn’t the only threat. Al-Qaeda hasn’t disappeared, and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra remains strong. Shia jihadism is also a concern, as thousands of Shia foreign fighters have also joined the Syrian civil war (on the Assad regime’s side), and Hezbollah has perpetrated terror plots across the world. Then there is the often-downplayed threat of extreme-right terrorism, which has seen major attacks in Europe and the United States. Various separatist and extreme-left groups have also engaged in terrorism in the West, though fortunately they have rarely proven deadly in recent years and were much more of a problem in the 1970s and 1980s. And this is still only a narrow look, as most terrorism overwhelmingly occurs outside of Western countries, and there is also the terror inflicted by states.
For Australia, the main terrorist threat this century (with some exceptions) has been from extremists inspired by al-Qaeda and more recently IS. Security agencies state that they have foiled six terror plots since September 2014, which would be:
- The alleged plot to murder a random member of the public in Sydney (possibly by beheading), which led to the Operation Appleby raids in September 2014.
- The alleged plot involving firearms and knives in Brisbane, which led to the Operation Bolton raids in Brisbane on October 2014.
- The alleged plot to attack a government building in Sydney, which led to further Operation Appleby raids in December 2014 and December 2015.
- The alleged plot to carry out a beheading in Sydney, which led to the Operation Castrum raids in February 2015.
- The alleged plot to murder police at an Anzac Day service in Melbourne, which led to the Operation Rising raids in April 2015. A 14-year old UK boy has pleaded guilty, while the Australian alleged co-conspirator faces trial.
- The apparent plot involving improvised explosives in Melbourne, which led to the Operation Amberd raid in May 2015. A 17-year old boy has pleaded guilty but not yet been sentenced.
Then there have been the acts of violence. The stabbing of counter-terrorism police officers in Melbourne in September 2014, the hostage-taking and murder at the Lindt Café in Sydney in December 2014, and the murder of NSW Police accountant Curtis Cheng in Sydney in October 2014.
Some of the trials should begin this year, allowing us to see more details of the alleged activities and whether the evidence proves as strong as the prosecution hopes. The coronial inquest for the Sydney Siege will continue, and there will also be the Numan Haider inquest. So there should be a lot of information coming out this year, and probably several new arrests too.
As for myself, I plan to do some more writing on the terrorism threat, and also on problems with Australia’s response, in both its coercive and non-coercive manifestations.
However, I won’t be spending the next year focusing only on terrorism or on Australia. I’m currently doing a PhD at Melbourne University, looking at transnational support for armed movements. The PhD doesn’t fit purely into the field of terrorism studies, it also straddles the fields of civil war studies and social movement studies. I’m also planning to engage more with the broader parent disciplines of political science and international relations.
I’m currently finding the PhD to be a struggle, though PhDs are of course meant to be a struggle. I’m nearly a year in now, having started in March, and need to focus on it more. So I expect that this year I will be publishing less, but am looking forward to researching more and learning many new skills.
I’m still working at Australian Policy Online at Swinburne University. I’m also working on a small project (a literature review) at Victoria University, funded by the Victorian Social Cohesion and Community Resilience Ministerial Taskforce, which should finish by the end of January.
I had said I would write a piece on engagement between academia and government in national security matters. This has ended up getting out of control, because I’m finding the topic so much more exciting than I expected. I was planning for it to be a small blog post, but now my notes alone make up over 9000 words. It’s looking at the history of both terrorism studies and strategic studies, in the US, Australia and elsewhere. So it has become a much bigger task, and I don’t know when I will finish it.
Finally, I want to give some shout-outs to a few people whose work you should follow. Some of them are friends of mine, some are people I only know online, and all are valuable new voices who should be better known.
Matteo Vergani from Monash has a social science blog. Alex Phelan from Monash has a blog on conflict in Latin America called “More Than Wars” (she’s one of the few scholars in Australia to examine political violence in Latin America, the only other one I can think of is Cesar Alvarez Velasquez). Jaye Weatherburn from Australian Policy Online has a blog on data management, digital libraries and public policy called “kaizen”.
My external PhD supervisor, Debra Smith, now has a Vic Uni profile page. Fatima Measham, an excellent writer who has often helped me with my own writing, has a blog called “This Is Complicated” and a column at Eureka Street. Natalie Sambhi, one of the key people to encourage me to start blogging, has a blog called “Security Scholar” and often hosts the podcasts Sea Control and Foreign Entanglements.
Leanne O’Donnell, who used to work for iiNet and now writes on data retention, privacy, and other issues, has a website called “Ms.Lods”. David Wells, who has worked for UK and Australian intelligence services, has a blog called “Counter-Terrorism Matters“. Australian Army Major Clare O’Niell has a website called “Grounded Curiousity”, and a great podcast. Some other Army officers producing interesting work are Jason Logue and Andrew Maher.
Over in America, Adam Elkus is a fascinating and ridiculously prolific writer, from whom I always learn about loads of research I wasn’t aware of. For examples of his breadth, see this and this. Jennifer Williams, formerly from Brookings and now at Vox, writes great pieces on terrorism and other topics. Also check out the Jihadology Podcast created by Aaron Zelin. And I cannot recommend the Loopcast highly enough. Run by Sina Kashefipour and Chelsea Daymon, it’s easily my favourite national security podcast.
There’s many more who deserve to be added, but that’s enough for now. I hope you get a lot out of them.
It’s time for me to start working again for year, and blogging will likely continue to be sparse. Thanks very much to everyone who has been reading, and hope you have a great a year as possible.