Disciplinary divides in terrorism studies

Terrorism studies is a famously interdisciplinary field. By most accounts, the field’s dominant discipline is political science, followed closely by psychology, then by other disciplines such as criminology, sociology and economics. Some see this interdisciplinary nature as a strength, some see it as a weakness.

But what form does this interdisciplinarity take? Most people in the field would agree that the situation is not one of disciplinary siloes where, for example, the psychologists and criminologists never talk to each other. But this does not mean there is uniform interdisciplinarity, with each discipline engaging equally with others.

Instead, different parts of disciplines appear to cluster together in specific ways, but I have rarely seen this explored. Several scholars have mapped the prevalence of different disciplines within the field, but I’m not aware of any work mapping how the disciplines interact with each other.

I want to propose a way understand the relationship between different disciplines that engage with terrorism studies, for two purposes. One purpose is to invite critical feedback from other scholars. The other is to help new students and early career researchers make sense of the field.

I would suggest that there are three core interdisciplinary clusters in terrorism studies:

  1. Quantitative political science and economics
  2. Qualitative and mixed methods political science, history and macro-sociology
  3. Psychology, criminology and micro-sociology

The clusters are loosely based on the following criteria:

  • Whether terrorism scholars within particular disciplines or parts of disciplines tend to collaborate with each other.
  • Whether works that aggregate components of the field, such as review articles, edited volumes, or large-scale projects, tend to repeatedly group together particular disciplines or parts of disciplines.
  • Whether some journals or outlets attract contributions from a particular combination of disciplines or parts of disciplines.

My judgements about what fits what criteria are based on my anecdotal impressions, and not from any formal or transparent method. So, I am keen to hear from other scholars of terrorism about whether this matches, or clashes with, their own way of mapping the field. I am particularly unsure about the distinction I make between macro-sociology and micro-sociology.

Each of the three clusters is described below with some representative examples.

1. Quantitative political science and economics

Quantitative political science includes statistical approaches, formal/mathematical modelling approaches, and computational modelling approaches (although this last one is quite rare in terrorism studies). The discipline of economics is commonly characterised by these approaches, which were imported into political science, particularly in the United States. So US-based researchers are heavily represented in this cluster of terrorism studies.

Representative examples include Jacob Shapiro’s review article, Terrorist Decision-Making: Insights from Economics and Political Science, Todd Sandler’s The Analytical Study of Terrorism: Taking Stock, and Joseph Young and Michael Findlay’s Promise and Pitfalls of Terrorism Research. Most terrorism articles in highly ranked political science journals like The Journal of Peace Research or The Journal of Conflict Resolution would also sit within this cluster.

2. Qualitative and mixed methods political science, history and macro-sociology

The political science component of this cluster is far more qualitative than the previous one. It does not avoid quantitative methods but tends to use them to complement qualitative approaches. Historical approaches would be self-explanatory, and there has been a compelling historical turn in the field. By macro-sociology, an imperfect term, I am referring to social movement theory approaches and other accounts that tie terrorism into large-scale social processes.

3. Qualitative and mixed methods political science includes the highly formalised approaches common in the United States  as well as the more informal approaches that characterise much of terrorism studies.

Representative examples include Erica Chenoweth, Richard English, Andreas Gofas and Stathis N. Kalyvas’s edited volume The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism. Erica Chenoweth and Pauline L. Moore’s excellent and under-rated book, The Politics of Terror, mostly fits within this cluster but less neatly given the book’s sections of the psychological approach to terrorism. It would be fair to say that a lot of the literature that describes itself as jihadism studies would also sit in this cluster, and I would guess the same for articles that tend to be published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. This cluster would also include many parts of terrorism studies that overlap with other fields such as civil war studies, area studies and maybe communications studies (as well as strategic studies, but that overlap is surprisingly rare).

3. Psychology, criminology and micro-sociology

Psychology and criminology would be self-explanatory. By micro-sociology I am referring to sociological accounts that focus on the individual or perhaps group level, such as Lorne Dawson and Amarnath Amarasingam’s adoption of sociology of religion approaches to Islamic State foreign fighters.

Representative examples include Lara A. Frumkin, John F. Morrison and Andrew Silke’s edited volume A Research Agenda for Terrorism Studies, although this is not a perfect fit. The editors are criminologists and psychologists but several chapters draw on other disciplines. This cluster would also include most of the threat assessment literature on terrorism, such as the various validation studies of TRAP-18, and the risk assessment literature on terrorism, such as Michael Wolfowicz, Yael Litmanovitz, David Weisburd, Badi Hasisi’s review article Cognitive and behavioral radicalization: A systematic review of the putative risk and protective factors. Other representative examples include many publications that came out of the Grievance Project and many projects based on the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset.

What might all this tell us? Essentially, that there are disciplinary divides within terrorism studies, but they don’t take the form of a silo for each discipline. Instead, the key divides are between three distinct interdisciplinary clusters. The result is that review articles and edited volumes often fall neatly into one these clusters rather than encompassing the entire field.

That is not a bad thing; it’s an unwieldy field and trying to encompass it all would be formidable. This edited volume by Diego Muro and Tim Wilson looks like a great effort to do so, though I haven’t read it yet. Bart Schuurman’s review articles are extremely comprehensive, covering all the main journals (Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Perspectives on Terrorism, the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the Journal of Terrorism Research  and the Journal for Deradicalization). Yet my impression is that these terrorism journals are most likely to include work from the second and third cluster. Work from the first cluster is more likely to be published in non-terrorism journals (particularly journals from mainstream political science and economics, security studies and conflict studies), hence the prominence of outlets like The Journal of Conflict Resolution in Brian J. Phillips’ wide-ranging review article across thousands of journals.

Also, none of this means there are not further distinctions within each cluster. For example, psychological and criminological approaches make explicit efforts to consolidate their own disciplinary strength, and at times protect their turf, while nonetheless routinely cooperating with each other. Historical approaches similarly seek to differentiate themselves while still cross-pollinating with some political science and sociological approaches.

There are also further twists within each cluster. Much of the qualitative and mixed methods political science research on terrorism, in the second cluster, could be considered within the sub-discipline of comparative politics. However, terrorism scholars rarely explicitly situate themselves within comparative politics. This contrasts with the political science research on civil war studies, which tends to explicitly situate itself in comparative politics. I’ve noted before that terrorism studies and civil war studies have increasingly been working together over the past decade. This can be built on, in part by situating more of terrorism studies in comparative politics. However, as Thomas Hegghammer has contended, one downside of the field’s interdisciplinarity is that terrorism scholars risk being unaware of the broader debates and developments within their specific disciplines. The study of revolution is likewise a thriving sub-field of comparative politics that terrorism studies could learn from.

These divides between interdisciplinary clusters are not theoretical divides. For example you can broadly find principal-agent theory approaches in both the first cluster and the second cluster, but they take radically different forms. You can similarly find social network analysis in multiple clusters, taking a more mathematical form in the first and third clusters and a more qualitative form (but still somewhat mathematical) in the second.

These divides between the clusters are also not political divides (though these certainly exist in the field). I would think that the work of many scholars from the Critical Terrorism Studies tradition would fit into the second cluster, qualitative and mixed methods political science, history and macro-sociology (though there are debates over whether the interpretivist approaches, often used by critical theorists, should be lumped under the qualitative label). A fair amount could also fit under the third cluster of psychology, criminology and micro-sociology (critical criminology being a prominent sub-field), but I assume that very little would fit into the first cluster of quantitative political science and economics. However, there is an interesting argument that the interpretivist approaches often used by critical theorists are perfectly compatible with statistical, mathematical and computation methods despite the gulf between them in practice.

Another issue is that a lot of critical theory scholars would be sociologists, and I worry that by distinguishing between macro-sociology and micro-sociology I’ve artificially left no clear cluster for quite a number of such scholars. Potentially worsening this problem, I have completely left several relevant disciplines out of the three clusters above. For example, it is not clear in which cluster anthropological approaches to terrorism (which seem to be more common in the Critical Terrorism Studies tradition) would belong.

Beyond these three core clusters, the field appears to be more siloed. For example, legal studies of terrorism appear to be their own distinct area, as are computer science approaches.

But my impression remains that these three clusters appear to be the central disciplinary divides in terrorism studies. In the absence of an exercise to formally map the field’s interdisciplinary clusters, I’m curious to know if other scholars of terrorism have the same impression.

History wars over Australia’s role in Timor’s freedom

The release of the 976-page official military history, Born of Fire and Ash: Australian operations in response to the East Timor crisis 1999-2000, has revived controversies over Australia’s role in the independence ballot that freed Timor-Leste from 24 years of Indonesian military occupation.

The short version of these events is that, on 30 August 1999, over 400,000 Timorese voted in a United Nations ballot on whether they wanted independence from Indonesia. Under attack from violent militias controlled by the Indonesian army, 78% of Timorese voters chose independence. The Indonesian military and their militias, who had been intimidating and murdering independence supporters in the lead-up to the ballot, reacted with even more violence. They burnt houses and buildings, expelled the population from cities, towns and villages, murdered over a thousand people, and showed no sign of stopping.

Then on 12 September 1999, under massive international pressure, Indonesia reluctantly agreed to allow an Australian led peace-making force into the territory. This military mission, the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), began deploying on 20 September 1999. They brought the violence to an end and helped secure Timor-Leste’s freedom.

As Australia had prominently supported Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste for so many years, its leadership of INTERFET was remarkable and, to many, in need of explanation.

The Indonesian military occupation and annexation of Timor-Leste had long been controversial in Australian politics. The cause of Timorese independence was traditionally associated with the left, but the INTERFET mission was carried out by the conservative government of John Howard. Some leftists found themselves surprised to be supporting Australia’s largest military intervention since the Vietnam War.

Unsurprisingly, there have been sharply different views of how to make sense of Australia’s turnaround.

At least five different narratives have developed over Australia’s role in the lead-up to the independence ballot, the ballot itself, and the INTERFET intervention that followed. These positions developed shortly after the events of 1999 and are periodically relitigated in response to events like the release US documents and now the official military history.

The five narratives can be summarised as:

  • Australia as the hero:
    • In the “hero” narrative, Australia’s role in Timor-Leste’s independence ballot was a heroic triumph that overshadows Australia’s earlier support for Indonesia’s occupation. This narrative was implicit in much media and political rhetoric at the time. A detailed version of this narrative was later developed by the journalist Paul Kelly in his book March of the Patriots, which argued that “in early 1999, Howard and his foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer recognised that an independent East Timor was likely and they worked to achieve the result”. The “hero” narrative essentially holds that Timor-Leste owes its freedom to Australia. In Tony Abbott’s words, “[t]hanks to Australia, East Timor is free for the first time in nearly 500 years.”
  • Australia as the meddler:
    • The “meddler” narrative is the mirror image of the “hero” narrative. It similarly sees Australia as being primarily responsible for East Timor’s independence, only it sees this as bad thing. As soon as the INTERFET intervention was announced, public figures such as former ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott and former Prime Minister Paul Keating put forward versions of this narrative. It was also popular in Indonesian political circles.
  • Australia as the reluctant saviour:
    • While both the “hero” and “meddler” narratives view Australia as having sought to make Timor independent (though disagreeing on whether this was a good or bad thing), the “reluctant saviour” narrative views Australia as having sought to suppress Timorese independence up to, and briefly after, the referendum.  This narrative holds that Australia implicitly colluded with Indonesia and in effect enabled the massacres throughout 1999, but at the last minute (early to mid-September 1999) independence activists rallied the wider Australian public and forced Australia to reverse course. The most detailed versions of this argument come from Clinton Fernandes in his books Reluctant Saviour (where I’ve taken the term from) and The Independence of East Timor. A shorter version of his argument can be found in this Security Challenges article. He argued that “Australian diplomacy functioned in support of the Indonesian strategy all along… When the Howard government was eventually forced to send in a peacekeeping force, it did so under the pressure of a tidal wave of public outrage” (page 3). Many others support this narrative, such as John Martinkus.
  • Australia as the bungler:
    • The “bungler” narrative is somewhat similar to the “reluctant saviour” narrative, as it similarly places a lot of blame on Australia for Indonesia’s atrocities in Timor-Leste throughout 1999. However, it views the causes of Australia’s actions differently. Whereas Fernandes’ work portrays Australia’s actions as an outcome of foreign policy serving “the interests of those who control the central economic and political institutions” (page 130), the “bungler” narrative instead sees Australian policy at the time as driven by the incompetence, myopia and groupthink of various politicians and bureaucrats. This narrative is most succinctly expressed in John Birmingham argument that the “original failure was analytic, and from that moral consequences flowed” (he was referring specifically to the government’s policy in 1975, but throughout his essay he draws parallels with 1999). Similar arguments can be seen in the work of William Maley, who describes Australia’s role in the referendum as “a massive failure of analysis and constitutes Australia’s equivalent of the bungling which saw Pearl Harbor open to attack on 7 December 1941”.
  • Australia as the mostly powerless observer:
    • This “mostly powerless observer” narrative  differs from all four of the previous ones, by contending that (until the unique moment of early to mid-September 1999) Australia actually had little influence over on Timor’s fate. This narrative argues that the Indonesian government was utterly opposed to any talk of an international military presence before the referendum (only reluctantly agreeing to unarmed police observers), and that no countries, including the United States, would have been willing to sufficiently pressure Indonesia at the time even if Australia had sought for them to do so. Proponents of this narrative tend to agree with advocates of the “bungler” and “reluctant saviour” narratives that Australia knew full well that Indonesia was not upholding its promise to maintain security for the ballot, and that the Indonesian military was facilitating the murders instead. However, they differ by arguing that Australia had little power to prevent these atrocities, other than by speaking publicly and risking the cancelation of the referendum altogether and losing this rare chance for Timorese self-determination. The situation changed in September 1999, when global outrage at the post-referendum escalation of atrocities finally prompted sufficient international (mainly US) pressure to force Indonesia to allow an Australian-led military deployment. In Hugh White’s words (where I’ve taken the term from), “Australia found itself a mostly powerless observer of events in which it had important interests but little capacity to influence”. This narrative can also be found, in slightly different forms, in the works of Iain Henry, David Connery, James Cotton, David Scott, Frank Brennan, and Nicholas J. Wheeler and Tim Dunne.[1]

In my view, the “mostly powerless observer” narrative fits the facts far better than the other four, but not perfectly. I’m sympathetic to some elements of the “bungler” and “reluctant saviour” narratives, and almost none of the “hero” or “meddler” narratives. 

But I’m particularly interested to see what the evidence in Born of Fire and Ash will reveal about these debates, and about what needs to be rethought. Much of the media coverage has suggested that the book overwhelmingly supports the “reluctant saviour” narrative. I’m sceptical that it will, because I doubt that a 976-page official history will neatly fit any single narrative.

But I could certainly be wrong, as I have not read any of it yet. So I am purchasing a copy and aim to revisit this topic afterwards. This is clearly an important book that deserves to be read closely.

[1] However, I’ve grouped some quite different individuals together here. For example, David Scott’s book is highly critical of Australian government policy (he was a long-time independence supporter who spent 24 years fighting for Timorese freedom) while David Connery’s book is much more sympathetic to the government. I’ve placed Scott’s work in this category because Chapter 19 of his book is somewhat similar to Hugh White’s argument.

Everything but the punchline: what “Utopia” got right about Australian defence policy

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen wrote a fun post on this endlessly shared clip from the sitcom Utopia:

One of the episode’s sub-plots revolves around a fictional new Australian Defence White Paper. In the clip, Rob Sitch’s character Tony frustratedly seeks to get Defence officials to plainly answer why it’s necessary to spend close to $400 billion dollars as the paper promises.

The scene is sometimes widely shared on social media, and surged in popularity after the government announced that a similar sum of money (up to $368 billion) would be spent on nuclear-powered submarines under Pillar One of AUKUS.

Roggeveen’s post enjoyably dissects the clip. He starts with the weakness of the clip’s punchline, when Tony says:

So under this scenario we’re spending close to 30 billion dollars a year to protect our trade with China…

from China…

and that doesn’t strike anyone at this table as odd?

The punchline is fine as a sitcom line, but people sharing it on Twitter as if it is a compelling critique of defence policy has always bothered me. It’s as if people in the late 1930s were to say: “why do these stupid generals think we could ever face a threat from Japan, don’t they know Japan buys our pig iron?”

As Roggeveen notes:

There is nothing at all inconsistent about Australia defending itself against a country it trades with. In fact, it’s common for countries that trade together to also fight one another. Europe was highly economically integrated before the First World War, yet that didn’t prevent the war.

However, for this post I want to make a different point, one largely in support of the scene. To me, it’s all the parts of clip before the punchline that ring true.

I know this is all treating a sitcom scene far too seriously, but please indulge me.

The salient part of the clip is not the punchline, but the jargon and the vagueness throughout in how the Defence officials describe potential future threats, including steadfastly avoiding saying the word “China” until forced:

Genera: I wouldn’t want to raise tensions.

Tony: Where?

General: In this room.

Tony: You know what I’ll just name one and you nod… China

This highlights a real issue. Australian governments have generally sought to avoid inflaming tensions with China by saying anything too explicit about a potential future conflict with them. The Morrison government sometimes deviated from this approach, particularly the then Defence Minister Peter Dutton, but the Albanese government has been particularly firm on this. As Brendan Taylor notes:

Three distinct positions have emerged as to how Canberra should respond to the growing risk of war. One camp calls for Australia to make clear its commitment to joining with the United States and others in defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack, with a view to deterring Beijing from ever taking this path. A second perspective maintains that Taiwan’s defense is not a vital Australian interest, and that Canberra should be candid with Washington and Taipei regarding this reality well in advance of hostilities erupting. A third school, and one associated most closely with Australia’s new Anthony Albanese-led Labor government, holds that talking up even the chances of conflict is ill-advised. Instead, this camp argues, Canberra should adhere to the tried-and-true approach of its American ally, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding how it would respond in the event of a Taiwan conflict. [emphasis added]

But it will be harder to avoid mentioning conflict with China if the public want clearer answers on why we need nuclear-powered submarines, which may increasingly happen in the years ahead as the budgetary impact hits.

This tension is clear in a recent interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles (an interview discussed in Roggeveen’s post but to make a separate point). Marles seeks to justify the submarine decision without saying anything too inflammatory about China:

Marles has a tricky task, because if the public is told these submarines are necessary for defence they want to know who we need to be defended from. This was foreshadowed in the Utopia clip when Tony said, “At some point the PM is going to be asked a very simple question: in order to protect us from which enemy?”

Moreover, due to the lack of a strong “maritime consciousness” in Australia, for much of the public “defence” tends to mean defence from an invasion rather than defence through shaping distant events out in the oceans. Marles therefore seeks (in the interview and elsewhere) to shift the conversation away from a purported threat to Australian territory to a potential threat to Australian trade, but it is clearly hard for him to convey exactly how the submarines help with this. When he talks about defending Australia’s trade routes, it sounds like he is talking about using the submarines as escorts for trading vessels. Roggeveen responds to this by saying:

The distance between Singapore and Sydney is more than 6000 kilometres in a straight line and even further by sea. How are eight nuclear-powered submarines, only two or three of which will be available for operations at any one time, supposed to defend every ship traversing that vast stretch of ocean? Even the US Navy, with all its resources, would struggle to do it.

That probably isn’t what Marles was suggesting.

A few weeks ago, I was wondering what Marles may have actually meant and asked on Twitter whether maritime security experts could explain how the nuclear-powered submarines would protect trade routes. A bunch of maritime security experts were extremely generous with their time (see responses from Richard Dunley among others) and explained that the trade-protection idea would not at all be to use the submarines as escorts. Instead, if I have understood their responses correctly, the idea would be (in the context of a broader conflict, if deterrence failed) for the submarines to assist allied efforts to damage the enemy’s fleet and hem them in at bottlenecks between islands, to hopefully avoid a situation where escorts for allied merchant shipping were even necessary.

I personally can’t speak to how compelling that argument is. It depends on assumptions that not everyone will share (such as whether to maintain the US alliance for the decades ahead, to the extent of actively participating in a global war). The point is that the precise purpose of the submarines is not at all easy for the government to convey.

To tie this all together, when the government tries to explain why it is committed to such an expensive and ambitious submarine plan, they do indeed end up sounding like the military officials in the Utopia clip above.

This is due to a real dilemma. The government is caught between three competing imperatives that Richard Marles would be contending with throughout all his public statements on the topic:

  1. The diplomatic imperative to talk softly, where our defence policies are increasingly geared to concerns over China but political leaders are understandably wary of escalating tensions, so they seek to say “China” (or discuss specific threat scenarios) as little as possible.
  2. The parochial incentive to frame the international security situation in Australia-centric terms. Political leaders feel compelled to justify defence spending decisions by emphasising their direct benefits to Australia (many references to jobs and allusions to hypothetical future attacks on Australia by unnamed adversaries) rather than openly engage with the difficult questions of collective defence such as “should we help to defend the people of Taiwan if China goes to war and, if so, what risks should we bear?”
  3. The inherent complexity of the international security situation itself, where its likely impact on Australia is more indirect and long-term than can be conveyed through media-friendly comments. Marles’s arguments make the most sense when he addresses this indirect nature of the threat (“the maintenance of the rules-based order as we understand it, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, is completely in Australia’s interest”) rather than when he talks about directly defending Australian shipping. But this international security situation does not easily lend itself to concise statements. Hence the abstractions like rules-based order, which in my view are valid but likely don’t resonate with much of the public. And however valid they are, these abstractions do not in themselves amount to an argument for why spending hundreds of billions on this specific defence capability is the best way to deal with the international security situation.

These three competing imperatives will become more prominent in the years ahead. Arguments will need to be made as to why the submarines are so important that Australia can’t afford whatever has to be cut out of future budgets, but these contradictory imperatives work against making such arguments directly.

So the government is in the same position as the Defence officials in the Utopia clip: adamantly insisting that the money needs to be spent in this way, but awkwardly struggling to clearly or concisely explain why.

Highlights from the INSLM’s latest annual report

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Risk Terrorism Offenders Act review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Security Information Act review

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

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

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

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

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

Espionage and Foreign Interference Act review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2023 publications update

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

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

From the introduction:

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

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

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

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

From the introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] One was extreme-right.

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

[7] One was extreme-right.

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

[9] Two were extreme-right.

A brief return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhD and publications update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources: Concepts behind Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Defence diplomacy / building partner capacity

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

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

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

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

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

The grey zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So I recommend these articles:

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

Defence industrial base

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

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

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

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


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

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

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