The best articles from 2018 on the state of terrorism studies

Articles examining the state of terrorism studies are quite common, but last year saw some really excellent and constructive assessments of the field. Three of these deserve to be much more widely read.

First example: Mark Youngman, “Building ‘Terrorism Studies’ as an Interdisciplinary Space: Addressing Recurring Issues in the Study of Terrorism“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 9 October 2018.

Abstract: Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the state of research into terrorism and whether “terrorism studies” constitutes an academic discipline in its own right. Such reflections, coupled with the natural evolution of what is still a relatively new area of research, have arguably led to significant improvements in quality and rigour. At the same time, the status of terrorism studies itself remains somewhat ambiguous: it is both discussed as a distinct field and simultaneously evades criticism by pointing to the difficulties of defining its boundaries. There are undoubtedly a number of advantages to forming a separate discipline, which would go some way to helping the field address some of the recurring problems that terrorism research faces. However, this article ultimately argues that scholars are better served by deliberately moving in the other direction and developing the field as a space for interdisciplinary engagement.

Mark Youngman’s article is outstanding and I strongly agree with many of its points. Youngman begins by discussing how the field straddles several different disciplines and therefore lacks a secure foothold in academic institutions. However, he argues that the field should emphatically not try to become a discipline in itself and that terrorism scholars should instead critically engage more with their home disciplines. Hegghammer made a similar argument a few years back, which I concurred with.

Youngman’s article also has a valuable section on the field’s need for greater methodological sophistication, which does not simply repeat the constant calls for more empirical research. Terrorism studies is often accused of lacking empirical data and of failing to talk directly to terrorists, but in my view these critiques are no longer well-founded and they tend to miss the point. There is no shortage of empirically-based datasets, but there are valid critiques of how some datasets are constructed. Similarly, many terrorism scholars conduct interviews with terrorists, though there are legitimate questions over whether such interviews are always conducted with sufficient rigour and methodological transparency.

So it was great to see Youngman’s article did not simply repeat the common calls for more fieldwork. He instead points out that holding interviews with terrorists (particularly in conflict zones) up as the gold standard is both unwarranted and creates currently unaddressed risks. He argues that it reflects poorly on the field when one research method is treated as inherently superior to all others, instead of a more pluralistic approach based on detailed discussions about which methods are best suited for different types of questions.

Youngman’s article makes many other good points. He critiques the recurrence of strawman arguments in the field, such as when the argument that terrorism is “not all about ideology” is presented as being counter to conventional wisdom, yet almost nobody actually contends that it is all about ideology. He points out the ethical risks involved in engaging the media, policy-makers and practitioners, but rightly adds that “[w]e cannot criticise state policies for being ill-informed and at the same time turn away those who seek to make them better informed”. He also notes the potential for productive engagement with civil war studies, which has increased in the past couple of years and was long overdue. However, Youngman adds an ethical argument in support of such crossover, as civil war studies appears to have “a greater emphasis on the victims and social consequences of violence” than terrorism studies has.

Second example: Bart Schuurman, “Research on Terrorism, 2007–2016: A Review of Data, Methods, and Authorship“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 1 March 2018.

Abstract: Research on terrorism has long been criticized for its inability to overcome enduring methodological issues. These include an overreliance on secondary sources and the associated literature review methodology, a scarcity of statistical analyses, a tendency for authors to work alone rather than collaborate with colleagues, and the large number of one-time contributors to the field. However, the reviews that have brought these issues to light describe the field as it developed until 2007. This article investigates to what extent these issues have endured in the 2007–2016 period by constructing a database on all of the articles published in nine leading journals on terrorism (N = 3442). The results show that the use of primary data has increased considerably and is continuing to do so. Scholars have also begun to adapt a wider variety of data-gathering techniques, greatly diminishing the overreliance on literature reviews that was noted from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. These positive changes should not obscure enduring issues. Despite improvements, most scholars continue to work alone and most authors are one-time contributors. Overall, however, the field of terrorism studies appears to have made considerable steps towards addressing long-standing issues.

Bart Schuurman’s article updates earlier quantitative assessments of terrorism studies conducted by Andrew Silke, which covered research published in the journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (and their predecessor journals) up until 2007. In doing so, Schuurman’s article does the field a great service.

When I first started reading this article I was concerned that it categorised research that isn’t based on primary sources under what I saw as the somewhat dismissive term “literature review method” (similarly Silke refers to studies that aren’t based on new data as “essentially rehashing knowledge that was already there”). After all, it can be within such work that the all-important conceptualisation and theorisation can occur. Such work is crucial and it should not be automatically looked down on. It should be judged for how well it advances (or fails to advance) the field by consolidating current knowledge, creating conceptual clarity, developing new theoretical propositions (to later be tested), and ensuring contestation. So I was worried that Schuurman’s article might make the sort of assumptions that Youngman’s article warned about, but my concern turned out be misplaced. Instead, Schuurman noted near the end of his article:

The emphasis on how a lack of primary sources in particular has had a detrimental influence on the field for decades, is not a dismissal of the value of non-empirical work. Many authors who base themselves on the secondary literature have made stellar contributions by bringing together insights from a diverse range of scholarly, governmental, journalistic, and NGO-based works. Others have analyzed existing data in novel ways, presented findings from the non-English literature, or drawn attention to countries, case studies, and historical periods that have been undeservedly neglected. Similarly, the use of primary data is not a guarantee for high-quality work; some articles use only the barest of such sources or fail to study them in depth.

The result is a nuanced and utterly indispensable article, because it finally provides an up-to-date quantitative assessment of the popularity of different research methods within terrorism studies, superseding many of the earlier assessments. The field has needed this for some time. It’s particularly valuable because it focuses not just on Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the two journals traditionally considered as the field’s core journals, but also on Perspectives on Terrorism, the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways Toward Terrorism and Genocide, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the Journal of Terrorism Research  and the Journal for Deradicalization. And I agree with its conclusion, that “[r]esearch on terrorism has not stagnated; it has begun to flourish”.

Third example: Deven Parekh, Amarnath Amarasingam, Lorne Dawson, and Derek Ruths, “Studying Jihadists on Social Media: A Critique of Data Collection Methodologies”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 12, issue 3, 2018

Abstract: In this article, we propose a general model of data collection from social media, in the context of terrorism research, focusing on recent studies of jihadists. By analyzing Twitter data collection methods in the existing research, we show that the methods used are prone to sampling biases, and that the sampled datasets are not sufficiently filtered or validated to ensure reliability of conclusions derived from them. Alternatively, we propose some best practices for the collection of data in future research on jihadist using social media (as well as other kinds of terrorist groups). Given the similarity of the methodological challenges posed by research on almost all social media platforms, in the context of terrorism studies, the critique and recommendations offered remain relevant despite the recent shift of most jihadists from Twitter to Telegram and other forms of social media.

Social media analysis has become quite a common approach within the field, particularly for scholars focusing on jihadist movements, so it was great to see this article disentangling some of the methodological dilemmas involved. Parekh et al‘s article focuses heavily on authentication, that is, how to know if the accounts being the research classifies as jihadist truly are being run by jihadists. The article shows how some methods currently used entail serious authentication problems, and proposes some ways to help fix this, while being entirely respectful in their critiques of others’ work. If you have even the slightest interest in social media as a research resource for terrorism studies, you should read this.

Read them!

So these three articles were all excellent for many reasons. They did not waste much on the purported gulf between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”. They didn’t repeat outdated arguments about the supposed lack of datasets or field interviews (indeed Schuurman’s article provided a much needed corrective, showing the actual prevalence of such approaches). These articles nonetheless did not champion the field; they instead made well-founded critiques of real and serious problems within terrorism studies, and provided helpful ways forward.

There are some unconvincing assessments of terrorism studies out there, but these three from 2018 are all compelling ones, to be placed alongside excellent earlier assessments such as Richard English’s The Future Study of Terrorism, Thomas Heggammer’s The Future of Terrorism Studies, and Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production.

Books I read in 2018

To end this year I’d like share what books I’ve been enjoying, for any interested readers. This list only includes books I’ve wanted to read from start to end, not books that I’ve just dipped in and out of (usually edited collections), used for reference (such as research methods books), or books that I began but did not feel the need to finish.

Books I finished reading in 2018:

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, by John le Carré

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré

What is Military History? by Stephen Morillo with Michal F. Pavkovic

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right, by Angela Nagle

The Navy and National Security: The Peacetime Dimension, by Dick Sherwood

The Secret Pilgrim, by John le Carré

The Navy and the Nation: Australia’s Maritime Power in the 21st Century, by Vice Admiral Tim Barrett

Terrorism in Australia: The Story of Operation Pendennis, by Peter Moroney

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean, by Joy McCann

In Defence of History, by Richard J. Evans

Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern, by Laura Tingle

Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman, by Laura Tingle

A Little History of Economics, by Niall Kishtainy

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, by Jonathan Taplin

Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings, edited by Graeme Davison

Books I began in 2018 and am keen to finish:

The French Art of War, by Alexis Jenni

Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy, edited by Benedict Wilkinson and James Gow

The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm

The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, by Christopher Andrew

On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis

Recommendation:

I would recommend most of the books in this list, but if I had to choose one must-read it would be Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire.

ASIO’s definition of foreign interference

Just a quick post to share this image I noticed in the latest ASIO annual report, presenting their view of what constitutes “foreign interference” and what distinguishes it from mere influence:

ASIOFIchart

Countering foreign interference has formally been part of ASIO’s mandate at least since the 1979 ASIO Act, which defined it in the following way:

acts of foreign interference means activities relating to Australia that are carried on by or on behalf of, are directed or subsidised by or are undertaken in active collaboration with, a foreign power, being activities that:

                     (a)  are clandestine or deceptive and:

                              (i)  are carried on for intelligence purposes;

                             (ii)  are carried on for the purpose of affecting political or governmental processes; or

                            (iii)  are otherwise detrimental to the interests of Australia; or

                     (b)  involve a threat to any person.

It was also effectively part of ASIO’s role before the 1979 legislation. ASIO’s 1949 charter and 1956 legislation did not use the term “foreign interference”, but did use the broad notion of “subversion” which among other things encompasses what is now called foreign interference. It’s become a bigger political concern in Australia in the past couple of years, due to the impact of Russian electoral interference overseas, the commissioning in late 2016 of a joint ASIO and ONA report on Chinese covert activities in Australia, and controversies like the Dastyari affair.

Foreign interference is a real threat, but not a new one (here’s an interesting article on old Soviet methods), and not something Western countries are innocent of. I’m wary of how the concept could easily be misused (it’s not hard to imagine political figures casually throwing the term around to discredit opponents) and some aspects of the new legislation. At some point I’d like to write something about the broader politics of national security and how Australia’s political debates about foreign interference share some of the same shortcomings as Australia’s counter-terrorism debates.

 

Image: © Commonwealth of Australia 2018, Creative Commons BY Attribution 3.0 Australia licence. Taken from the ASIO Annual Report 2017–18, pages 26-27.

New commentary on Australian IS plots

I have a new piece out discussing which terror plots in Australia have had a genuine and direct connection to “Islamic State” (IS), what the nature of these connections were, and what this tells us about the threat.

It’s up on the website of the AVERT (Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism) Research Network based at Deakin University. I will be a regular blogger there, posting twelve pieces over the next year. I’m going to use it as a chance to post more regularly than I tend do here, and to keep up with current developments. Please enjoy the first one!

Islamic State’s virtually planned terror plots: a note on current and future research

Journalists, scholars and counter-terrorism practitioners have recently drawn attention to a particular strain of Islamic State terror attacks which have been described as “virtually planned”.

This refers to terror plots where the perpetrators are guided through sustained online communication with Islamic State operatives who provided encouragement, instructions or advice. These plots are also characterised by the absence of physical connections that might make them more directly planned than the term “virtual” would imply, such as one of the perpetrators having trained or fought with Islamic State.

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser appear to be the first authors to note this as a distinctive type of plot. In 2015 they created a six-part typology to categorise jihadist plots in the West, and Type 4 was “remote contact with directives”. From 2016 onwards authors  such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Madeleine Blackman, Nathanial Barr, Bridget Morang, Rukmini Callamachi, Kim Cragin and Ari Weil popularised the term “virtual planning” to describe these plots.

Other authors explored the same concept but used different terms. Thomas Jocelyn and Peter Neumann described them as “remote-controlled” plots, Seamus Hughes and Alexander Melagrou-Hitchens referred to “virtual entrepreneurs” (capturing that Islamic State’s virtual planners also play a number of online roles other than plotting attacks, such as providing advice on how to travel to Syria) while John Mueller used the term “cyber coaching” (to refer specifically to virtual planners teaching the perpetrators which methods to use for their attacks). I tend to stick with “virtual planning”, and explored Australian examples with articles on the 2015 Anzac Day plot and the alleged 2017 Sydney plane plot.

Since then, Katrina Zorzi and I have been doing quite a bit of research on virtual planning, as a side-project, to interrogate and contribute to the further development of the concept. We’re looking at the extent to which such plots are genuinely new, widespread, and significant, and what they tell us about various debates within terrorism studies, such as those over online radicalisation and lone wolves. We also hope to examine how virtual planning has created opportunities for women to be more involved in Islamic State’s external attacks, even during periods when their propaganda appeared to eschew combat roles for women, and if broader contextual factors have helped enable the development of virtually planned attacks. We’re also interested in what aspects of Islamic State’s strategy and military doctrine made it particularly open to adopting this approach, and why other jihadist organisations have so far used this approach far less (which also involves revisiting al-Qaeda’s small number of virtually planned attacks).

We will post some intermittent updates about it on this blog, but first I wanted to share this table summarising existing estimates of how widespread such plots are.

This table lists the number of virtually planned plots various authors have noted in particular regions at particular times, and where possible how large a proportion of all Islamic State-associated attacks they accounted for.  At the end of the table I added my own estimates for Australia.

Author(s) Geographic location Time period Authors’ estimate of virtually planned IS plots Authors’ estimate of total of IS-associated plots Virtually planned plots as proportion of total IS-associated plots
Petter Nesser, Anne Stenersen and Emilie Oftedal Europe[1] January 2014 to October 2016 16 38 42%
Seamus Hughes and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens United States March 2014 to March 2017 8 38 21%
Joseph Liow Malaysia January 2013 to September 2016 7 13 54%
Kim Cragin and Ari Weil Indonesia January 2014 to December 2017 14 Unclear Unclear
Kim Cragin and Ari Weil Worldwide January 2014 to December 2017 51 273 19%
Andrew Zammit Australia[2] January 2014 to December 2017 5 19 26%

Not all the figures in these articles match up. For example, Cragin and Weil state that that Islamic State carried out fifty-one virtually planned plots across the world (that is, in countries that did not contain an Islamic State Wilayat) between January 2014 and December 2017, and that seventeen of these were in the West. However, the figure of seventeen seems too low given evidence of six virtually planned plots in Australia, sixteen in Europe and eight in the United States, either within the same time period or within even shorter periods.

Nonetheless, these various sets of figures indicate that Islamic State’s virtually planned terror plots have been quite prevalent, amounting to between a fifth and half of all Islamic State plots depending on the region.

It will be interesting to how Islamic State’s loss of territory inside Syria and Iraq changes that. I’ve previously expressed scepticism that this territorial loss will have much impact on virtually planned attacks, on the grounds that that “virtual encouragement or direction has been provided to plotters in the West by individuals in Somalia, Libya, and the United Kingdom”, but I hope that scepticism turns out to have been misplaced.

 

[1] For Europe, Nesser, Stenersen and Oftedal’s did not explicitly estimate the number of virtually-planned attacks, but noted that nineteen of their plots involved “involve online instruction from members of IS’s networks”. Three of these nineteen involved returned foreign fighters, but the remaining sixteen fit the criteria for virtually planned plots. See their article here along with Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.

[2] For Australia, my estimate of six virtually-planned plots from January 2014 to December 2017 is based on the February 2015 Sydney plot (NSW JCTT Operation Castrum), the 2015 Anzac Day plot (Vic JCTT Operation Rising), the 2015 Mother’s Day plot (Vic JCTT Operation Amberd), the 2016 Anzac Day plot (NSW JCTT Operation Vianden, but this is an extremely tentative inclusion), the alleged September 2014 Sydney plot (Operation Appleby) and the alleged July 2017 Sydney plane plot (NSW JCTT Operation Silves). My estimate of nineteen total IS-associated plots in Australia during this period is based on the sixteen incidents listed here along with the June 2017 Brighton siege, the alleged July 2017 Sydney plane plot, and the alleged November 2017 Melbourne plot.

Update 1: I have now removed the 2016 Anzac Day plot, which was tentatively included based on reports of possible instructions the perpetrator received from abroad. Last week he was sentenced and it turns out both of the people he was communicating with overseas were undercover police officers (see paragraphs 11-13 of his sentencing). For this reason, it cannot be counted as one of the Islamic State’s virtually planned plots, so my estimate for such plots in Australia during this period has changed from six to five, and I have updated the table to account for this.

Numbers of Australians involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq: estimates from Estimates

One interesting part of Senate Estimates is when the ASIO Director-General testifies before the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. Ever since the self-described Islamic State siezed territory in Syria and Iraq and became a major security concern worldwide, the Director-General has been sharing ASIO’s estimates of how many Australians are involved with IS and other jihadist groups in the region.

I’ve compiled the official figures from current ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis’s latest Senate Estimates hearing, as wells as figures from previous hearings (for categories that weren’t covered in the latest one).

Australian jihadists currently in Syria and Iraq:
“ASIO assessed that around 110 Australians are currently in Syria or Iraq and have fought or otherwise supported the Islamic extremist groups.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Australians killed while involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq:
“At least 78 and possibly as many as 90 Australians have been killed because of their involvement in the conflict.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Australians subject to travel restrictions:
“Since 2012, around 240 Australian passports have been cancelled or refused and 39 Australian passports have been suspended on ASIO’s recommendation in relation to Syria and Iraq.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 May 2018, page 100.

Total number of Australians who traveled and joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq during the conflict:
“Since 2012, around 220 Australians have travelled to Syria/Iraq to join the conflict. Although unable to further breakdown these figures for security reasons, ASIO notes that as the conflict continues, fewer individuals are successfully entering the conflict zone.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 27 February 2018.

The groups they joined:
“The vast majority of the Australians who travelled to Syria or Iraq in support of terrorist organisations are assessed to be associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 27 February 2018.

Other Australians have been involved with Jabhat al-Nusra (which renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and then formed the umbrella group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) as well as Ahrar al-Sham and some other groups.

Warrants issued for those still overseas:
“In relation to those individuals, the AFP has worked with its partner agencies, ASIO and the state and territory police, and we’ve obtained 21 arrest warrants in relation to those persons.” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin, 27 February 2018, pages 35-36.

Those who returned:
“The other figure which is always of interest to this committee is those who have returned from the Middle East. That still sits at around 40. And, as I’ve said on several occasions before this committee, the overwhelming majority of them returned to Australia before ISIL was actually declared as this so-called province—this caliphate.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 24 October 2017, page 132.

Those suspected of providing support from within Australia:
“Furthermore, ASIO is investigating around 190 people here in Australia who are actively supporting extremist groups in Syria and Iraq through recruiting, fundraising and in some cases seeking to travel to join these groups themselves. This number includes our investigation into about 40 Australians who have returned from the conflict zone.” ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 18 October 2016, page 177.

The children involved:
“Of further concern are up to 70 children of Australians, that we are aware of, who have been exposed to extremist groups in Syria or Iraq. These children either travelled to the conflict zone with their Australian parents or, indeed, have been born there.”
ASIO DG Duncan Lewis, 18 October 2016, page 177.

Did any Australians join the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

I’ve often written about Australians who have joined jihadist groups abroad, but have rarely come across evidence of Australians fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Intuitively, you could expect that some Australians were involved in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion prompted tens of thousands of Muslims across the world to travel to Afghanistan and join the fight throughout the 1980s. This was the world’s largest jihadist foreign fighter mobilisation until the Syrian civil war.

Given Australians have joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere since the 1990s, it would be surprising if there had been no Australians involved at all in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Yet I have only occasionally come across indications of Australian involvement, such as a section in Irfan Yusuf’s book Once Were Radicals, where he states that in the 1980s a friend of his, Kamal, “seemed to know a lot of what was happening there [in Afghanistan], and he also knew people who had gone from Australia to fight in the jihad” (page 151).

Another example is that an Australian woman, Rabiah Hutchinson, travelled to Pakistan in 1990 and based herself in the village of Pabbi (near the Afghan border). She stayed under the auspices of Abdul Rassul Sayyaf (who trained many Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists) and interacted with Osama bin Laden. But this was after the Soviets withdrew, and bin Laden was (according to Hutchinson’s biography, The Mother of Mohammed) surprised to encounter an Australian. He reportedly said “Australian – that must be a first!” (page 191). This anecdote suggests that Australians were absent during the 1980s, but we can’t read too much into it. The story might not be true, and Bin Laden was not then the central figure he would later become, so we can’t assume he would have known the nationality of each of the thousands of volunteers who traveled to join the conflict.

So there has generally been extremely little information around on any Australians fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

However, Thomas Hegghammer recently sent me some interesting things he has found.

He found that “there were people in Australia reading al-Jihad and writing letters to the editor”. Al-Jihad was the magazine produced by Abdullah Azzam’s Services Bureau. Hegghammer provided this image of al-Jihad’s 18th issue, page 41:

AlJihadLetterToEditor.jpg large

He added that the “same guy is mentioned in the next issue (p.45) as having sent money.”

Hegghammer also showed that the book Jihad in Afghanistan Against Communism refers explicitly to Australians among the mujahideen at the time:

JihadCommunismBookCover.jpg large

 

JihadCommunismBookPage.jpg large

Hegghammer helpfully adds to the extremely small body of public information on any Australian involvement in the 1980s foreign fighter mobilisation against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a few Australians had been fighting the Soviets, but information on it is hard to come across, and I will let readers know if I hear of anything else.

 

Update 1: (added 29 March 2018) Anthony Davis from IHS-Jane’s has sent the following example. As with the examples above, I am not personally in a position to verify it, but I greatly appreciate it for adding to the small and fragmentary body of information on this topic:

l met a young Australian fighter called Yusuf while working in the northern Kunduz-Khanabad area in the late summer of 1982 with a group of mujahideen of the Jamiat-i-Islami party. He had served in the ADF and later married a Muslim woman from Malaysia and converted to Islam. He was actually less interested in killing communists than in fulfilling his duty as a Muslim to perform jihad. He took his religion extremely seriously rather to the amusement of his Afghan comrades-in-arms not all of whom prayed five times a day and many of whom enjoyed the odd joint of good local hash. They nick-named him “Sheikh” in a back-handed compliment to his religious rectitude. But with a full beard, long hair and turban, he otherwise fitted in well enough. At the end of the year he turned in his AK and joined me on the three week trek back to Pakistan. As far as I’m aware, he then returned to his wife in a kampong in northeastern Malaysia, having successfully ticked the ‘jihad’ box.

 

Guest post: the incarceration of radicalised prisoners in New South Wales

In this guest post, Katrina Zorzi discusses changes to the management of radicalised prisoners in New South Wales and what this might imply for Victoria and other states.

In the past year, the New South Wales government has ushered in a raft of changes to the management of radicalised prisoners. This post provides a short outline of these changes and offers some thoughts on an inspection by the NSW Inspector of Custodial Services, some recent changes that have been either implemented or proposed, and some of the national security and human rights dilemmas raised by this issue.

Goulburn Supermax

The rise and fall of the Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ and the apprehension of Australian-based IS supporters has increased the need for a workable, sustainable policy on incarcerating terrorists. In NSW, discussions around the incarceration of radicalised prisoners frequently centre on Goulburn’s ‘High Risk Management Correctional Centre’ Supermax facility.

There are reportedly 40-50 prisoners housed within the Goulburn Supermax. Not all are radicalised or terrorist inmates who are thought to be risks to national security (Ivan Milat, for one, is reportedly an inmate at the Supermax) though more than half are there on terror-related charges. In 2016 NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin told The 7:30 Report that: “Supermax was built for extremely violent offenders… It wasn’t built and designed for people who pose a threat to national security.” The decision to house a broader array of radical inmates there reportedly dates from August 2015, when radical preacher Junaid Thorne – who was jailed for booking airline tickets under a false name – was transferred there. Individuals arrested in 2005’s Operation Pendennis, for example, which disrupted two terror cells in Sydney and Melbourne, were already housed in the Supermax.

Goulburn Supermax has gained a lot of media attention in the past few years, generally focused on the convicted and accused terrorists housed there. In 2016, anonymous senior counter-terrorism officials told The 7:30 Report of their concerns that youth terrorism suspects held within Goulburn’s Supermax facility were being further radicalised by extremist adult inmates. In April 2017 The Weekend Australian featured an article by Paul Maley, who had been given access to Goulburn Supermax, which featured insights from the Supermax’s intelligence unit and detailed the day-to-day living conditions of the radicalised prisoners. Last month it was reported that a prisoner within the facility had attacked and injured two guards.

One aspect that has not been reported on for some time is the inspection announced in 2016 by the NSW Inspector of Custodial Services.

The not-yet-public inspection

The NSW Inspector of Custodial Services (ICS) is a statutory agency tasked with “providing independent scrutiny of the conditions, treatment and outcomes for adults and young people in custody, and to promote excellence in staff professional practice”. The ICS has jurisdiction over all correctional facilities in NSW and an inspection can be initiated by either the Inspector, the Minister for Corrections, a Parliamentary Joint Committee or a public authority or official.

In April 2016, the ICS was tasked to undertake an inspection on the “Management of radicalised prisoners in the NSW correctional centres”. The centres identified to be examined in the inspection were: the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, the Mid North Coast correctional Centre, the Lithgow Correctional Centre, the Goulburn Correctional Centre and its High Risk Management Correctional Centre.

However, it is not clear what has come of this inspection. In October 2016, the ABC reported that the review was expected to be handed down to the State Government in November. And, presumably, for it to be made public sometime after this. However, as of early March 2018, the report is still not publicly available on the ICS’s website. The ICS still lists the inspection into the management of radicalised prisoners as a ‘current inspection’.

Yet the ICS’s 2016-2017 annual report mentions the inspection in past tense, articulating that:

Pursuant to a request by the Minister for Corrections and in accordance with section 6(1)(f) of the Inspector of Custodial Services Act 2012, a review of the management of radicalised inmates in NSW prisons was commenced on 22 April 2016… The inspection examined approaches and practices relating to the risk assessment, classification, designation, placement, and management of inmates, conditions within centres, and offender programs and services. Over 200 CSNSW staff were consulted, as well as executive and specialist staff.

If it is not reading too much into the use of past tense it would suggest that the inspection has long been completed.

The 2016-2017 annual report also asserts that: “The ICS publishes all reports and responses to reports on its website”. That the inspection report is not publicly available might be for a few reasons. It might simply have not been posted on the ICS website as an oversight. It is also possible that publishing has been withheld on national security grounds, provisions for which are built into the Inspector of Custodial Services Act 2012. The lack of even a public statement on the inspection or a redacted version is disappointing, given the potential for ICS reporting to bring transparency to the way in which NSW deals with radicalised prisoners.

The remit of the ICS’s inspection into radicalised prisoners in NSW would suggest that they are housed in a number of prisons across the state, not just in Goulburn’s Supermax facility – despite the fact that most media reporting tends to focus on that prison. This relatively high level of media reporting might be due to the notoriety increasingly attached to that facility or a prison management decision to sporadically permit or encourage such reporting. Maley’s article thus offers a rather unique insight into the prison. In this way, Goulburn Supermax has perhaps been more subject to media scrutiny than other prisons situated within NSW corrections housing terrorist or radicalised inmates.

There have also been several changes announced in the NSW government’s approach, though it is impossible to know if they are a result of the ICS’s inspection.

Recent change: extended detention

In October 2017, ahead of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on counter-terrorism in Canberra, the NSW government announced its intention to usher in measures that would allow the ‘indefinite detention’ of radicalised prisoners. In November the Terrorism (High Risk Offenders) Bill 2017 was passed in NSW state parliament, which complements laws introduced at the Federal level in 2016. Under the changes, an inmate in a NSW prison could be designated as a radicalised national security threat and be jailed for up to an additional three years. Radicalised inmates would undergo a rehabilitation assessment and a medical assessment presumably to determine whether they were still ‘radicalised’ and posing a threat to the community. The process to initiate this would be done at the behest of the state’s attorney general to the Supreme Court. There is the potential for these extensions to continue in perpetuity.

At the time, NSW Counter Terrorism and Corrections Minister David Elliott explained that evidence would be gathered from a range of agencies to determine whether a prisoner was radicalised and thus representing an unacceptable risk to the community. Such evidence “would include radical behaviour, letters, interactions, treatment of staff within the corrections establishment, treatment of other inmates”. Elliott went on to assert: “It is unfortunate that we have to introduce what are potentially the toughest anti-terrorism laws in the world – but what would be more unfortunate is if somebody who was radicalised in a prison and was then released and did harm.”

Why up to three years? It is not clear what the logic is behind this. Presumably it would be much more difficult for the NSW government to muster support for longer extensions to prison sentences given the human rights issues potentially at play. Whether there are current or viable future ‘deradicalisation’ or disengagement programs being run in the NSW prison system that authorities believe can work in three years or less is another potential consideration.

Another issue is that the concept of radicalisation – and thus the nature of what it means to be ‘radicalised’ too – is contentious. What the threshold for determining whether an individual is ‘radicalised’ and so constitutes an ongoing threat to national security is unclear. Whether there is room in this approach for an inmate to maintain a radical political ideology but disavow violence is also unclear. No doubt any declaration of the sort would be greeted by authorities with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Proposed change: new facility

The scale of this is set to increase, following the announcement last year that the NSW government was spending $47 million to build a new ‘mini-max’ facility within Goulburn’s Supermax for radicalised inmates. A logical inference would be that this is intended to address the problems raised by Severin (that Goulburn Supermax was built for violent offenders, not offenders who pose a risk to national security).

This is supported by Maley’s reporting in April 2017, which highlighted that Corrective Services NSW was looking at a ‘differentiated’ approach of separating radicalised inmates (presumably from the broader prison population) and also anticipated that the ICS report on the management of radicalised prisoners would make recommendations in favour of this too.

That $47 million will now be spent on a specialised facility within the Goulburn Supermax would suggest that, at least in part, the practice of centralisation and separation for radicalised inmates is being given a boost.

Proposed change: juvenile justice strategy

The changes continue, as in February this year the NSW government announced that it intended to create a ‘countering violent extremism’ unit within the juvenile justice system to designate and monitor youth inmates who constituted national security threats. It would also work to identify inmates ‘at-risk’ of radicalisation and involve them in ‘deradicalisation’ programs. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian highlighted that “this new strategy complements other initiatives such as our post-sentence detention scheme and stronger parole provisions”.

Further thoughts

The NSW government’s approach is not the only way to address this issue. There are some good media articles which articulate the different approaches taken by New South Wales and Victoria to managing offenders convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related offences. ANU’s Dr Clarke Jones and others have commented publicly and written at length on this topic. However, Severin expected that changes in Victoria might bring it closer to the NSW model. And recent reports also quote Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews as being supportive of having a federal prison facility solely for terrorist prisoners – in direct contrast to Victoria’s existing arrangements.

From a national security perspective, it is understandable that authorities are unwilling to risk releasing any individual they suspect still harbours violent extremist goals.

I am not convinced that complete transparency, for its own sake, is necessarily in the community’s best interest when it comes to national security. However, greater overtures could be made to transparency regarding the processes internal to the NSW government that have initiated these wide-ranging changes to policy and now practice. This is where the benefit of having strong mechanisms of oversight and public trust in institutions often kicks in. At the same time, of course, few people are going to be willing to go into bat for the rights and liberties of terrorists and the NSW government is probably quite confident of the public’s acceptance of such measures.

From a human rights perspective, things might look a bit different. Especially considering that some of these changes concern the incarceration of minors. We might expect that a new, purpose built facility for radicalised inmates will create qualitatively different conditions of life for inmates – for better or for worse. This aspect is much better commented on by someone with an advocacy, human rights or legal background.

But it is a good time to pause and take stock of the ways in which NSW deals with its incarcerated, radicalised population. We might also consider whether, for Victoria and other states, this represents the way of the future or a cautionary tale.

Katrina Zorzi is a sessional academic at Monash University, Charles Sturt University and Deakin University.

Three upcoming terrorism sentencings in Sydney

The NSW online court lists show that three men associated with two separate terror plots in New South Wales will be sentenced at the end of this week.

On Thursday 1 March at 2pm, Raban Alou and will be sentenced for his role in the October 2015 murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng. He was accused of providing Cheng’s killer, 15-year old Farhad Jabar, with the handgun used in the attack. Alou pleaded guilty on 19 May 2017 to one count of “engaging in a terrorist act” for “aiding, abeting, counseling or procuring the commission of a terrorist act by Farhad Jabar Kahlil Mohammad”.

On Friday 2 March at 10am, Talal Alameddine will be sentenced for his role in the same attack. On 6 October 2017 he pleaded guilty to supplying the handgun that Alou gave to Jabar. He had some of the heavier terrorism charges withdrawn, but pleaded guilty to possessing the gun “connected with the preparation for a terrorist act, and being reckless as to that connection”.

On Friday 2 March, Tamim Khaja will be sentenced. He pleaded guilty on 29 October 2017 to “one count of planning, or preparing, a terrorist attack” for planning a mass shooting attack in Sydney, against targets such as “Timor Army Barracks at Dundas in Sydney’s north-west and the Sydney West Trial Courts at Parramatta”.

 

Update 1: (Added 7 March 2018) My mistake, Talal Alameddine was not being sentenced on Friday 2 March, he just had a sentence hearing.

Making sense of Home Affairs and counter-terrorism

Late last year the Department of Home Affairs was established as part of what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called “the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in more than 40 years”. This post is to help keep track of what is being changed and what that means for Australia’s domestic counter-terrorism arrangements.

On 18 July 2017 Malcolm Turnbull announced that his government would create a new portfolio called Home Affairs, which would be responsible for all “immigration, border protection and domestic security and law enforcement agencies”. On 20 December 2017 the new Department of Home Affairs was formally established and its website became active.

However, new legislation is needed to complete the process, mainly to move the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from the Attorney-General’s portfolio to Home Affairs. So on 7 December 2017 Turnbull introduced the Home Affairs and Integrity Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, which was referred on 8 December to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is still reviewing it at the moment.

One immediate impact of all this is that ministerial responsibilities for counter-terrorism have changed.

Since the 1970s, the most important ministerial position when it came to counter-terrorism (aside from the Prime Minister) was the Attorney-General, who was responsible for ASIO and the Commonwealth Police Force (later the Australia Federal Police). This began to change in May 2015 when Turnbull gave Michael Keenan, who was already the Minister for Justice, the added role of Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter Terrorism.

Now it has changed more radically, as the portfolios of Minister for Justice and Minister for Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism have been abolished and largely subsumed within the new portfolio of Home Affairs. Moreover, the Attorney-General’s portfolio has now lost most of its national security responsibilities, as they have been handed to Home Affairs. This puts most counter-terrorism responsibilities into the hand of the new Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

Dutton will have other ministers helping to run the Department: the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs (Alex Hawke), Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs (Alan Tudge), and the Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber Security (Angus Taylor). However, it appears that none of these junior ministers will have a counter-terrorism role. At a recent PJCIS hearing the Department’s Secretary, Michael Pezzullo, said that “the counterterrorism minister is Mr Dutton—and solely Mr Dutton”.

While the Attorney-General’s portfolio will have very few remaining national security roles, it will still be responsible for approving ASIO warrants. The Attorney-General will also take responsibility for some key accountability mechanisms, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM). These bodies will be moved from the Prime Minister’s portfolio to the Attorney-General’s.

One question this raises is: what practical differences will these ministerial changes make for Australian counter-terrorism?

Looking from the outside, I would guess that it won’t change a whole lot. ASIO and the AFP will likely continue to function much as they were, as will bodies like the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and Austrac, as they are all statutory authorities. Also, much counter-terrorism is conducted by the States, coordinating with Federal agencies and departments through operational mechanisms like Joint Counter Terrorism Teams or broader structures like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)’s Australia New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee.

However, with Dutton and Pezzullo in charge, I fear that the politics of counter-terrorism and national security will be dragged even more into the politics of immigration and national identity than they already are. James Button’s excellent Monthly article is worth reading for background on this.

There are also questions about whether creating this mega-department will reduce accountability, as former Attorney-General George Brandis reportedly alluded to in a recent speech to ASIO. Also, moving accountability mechanisms like the IGIS and the INSLM from the Prime Minister to the Attorney-General would appear to be downgrading their importance, and the IGIS is not keen on this move.

On the other hand, the Turnbull government has indicated that it would boost the powers and resources of these accountability mechanisms in line with the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review’s recommendations. We will have to wait and see what happens here.