Videos: academia and national security

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between academia and national security.

This post has some of my favourite videos on the topic.


The first video is of a panel discussion held last year on social science and how it can inform the future of warfare.

The Ivory Tower Goes To War: What Lessons Does Social Science Hold For The Future of War?

Panel held at the New America Foundation’s 2016 Future of War conference.

Speakers: Christia Fotoni, Christian Davenport, H.R. McMaster, Will H. Moore and Erin Simpson.

This is a largely US-focused discussion, and a really engaging and enjoyable one. Two people from this video have now taken up some prominent new roles. The panel chair, Erin Simpson, now co-hosts the podcast Bombshell. One of the speakers, H.R. McMaster, is now the National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration and has become increasingly controversial.


The next video is on the academic field of terrorism studies.

The Future of Terrorism Studies

Panel held at the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies’ Future of Terrorism conference .

Speakers: Richard English, Gary LaFree, and Arie Perliger.

The first talk in this video, by Richard English, is excellent. He starts by highlighting the three regularly cited dilemmas in the field: the lack of a consensus over the definition of terrorism, the supposedly stark divide between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”, and the critique that the field has stagnated. But he quickly points out why these dilemmas matter less than they may appear to. He points out there’s plenty of common ground between different terrorism definitions and between the best scholars from the field’s “orthodox” and “critical” variants, that these sorts of contestations aren’t unique to this field, and that the concerns over “stagnation” are overstated. He then moves on to many more serious problems in the field, particularly a five-fold fragmentation between different methodological approaches.

Then Gary LaFree talks about statistical data-gathering in terrorism studies, and different ways the data can be used, such as to find “microcycles” in terrorism. He also talks about how all the different datasets are going to be linked with each other more, and how this could provide stronger evidence about which counter-terrorism measures work best, and how important social media is becoming for research. Then Arie Perliger talks about some of the core conceptual dilemmas involved in attempts to “profile” terrorists.

But I enjoyed Richard English’s talk the best, as I strongly agree with him about terrorism studies needing to move beyond some the debates that have bogged it down for so long, and with his warnings of new dilemmas emerging. If you don’t have time to watch the video, read this article of his here (paywalled unfortunately).


The final video looks at the development of knowledge on one particular brand of terrorism: al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

What did scholars and policy makers know about al-Qaeda and Affiliated movements before 9/11? Part 2

Panel held at the Conflict Records Research Center’s 9/11 10 years Later: Insights on Al-Qaeda’s Past and Future Through Captured Records conference.

Speakers: Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, Dr. Mark Stout, Ms. Cindy Storer, Dr. Mary Habeck, Prof Yonah Alexander.

I want to highlight a quote from Cindy Storer, a former al-Qaeda analyst in the CIA. She was part of a group of mainly female analysts (referred to as “the Sisterhood“) who were warning before 9/11 that al-Qaeda wasn’t being taken seriously enough.

In one part of the video, Storer reflects on her experiences with academics, which unfortunately weren’t positive. She suggests that academics failed to appreciate the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11, and that this fed into the reluctance in upper CIA and government levels to listen those analysts who warned of the impending danger.

Before 9/11, we tried to reach out to academia a lot, and it was hard because, nobody studied al-Qaeda. There were people who were very good understanding of terrorism. Bruce Hoffman, Martha Crenshaw, a lot of people like that we reached out to. And we were able, especially from Martha Crenshaw, to learn a lot about in general how terrorist groups work, how terrorism comes about, so to be able to put al-Qaeda into this broad context of being a terrorist organisation. But since nobody was really talking about al-Qaeda itself, comments that academics made on al-Qaeda itself generally were counter-productive. Because again, we [al-Qaeda analysts in the CIA] were a small community, we were women in an operational environment, and so it was really easy to ignore us frankly. Because people wanted to anyway, Hezbollah was the important issue and Iran and all of that, so people in the agency tended to look to “outside experts” more than to us. And when those outside experts hadn’t studied the organisation they’d say things like “well I assume it’s XYZ based on my study of whatever happened in the 1980s or the 1970s” and it was just wrong. It was wrong. And it gave people a false comfort, I think, on the policy and upper management levels, that they weren’t dealing with anything significantly different. So, that was a problem.

Now, if you had been able to marry up, that broader understanding of issues with the details that people can see in the intelligence community of an emerging threat of an emerging issue, then wow, what you could have done earlier would have been spectacular. But there are all these barriers that counter cooperation, not least of which is the restrictions placed on academics who get access to classified material. It just doesn’t work very well. And we need to find a way to do something about that problem. I should also mention there were journalists. Honestly a lot of our early outreach efforts, in terms of what we would like to read, were journalistic efforts. People on the ground seeing what was happening.

I found this interesting because academic discussions about whether to engage with the policy world sometimes start from the assumption that academics have valuable knowledge which government officials need, and less often reflect on the risk that they will provide misinformed advice and have harmful policy impacts.

It’s also interesting because terrorism scholars are regularly accused of overstating terror threats, but on some key occasions they have tended to underestimate threats, and this video suggests that academic assessments of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 are another example (though there is rarely uniformity in the field).

Its these sorts of issues, which all of the videos touch on, which most interest me. They go to some of core questions in this area that need to be regularly reflected on:

  • How can academia best contribute to national security policy and practice?
  • Should academia even try to influence national security policy and practice, or should it not try to play any such role at all?
  • When might academia harm people by providing intellectual cover for unjust government actions carried out in the name of national security?
  • Or alternatively, when might academia harm national security by giving ill-informed advice?

An Australian terrorism news round-up

There was a lot of terrorism-related news in Australia over the past week. Here is a quick round-up:

  • A co-conspirator behind the murder of NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng (by 15-year old Farhad Jabar) has pleaded guilty to a terrorism offence.
  • Musa Cerantonio and four other Victorian men, accused of attempting to leave Australia by boat to join an Islamic State affiliated group in the Philippines, have been committed to stand trial.
  • The brother of Khaled Sharrouf has been charged for allegedly resisting arrest when raided over suspicions he was violating a Firearms Prohibition Order. Khaled Sharrouf was involved in the terror plot foiled by Operation Pendennis in 2005, and after being released from prison he joined Islamic State engaged in highly public war crimes.
  • A South Australian man charged with advocating terrorism has pleaded not guilty.
  • An Australian facing terrorism charges in Bulgaria has asked the Australian government to provide help.
  • The inquest into the death of Numan Haider (a teenage Islamic State supporter shot death when stabbing two police officers) is nearing its end. Members of the Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team contend that ASIO failed to pass on crucial information about the threat Haider posed.
  • It was announced that the 600-page report of the inquest into the Lindt Café siege in Sydney will be released next Wednesday. Four Corners will air a two-part special on the tragedy, beginning next Monday.
  • The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has published the submissions to its review of ASIO’s questioning and detention powers, which can be found here.
  • The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor held public hearings on Friday for its review of “Division 3A of Part IAA of the Crimes Act (Stop, Search & Seize powers); Sections 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code (Declared Areas); [and] Divisions 104 and 105 of the Criminal Code (Control Orders & Preventive Detention Orders)”. ASIO’s Director-General and the AFP’s deputy commissioner for national security spoke there, as did many legal figures and academics. A transcript should be on the website soon, and submissions to the review can be found here.

Update 1: Added the Numan Haider bit on 22 May 2017.

The homecoming of Australian jihadists: making sense of a “polarising and dividing” problem

Last week, Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Duncan Lewis predicted that more Australian jihadist fighters would return from Syria and Iraq and that managing them would prove a “polarising and dividing” issue:

Beyond the spectrum of public opinion, we can anticipate the effective and appropriate management of returning foreign fighters to be a polarising and a dividing issue in Australia… We have plans in place – they are currently being executed – to accept the return of foreign fighters, but it will be a polarising matter.

There has long been discussion of the potential terrorist threat posed by Australian jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. So far, this has not been a major element of Australia’s terrorist threat. As I discussed in a recent CTC Sentinel article, the various attacks and plots Australia has experienced since September 2014 involved Islamic State (IS) supporters who had not left Australia. And the roughly 40 Australians who have returned from the region mainly did so before IS declared a “Caliphate” or targeted the West. These early returnees are not alleged to have been involved in terror plots.

However, the number returning is expected to increase in the near future. In February, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke with US Vice-President Mike Pence about this, stating afterwards that such an increase is…

likely to be the consequence of military success in Iraq, for the example the retaking of Mosul…. That will mean that a number of foreign terrorist fighters will seek to flee from Iraq and the expectation is a number will seek to return home. We need to be prepared for that.

Bishop also discussed this with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during his recent visit to Australia.

In this post I outline some of the dilemmas involved in dealing with returnees, to help explain why it may indeed be the divisive issue that Duncan Lewis predicts. It covers why there is concern over returnees, what can be done, and makes some suggestions as to what should be done.


Why is there concern over returnees?

The concern is based on the well-founded idea that some Australians involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq will be a serious terror threat on return. In past cases (such as the mobilisation to Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards) most returned foreign fighters did not end up becoming terror plotters, but a small proportion of them did, and involved in deadly attacks such as the 2005 London bombings.

This has repeatedly been the case with jihadist returnees from Syria and Iraq. The November 2015 terror attack in Paris, which killed over one hundred, involved up to eight returnees. The March 2016 bombing in Brussels similarly involved returnees. Other attacks have also been perpetrated by returnees, as have many foiled plots.

However, it’s also important not to overstate the threat.

Australia is in a far safer position than Europe. Plots like those in Paris and Brussels were feasible because Islamic State had established a sophisticated underground infrastructure in Europe, enabled by various factors: Europe produced many more foreign fighters, has more porous borders, is geographically closer, and has greater strategic importance.

Australia has a much smaller number of potential returnees to worry about. Of those, some more might be killed or captured, while some others may choose to stay in the region or move elsewhere (such as Europe, the Caucasus or Southeast Asia) rather than try to return to Australia. Duncan Lewis noted that the number of returnees will likely be fewer than ASIO initially expected. Australia also has the advantage of having prepared for this for a few years, and being an island with few entry-points, making it hard for people to slip in unnoticed.

Nonetheless, if we do experience a surge in returnees, it will be a problem. Some could pose a direct terror threat and some could pose a security concern in other ways (such as forming new recruitment networks or inciting others). Most will have likely broken the law, but it may not be clear who poses the greatest threat and resources may be limited. This will create difficulty for those tasked with dealing with them, though they will have several tools available.


What can be done with returnees?

The Australian government will have the following options for dealing with them

  1. Strip their citizenship. Khaled Sharrouf, a prominent IS fighter who bragged about war crimes, has had his Australian citizenship revoked. I disagree with this power for multiple reasons, but the law has passed (with bipartisan support and popular approval) so the Australian government now has this option, and will likely use it several more times.
  2. Frustrate their return. In most cases, the Australian government will have cancelled their passports. To return to Australia, the suspect will need to gain a one-way travel document from an Australian consulate (presumably in Turkey). This is not likely to be a simple process, and authorities can use this to induce cooperation. It’s also possible that they will have broken the laws of other countries, and Australia may pass intelligence on to these countries to prevent the suspects returning.
  3. Prosecute upon return. Prosecution will be a preferred option, but it will often be difficult to prove their involvement beyond reasonable doubt, which is why an estimated 40 Australians managed to return without being prosecuted. However, some of these suspected fighters (Mehmet Biber and Muhammad Abdul-Karim Musleh) have now been charged, as authorities have had more time to gather evidence.
  4. Monitor and restrict. Authorities can closely monitor suspected returnees and take action if they engage in new criminal activity, terrorism-related or otherwise. They can also subject the returnees to special powers such as coercive questioning by the ASIO or the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, and Control Orders which place restrictions on a suspect’s liberty for up to a year.
  5. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Some returnees might be suitable for CVE efforts, which refers to non-coercive efforts to prevent (or undo) involvement in violent movements. This could be conducted by the Diversion Team within the Australian Federal Police’s National Disruption Group. Most returnees would not be suitable, as the Diversion team does not deal with those “too far along the path of radicalisation for early intervention to be effective or presents an unacceptable risk to the safety of service providers”, but some of the children might be.

CVE approaches take many different forms, and have been used widely in European countries, sometimes for dealing with returnees. However, as I’ve mentioned in this Lowy paper, some of their approaches would not be possible in Australia (at least without adjustments) as they would be seen as too soft.

This raises another question, the “polarising and divisive” issue ASIO chief Duncan Lewis referred to, which is what should be done.


What should be done with returnees?

So the government will have a lot of tools for dealing with returnees, but how should they be used? Should all returnees be prosecuted, to the full extent of the law, where possible?

For the most part, yes, particularly as this would be consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178, because the national security risk is real, and because the Islamic State has rightly earned the world’s hatred.

However, there is also debate (mainly in Europe, given the scale of the problem) over whether returnees should be shown some leniency to make the problem more manageable (see here and here). There is no simple answer, but my view is that some leniency should be shown in individual cases, depending on:

  1. Which group they joined. Was it a proscribed terrorist organisation like Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which leads the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham umbrella group)? Those who joined groups that came under the Free Syrian Army banner or Kurdish anti-IS groups may still have broken the law, but should not be treated as severely as those who joined IS or al-Nusra.
  2. Whether they joined the group willingly. There may be cases where someone enters Syria with a vague idea of helping out in a humanitarian capacity but ends up being conscripted into an armed group. However, there could easily be cases where jihadists falsely claim to have been forced to join groups, so such claims should not be uncritically accepted. The “didn’t realise what I was getting into” argument is more plausible for those who travelled over during the conflict’s early years (2011-2013).
  3. Whether they were children or adults. The younger they are (and some are extremely young), the less responsible they are for their actions. Child soldiers have often been rehabilitated and gone on to be outstanding citizens, including in Australia.
  4. What role they played in the group. Was it a combat or non-combat role? Was it a major or minor role? Did they call for attacks outside the conflict zone? Did they engage in atrocities? Many Islamic State fighters have raped, tortured, murdered and mutilated people in Syria and Iraq. There should be no leniency at all for war criminals.
  5. Whether they willingly cooperate with authorities. This is the most important factor. Those who do not cooperate (such as by providing intelligence or helping stop others from becoming involved) cannot expect to escape the full extent of the law. However, those willing and able to help should be given some leniency, particularly if there is a strong chance that it will saves lives.

So the potential surge of Australians returning after being involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq will be a difficult problem, and has no single solution.

Generally, those who can be proven to have broken the law should be prosecuted. In most cases, any leniency should only come into play after they have been prosecuted (by taking it into account when sentencing). In a few cases, leniency should be an alternative to prosecution (such as for some of the children or those who become informants). And unfortunately in many cases prosecution will not be possible, leaving authorities with a range of imperfect options.

Intelligence services, police, prosecutors and judges will have to make these difficult judgements. Political leaders should make sure they have the flexibility to do so, by avoiding the temptation to announce some sort of blanket policy, no matter how “polarising and dividing” the issue becomes.

Upcoming national security and international relations events in Australia

28-30 March (Sydney): Public Venue Security and Safety Summit 

30-31 March (Melbourne): Keyboard Warriors? Military operations in the Information Age – Opportunities and Challenges (free)

4 April (Canberra): Book launch for China Matters: Getting It Right for Australia (free)

4 April (Canberra): Book launch for The Long Road: Australia’s Train, Advise and Assist Missions (free)

4 April (Melbourne): States, Violence and the West – What al-Qa’ida means in Yemen, presented by Dr Sarah Phillips (free)

4-5 April (Canberra): Women and National Security Conference

6 April (Melbourne): Fighting Terrorism in Iraq, presented by the Honourable Dr Hussain Mahdi Al-Ameri, Iraqi Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand (free)

12 April (Melbourne): The Australian Intelligence Community – Its Governance Amidst Widening Demands, presented by Ashton Robinson (free)

19-20 April (Sydney): 2017 Safety, Security and Counter-Terrorism Forum – Uncover Evolving Threats, Protect Critical Infrastructure and Respond With Effective Crisis Communications

3-4 May (Canberra): Safeguarding Australia 2017 – The 4th National Security Annual Summit

12-13 May (Brisbane): War in the Sand Pit: conference on Afghanistan & Iraq

6-7 June (Brisbane):  Annual National Policing Summit – Strategy, Leadership and Modernisation within Crime and Terror Prevention

18 July (Canberra): Australian Security Summit 

26-28 July (Sydney): Security Exhibition & Conference

29-30 August (Canberra): 15th Annual National Security Summit – Policy, Surveillance & Interoperability

Updates for 2017

I haven’t got around to blogging for a while, so this is a quick post to update things.

Some updates about my projects:

  1. I have an article coming out in the next issue of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, tracing the evolution of jihadism in Australia from the 1990s to the era of the Islamic State.
  2. I’ve released a few terrorism-related episodes of Sub Rosa, the podcast created by Kate Grealy and I. The two most recent episodes present a conversation I had with Levi West about terrorism in Australia. You can listen to Part 1 or Part 2.
  3. I’m returning to the PhD soon, after a period of leave, and have been working on some side-projects (including an article on the 2015 Anzac Plot in Melbourne) which I will post about when they are more solid.

Some updates about Australian counter-terrorism:

  1. Nicola McGarrity and Jessie Blackbourn have set up a new website on Australian national security law. It covers a lot, including every terrorism prosecution so far.
  2. We have a new Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), James Renwick.
  3. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is seeking submissions on ASIO’s questioning and detention powers.

Finally, something that struck me:

The Joint Counter-Terrorism Team recently arrested someone in rural New South Wales for allegedly supporting Islamic State. But unlike most arrests of IS supporters, he is not alleged to be funding them, facilitating the flow of fighters, or attempting to travel to join them. Instead, he allegedly supported them by “researching and designing a laser warning device to help warn against incoming laser-guided munitions used by forces in Syria and Iraq; and also by researching, designing and modelling systems to assist with Islamic State efforts to develop a long-range guided missile”.

I have a strong interest in transnational support for armed movements, particularly the different roles individuals can play when providing support. This sort of technical support appears rare compared to funding or fighting, but it seems to be a significant and under-acknowledged form of support. In 2012 John Pollock gave this account (mentioned in Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains) of a Libyan rebel leader getting technical advice from supporters in Europe:

After weeks of skirmishes in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli, Sifaw Twawa and his brigade of freedom fighters are at a standstill. It’s a mid-April night in 2011, and Twawa’s men are frightened. Lightly armed and hidden only by trees, they are a stone’s throw from one of four Grad 122-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers laying down a barrage on Yefren, their besieged hometown. These weapons can fire up to 40 unguided rockets in 20 seconds. Each round carries a high-­explosive fragmentation warhead weighing 40 pounds. They urgently need to know how to deal with this, or they will have to pull back. Twawa’s cell phone rings.

Two friends are on the line, via a Skype conference call. Nureddin Ashammakhi is in Finland, where he heads a research team developing biomaterials technology, and Khalid Hatashe, a medical doctor, is in the United Kingdom. The Qaddafi regime trained Hatashe on Grads during his compulsory military service. He explains that Twawa’s katiba—brigade—is well short of the Grad’s minimum range: at this distance, any rockets fired would shoot past them. Hatashe adds that the launcher can be triggered from several hundred feet away using an electric cable, so the enemy may not be in or near the launch vehicle. Twawa’s men successfully attack the Grad—all because two civilians briefed their leader, over Skype, in a battlefield a continent away.

This will be an interesting case to watch.

Far-right violent extremism in Australia: what’s new?

Yesterday, an alleged terrorist had a hearing at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. He had been arrested in a Victorian Joint Counter-Terrorism Team raid on 6 August. Counter-terrorism raids in Australia are usually directed against suspected jihadists, but this time the suspect was on the extreme right. Investigators said he had been:

linked to the far-right groups Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Patriots Defence League Australia, the True Blue Crew and a ‘neo-Nazi, self-confessed militant group’ called Combat 18.

He allegedly planned to make improvised explosive devices and targeted left-wing activists. He was charged with Commonwealth terrorism offences and the allegations will all be tested in court.

After he was arrested, Justice Minister Michael Keenan noted that this was the first time terror charges had been used against someone on the extreme right.

I want to disentangle what is, and is not, new about this.

The alleged plot, if proven, would not be the first case of far-right violent extremism in Australia. To choose some recent examples, in 2010 self-described Combat 18 members fired shots at a mosque in Perth. In 2012 two Melbourne neo-Nazi skinheads were sentenced to jail for brutally assaulting a Vietnamese student.  In 2013 a former soldier and self-described neo-Nazi was jailed for weapons and explosives offences. Most recently, a reported white supremacist was charged for allegedly setting fire to a church, though again it’s important to presume innocence and wait to see what comes out in court.

However, what’s unusual about the arrest is that far-right violence in Australia doesn’t usually reach a threshold where terrorism legislation can clearly be applied. Someone with particular beliefs engaging in violence does not automatically become terrorism under Australian law. The law is quite specific and makes it hard to prove a terrorist act (or planning or preparation for one) because it depends on intentions.

In terrorism cases, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

(b)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause;

They must also prove that:

(c)  the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:

(i)  coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or

(ii)  intimidating the public or a section of the public.

A subsection then states that an act does not count as terrorism if it:

(a)  is advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action; and

(b)  is not intended:

(i)  to cause serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or

(ii)  to cause a person’s death; or

(iii)  to endanger the life of a person, other than the person taking the action; or

(iv)  to create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.

So proving a terrorist act doesn’t only require evidence of someone’s actions but a lot of evidence about their intentions. This often requires the prosecution to present recordings of conversations between suspects, intercepted during long pro-active investigations.

The current case appears to be the first time, since terrorism offences were introduced in 2002, that authorities had the sort of evidence against a suspected far-right violent extremist that would enable terrorism charges. Usually they have been dealt with through other laws such as assault, weapons possession, and criminal damage.

In that sense, this is a new development. But this does not mean that the alleged plot, if proven, should be regarded as the first case of far-right terrorism in Australia.

First, there are many definitions of terrorism and there is no intellectual obligation to stick to purely legal definitions. There will always be political debate over what is and isn’t terrorism.

Second, some cases of far-right violent extremism before 2002 amounted to terrorism even though we did not have specific terrorism legislation at the time. For example, the first fatal terrorist attack in Australia this century was Peter James Knight’s attempted anti-abortion massacre in 2001. There was also the Australian Nationalists Movement’s wave of violence in Perth in the late 1980s, for which the judge said when sentencing:

It is, in my view, no overstatement or exaggeration to term your campaign of those months a terrorist campaign and again it is no exaggeration to say that in that period you waged a guerilla war against the public.

Another issue also makes the current case less of a remarkable development. The potential for renewed far-right terrorism in Australia had been apparent for a while, particularly as such activity had increased elsewhere.

In the early 2010s, far-right terrorism became a bigger issue in Europe. Prominent incidents included the murders of 69 people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, alleged Breivik-copycat attempts in Poland and the Czech Republic, the murder of two Senegalese street vendors in Italy by someone linked the far-right CasaPound. There was also the exposure of the National Socialist Underground, responsible for a murder spree across Germany from 2000 to 2007. In the UK, far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn murdered a Muslim man and bombed several mosques in 2013, and there was a reported extreme-right connection to the recent murder of popular MP Jo Cox.

There was a similar surge in the United States, with the most visible examples being the murders of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by a member of the neo-Nazi Hammerskins in 2012, of three people at a Kansas Jewish centre by a white supremacist in 2014, and of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. In October of this year, the FBI foiled an alleged terror plot by self-styled “Crusaders” to murder Somali immigrants.

Australia has traditionally experienced much less of this, but as such violence became more prominent in Europe and America, agencies expressed concern about the situation here. The ASIO annual report for 2010-2011 noted:

There has been a persistent but small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves…. Local racist and nationalist extremists maintain links and draw inspiration from like-minded overseas extremists, and much of their rhetoric and activity is derivative, heavily influenced by developments overseas.

Of course, developments in Australia do not necessarily follow those abroad. ASIO’s next annual report concluded that:

Over the reporting period, the rise in right wing extremism in parts of Europe was not reflected, nor did it gain large-scale support, in Australia.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to hold true. In the most recent Senate Estimates hearings, ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis made that clear:

Senator  McKim: Mr  Lewis,  I  just  want  to  follow  up  on  my  last  question.  Would you say that the threat to national security from radical anti-Islamic groups in Australia is growing at the moment?

Mr Lewis: Yes, off a very low base. It has come off a low base. But it has presented, really, probably in the last 18 months or so. So, yes, it is, but I would not describe it as going up in any vertical way. But it has come off a low base and it is now more present than it was.

By “threat to national security” they would be referring to violence or the potential for violence (non-violent protest is not a national security concern under ASIO’s charter, and they are obviously not referring to national security threats like espionage).  This suggests that ASIO’s view is that the far-right violent extremist threat is not large but has recently become larger than it was.

What does all this tell us about this significance of this counter-terrorism prosecution?

Mainly, that it is only a new development in one sense. The use of Commonwealth terrorism offences against an Australian extreme-right activist is unprecedented.

However, terrorism legislation only covers a specific subset of violent extremism; usually that for which the authorities have enough evidence to prove a plan for life-threatening violence intended to intimidate a wider audience to further a political cause. That the legislation was never used before against anyone on the extreme right did not mean there was no potential threat.

Australia had experienced far-right violent extremism before, including quite recently. We experienced more of it, sometimes amounting to terrorism, further in the past. Far-right violence had escalated in Europe and America and many, including security agencies, were concerned it could escalate here.

For these reasons, while an Australian counter-terrorism prosecution against a suspected far-right extremist is a new development, it should not be a surprising one.

Podcast news

Kate Grealy and I are slowing down production for our podcast, Sub Rosa.

Turns out making a podcast is a lot of work, so we’ve decided to release around one episode per month instead of one per fortnight. That may change later, depending on circumstances. For example, we record several interviews in a short time period we might release them closer together.

Our next episode will be out on Thursday. It will be an interview with Zabi Mazoori, who coordinates the Afghanistan project for Physicians for Human Right’s International Forensic Program.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, listen to some our past episodes below. We have a great range of topics and guests, and there are few Australian podcasts covering the mix of security and human rights issues that we do.


Episode 8: Conflict and Muslim-Christian relations in Papua, with Umar Werfete

Episode 7: Social media and the Australian Army, with Mick Cook (mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald)

Episode 6: Gender politics in Indonesian media, with Firly Annisa

Episode 5: Signals intelligence and counter-terrorism, with David Wells

Episode 4: Refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, with Trish Cameron

Episode 3: Understanding terrorism in Indonesia, with Noor Huda Ismail

Episode 2: Muslim women and the War on Terror, with Shakira Hussein

Episode 1: LGBTI refugees in the Asia-Pacific, with Jaz Dawson