In recent years, there seems to have been a general falling away in Western governments’ spending on counterterrorism (CT). This has been matched by public complacency about the terrorism threat. This is disturbing because while the nature of the threat has evolved, terrorism is still the most credible violent threat to Western nations’ national security.
In terms of terrorism-related deaths internationally, more than four times more people are dying each year now than was the case in the early 2000s, when around 2-3,000 a year were killed. According to the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), in 2012 there were 8,500 terrorist attacks that killed 15,500 people. Fatalities data for 2013 is not yet available but there were 5,100 attacks in the first six months of 2013, which is more than during the same period of 2012.
Six of the seven most deadly groups are affiliated with al-Qaeda, and most of the violence was committed in Muslim-majority countries. 14 US civilians died in terrorist attacks outside the US in 2012, 10 in Afghanistan and four in Libya. Within the US, nine people died in terrorist attacks in 2012, six of them in a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
The top 10 countries in terms of numbers of deaths in 2012 were Afghanistan (2,632), Iraq (2,436), Pakistan (1,848), Nigeria (1,386) , Syria (657), Yemen (365), Somalia (323), Thailand (174) and the Philippines (109). The Caucasus should probably be up there but Russia has been reluctant to release details of killings related to the Caucasus, not wanting to scare off Sochi Winter Olympic Games tourists. In the past 12 months there has also been a surge in deaths in Syria, Iraq and Somalia, often under-reported.
The reasons behind the rise in terrorism violence are complex, but have been, and continue to be, weak and unstable states with corrupt or ineffective governments; poverty and high unemployment, particularly among young men; access to more lethal weaponry and explosives; increasing use of targeted suicide attacks; heightened sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and; the increasing use of terrorism as a tactic in insurgency conflicts.
Attacks within Western countries have generally become less common because of improved signals intelligence and more effective countermeasures. A 9/11-scale spectacular attack is probably not going to be possible again because of the number of indicators that would be activated by the preparations, but the less sophisticated kind of deadly attack conducted by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011, or by Chechen Islamist extremist Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Boston in 2013, can still occur.
Within Australia, the terrorism threat level is still at “Medium” (a terrorist attack could occur) – as it has been since 9/11 and Bali 2002.
The Attorney-General in his speech to an Interpol convention in Sydney on 28 January noted that the Australian government remains committed to countering terrorism because the threat is “undiminished”, but this commitment is not what one hears from relevant federal agencies, all of whom seem to be cutting back on CT activities in line with reduced budgets. That is not to say that the budgets could not have been better spent. My Masters students who have to work through an exercise where they identify credible threats to Australia’s national security in the short, medium, and longer term, prioritise them, and then allocate agency budgets, end up with very different outcomes from current practice.
Why have Australians in general become complacent?
In Australia since 2000, there have been no deaths from politically motivated violence (PMV) – other possibly than Peter Knight’s attack on an abortion clinic on 16 July 2001. (PMV is usually taken to include religiously and ideologically- motivated violence.)
Outside Australia, the toll of terrorism-related Australian civilian deaths since 2000 is more concerning, with 130 civilian deaths since 9 August 2001 – 95 of those in Indonesia. (The figure used by the Attorney-General is an understated “more than 110”.) The first of the post-2000 deaths was Malki Roth in a bombing in Tel Aviv, and the most recent was Ross Langdon at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on 21 September 2013.
The most worrying domestic terrorism development from Australia’s point of view is the number of young Muslim Australians taking part in the war in Syria; probably around 80, but could be as many as 200. Those killed could number as many as 15, but the reality is that we don’t really know. Those killed are a tragedy for their families, but the security worry is that survivors will return to Australia as battle-hardened zealots with skill-sets we would prefer them not to have. Some will be disabled and many will be suffering from PTSD because of what they have seen and experienced.
Other enduring concerns in Australia are home-grown extremists and the potential for lone wolf attacks, driven by a qualitative improvement in Islamist online propaganda and secure communication. We also need to keep an eye on the extreme right who have not killed anyone so far other than members suspected of being informants. However, the Timothy McVeigh and Breivik cases show how deadly right-wing attacks can be – McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma city bombing killed 168 and Brevik’s bombing and shooting rampage killed 77.
At a time when we face an evolving threat from al Qaeda-inspired extremism that requires sophisticated signals (and human) intelligence, the Snowden revelations about five-eyes metadata collection – identifying our monitoring capabilities and limitations – are particularly disturbing. Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ (the UK equivalent of Australia’s ASD) has described the Snowden revelations as “the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever”. While Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, has underlined how signals intelligence provides many of the CT leads upon which MI5 relies – and makes a vital contribution to most of its high priority investigations. Presumably this situation also applies in Australia.