The Importance Of Tolerance In the Face Of Terror

HostageAgainst the backdrop of national security uncertainties arising from the arrests in the past weeks of extremists in Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland, the Security Profession would like to offer some thoughts to those in the community who might be wondering what it all means – what the threat actually is and how people or their organisations should be responding to it.

Australia’s national security apparatus recently disrupted plans by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) sympathisers resident in Australia to select people at random and behead them. Since the rule of law exists in Australia, unlike in ISIL-occupied territory, charges laid against those arrested will need to be proven in court, so the presumption of innocence applies. However, we should be encouraged that the police operation appears to have been an intelligence-led, well-coordinated and professional security response involving State and Federal Police and the Australian Intelligence Community. In the week following these events: the national terrorism alert level was raised from ‘medium’ (an attack ‘could occur’) to ‘high’ (an attack ‘is likely to occur’); Australian forces left for the Middle East in support of the US-led alliance to eradicate the IS; the IS called on its supporters to kill soldiers and civilians in Australia, the US and Europe; the US and its allies (including a number of majority Sunni States) commenced air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria without the regime’s consent; and the Australian Government has introduced a body of legislation that will strengthen police and security powers, which will likely receive bipartisan support. In short, a lot has happened in a short period.

In all of this, Australians have been told to prepare for less freedom in times that are described by the Government as ‘darkening’, and basically to ‘carry on and keep calm’. This latter element seems appropriate, but it does not mean that we should stop thinking.

The word ‘discipline’ needs to be added to the discussion. Security is about ‘culture’. There are national and state law enforcement and security authorities, and security advisors with various roles, but a secure society is first and foremost one in which people are disciplined in their actions and words. As individuals, we need to understand security threats, which in turn requires us to weigh facts rationally and not resort to impulse or knee jerk reactions. Otherwise the radicals have won. Australians are well-placed here. We have evolved a highly sophisticated, inclusive and egalitarian society, with a long and proud democratic tradition. Consistent with this, we are bound to act with leadership, restraint, sophisticated strategy and unity of purpose. We are, and need to be seen to be, the ‘adults in the room’. Those of us with a public voice doubly so.

This applies to everybody in the community, not just governments and officials. As the peak representational body of the Security Profession, and as a key thought leadership group on security matters, the Australasian Council of Security Professionals makes a plea: as individual members of the Australian community, you are responsible for your own security. You have a duty to educate yourselves properly on the facts of the security threats that confront you. You need to think rationally about facts, not be blinded by the circus that will no doubt continue for some time around the activities of a few dysfunctional individuals. If we panic, and blame all Muslims, the radicals win. This is particularly important during uncertain times. In the absence of clear and unequivocal information on threat to us as individuals and to our businesses, we must apply much more rigour in formulating our actions as individuals and as managers. Indeed, you should not necessarily expect complete answers from Government because our leaders, civil servants and intelligence officers simply do not have a full picture of the nature of the domestic threat of ISIL. It is for you to research, seek information and advice, and make risk-based, defensible decisions.

Government is still working through exactly what recent developments mean for the country. The recent arrests were not the first examples of home-grown terrorist intent or planning being detected and thwarted in Australia. Alienated, angry men and women can be drawn to high-profile causes that offer simplistic answers to complex matters and that prey on their fears, insecurities and gullibility. Evil has always been done in the name of one dimensional ideologies – “four legs good, two legs bad” as coined by George Orwell in Animal Farm, or “Christian/Muslim/Jew good, Christian/Muslim/Jew bad”. Talkback radio is replete with such messages right now. Easy jingoism is not needed and the three word slogan should be put away.

These are the reasons why:

In our view ISIL will not last in any semblance of order – it will be a failed state and will splinter. Yes, ISIL’s destruction must be hastened, but to what degree is this to be done by external parties (the US, Australia, UK, Middle East actors and others), and what interests exactly would external involvement serve? Remember, that the ‘Irish problem’ in the end was solved by the Irish themselves. In the end Washington and Westminster got out of the way. In the ISIL context, Australia’s ultimate strategic interest is for the Middle East region to behave in accordance with our needs, and right now, we would be well served by espionage, sabotage and cultivating the authority of friendly elements. Australia tends to do these things quite well, but a slide into protracted conventional military operations on the ground now seems almost inevitable.

As participants, this could cost us precious lives, it will cost us a lot of money, and it is likely to make us a bigger target for extremism. The latter is already happening, although Australians are not the only nationals to be singled out by ISIL for murderous attack – US and European citizens are also included in a recent ISIL decree to its followers. An interesting question here goes to the disparity between the scale of the international intervention and the inactivity of the ultimate stakeholders. When will Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others take a hand and rein in the sectarianism that has so cynically been fuelled in Iraq and Syria through their proxies? Effective action by these important participants would seem to be a prerequisite to any lasting solution, but there is no sign of this. Deep strategic consideration of these factors is needed in committing forces. There are few signs in the public domain of such strategic thinking.

Such considerations would be much simpler were the current situation purely a military problem. It is not. With or without our encouragement IS will pass, but angry, alienated youth will still be recruited by remnant splinter groups, which will still be supported by sympathisers in the Arab world, Iran and elsewhere.

What we saw recently in Sydney and Logan was the tip of a massively complex and tricky public policy problem – the mix of policy settings, which, balanced with necessary enforcement, are necessary to counter (over decades) the evolution of extremist home-grown elements, or CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). Despite the events of the last week, we must remember that Australia has been much more successful at integrating diverse and sometimes fractious immigrant populations than many countries. We can take great hope from this. There is a sense of pride in living in a country where a former Vietnamese refugee has risen to the rank of Governor of South Australia.

Successive governments have done a lot of work on CVE and must continue to, although there appears to be an absence of discussion of these matters in the public domain. Also, despite recent announcements, funding is still much more scarce for this ‘softer side of counter-terrorism’ than for the enforcement side. There needs to be more discussion, because the complexity of the mix of measures needed (health, education, employment, opportunity, public security, community policing) is substantial indeed, expensive and in need of long-term bipartisan political will to sustain. It requires community support, and because of that, high-level community awareness. Government will need to do better here, but at a fundamental level, this is an individual matter.

It is interesting that even the President of the National Coalition, the main opposition alliance in Syria, appears to be of a similar mind. According to a BBC report, Hadi al-Bahra welcomed the military action against ISIL targets in Syria, but cautioned that ‘strikes alone cannot defeat extremism for good. The long-term solution is moderate, inclusive Syrian governance that prevents the resurgence of extremism.’

So, where does this leave us? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers, but when were there in relation to terrorism? This is an ambiguous, asymmetric threat. So perhaps an analogy is helpful. In the absence of an answer to the common cold, Health Professionals exhort us to educate ourselves about personal hygiene, but it is the individual’s responsibility to wash properly. These professionals are committed to the health of the community. We in the Security Profession are similarly committed – to the security of the community. And the message of Security Professionals is similarly clear: educate yourselves, do not be sucked in by three word slogans and simplistic answers to a tangle of problems that have been with us since before WW1. Be rational and equip yourselves with the intelligence and advice to act, speak and think appropriately in the tricky years ahead.

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Matthew Curtis
Matthew consults in the government and corporate sectors on risk, governance and management. With extensive Foreign Service experience, Matthew has worked and led in fields ranging through diplomacy, policy development and implementation, legal and litigation matters, industry regulation and negotiation. His consulting draws on high-level strategic and relationship management skills as well as effective policy and operational experience.