Terrorism remains a very real threat to Australia. Some may have thought that, prior to the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), terrorism no longer presented a threat to our country, whilst others believed it was still an important issue. This article will analyse the terrorist threat to Australia in relation to three main areas of threat. Home-grown terrorism has increased since the events of September 11 and there have been a number of cases where Australians have been involved in terrorist activities and terrorist plots, albeit failed ones. More recently, we have seen the involvement of Australians in Syria, proclaiming jihad for ISIS. Regional terrorism also provides a threat to Australia. South East Asian groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah may threaten the security of Australia due to a potential spread of terrorist activities. Finally, cyber terrorism is a relatively new and evolving threat which could pose an even greater danger than physical attacks.
Australia has seen the emergence of home-grown terrorism since the events of September 11. This can be attributed to two key factors; the first is the increased accessibility to media via the internet. The internet provides a plethora of information in relation to terrorist training, advice, and propaganda material. A study conducted by Porter and Kebbel found that 76 per cent of convicted Australian terrorists had accessed information on the internet which had provided advice or training. The second factor is Australia’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which may have angered extremists and sparked the increase in terrorist activity in Australia, by Australians. Certainly Crone and Harrow have acknowledged this increase in home-grown terrorism as a result of Western contributions to the ‘Global War on Terror’.
Mullins identifies a number of key attributes of home-grown terrorists. The first is that the individual is either born in Australia or has lived here for an extended period of time. Second, the individual has radicalised in Australia (or another Western country). And finally, the individual generally acts autonomously, although they may have had previous ties in the form of training from a foreign terrorist group. These attributes appear consistent with the individuals involved in two prominent home-grown terrorist plots. Although they were foiled, both Operation Pendennis (2005) and Operation Neath (2009) “were entirely home-grown”. Similarly, the 21 individuals convicted of terrorist activities included in Porter and Kebbell’s study also fit these criteria. Milad Bin Ahmad Shah Al-Ahmadzai, who was born and raised in Australia, was investigated by the Joint Counter Terrorism Team for “committing terrorism related offences”. He was arrested in May 2013. More recently, Mohamed Elomar, an Australian home-grown terrorist, has become involved in terrorist activities with ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. There is currently a warrant out for his arrest. These examples show that home-grown terrorism continues to exist in Australia and remains a threat to Australia’s national security. Therefore, it is vital that Australia’s authorities and policymakers do not ignore this growing threat on our doorstep, when evaluating the terrorist threat to Australia.
The proximity of the many South East Asian terrorist groups, including Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah, potentially poses a terrorist threat to Australia. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), together with Al Qaeda, has identified Australia as a target nation, although they have not carried out any attacks on Australian soil to date. Despite JI’s reduced operational capacity and a decrease in the number of attacks in recent years, it is important that Australia does not become complacent. Oak argues that, despite this decline, the group still exists and thus, future policies should consider how to contend with a potential resurgence of the group. Furthermore, Australia’s National Security website identifies that the group has a “strategic plan which extends to 2025”, meaning that there is considerable potential for further attacks from JI and a possibility that some may be conducted on Australian soil. In addition to this, the website also explains that some JI members, who are currently detained, are eligible for parole over the 2013-2014 period. This could lead to another wave of attacks perpetrated by the group.
Not only could JI take advantage of Australia’s strategic position by planning a terrorist attack on Australian soil, it also has the ability to recruit Australian extremists to implement the terrorist attacks. JI has previously used Australian extremists to facilitate terrorist activities, as was the case with Mantiqi IV, the fourth division of JI, led by Abdul Rahim Ayub, an Australian resident. The existence of these divisions is consistent with the group’s aim to create a pan-Islamic empire and proves the group’s ability to expand; with its other three divisions reaching Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Furthermore, a range of splinter groups has, and will continue to, evolve from JI, just as JI itself emerged from the group Darul Islam. Any number of splinter groups may emerge from JI, expanding the terrorist network, and potentially creating a greater threat. It is imperative that Australian authorities stay up-to-date with new and emerging terrorist groups in the region, as well as the threats posed by these groups. In this way, Australia may be better protected from terrorist threats in the future.
Cyber-terrorism is a new and evolving threat, which has grown from the development of information technology as well as its ease of access. There is already great concern about the security of cyber space, and Australia has previously experienced a number of cyber-attacks itself. Jarvis et al argue that cyber-attacks have the potential to cause greater harm than do “traditional physical assaults”. Interfering with information systems which manage consumer products could lead to a large number of deaths due to food, water or drug contamination. Similarly, interfering with systems which control various methods of transport could also result in fatal collisions. Thus the potential for mass casualties is high when considering the threat of cyber terrorism. This will ultimately have profound effects, not only on Australian security but also for Australian businesses.
One of the biggest issues in attempting to counter cyber terrorism is its global nature. An attack on Australian interests may stem from anywhere in the world, making it difficult to pin-point the source of the attack, and thus the attacker may enjoy relative anonymity. In the event that the attacker is found, Australia can only rely on its domestic law. This means that if the attacker is outside of Australia and is not an Australian, they cannot be prosecuted under Australian domestic law. Additionally, a potential lack of co-operation from the country in which the attacker is found, poses further problems. This lack of international legislation on cyber terrorism means that attacks can and may well continue into the future; however, attempting to create international law for this type of crime will not come without its challenges. Nevertheless, cyber terrorism poses a very real threat for both Australian security and Australian businesses.
Terrorism still poses a significant threat to Australia and should not be ignored. The emergence of home-grown terrorism has been spurred on by Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been exacerbated by greater access to training and advice provided via the internet. The examples provided above indicate that home-grown terrorism is a very real threat and continues to undermine Australia’s security even today, and should certainly be addressed in counter-terrorism policy.
Regional threats stemming from South East Asia, especially from Jemaah Islamiyah and its splinter groups, continue to threaten Australia. The release of currently detained members could spark a new wave of terrorism which has the potential to spread to Australia. It is important that Australian authorities are alert to South East Asian terrorists attempting to enter Australia, but also to Australians attempting to join these groups by either leaving the country to join, or becoming part of an Australian division. In addition, authorities need to be aware of new threats stemming from the region by way of splinter groups.
Cyber terrorism is probably the most difficult of the three threats to combat due to its global nature. It also has the potential to cause mass casualties. Although attempting to formulate international legislation will be difficult, perhaps Australia can start by forming co-operative agreements on this issue, with some of its key strategic partners.
This article has argued that terrorism remains a very real threat for Australia. Still, some scholars consider the terrorist threat to Australia to be negligible. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the lack of actual attacks on Australian soil can be attributed to authorities’ awareness and proactive approaches to the threat. Complacency may have yielded very different results. Australian authorities have thus far succeeded in preventing terrorist attacks in Australia, yet many threats remain. If Australian authorities remain prepared and alert to the threats, perhaps this success can continue into the future, ensuring Australia’s security.