Australia doesn’t need more anti-terror laws that aren’t necessary – or even used



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Keiran Hardy, Griffith University

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has introduced a new bill that will amend the controversial questioning and detention powers held by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

While some changes are welcome, others are a cause for concern. One major change is that the legislation will allow ASIO officers to coercively question children as young as 14.

For this bill to be passed, Home Affairs must offer a stronger justification as to why the expanded powers are needed in the current security climate.




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Australia has enacted 82 anti-terror laws since 2001. But tough laws alone can’t eliminate terrorism


Calls for new counter-terrorism powers have become commonplace in Australia, to the point where we now have more than 80 laws directed at the threat of terrorism.

Any call for additional powers should be met with careful scrutiny, particularly when the rights of children are at stake.

Repealing controversial detention powers

One of the biggest changes in the bill is that it would repeal ASIO’s power to detain people for questioning. Currently, ASIO has the power to seek a questioning and detention warrant (QDW) that allows people to be detained for up to one week. Detention can be approved if a person is likely to fail to appear for questioning, alert someone involved in terrorism, or tamper with evidence.

During that period, a person can be questioned in eight-hour blocks up to a maximum of 24 hours. This is purely an intelligence-gathering exercise, and is not related to any investigation for a criminal offence. The questioning can be approved if it would

substantially assist the collection of intelligence that is important in relation to a terrorism offence

The questioning is coercive, in that a person faces five years in prison for failing to answer any of ASIO’s questions. The powers are also highly secretive: it’s five years in prison for anyone who reveals anything about a warrant.

These powers are some of Australia’s most controversial anti-terror laws, as no democratic country has granted its domestic intelligence agency the same power to detain people for questioning.

Reviews by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the COAG review of counter-terrorism legislation have all recommended this power be repealed. Such a move would be welcome.

Expanded powers to question minors

At the same time, the bill will expand ASIO’s power to seek questioning warrants (QWs). These trigger all the same questioning processes and criminal offences as QDWs, they just don’t allow ASIO to detain the person outside the questioning period.

If the bill passes, QWs will be split into “adult questioning warrants” and “minor questioning warrants”. Minor questioning warrants will be available for children as young as 14 who are “likely to engage in” politically motivated violence.

This significantly widens the current thresholds. QWs are currently available for 16-year-olds only when the attorney-general is satisfied the person “will commit, is committing or has committed a terrorism offence”.

Some additional safeguards will protect minors under the new measures. Before issuing a questioning warrant, for instance, the attorney-general will need to consider the “best interests” of the child.

This is consistent with international law requirements and Australia’s expanded control order regime, which can include electronic tagging and curfews.




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Control orders for kids won’t make us any safer


Under the proposed laws, a young person can only be questioned in blocks of two hours or less, and a lawyer must be present during all questioning.

However, restrictions currently placed on lawyers will be retained. Lawyers, whether acting for young people or adults, are not allowed to intervene in questioning, except to clarify an ambiguous question. They can even be kicked out of the room, and a new lawyer appointed, if they “unduly” disrupt the questioning.

These restrictions will significantly undermine the ability of lawyers to protect children from any forceful or inappropriate questioning by ASIO officers.

Are the changes even needed?

Dutton has justified the proposed changes by claiming Australia faces a significant threat of terrorism from young people. While we cannot know the intelligence on which this assessment is based, the urgent need for these changes is doubtful.

The statistics show that questioning warrants are used very rarely. The last QW was issued in 2010, and the last one before that in 2006.

Only 16 QWs have ever been issued since their introduction in 2003, and none since the threat from Islamic State emerged.




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Given this record, it is difficult to see how QWs for 14-year-olds are suddenly needed to prevent acts of terrorism.

Indeed, in a recent PJCIS inquiry, ASIO explained their lack of use by saying the powers were difficult to approve on a short timeframe. This made them not very useful for the kinds of low-tech attacks seen in recent years, such as stabbings and shootings, which require little advance planning.

If the new powers are passed in the bill, they should at least be sunsetted to expire after three years, rather than the proposed ten. Without this amendment, more extraordinary counter-terrorism powers will be on Australia’s statute books for the foreseeable future.The Conversation

Keiran Hardy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia recognises the threat posted by far-right groups. So, why aren’t they listed on the terror register?



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Jessie Smith, University of Cambridge

This week, Kristina Keneally announced plans by Labor to review the nation’s register of terrorist organisations.

ASIO sounded an alarm last month that far-right groups pose an elevated threat to Australian national security. Cells have met to salute the Nazi flag and train in combat. ASIO is now investigating twice as many far-right leads as last year.

However, to date, no far-right group has been banned in Australia. This sits in contrast to the UK, where National Action and other far-right groups are outlawed and members have been convicted of terror-related and other crimes.

Keneally asks whether our laws are fit for purpose. One year after the Christchurch massacre, it’s time to investigate whether enough is being done to address the far-right threat in this country.

How groups are listed on the terror register

The definition of terrorism underpins the way terror organisations are registered in both the UK and Australia. Australia designed its laws from a British template, so the definitions are very similar.

At its core, a “terrorist act” is defined as conduct with special characteristics – namely, the advancement of a “political, religious or ideological cause” and the coercion of government or the intimidation of the public.

There are two ways to counter far-right groups in Australia.

The first is through the proscription process, or the creation of a “list” or register of banned groups.

To list a group on the national register, Home Affairs reviews intelligence from ASIO and must be satisfied the group is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting, fostering or advocating terrorism. There is huge symbolism in proscription. It is the highest level of disendorsement, as it can allow the government to label a political movement as criminal.




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Australia isn’t taking the national security threat from far-right extremism seriously enough


There is good reason for the government to be selective – many hundreds of groups can meet the broad definition of terrorism. For instance, any rebel group in a war zone fits the bill, including allies we arm, train and partner with, such as certain groups in Syria.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is therefore guided by discretionary factors, such as a group’s ties to Australia and its threat profile and nature of its ideology. Most groups on the terror list are large, well-resourced Islamist outfits such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.

The second way to affix a terrorist label to a group is by satisfying a jury, at trial, that it meets the legal criteria of “terrorist organisation”. This process does not involve Home Affairs; the decision rests with the jury.

Smaller, home-grown cells have been tried in this way, such as the conviction of the Benbrika group (the “MCG plotters”) in 2006. The jury found they were members of a terrorist organisation despite their absence from the national terror register. As such, leaving a group off the list does not create a meaningful gap in the law.

This two-tiered approach allows flexibility. At times, a group might not have a name, or it might not be organised or have a public profile.

There might also be operational reasons for ministerial restraint for not listing a group, such as fear that public declarations could disrupt covert police investigations into its activities.

Why have far-right groups been banned in the UK?

So, what explains the difference between the UK and Australia when it comes to dealing with far-right groups?

Despite Keneally’s concern, there is no meaningful difference between proscription criteria in the two countries. The UK includes violence committed on racial grounds, but this is matched by our reference to ideological motive. The UK looks to those who “glorify” terrorism, but we include groups that “advocate” or “praise” similar conduct.




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However, one way the two countries diverge may be in the scale of the threat.

National Action, a neo-Nazi group whose members have called for a “race war”, has a large following in the UK. Members cheered the murder of MP Jo Cox and have been jailed for plotting to kill other left-wing politicians.

The far-right in Australia may not yet have gained the same momentum.

Greater parliamentary powers over Home Affairs

Keneally is trying to figure out whether the failure to list far-right groups in Australia is due to the law, the lack of sufficient threat or the lack of political will.

But the law is fit for purpose, and ASIO has issued a serious public warning. What’s left hanging is politics.

Rather than review the criteria for proscription, Keneally should press for an enhanced role for parliament’s intelligence and security committee over Home Affairs.




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ASIO chief’s assessment shows the need to do more, and better, to prevent terrorism


Parliament’s intelligence and security committee can currently review (and veto) a decision by Dutton to add a group to the register of terror organisations. But the committee cannot intervene in cases Home Affairs deliberately rejects.

Perhaps an expanded parliamentary review function over the minister’s decision-making and the department’s method of prioritisation would give Keneally the answers she seeks.

In response to ASIO’s warning on far-right groups, Dutton was quick to label Islamists as “left-wing” extremists.

Despite Labor’s objections to this characterisation, Islamic extremist and “far-right” groups have much in common – all are driven by elements of hate, misogyny, supremacy, destruction and brands of extreme social conservatism. All deserve sober consideration, whatever the label, and without political distraction.The Conversation

Jessie Smith, PhD in Law, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lessons on terrorism and rehabilitation from the London Bridge attack


In a deeply tragic irony, the two victims who lost their lives to a man who made a mockery of their idealism were assisted by two others who appear to have genuinely benefited from prison rehabilitation programs.
AAP/EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Greg Barton, Deakin University

Can prison rehabilitation programs work, and is it sensible to try and rehabilitate seriously radicalised individuals convicted on terrorism charges?

These are questions not just for the UK, in the wake of the second London Bridge attack over the weekend, but for the entire world.

There are no easy answers and no simple options. As the numbers of people detained and eventually released on terrorism charges mount up around the world, so too does the question of what to do with them. Politicians find it easy to speak in terms of “lock them up and throw away the key”. But our legal systems don’t allow this and the results, even if allowed, would almost certainly be worse.




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Some answers, and some difficult questions, can be found in the lives of four participants in the events in London: Jack Merritt, Saskia Jones, Marc Conway and James Ford.

All four were participating in an event organised to reflect on the first five years of the University of Cambridge’s Learning Together program. Merritt was a young graduate who was helping coordinate the program. Jones was a volunteer in the program. Tragically, their idealism and desire to give back to society saw them lose their lives to a man whom they thought they had been able to help.

Merritt’s father told the media:

Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog.

In her tribute to her murdered daughter, Jones’s mother said:

Saskia had a great passion for providing invaluable support to victims of criminal injustice, which led her to the point of recently applying for the police graduate recruitment programme, wishing to specialise in victim support.

Jones, 23, and Merritt, 25, were both University of Cambridge graduates working at the Learning Together program. They lost their lives to a knife-wielding murderer who does not deserve to have his name remembered. Their 28-year-old assailant had been released from prison 12 months earlier, having served but eight years of a 16 year sentence.

In a catastrophic system-failure, his automatic release was processed without his case ever being reviewed by a parole board, despite the sentencing judge identifying him as a serious risk who should only ever be released after careful review. He had gamed the system, presenting himself as repentant and reformed.

In fact, he had never undergone a rehabilitation program in prison and only had cursory processing on his release. Systemic mistakes and the lack of resources to fund sufficient and appropriate rehabilitation programs meant he was one of many whose risk was never adequately assessed.

Conway had formerly served time at a London prison and is now working as a policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust. He witnessed the fatal attack and rushed directly towards the attacker, joining others who sought to pin him down.

Another man participating in the offender rehabilitation event was James Ford. He too saw the attack unfolding and immediately confronted the assailant.

In a deeply tragic irony, the two victims who lost their lives to a man who made a mockery of their idealism were assisted by two others who appear to have genuinely benefited from prison rehabilitation programs. But even here, the complexities and ambiguities of this sort of difficult endeavour were played out as clearly as any playwright could ever conceive of scripting.

Ford was a convicted murderer attending the Learning Together conference on day-release. He had brutally killed 21-year-old Amanda Campion, a young women who was particularly vulnerable because of her intellectual disability. In the eyes of Campion’s family, Ford is no hero.

However, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University David Wilson, who chairs the Friends of Grendon Prison program, says that Ford underwent extensive rehabilitation initiatives, including an intensive period of psychotherapy.

On this occasion, the convicted murderer did the right thing. Even though this doesn’t make him a hero, it does give some reason for hope. For Wilson, the murderous terrorist and the convicted murderer who rushed to contain him represent a tale of two prisoners:

I know through my work that people do change and they change as a consequence of innovative but challenging regimes such as the one at HMP Grendon.

In the wake of the attack, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the cases of 74 people released early after being jailed for terror offences will be reviewed. This is certainly sensible and necessary, but much more is required. Indefinite detention is not an option in the majority of cases, and the UK is dealing with hundreds of people convicted of terrorism offences either currently in prison or recently released.

The numbers in Australia are only a fraction of this but still run into the high dozens and are growing every year. For Australia’s near neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the numbers, including projected returnees from the Middle East, run into the thousands.




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Professor Ian Acheson, who has advised the government on how to handle extremist prisoners, told the BBC it was not “a question of an arms race on sentencing toughness”, but about what is done when offenders are in custody.

Acheson said his panel’s recommendations had been agreed to but not implemented due to “the merry-go-round of political replacements of secretaries of state”, and the “fairly recalcitrant and unwilling bureaucracy”. He also cited “crazy failed and ideological austerity cuts” to the police, prison and probation services.

Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were not naïve idealists. They had studied the problem closely and believed rehabilitation programs could make a difference. Their tragic deaths speak to the challenges involved. To give up and do nothing is not merely cynical, but self-defeating. Without adequate resourcing and reforms the problem everywhere will only become much worse.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australia can no longer avoid responsibility for its citizens held in Syria



Detention camps in Syria hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
Murtaja Lateef/EPA

Anthony Billingsley, UNSW

The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.

Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.

So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:

I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.

An increasingly untenable position

The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.

Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.

However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.

The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.




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Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.

The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.

The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.

Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.

Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.

In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.

Al-Hawl camp in northern Syria where eight Australian IS fighters and some 60 women and children are believed to be held.
Tessa Fox/AAP

Barriers to bringing detainees back

While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.

Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.

And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,

While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.

Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.

The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.




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Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.

Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.

But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.

There are few other options

Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.

For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.




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Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security


Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.

In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.

In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.The Conversation

Anthony Billingsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Baghdadi’s death is a huge blow to Islamic State, but history suggests it won’t guarantee a safer world



Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable, but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led.
AAP/EPA/ al Furqan ISIS media wing handout

Greg Barton, Deakin University

“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.

Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.

The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.

It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.

The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.




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US retreat from Syria could see Islamic State roar back to life


The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.

IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.

The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.

Baghdadi as IS leader

Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.

He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.

He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.

Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.

What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.

IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.

This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.

An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.

Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.

What might happen now?

It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.

Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.




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The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.

A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.

But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia isn’t taking the national security threat from far-right extremism seriously enough



The Christchurch attack is a clear signal we need to change our approach to both hateful extremism and toxic political discourse in Australia.
David Alexander/AAP

Greg Barton, Deakin University

This is part of a new series looking at the national security challenges facing Australia, how our leaders are responding to them through legislation and how these measures are impacting society. Read the rest of the series here.


Until the terror attack in Christchurch in March, the threat of far-right terrorism in Australia was one we knew was coming, but believed was well over the horizon.

The sordid story of the Christchurch attacker – “ordinary Australian” turned hateful bigot turned mass-murdering terrorist – contains some uncomfortable truths for our country, not least of which is the fact that the threat of far-right extremism has arrived in the here and now.

Just as troubling, yet even more challenging because it is so insidious, are the clear links between the Christchurch shooter’s motivations and our mainstream political discourse. Facing up to this threat requires us changing our approach both to hateful extremism and toxic political discourse.

Police and counter-terrorism officials have long been warning us of the rising threat of far-right violent extremism. Over the past decade, this has emerged as the number one terrorist threat in America and a persistent and growing threat in Europe.




Read more:
Christchurch attacks are a stark warning of toxic political environment that allows hate to flourish


It’s tempting to say that had more resources been committed to tracking and monitoring far-right groups and individuals in Australia, the Christchurch terrorist perhaps could have been stopped.

But even in hindsight, things are not so clear. The Christchurch gunman was a lone actor with no previous history of significant violence, although his involvement in hateful extremism was well-known to family and friends.

This is the particular threat that keeps counter-terrorism experts awake at night, when so-called “cleanskins” (people with ostensibly spotless records) turn into lone-actor terrorists.

We are flying blind on far-right extremism

One clear lesson from Christchurch is that we need to pay more attention to hate speech and hate crimes.

It is true that “shit-posting” is a common occurrence on social media, and among all those people spouting off, it is extremely difficult to see who might become a violent extremist.

But clearly, we don’t understand the world of far-right extremism nearly as well as we should. We need a better way of monitoring and tracking far-right forums, social networks and the links between far-right individuals through their histories of travel and extremist communications.

We also have no centralised, national database of hate incidents. Hate crimes remain under-reported, poorly documented and de-prioritised to low levels of state policing.




Read more:
Right-wing extremism has a long history in Australia


The result is that we are flying blind. We don’t get to see the patterns between far-right groups and internet “shit-posters” because we are not collecting the data.

If we made it a priority at the state and federal level to document hate incidents, whether crimes or not, we would at least have a sense of when and where the problem is growing and who is most significantly involved.

This wouldn’t eliminate the threat of far-right extremism, but it might help stop the next massacre and it would certainly contribute to making Australian society more healthy, welcoming and just.

Anti-immigrant protesters at a Reclaim Australia rally in Sydney in 2015.
David Moir/AAP

A disproportionate focus on Islamist terror threats

The September 11 attacks in America, and subsequent attacks by al-Qaeda in Bali, Madrid, London and elsewhere, triggered an enormous investment in counter-terrorism efforts in Australia.

This had barely begun to abate when the formation of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate in mid-2014 alerted us to the high rates of terror recruitment in Australia and prompted the raising of the national terrorism alert to the penultimate level in September 2014.

An intercepted phone call then triggered Australia’s largest-ever counter-terrorism operation. Shortly afterward, the Islamic State issued a call for random lone-actor attacks around the world and, within days, an 18-year-old launched a knife attack against two police officers in Melbourne.




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Australia has enacted 82 anti-terror laws since 2001. But tough laws alone can’t eliminate terrorism


These circumstances have led to 82 counter-terrorism laws being enacted in Australia since 2001, and 16 counter-terrorism operations since 2014, almost all of which have been responding to the threat posed by violent Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and IS.

This perception of the increased threat posed by these groups has resulted in a disproportionate investment in counter-terrorism compared with the response to the much greater threat posed by domestic violence.

At the same time, however, very little has been invested in preventative counter-terrorism measures, including countering far-right extremism.

A national discourse bound up in fear

We pride ourselves on being the world’s most successful multicultural society, yet we consistently turn a deaf ear to those who come up against hatred.

Just last month, for example, a new national survey found that 82% of Asian Australians, 81% of Australians of Middle Eastern background and 71% of Indigenous Australians had experienced some form of discrimination.

One reason why we are not yet ready to face up to this problem is that our national political discourse has for decades become bound up with the politics of fear, “othering”, and scapegoating minority communities.

When we demonise “illegal arrivals” and give license to the toxic rhetoric that we are being “swamped by Asians”, as Pauline Hanson put it in the late 1990s, or more recently “flooded by Muslims”, then we are buying into the core element of the narrative of terrorists like the Christchurch gunman.

In his manifesto, the gunman referenced the far-right extremist trope of “the great replacement” –
the fear that white Christian society is being overrun by brown-skinned, non-Christian people who are changing its culture and society irrevocably.

He picked up this idea from parts of Europe where there is strong antagonism to migrants and Muslims. But he referenced it directly from the writings of the Norwegian far-right terrorist who shot dead 69 people and blew up another eight in July 2011.

This same argument featured in the manifesto of the El Paso gunman who murdered 22 people at a Walmart store in Texas last month. In it, he praised the Christchurch shooter and warned of a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.

These alt-right terrorists are driven in part by a fantasy of going from “zero to hero” in the alt-right internet world and becoming renowned as “warrior defenders”.

White nationalist manifestos are a recurring feature of far-right extremist attacks, like the one in El Paso this year.
Larry W. Smith/EPA

Prioritising far-right extremism

Prior to Christchurch, kicking the can down the road and prioritising other threats to our national security seemed an understandable, if not ideal response.

We now need to face the reality that of 50 terrorism-related deaths in the US last year, almost all involved far-right extremism. (Only one was linked to jihadi terrorism.) This is a pattern that’s been established for decades now. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all terrorist deaths in the US over the past decade have been linked to far-right extremism.

And while there is reason to hope the problem will never become quite so serious in Australia (despite the fact an Australian far-right extremist has murdered 51 people in another country), we need to do what we can now to counter the rise of hate speech and hate crimes – not later.

There are no quick fixes or guaranteed solutions, but these steps will make society better in ways that go far beyond the immediate threat of another terrorist attack.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s quest for national security is undermining the courts and could lead to secretive trials



Bernard Collaery’s whistleblower trial will be a key test of the National Security Information Act and the restrictions it places on defendants and the courts.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Keiran Hardy, Griffith University

This is part of a new series looking at the national security challenges facing Australia, how our leaders are responding to them through legislation and how these measures are impacting society. Read other stories in the series here.


In August, the intelligence officer known as Witness K indicated he would plead guilty to a conspiracy charge under section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act. That section prohibits the disclosure of information acquired or prepared by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

His lawyer, Bernard Collaery, will contest the same charge in the ACT Supreme Court.

Concerns have been raised about the use of the National Security Information Act (NSIA) in the Collaery trial. Anthony Whealy, a former judge who presided over several of Australia’s recent terrorism trials, said

This could be one of the most secretive trials in Australian history.

Both cases will be back in court this month. A hearing is also scheduled to consider how national security information will be dealt with in the Collaery trial.

There has been significant media discussion around the ASIS bugging that Witness K and Bernard Collaery exposed, but less about the NSIA.

So what is the National Security Information Act? Why was it introduced and how could it lead to secretive trials?

Having its cake and eating it, too

The purpose of the NSIA is to protect national security information while allowing it to be used in Australian courtrooms. It applies in federal court proceedings, both civil and criminal.

Before the NSIA, prosecutors faced a difficult choice. They could prosecute someone for terrorism, national security or secrecy offences and risk having sensitive information disclosed publicly, or they could keep the information secret and possibly have the prosecution fail.

The act was introduced in 2004 as part of Australia’s vast suite of counter-terrorism laws, designed specifically to help prosecutors convict people for terrorism offences.

Now, the government can have its cake and eat it too: it no longer needs to choose between protecting sensitive information and prosecuting someone for disclosing it.




Read more:
Australia has enacted 82 anti-terror laws since 2001. But tough laws alone can’t eliminate terrorism


What does the NSIA do?

The NSIA creates special procedures by which national security information can be protected while still being used as evidence.

National security information is defined broadly under the act as any information relating to

Australia’s defence, security, international relations or law enforcement interests.

There are two circumstances in which the NSIA procedures can be triggered. The first is when the parties know in advance they are likely to reveal national security information during the trial. The parties must notify the attorney-general of this, or face two years in prison.

The second set of circumstances relates to when a witness is being questioned on the stand and an answer has the potential to reveal national security information. If a lawyer or the defendant knows this could happen, he or she must stop the witness from answering and notify the court, or the same penalty applies.




Read more:
Why an Australian charter of rights is a matter of national urgency


In either of these circumstances, the attorney-general can issue a non-disclosure certificate that prohibits the information from being revealed or allows it to be revealed in summary or redacted form. The court then holds a closed hearing in which the judge will determine whether and how the information may be used.

In a closed hearing, not only are journalists and members of the public barred from attending, but also the jury. The judge may even exclude the defendant, the defendant’s lawyer or a court official if revealing the information to them would be likely to compromise national security.

Supporters of Bernard Collaery and Witness K protesting outside Supreme Court in Canberra in August.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Withholding information from defendants

That the legislation permits closed hearings is not necessarily the main issue, though this certainly undermines the principles of open justice. However, closed hearings are an option in other sensitive cases, such as those involving child victims of sexual assault.

The main problem with the NSIA is that it creates a situation in which national security information can be used in a courtroom without the defendant, jury, media or general public knowing the details of that information.

Producing evidence in summary or redacted form means that the gist of the information is provided, but key details are kept secret. In fact, it is not even clear under Australian law that something approximating a gist needs to be given.




Read more:
From Richard Boyle and Witness K to media raids: it’s time whistleblowers had better protection


This undermines the defendant’s ability to argue their innocence. A core aspect of procedural fairness and the right to a fair trial is that defendants must know the case against them. This allows their lawyers to contest the veracity of the evidence through cross-examination.

Without knowing when or how the prosecution’s evidence was collected, or even the precise claims the evidence is making, lawyers cannot adequately defend their clients. They are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Weighing national security vs a fair trial

Moreover, in deciding how potentially sensitive information can be used in court, judges must give greater weight to national security than the defendant’s right to receive a fair hearing.

In other words, the NSIA does not require a judge to balance national security and a fair trial equally. More weight must be given to the former under the law.

It may be that judges can still strike an appropriate balance so defendants receive a fair hearing in cases like these. But if a contest between national security and a fair trial needs to be decided, it is clear which one wins.

Using the NSIA in the Collaery trial is also significant because the accused is a whistleblowing lawyer and not someone accused of terrorism.

After the recent police raids on the ABC headquarters, the home of a News Corp journalist and the home of an Australian Signals Directorate officer, the Australian media will be watching this trial closely.

It is likely, given the sensitive nature of the ASIS bugging scandal, that information will be withheld from Collaery’s defence team for national security reasons. This is a significant test case for whether whistleblowers can receive a fair trial in the current climate of government secrecy.The Conversation

Keiran Hardy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.