“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 this is impacting society. Read other stories in the series here.
In late September, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced a new bill that would give him stronger powers to strip the Australian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terror-related offences or who in engage in related activities.
In response to the prospect of foreign fighters returning from conflicts overseas, the bill proposes extending the current citizenship revocation law to any dual national who is convicted of a terrorism offence carrying at least three years imprisonment (compared to the current six).
It would also be back-dated to account for any terrorism convictions or conduct from May 2003 onwards (compared to the current cut-off date of December 2015).
To protect the rights of dual nationals, the bill proposes changing the process for revoking citizenship. Instead of it automatically ceasing when people engage in terror-related conduct, the minister would have the sole power to decide if they should be stripped of their citizenship.
This procedural change is unusual because moves to repeal or wind back
anti-terrorism laws have been few and far between.
Unfortunately, however, in all other respects, the new citizenship bill fits squarely within the pattern of overzealous Australian anti-terror law-making over the past 18 years.
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the Australian parliament has responded to the threat of terrorism here and overseas by enacting dozens of new laws or amending existing laws.
In 2011, University of Toronto Professor Kent Roach famously described this response in Australia as one of “hyper-legislation”.
Another expert, UNSW Professor George Williams calculated that between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the defeat of the Howard government in November 2007, a new anti-terror law was enacted on average every 6.7 weeks.
The declaration of a caliphate by the Islamic State in mid-2014 led to another flurry of legislative activity in parliament.
This started with the National Security Legislation Amendment Act (No 1) 2014 (Cth), which controversially exempted undercover ASIO officers from criminal prosecution, expanded that organisation’s access to computer networks, and restricted the leaking of sensitive information.
In the five years since then, 19 more anti-terrorism laws have been passed. That brings the total number of substantive anti-terrorism laws enacted by parliament to 82 since the Sept. 11 attacks, with a further six bills either currently before parliament or about to be introduced.
This is a staggering number of laws, and far exceeds the volume in the United Kingdom, Canada and even the United States in response to Sept 11.
It is not only the sheer number of laws, but also their scope, which makes Australia stand out among Western democracies.
At the core of Australia’s anti-terrorism regime is a carefully considered and, in the eyes of most commentators, balanced definition of terrorism.
However, as the years have gone by, increasingly draconian, and often unworkable, legislation has spiralled out beyond this definition. For instance, the mere act of travel to certain areas, such as Mosul in Iraq, has been criminalised, as well as advocating terrorism.
Instead of working with companies like Facebook and Twitter in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the government imposed impractical obligations on them to scrutinise the online activities of their customers (with further laws threatened in the event of non-compliance).
In addition to the stripping of the citizenship of dual nationals, another bill would prevent anyone from returning home from overseas conflicts for a considerable period of time under a Temporary Exclusion Order, even Australians who don’t hold another passport.
Another bill before parliament would require people who have previously been charged with a terrorism offence (regardless of whether they were ultimately acquitted) to prove extraordinary circumstances before being granted bail for a subsequent offence.
This demonstrates just how far lawmakers have strayed from the fundamental human rights and principles of criminal justice.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Australian lawmakers might have been excused any overreaction on the grounds the country didn’t have much historical experience with terrorism or in legislating in response to this threat.
At the time, there were no specific anti-terrorism laws at the federal level in Australia. This was undoubtedly a significant oversight which needed to be remedied.
Even today, more than 18 years on and with over 80 laws in place, it’s somewhat understandable lawmakers react to terrorist attacks by seeking to take swift action.
One of the (few) downsides of a democratic political system is that parliamentarians are hit with the full force of public hysteria about actual and perceived terrorist threats. The most obvious way for the parliament to address these fears is through the enactment of laws.
As Roger Wilkins, a former secretary of the Attorney-General’s department, said in support of proposals to strengthen the control orders laws in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks:
In a modern, liberal democracy, that’s about the only thing you can do.
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, this is not just a case of political opportunism on the part of the governing party. The steps taken by lawmakers are crucial in re-establishing the community’s sense of security.
We need to acknowledge, above all, that the buck stops with our elected representatives to protect the lives of the Australian people. They bear both the personal and professional responsibility if a terrorist act occurs which could have been prevented.
It is this, as much as anything else, that explains the rapid and bipartisan passage of so many laws through the parliament.
Having said all this, it’s unfortunate successive Australian governments on both sides seem to have learned little over the course of the last 18 years.
Statements made in the aftermath of every terrorist attack, and, most recently in responding to concerns about foreign terrorist fighters, have identified the ultimate goal as being to “defy” and “defeat” terrorism.
While statements such as this are clearly rhetorical, what underpins them is a failure to recognise the permanence of terrorism.
Terrorism in one form or another has always existed, and will always continue to exist. Neither legislation nor anything else will be able to eliminate this threat.
The idea of managing the threat of terrorism, in the sense that some degree of terrorism is acceptable or at least to be expected, might seem politically unpalatable. However, open acceptance of the permanence of terrorism means lawmakers will no longer be chasing – and the public no longer demanding – the achievement of an impossible goal.
It will also, in turn, facilitate a more proportionate response to the challenges posed by the foreign fighters phenomenon and the threat of terrorism more generally.
In a quest to eliminate terrorism, laws have been enacted that make ever-increasing intrusions into people’s lives and curtail human rights for diminishing returns in terms of security.
Some have even suggested these laws make us less safe. In its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s inquiry into the citizenship stripping laws, ASIO said these measures could:
have unintended or unforeseen adverse security outcomes – potentially including reducing one manifestation of the terrorist threat while exacerbating another.
It will never be appropriate or desirable for governments to sit back and take no action in response to the threat of terrorism. But what we need is a sharp change in approach.
Countering violent extremism programs have been used in Australia and other countries as another tool for responding to terrorism threats. Instead of treating such programs as a “backup” option, as they currently are in Australia, these should be brought to the fore.
The critical lesson of the past 18 years is that we must think creatively about how to combat the threat of terrorism, rather than continually reworking existing – and often demonstrably unsuccessful – strategies.
A key element in the success of countering terrorism in Australia has been a series of new and amended pieces of legislation – at least 75 – developed to respond to an evolving threat.
This includes legislation produced in October 2014 (Section 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code) that declared areas of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate, illegal for Australian citizens to enter. Anyone who has lived in this territory and seeks to return to Australia will have to prove they were not assisting IS or face prosecution and a possible punishment of up to 25 years in prison.
Innovative pieces of legislation like the proposed Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEO) bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are difficult to argue with. Existing national security laws already place Australia in a much stronger position than any other Western nation when it comes to managing the prosecution and detention of returning IS fighters.
Nevertheless, there is a limit to what legislation itself can do. Moreover, for every possible advantage, there are also possible disadvantages that need to be weighed up.
There is not a whole lot more the new TEO bill can be reasonably expected to achieve. And as the weight of legislation increases, there are reasonable questions to be asked about checks and balances and proportionate implementation.
In other words, the devil is very much in the detail.
Three questions need to be asked:
First, what is the actual need for this bill? And what is the likelihood the proposed legislation can meet this need?
Second, what are the potential downsides that might come with enacting this legislation?
Third, in the light of the first two questions, what then should be done?
There is no question, that with at least 80 individuals who have fought with IS now in a position to possibly return, any legislative tool that can help manage this risk is worth considering.
Specifically, there is clearly a benefit to being able to delay somebody’s return by at least two years, and through a process of extensions perhaps many more years. There is also an advantage, when they do return, of being able to legally impose conditions on who they meet with and where they go.
The government has pointed out that around 40 Australians have already returned from Syria and Iraq under suspicion of being involved with terrorist groups. To have been able to delay and then manage the return of these 40 fighters clearly would have been very useful.
But what has not been explained by the government is that these 40 individuals came back to Australia more than six years ago, and only a couple have so far been successfully prosecuted.
If the need was so urgent, why wasn’t a temporary exclusion order introduced in late 2014 when we first began to process a raft of counter-terrorism bills and amendments? Or in 2015 when the UK introduced similar legislation?
There is, in fact, no immediate crisis, and undue haste in passing further security legislation should be avoided because it is very dangerous to national security.
If TEOs are applied excessively, and without sufficient discrimination, a number of risks arise. Individuals currently detained in overcrowded detention centres in Syria or Iraq might be released if their repatriation to Australia is delayed by years.
Or, they could be broken out of detention by IS insurgents, who remain deadly and numerous. This happened on dozens of occasions when IS needed to replenish its ranks.
Allowing our citizens to be somebody else’s problem, out of sight and out of mind, does not actually make the security risk to Australians go away. Leaving them offshore leaves open the very real possibility that they will eventually slip away into the terrorist underground or rejoin the IS insurgency.
Should they do so, they immediately become a risk through their ability to influence others online and via social media.
It is likely that TEOs will be also applied to women and children we really should be repatriating. This would pass the buck to others to look after and secure these women and children, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are already overstretched and unable to deal with the burden of indefinitely detaining those who have fled the decaying IS caliphate.
There is also a real risk this legislation, much like other bills that allow Dutton to strip somebody of their citizenship on the grounds they potentially have access to alternative citizenship, could undermine confidence and trust within key communities in Australia.
As then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after the murder of Sydney police accountant Curtis Cheng by a 15-year-old recruited by IS supporters in 2015, our first line of defence in fighting groups like Islamic State is the Muslim community.
Intelligence is key to countering terrorism and working with communities and families to encourage people to speak up when they see something of concern. To the extent that trust and confidence are eroded, national security will be directly diminished.
So what should be done?
Speaking last week at his farewell dinner, outgoing Labor Senator Doug Cameron spelled out the larger issues that need to be addressed.
Our existing oversight is inferior and, in my view, almost non-existent. This is unacceptable and we should ensure our inferior parliamentary oversight of security agencies is changed and oversight is enhanced.
Cameron is not the only one to express concerns. This bill was first introduced into the 45th Parliament. The Liberal-dominated Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) produced an extensive review and a detailed report on the bill.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally, a member of the PJCIS, has since complained that the government had
rejected four of the PJCIS recommendations in whole, rejected six in part and ignored one.
This, despite the fact that these recommendations came as a result of the considered reasoning of senior figures from both the Liberals and Labor.
One of the key amendments recommenced by the PJCIS is that the minister of home affairs should only be empowered to order a temporary exclusion order if he or she
reasonably suspects the person is, or has been, involved in terrorism-related activities outside Australia
And that a TEO should only be made
if it would substantially assist in preventing the provision of support for, or the facilitation of, a terrorist act.
The principle of being able to impose TEOs certainly bears consideration. While this is no “silver bullet”, there is a case for passing the bill after including the amendments thoughtfully proposed by the PJCIS.
Without a better system of oversight, we risk undermining community trust and confidence by setting in place policy that leads to dire consequences and diminishes our national security.
Now is not the time to make haste at the expense of national security, as well as the very values that define us as Australians.
In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – about 250 dead, according to revised government figures – it feels disrespectful to the people of Sri Lanka to be dissecting what went wrong even as the dead are being buried.
But the reality is that most, if not all, of these lives need not have been taken. We owe it to them and their loved ones to make sense of what happened and work towards doing all that can be done to ensure it does not happen again.
The Easter attacks represent one of the most lethal and serious terrorist operations since the September 11 attacks in the US, outside of attacks within active conflict zones. And this in a now peaceful country, which for all its history of civil war and ethno-nationalist terrorism in decades past has never had a problem with jihadi radical Islamist terrorism.
The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday night. This could help explain how one local cell based around a single extended family circle of hateful extremists not previously known for terrorism could execute such a massive attack. It was larger even than IS’s previous truck-bomb attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attacks follow a familiar, if now rarely seen, IS operandi of coordinated suicide bombings. The targeting of Catholic churches, which made little sense initially in the context of the domestic social issues at the heart of the country’s recent civil war, fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
The fact that 40 or more Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS could help explain how the terror network was able to build vital personal links in the very small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists so it could subcontract its attack plans to them. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria and foreign IS supporters in the bombings remains under investigation.
The Easter weekend attacks more resemble the al-Qaeda attacks of the 2000s than they do recent attacks of IS. Like the 2000 attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, the September attacks in New York and Washington, the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2003 truck bombs in Istanbul, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London, the Sri Lanka bombings involved multiple attackers acting in concert. With the exception of September 11, all of these also involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication and deadliness, despite the fact the perpetrators were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism.
Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out significant attacks outside of conflict zones. It has also become increasingly focused on “reputation management” and has tended to avoid indiscriminate mass killings, all the whilst growing its global network of affiliates.
The emergence of IS saw the tempo and scale of terrorist attacks transformed. Most attacks took place in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern Philippines).
A number of significant attacks were conducted well beyond the battlefield. There were at least four such attacks in 2014, 16 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 10 in 2018. The vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone actors.
Why was it that, outside of conflict zones, not just al-Qaeda but even IS at the height of its powers focused largely on lone-actor attacks?
It is probably not for want of trying. The reason is that most larger, more ambitious plots were tripped-up by intelligence intercepts. This is especially the case in stable democracies, including our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia.
The other big question is how one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever was able to be executed in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group a decade ago through military might, Sri Lanka has become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police and non-military intelligence capacity to counter terrorism.
At the same time, it has struggled with good governance and political stability. Just six months ago, it faced a major constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his deputy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and attempted to replace him with the former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The attempt failed, but in the stand-off that ensued, Wickremesinghe, and ministers loyal to him, were excluded from intelligence briefings. In particular, they say that they were left unaware of the multiple warnings issued by the Indian intelligence service, RAW, to the authorities in Colombo about the extremist figures who played a key role in the Easter attacks.
Thus, despite several discoveries earlier this year of large amounts of explosives stored in remote rural locations on the island, and multiple warnings from the Indians, including final alerts just hours before Sunday’s attacks, the government and security community were left distracted and caught off-guard.
Between “fighting the last war” and fighting each other, they deluded themselves that there was no imminent terrorist threat.
If the massive attacks in Sri Lanka over Easter serve to remind us that IS is very far from being a spent force, the question is where this energetic and well-resourced network will strike next.
For all that it achieved in Sri Lanka, IS is unlikely to be able to build an enduring presence there. So long as the Sri Lankan government and people emerge from this trauma with renewed commitment to unity – and with elections at the end of the year, this is far from certain – the “perfect storm” conditions exploited by IS are unlikely to be repeated.
So where else is IS likely to find opportunity? India and Bangladesh continue to present opportunities, as does much of Central Asia. In our region, it is Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines that we should be most worried about.
Malaysia has emerged stronger and more stable from its swing-back to democracy but continues to be worryingly in denial about the extent to which it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, downplaying the very good work done over many years by the Special Branch of the Royal National Malaysian Police.
Thailand and the Philippines remain less politically stable, and rather more brittle than they care too acknowledge. And both tend to delude themselves into thinking that the problems of their southern extremes will never manifest in a terror attack in Bangkok or Manila, respectively.
The people of Sri Lanka have paid far too high price for the lessons of the Easter weekend attacks to be ignored or forgotten.
Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, are the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.
While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people have been arrested. Three police were killed in their capture.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed the attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues.
These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. By fomenting generalised religious hatred, they appear to have more in common with Al-Qaeda, which has sought specific political change.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
For many, the bomb blasts immediately recalled Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war. The war was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009.
In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war’s total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.
The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009. Many Tigers, including their leader, were summarily executed. There remains much bitterness among Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike proclaimed himself “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”, and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.
Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000 third and fourth generation “Indian” Tamils were forcibly removed to India.
In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the “Black July” Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.
The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. They have been at the margins of these more recent conflicts – excluded as Tamil speakers, but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.
As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.
But if so, this raises the question of why Christian churches and upmarket hotels were bombed, rather than symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalisation and its possible manifestations. It is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider jihadi agenda.
It is instructive that, when the suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained, and there have been suggestions of international links. This contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.
The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting.
If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.