Protecting the nation from terrorism

“The first responsibility of government is the protection of Australia, Australians and Australian interests. So a key government priority is to protect Australia from terrorism,” declares the opening to an 83-page White Paper by the federal government in 2010. Its analyses and conclusions are even more relevant today.

“The threat of terrorism to Australia is real and enduring. It has become a persistent and permanent feature of Australia’s security environment,” says the paper, adding that:

“The main source of international terrorism and the primary terrorist threat to Australia and Australian interests were and still are from a global violent jihadist movement – extremists who follow a distorted and militant interpretation of Islam that espouses violence as the answer to perceived grievances.

“This extremist movement comprises Al Qaida, groups allied or associated with it, and others inspired by a similar worldview. While the threat is persistent, the challenge has evolved since the last counter-terrorism White Paper in 2004 in two respects:

“First, while there have been counter-terrorism successes (most notably pressure on Al Qaida’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and action against terrorists in Southeast Asia), these successes have been offset by the rise of groups affiliated with, or inspired by, Al Qaida’s message and methods, with new areas such as Somalia and Yemen joining existing areas of concern in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf.”

As the paper notes, a second shift, apparent since 2004, was the increase in the terrorist threat from people born or raised in Australia, who have become influenced by the violent jihadist message.

The bombings in London on 7 July 2005, which were carried out by British nationals, brought into stark relief the real threat of globally-inspired but locally generated attacks in Western democracies, including Australia.

According to the government’s Living Safe Together webpage, more than 110 Australians have been killed in overseas terrorist attacks in the past decade. In addition, since 2001, Australian agencies have foiled four major terrorist plots on Australian soil and 23 individuals have been convicted of terrorism-related offences.

Response to threats

As a result of heightened concerns about threats of terrorist attacks within Australia, increasing numbers of universities have established research centres focused on global terrorism and how it might be combated.

This year, too, many faculties have begun offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in security, terrorism and counter-terrorism studies, including online through Open Universities Australia, whose shareholders include seven universities as shareholders. Swinburne University in Melbourne now also offers an online bachelor of social science in security and counter-terrorism that it says “will give you the training to work as a security and counter-terrorism specialist”.

Increasingly, too, universities are integrating terrorism studies across several faculties such as Macquarie University in Sydney, whose department of policing, intelligence and counter-terrorism operates as a high-level, cross-disciplinary centre.

Similarly, the global terrorism research centre at Melbourne’s Monash University emerged from a multi-disciplinary unit formed in 2002. The centre was officially established in 2006 with seed funding from the state government as part of a A$5.6 million (US$4.4 million) counter-terrorism initiative.

Known as GTReC, the centre is established across two of Monash’s campuses and comprises members of three faculties – arts, law and medicine – and representatives from three disciplines within the arts faculty’s school of social sciences: politics, sociology and behavioural studies.

Monash University terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton is director international of the centre and contributes widely to public discussion of terrorism issues. He told a conference last month there was a need to deal with the struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of small but significant numbers of Muslim youth and the allure of groups such as Islamic State.

“We need to understand how IS sells itself if we are to become better at preventing radicalisation and reintegrating those who have become caught in its thrall,” he said.

The Australian Institute of Criminology is a national research centre focused on crime and justice established by the federal government in 1973. The institute is a statutory authority set up to conduct criminological research, including communicating the results, arranging conferences and seminars; and publishing reports about its work. Increasingly, its research includes terrorism-related topics.

The description of a graduate course on terrorism at the Australian National University, or ANU, in Canberra says the contemporary study of international relations, strategic studies, and security studies is both “a congested area of analysis and an area of considerable incompetence, ignorance and special pleading”.

“All of which tends to drown the more thoughtful and insightful accounts which are the result of genuine scholarship. The result is that many views reign in academic and policy circles and popular political culture, which are, to put it mildly, dumb and dangerous.

"This course will place terrorism, and the efforts at counter-terrorism by the state and the international system which it attracts, including the various attempts to enlist the university-as-institution in this counter-struggle, in the context of the spectrum of political violence.”

The writer refers to the “proximate parts of the relevant spectrum being defined across the bandwidth between resistance and revolutionary and counter-revolutionary war, but also acknowledging that the entire spectrum of political violence (peaceful non-violent protest through to large-scale war) acts as a catalyst for terrorism”.

The course has a strong focus on understanding the nature of terrorism “which derives from forms of fascism and absolutism, and the counters to them”, the outline states.

Plans for a new centre

Meanwhile, an Australian group of terrorism experts has plans for a new centre at the ANU on intervention and countering violent extremism. The centre’s staff will collaborate with international terrorism experts and focus on “individual pathways and treatment of terrorism offenders”.

They say this could involve psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers “in order to create a circuit breaker for people at risk of resorting to violent extremism”.

One of those involved is Dr Clarke Jones who worked for the Australian government for 17 years in national security in the fields of military, police and intelligence before changing to academia. He is currently a visiting fellow at the ANU and is advising the Philippine government on how terrorist inmates should be managed in their correctional system.