Australia's terrorism focus in 2018: Islamic State, al-Qaeda and closer to home

An anti-terrorism bollard on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth streets. Photo: James Ross
An anti-terrorism bollard on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth streets. Photo: James Ross

This year could see China and Russia with a counterterrorism capability to deploy smart killer drones using facial-recognition technology to eliminate persons deemed to be "terrorists". Many such persons would be considered by Australians to be activists, separatists or insurgents - rather than "terrorists".

Some terrorist groups are also using drones, but they are unsophisticated and used for more basic purposes, such as surveillance, collecting intelligence, videoing propaganda footage, and dropping munitions.

While terrorism remains a common-denominator topic at international government meetings, there is still no agreed international definition of terrorism, or consensus about which groups are "terrorist" and which are not. Each nation therefore usually focuses on the groups it considers to be its main enemies.

Australia has 25 proscribed terrorist organisations on our national list, New Zealand 18, the UK 74, and the US 61.

To make the Australian list, the Attorney-General must be satisfied on reasonable legislative grounds that an organisation is directly or indirectly engaged in preparing, planning, assisting or fostering the doing of a terrorist act, or advocates the doing of a terrorist act. ASIO provides supplementary non-legislative advice on the threat aspect.

The legislative test currently seems too vague and should be amended to "doing of a terrorist act against Australia, Australians or Australian interests". The list of terrorist organisations could then be made more relevant by dropping some - like the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - that pose no credible threat to Australia.

DFAT might argue that Australia has international counterterrorism "obligations" under several UNSC resolutions, but most of those resolutions do not specifically identify terrorist entities, effectively leaving it to member states to decide who to act against.

It is generally agreed internationally that Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ) and their affiliates remain threats to just about everyone - except their Muslim state/non-state sponsors and those that do not actively oppose them - so they will remain the main focus of international counterterrorism meetings in 2018.

What then are the terrorism prospects for the year ahead?

Despite its setbacks in 2017 in Iraq and Syria, IS has the capacity to regenerate in rural areas of the Levant to start to stage a comeback against its Shiite enemies in Iraq.

IS still has a presence in cyberspace that it uses for communication, recruitment, propaganda, and encouraging attacks on member nations of the US-led coalition against IS.

IS is making good progress in establishing a caliphate in Afghanistan.

AQ also has an active cyberspace presence.

IS and AQ, as Sunni organisations, will continue to exploit legitimate Sunni grievances in Palestine, India, Myanmar/Bangladesh, Kashmir, Mindanao and elsewhere.

Africa is a vulnerable continent. Both IS and AQ will continue to expand their influence in the Sahel. Many of IS's 6,000 African foreign fighters have returned to Africa and are expected to create new security problems there. One of the counterterrorism challenges throughout Africa is weak government capabilities to deal effectively with local terrorism and insurgency problems.

Australia's focus, should however, be closer to home.

Australia can usefully engage in limiting the growth of terrorism in Asia by working with India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute (perhaps through promoting the line of control in Kashmir to be the recognised international border), engaging with Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Rohingya refugees, working with moderate Taliban elements against IS in Afghanistan, and working with moderate Muslim leaders in the southern Philippines.

On moral grounds, the Australian Defence Force should not be working with the Armed Forces of Myanmar due to their appalling human rights records.

In Australia, we face the prospect of more IS-encouraged low-tech vehicle and knife attacks coming from within Muslim migrant and diaspora communities, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney.

We should not discount the possibility of something more deadly, such as an AQ-designed homemade vehicle bomb. More sophisticated bomb attacks could use mailed-in components as was allegedly the case in the July 2017 Sydney plot to down an Etihad aircraft.

IS and AQ will continue their efforts to bring down passenger aircraft of target countries, including Australia.

While the main focus for us will be on Islamist extremism, we should not forget right-wing terrorists. Some have a "grand vision" for the future, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.

While not terrorists by definition, deranged Australians - like Julian Knight who shot and killed seven people and wounded 19 in 1987, and Martin Bryant who shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 in 1996 - can also pose a threat to the public that would be dealt with today by counterterrorism police.

The latter massacre led to the 1996 "National Firearms Buyback Program" that took 660,959 firearms out of private hands. Since then, gun ownership has been on the rise, with Australians now thought to own more guns than they did before Bryant's killing spree. The rising number of firearms makes an active-shooter attack something we need to be prepared for.

Plenty of opportunities to be innovative and constructive diplomatically, and lots of security challenges to face in the year ahead.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team