Asio Chief’s Sydney Terrorism Speech
- In this address I want to say something about:
– Iraq and terrorism;
– the global nature of the challenge; and
– Australia as a terrorist target.
- By way of explanation, I use the term ‘al-Qa’ida’ as a loose descriptor to cover both the organisation itself and other groups acting independently and without central direction, but which share al-Qa’ida’s ideology and are inspired by the likes of Usama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Iraq and Terrorism
- Amongst the insurgents in Iraq there are:
– former Saddam Hussein loyalists;
– other Iraqis with a range of motivations; and
– non-Iraqis, including militant Islamists, of whom al Zarqawi is the most prominent.
- In respect of al-Qa’ida and Iraq, I think it is accurate to say the following:
– a UN sponsored and peaceful resolution to Iraq in late 2002/early 2003 would have been irrelevant to al-Qa’ida’s intent and purpose
: it is easy to get so caught up in the debate about Iraq you overlook the fact that al-Qa’ida’s intent and purpose was marked out long before Iraq and long before 9/11, as witnessed by bin Laden’s fatwa in February 1998 in which he declared innocent civilians to be legitimate targets;
– all the terrorist attacks outside Iraq during and since the war, and committed by al-Qa’ida or groups sharing its ideology, would have occurred with or without the war, and that includes Madrid and the attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on 9 September
: to the extent Iraq may have been a motivator, when you strip it down, it has been an add-on, not the central driver; and
– the terrorist leader in Iraq, al Zarqawi, fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s, was imprisoned for terrorism offences in Jordan between 1994-99, had his own training camp in Afghanistan between 1999-2001 and moved between South Asia and the Middle East between 1999-2003. He shares bin Laden’s ideology
: it would be naive in the extreme to assume, but for Iraq, al Zarqawi would be at peace with the world. For him, Iraq is a convenient killing field. If not Iraq, it would be elsewhere.
- In making these observations I am not suggesting that there have not been any downsides in Iraq in regard to terrorism:
– Iraq has provided al-Qa’ida with propaganda and recruitment opportunities and it only stands to reason that they would have some success;
– it has provided another self-justification or rationalisation for acts of terrorism;
– it has increased the threat of terrorism against Australian interests in the Middle East, as was made clear by the Prime Minister in answer to a question in Parliament on 24 March 2003.
So far, Iraq has not had a significant impact on the security environment here in Australia and there has been no change to the overall threat level in Australia. For the relatively small number of people in Australia who share bin Laden’s ideology, for instance, Iraq is just one more focus. It is possible that some new followers in Australia have been motivated primarily by Iraq, and we cannot exclude the possibility of Iraq being a motivator for some people here in Australia who may want to do harm. Iraq was not a motivator, however, for Willy Brigitte, the Frenchman who was in Australia last year to carry out a terrorist attack.
Internationally, Iraq has not so far become the cause célèbre that Afghanistan became for many young Muslims worldwide in the 1980’s.
– the number of non-Iraqis fighting coalition forces is not known, but is estimated to be around 3,000, with most from other Middle Eastern countries
: some have come from further afield, including from Western Europe and from South Asia, and we would need to be concerned if those numbers became significant. Also, we should not be surprised if the odd one turns up from Australia;
– but Iraq is well short of the global ‘honeypot’ that was Afghanistan. For instance, it has not yet at least, fired the passions of South East Asian militant Islamists. That could of course change, but we need to be careful in assuming Iraq is a mirror re-run of Afghanistan.
To what extent those who have gone to fight in Iraq were already committed militant Islamists or to what extent fighting in Iraq has or will turn others, including some Iraqis, into committed militant Islamists, is not known. The only reasonable assumption is that Iraq has added to the number of militant Islamists and will lead to the further development of international linkages between such individuals and groups. That is all something we will need to measure out over time.
In the context of global terrorism, the real potential downside would be in the US-led Coalition losing its resolve and drifting away. That would embolden militant Islamists globally and could lead to the establishment, in parts of Iraq, of Afghanistan-type safehavens for terrorists, in which training and other re-building could occur unhindered. I say this without making judgement about the Iraq war per se. So, at this stage, we have more to lose if the US-led Coalition gives up, than if it stays with the proper resourcing and commitment.
A Global Challenge
Iraq has also raised the question of the focus of Australia’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Every country has finite resources and choices must be made about their allocation and deployment, consistent with the national interest.
In the context of the current terrorist challenge, it is essential that we make those choices within a global perspective and do not put an artificial intellectual fence around Australia itself or a particular region. It is not a zero-sum equation, with anything done beyond South East Asia being, by definition, at the expense of what can be done within the region.
Clearly we must be, and are, closely engaged in and with the region. Other things being equal, it should and does come first. It is that part of the world in which we can make a substantial counter-terrorism contribution, consistent with our national interests.
The two terrorist attacks against Australia so far have been in Indonesia and our interests remain at high threat in the region generally. We have a visibility and a profile in South East Asia beyond what we have elsewhere. Also, Jemaah Islamiyah was certainly developing a presence in Australia and, but for the lead information provided by the Singapore authorities in late 2001, it might have gone undetected for some time.
But we also need to understand clearly that Australia is a global target. Our interests are at high threat elsewhere, especially in South Asia and in the Middle East. And, while not the target of first choice, there have been credible threats against our interests beyond South East Asia and our interests could be attacked anywhere.
Since 9/11 ASIO has sought to identify Australians world-wide connected to terrorism. That work has taken us from Indonesia to inside the Arctic Circle and to all continents but the Antarctic. It is work which continues to this day.
Look at Willy Brigitte; born in the Caribbean, introduced to militant Islam in France, trained as a terrorist in Pakistan, Brigitte came to Australia to carry out a terrorist attack. And, but for the cooperative work of the French authorities, ASIO, the AFP and the NSW Police, he may have succeeded.
Overwhelmingly, those people in Australia who have undertaken terrorist training have done so beyond South East Asia. Also, their continuing links and motivations come from beyond the region.
Of the Australians so far who have been convicted of terrorism offences or who are facing terrorism charges only one has a connection to South East Asia:
– and that is the first Australian recently convicted of terrorism offences, Jack Roche, a British migrant trained in Afghanistan by al-Qa’ida and connected to Jemaah Islamiyah;
– of the four Australians awaiting trial in Sydney for terrorism offences, two are Australians of Pakistani origin, one is an Australian of Lebanese origin and one was born in Australia of Lebanese background;
– one Australian was recently released from custody in Lebanon after serving a short sentence for terrorism offences and another Australian is awaiting trial in Lebanon on terrorism offences;
– one Australian from China is in custody in Kazakhstan since being convicted in 2001 of a terrorism offence; and
– two Australians are in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial before a United States Military Commission – one born in Australia of Caucasian parents and one of Egyptian origin.
- So while South East Asia ought to be our priority, it should be:
– within a global perspective;
– within a framework which recognises the terrorist linkages and threats beyond the region; and
– within a framework which is sufficiently flexible to accommodate involvement beyond South East Asia in recognition of the fact that, when it comes to terrorism, our national interests can be engaged almost anywhere.
- Certainly, ASIO could not properly fulfil its responsibilities under legislation, if we saw our job primarily limited to Australia and South East Asia. Rather, we must go where our responsibilities take us.
Australia and Terrorism
The debate about Australia’s involvement in Iraq has also, at times, clouded the issue of when Australia became an al-Qa’ida target and for what reason.
Before 11 September 2001, ASIO had already identified a small number of Australians who had trained in Afghanistan and others with some connection to al-Qa’ida
– ASIO’s 1999-2000 Annual Report to Parliament – the public version of our classified report to Government, which is also provided to the Leader of the Opposition – stated that “there are militant groups internationally which view terrorism as a legitimate means of pursuing their cause. Some are sufficiently well-resourced to view the whole world as their theatre of operations. Some have a small number of supporters in Australia”. The Report also referred to “the threat of terrorist activity by associates of Usama bin Laden and other groups”.
- Before 11 September 2001, ASIO’s broad assessment was that:
– despite bin Laden’s threats against the United States and “its allies”, there were no indicators that Australia was a priority target, either here at home or our interests abroad; and
– any attack within Australia would most likely be directed against United States and/or Israeli interests.
- Following 11 September 2001, ASIO raised formal threat levels in Australia, and raised to High the threat to Australian interests in Indonesia
– in particular, we considered significant bin Laden’s statement of 3 November 2001 in which he explicitly legitimatised Australia as a target for the first time.
- The extent to which Australia was considered a target well before 9/11, however, only became evident subsequently:
– in late 2001 Singapore uncovered the plot by Jemaah Islamiyah to attack mainly US interests there, but also including the Australian High Commission;
– the JI investigation in Australia led to Jack Roche and the identification of the aborted plot to attack Israeli diplomatic interests here in 2000;
– a raid in Pakistan in late 2002 uncovered details of the casing, before 9/11, of a number of airports, including one in Australia
: this does not mean that there was an actual plan to attack the Australian airport, but that consideration of an attack here was within al-Qa’ida’s strategic vision;
– during 2002 we were able to establish that al-Qa’ida’s chief operational planner, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had been issued with an Australian visa in August 2001. The visa, which was applied for by Khalid using a then unknown alias, had not been utilised and was cancelled
: the only reasonable assumption is that Khalid was planning to come to Australia for some operational purpose;
– from the debriefing of captured senior al-Qa’ida figures in 2002 and 2003 we know that attacks in Australia, over and above the ones I have already mentioned, were actively canvassed well before 9/11; and
– finally, in the context of the extent to which Australia was and is considered a target, we had actual attacks in Bali in October 2002 and in Jakarta in September 2004.
The obvious question is, why are we a target?
One possibility is simply to take at face value what terrorists like bin Laden and al Zawahiri say. In which case we are a target because of our alliance with the United States, and because of our involvement in East Timor in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001-02 and Iraq since early 2003.
While, I believe, we should take seriously any statement by al-Qa’ida leaders declaring particular countries to be targets, their claims as to why, are puzzling, except if you interpret their claims as being directed, not at their enemies but at their followers or potential followers.
In this context, I think bin Laden’s first known reference to East Timor in November 2001 was designed to strike a chord in South East Asia, especially Indonesia, and his subsequent references to Afghanistan and Iraq must be seen in terms of al-Qa’ida propaganda and recruitment purposes. That is not to diminish the significance of his references to East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, but to question whether our involvement in those countries is the central driver in al-Qa’ida’s targeting of Australia. Otherwise, how do you explain al-Qa’ida’s very real interest in Australia, and the targeting of us, before our involvement in those countries. It simply does not make sense.
Perhaps then, we are a target because of our alliance with the United States. As I have stated previously, the fact that we are in close alliance with the Untied States does contribute to us being a target:
– that is very different to any claim that we are a target solely because of our alliance with the United States;
– but even if we were a target only because of our alliance with the United States, on what basis would any self respecting country allow terrorists to determine such central policies, in this case one which has had bi-partisan support for over 50 years?
And as Kenya and Indonesia know, you do not need to be in alliance with the United States for your citizens to be murdered by the likes of al-Qa’ida and Jemaah Islamiyah.
So if East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and our alliance with the United States are, to varying degrees, only contributors or add-ons, what is it that lies at the centre of those who provide the intellectual and strategic drive which leads to us being a target?
I believe the answer lies in the world view of terrorist leaders such as Usama bin Laden, al Zawahiri, al Zarqawi and Abu Bakar Bashir. A world view shaped and driven by a militant, literal interpretation of the Koran. A world view which seeks to hijack one the world’s great religions. A world view which predates the Afghanistan of the 1980’s, which reaches back to the teachings and ideologies of Sayyid Qutb, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950’s and early ’60’s, and which reaches back many centuries before that.
It is a world view in which we and others are seen as part of a Jewish-Christian conspiracy, a world view in which the United Nations and its Secretary-General are declared enemies and legitimate targets, and a world view in which Muslim countries ruled by other than Taliban style governments are declared enemies and legitimate targets.
It is a world view so removed from our own values, traditions and experiences that it is tempting to dismiss it as empty, meaningless rhetoric and so unreal as not to be taken seriously. It is so much easier to explain the challenge in terms of root causes such as poverty, or in terms of our own failures. Such explanations have a familiar shape and give us something concrete to address within a somewhat comforting framework. It gives us a sense of some control, a sense that, if only we can get our side of it right, it will go away. So much more confronting to be challenged by leaders who have a totally different frame of reference, who are playing a different game on a different playing field.
I appreciate that my perspective is but one, and that some scholars and terrorist experts would disagree. I also acknowledge that the resolution of issues, such as Palestine, would deny al-Qa’ida some significant oxygen and is an important goal, provided we do not fall into the trap of seeing al-Qa’ida merely as an outgrowth of the Palestinian issue.
Nor am I seeking to pretend that our involvement, in Afghanistan for instance, is irrelevant. As noted by the then Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, in the House of Representatives on 17 September 2001, ‘we must be acutely aware that our own active involvement in the fight (against terrorism) could well bring terrorism closer to our own shores’.
In my view we have no alternative but to continue to meet the challenge of al-Qa’ida and groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, with their world view which allows for no compromise or conciliation. People such as Abu Bakar Bashir are terrorists masquerading as good muslims, who seek to hide their hatred in the language of the pious. Read, for instance, Bashir’s interview with The Bulletin magazine of 21 September 2004.
In summary, I would leave you with the following points:
– Iraq is not the starting point for terrorism;
– the terrorism connections into Australia are global and the challenge is global. Our regional counter-terrorism priorities should continue to be managed within a global context; and
– the world view at the centre of al-Qa’ida and groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah explain why we are a target and is the key to understanding why the challenge will be with us for a long time.