It’s been more than two decades since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the United States. Two planes hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. Close to 3,000 people died, many were injured, and even more were traumatised by the experience and the loss of loved ones. Today’s release of the Counterterrorism yearbook 2022 coincides with the anniversary of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which caused the deaths of 174 people. These and other acts of terror have left an indelible mark and shaped the world as we know it today.
Australia’s overall security environment is increasingly challenging to navigate. Emerging threats such as information operation campaigns, cyberattacks and climate change are intensifying the complexity of the world’s human security challenges. Policymakers face an era of complex continuous and concurrent crises. In 2022, major geopolitical events, including Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s continuing coercive operations and aggression, occupied a significant place in the national discourse. Foreign interference and espionage have continued to rise to the forefront of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s priorities.
Yet terrorism prevails as a significant security concern for Australia and the wider region. These continuing challenges mean that the sixth edition of ASPI’s Counterterrorism yearbook is as important as ever.
ASPI’s executive director, Justin Bassi, notes in the preface that, ‘while terrorism is no longer assessed by ASIO to be our top security threat, it hasn’t disappeared and in fact continues to be one of the predominant security concerns for Australia and the region.’
I coedited the Counterterrorism yearbook 2022 with Katja Theodorakis, head of ASPI’s counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and resilience program, which examines counterterrorism challenges through the broader lens of today’s global challenges, exploring wider policy considerations through a range of chapters from 16 expert authors.
Theodorakis notes in the introduction:
For most of the past two decades, terrorism and extremism were largely seen as an external issue brought to Australia by foreign problems. Even when talking about ‘homegrown jihadists’, extremist ideological motivations were generally ascribed to global terrorist sources in faraway places.
Motivated violent extremist groups continue to have a presence and are increasingly accompanied by issue-specific radicalised individuals. A key aspect of the changing environment is the use of social media by extremist groups to tap into public discord arising from Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccination mandates, as well as violence driven by divisive political agendas in democratic countries like the US Capitol riot in 2020.
Bassi also notes:
Beyond our borders, it remains the case that Australians are at risk of being affected by terrorism in our near region. Governments, policymakers and intelligence analysts will need to maintain an awareness of the implications of the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, including in relation to the risks of ungoverned spaces being used by terrorist groups and the rekindling of extremist links into Southeast Asia. The return of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Kabul, where he was killed by a US operation, emphasises that our work in countering terrorism and violent extremism abroad is not complete. Post-withdrawal, much of the work by countries such as Australia to monitor and prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism from Afghanistan will have to be done from outside that country’s borders.
The Counterterrorism yearbook 2022 is presented in three parts. The first provides a snapshot of the world context involving trends abroad, including in our region. The second looks at challenges closer to home, such as the impact of Covid-19 on radicalisation and the role of police in managing extremism that has not reached a threshold of violence, or ‘precrime policing’. The third explores wider policy considerations, including those related to strategic competition, democracy and multiculturalism.
This edition includes chapters on forecasting extremism in Southeast Asia by Munira Mustaffa, precrime policing and extremism by ASPI’s John Coyne, teen radicalisation by ASPI’s Jasmine Latimore and me, strategic competition and counterterrorism by Andrew Zammit, and multiculturalism by Theodorakis. It also includes a conversation with Levi West on strategic trends in terrorism.
A dominant theme is that the increasing complexity of the strategic context and the terrorism threat means there are no easy solutions. Strategies to address it need to emphasise the importance of understanding security as a shared responsibility that requires a broad, whole-of-government and whole-of-community approach extending beyond the remit of security agencies. The role of security agencies to identify and prevent threats is as vital as ever, but there’s a crucial need to simultaneously focus on national resilience as a means of withstanding challenges such as economic crises, pandemics, foreign interference, online disinformation and cyberattacks.
Strengthened national resilience will help ensure that social cohesion is maintained even in challenging times and that those who would do us harm are unable to leverage crises and threats to create societal division or to radicalise individuals and groups to violent extremism and terrorism.
Today’s national security environment is an increasingly complex one, and the impact of terrorism hasn’t diminished. It represents a challenge that requires governments, community and academia to continue to work together.