23 August 2019










SUBJECT/S: Countering Violent Extremism; War on Terror; Legislative responses to terrorism


Tena Koutou Katoa!

I acknowledge Chief Justice Dame Helen (Winkelmann), honourable judges present, Presidents of the Australian Bar Association and the New Zealand Bar Association, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me here today in beautiful Queenstown to deliver the keynote address.

I spent yesterday in Wellington where I met with the Royal Commission into the Christchurch Attack and a number of other agencies and I must say that I came away with a sense of optimism and hope for New Zealand

Yesterday I spoke to agencies about the opportunity for New Zealand to develop a comprehensive and effective counter terrorism response that integrates different perspectives on counter terrorism and I hope that today I can share with you some of those perspectives.

You would be forgiven for thinking that counter terrorism is all about military action, dawn police raids and stealth drones. At the white house summit in February of 2015, then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated “missiles might kill terrorists, but they will not kill terrorism.” The summit, hosted by President Obama, brought together world leaders, law enforcement, researchers and civil society practitioners in countering violent extremism or CVE.

Later that year the Club de Madrid (which sadly is not a disco) convened a policy dialogue to continue the work of the Madrid Agenda of 2005 - a document that marked an era of international consensus that terrorism could not be resolved through military means alone.

The Madrid Agenda along with the global consensus affirmed a commitment to non-traditional security approaches in the prevention of violent extremism.

In 2016, the UN released the plan of action to prevent violent extremism. On 1 July 2016, the United Nations general assembly adopted a resolution on the fifth review of global counter-terrorism strategy reinforcing global consensus in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

The plan and the resolution recognise the that eradicating terrorism requires a comprehensive effort that is not only reliant on legislative measures and security based counter terrorism, but also on the adoption of policies and programs to address the drivers of violent extremism.

Preventing and countering violent extremism or PVE/ CVE are often referred to as the ‘soft’ side of counter terrorism because it includes efforts to understand and address the root causes of terrorism and involves government and civil society partnerships.

In contrast, hard counter terrorism encompasses the range of strategies that use coercive means to deter or disrupt terrorism.

These include military intervention, target hardening, legislative measures and law enforcement.

Over almost two decades since the horrific events of the 9/11 attacks in New York, we have seen an increase in and a proliferation of terrorism as a violent strategy by non-state actors.

Western nations in particular are now faced with the threat from various iterations of al Qaeda and ISIS that have emerged phoenix like from the ashes of a more formal, structured base.

Violent white supremacism is a rising concern. The anti-defamation league points out that in 2018 alone there were fatal attacks by violent white supremacists in Florida, Pennsylvania, Washington, South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and California. Most recently the shooting rampage in El Paso has been linked to the tragic Christchurch attacks with the perpetrator drawing inspiration from the Christchurch attacker’s white-nationalist manifesto.

There is no question - the protracted War on Terror has failed to eradicate the threat of international and domestic terrorism.

While the hard power approach has achieved success in decimating operational and tactical capacity of terrorist organisations and ultimately the retreat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the belief that terrorism could be eradicated through military means alone has proven to be misplaced.

The wisdom of employing an orthodox military and legislative response against an unorthodox adversary that relies on its ability to use soft strategies of influence and mobilisation has rightly been questioned.

Today, more and more governments, international and non-government organisations are increasingly getting serious about the business of countering terrorism by deploying soft tools.

Ideally PVE/CVE should harness the State’s soft power resources and instruments of civil society. It should extend beyond the operations of government and law enforcement, potentially applying the actions of private enterprise, individuals and civil society groups.

Ideally soft and hard power should complement each other in and integrated framework that resembles a pyramid - with a broad base of prevention and a narrow, pointy end of law enforcement interventions.

But getting the balance right is not always easy.

Western governments continue to default to hard power mechanisms to deal with the ongoing threat of terrorism.

This is particularly relevant in the legislative space where the cumulative effect of persistently addressing threat through the introduction of new laws has raised concerns about minting civil liberties- the very liberties that international terrorist organisations want to attack. The very liberties that white nationalist groups claim are being eroded by “insert minority group here”

In times of perceived crisis, the reasoned negotiation of risk is marginalised and measures that may have been considered unjust or even unthinkable become reconstructed as necessary and prudent- and it is through this mechanism that it becomes acceptable to sacrifice some civil liberties in order to keep us safe.

As a case in point, Australia has one of the broadest suites of terrorism and terrorism related legislation of any western country. Provisions in Australia’s criminal code alone cover terrorist acts as well as activities that may be associated with those acts:

  • Terrorist act offences relate to the commission of a terrorist act, planning or financing an act, providing or receiving training, possessing things connected with terrorist acts, collecting or making documents likely to facilitate terrorist acts;
  • Membership, recruitment, financing, providing support or training with a listed terrorist organisation;
  • Urging violence or advocating terrorism;
  • Entering, preparing to enter or recruiting persons to enter a foreign country with the intention of engaging in hostile activity;
  • The provisions also cover intention to commit an offence or reckless actions that would amount to an offence.

Getting the balance right can be tricky because governments must prioritise community safety based on law enforcement risk analyses targeted primarily on immediate threats as opposed to long term prevention.

This means that more comprehensive soft measures are often deferred - sometimes indefinitely. 

In one of the first sittings of the 46th Parliament, convened in August this year, the government introduced a bill that would effectively prevent Australian foreign jihadists from re-entering Australia for two years.

While the introduction of temporary exclusion orders removes the imminent threat of foreign fighters returning to Australia, it offers nothing in the way of a medium or long term solution.

In addressing the provisions of the bill in parliament, I emphasised three points. Firstly that while the legislation presented as a necessary short term measure, a significant proportion of foreign fighters have a migratory nature. That means that they will go from one theatre of war to the next theatre of war. Foreign fighters in Syria, for example, had been trained in the battlefields in Afghanistan years before.

Secondly, the temporary exclusion orders fail to deal with the very real issue of restitution and justice for the Yazidi and other minority groups who suffered so greatly under the barbaric rule of ISIS.

And finally, the point needs to be made that Australia is not alone in dealing with the aftermath of the decimation of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Other countries have a higher per capita proportion of foreign fighters who are also seeking to return. This is not an Australian dilemma and it is not unique to Australia, which points to the need for international coordination to deal with the issue of foreign fighters from all countries around the world who are seeking to return to their countries of origin.

Collectively these three points limit the effectiveness of the temporary exclusion orders regime to address the broader goal of eradicating or at least preventing terrorism.

It is also worth noting that these orders do not address other forms of domestic terrorism not associated with returning foreign fighters.

The risk of terrorism, like most crimes, can be viewed as a kind of equation. In this equation risk is a combination of opportunity, capability and intent.

Measures like temporary exclusion orders remove the opportunity for would be terrorists to carry out an act.

Legislative measures that allow for the arrest and incarceration of individuals who are found to be planning an attack and laws that make it illegal to travel to a foreign country for the purpose of joining a combatant group like ISIS also remove opportunity.

Targeting terrorist financing, recruitment and training remove capability. But in the contemporary low tech terrorist environment where a terrorist attack can be carried out by a single person with a simple weapon such as a knife, gun or a vehicle with little or no planning, no financial investment and no specific training opportunity and capability are much more difficult to detect and prevent.

So we must turn our attention to intent. But how do we address intent? How do we prevent intent? How do we even detect intent? And as law makers, how do we legislate against it- if that is at all possible- without compromising fundamental civil liberties such as freedom of thought and belief?

This, I believe, is the greatest dilemma for modern terrorism. In a world where intent evolves in the dark spaces of the internet, where individuals draw inspiration from YouTube videos, Facebook posts and in anonymous chatrooms, we desperately need an integrated strategy that recognises the limitations of hard power approaches and incorporates soft power strategies of influence and attraction.

Because terrorists understand attraction - they rely on it - they have mastered it.

Legislation aimed at preventing the distribution of objectionable material on social media platforms does go some way to preventing the spread of violent extremist propaganda on open source platforms. A more useful tool however would detect activities on the internet that may be indicators of intent, assess the risk and employ appropriate PVE/CVE interventions.  

But the link between violent extremist propaganda and its actual role in radicalisation to violent extremism has not been fully explored.

Just how directly online such propaganda is connected to the reality of terrorist violence is still a source of confusion and subject to conjecture and hypothesizing.

It is well established that a strong correlation does exist between offline social interaction with like-minded peers and self-activated online engagement with extremist violence with the most consistent connection to be found between the active selection of and participation in extremist content on the internet compared to passive or accidental encounters.

But other assumptions about the internet - including the assumption that an individual can be rapidly self-radicalised on the internet - are not supported.

The internet creates more opportunities to become radicalised and serves as an echo chamber for finding support for ideas among like-minded individuals- but it does not promote self- radicalisation without physical contact

The important principle from this, which my own research has confirmed, is that the internet does not exist separately to the offline world and should not be treated as such. The way young people in particular construct their online presences for the purpose of engaging with violent extremist content is either as a reaction to real-world circumstances (more prevalent with Islamist extremist use) or as an extension to offline circumstances - a response to individual or personal grievances (more prevalent with far-Right extremist use).

In the time I have left I want to talk about a project that explored intent - how it might be detected by monitoring and analysing online activities and what an appropriate intervention might look like.

The project developed online risk behaviour profiles. These profiles are based on the different types of online behaviour that demonstrate differing general levels of online commitment to an extremist ideology.

The first layer of the profiles differentiates five online behaviours that indicate engagement with radicalising narratives. These behaviours are based on previous research that segmented online radicalisation into five discrete behavioural stages: The Seeker, The Lurker, The Inquirer, The Advocate, The Activator (sounds a bit like characters in the new Avengers movie).

The Seeker describes the type of online behaviour demonstrated by a user in the first stage of the online radicalization process, the searching phase. The primary motivator for The Seeker is to acquire any information about an extremist ideology or idea. They are motivated to seek in response to offline circumstances.

The Lurker is starting to narrow the information they seek to sources they are still appraising and/or beginning to trust. 

The Inquirer demonstrates an increased desire for making social connection with people who can clarify their beliefs. Concurrently, Inquirers seek an outlet to express their personal identity while their worldview is still in the process of coalescing around a violent extremist narrative.

These first three profiles are amenable to early intervention through prevention and countering activates and programs.

The Advocate is not actively seeking new information, but is looking to express their personal identity in order to make social connection to people who share their beliefs.

Advocates are a highly visible part of their online communities and tend to express a much more solid commitment to an extremist ideology through emotionally-charged language and narrative, a more declarative or challenging writing style and a higher representation of ideological symbols and imagery on their own profiles.

An Advocate would be the kind of person who would share objectionable material, praise an attack and demonstrate sympathy to an extremist cause. They are the cheer leaders, recruiters and influences. Their intent is to mobilise an Activator into carrying out an attack.

The Activator is literally either activating, or are about to activate, their extremist ideologies offline, through violence. Activators may possess a latent but combustible mix of emotional aggression and warning behaviours waiting for the right circumstances to ignite or there may be a more calculated reduction in the user's activity to avoid detection.

In addition to the above five online behavioural profiles, languages and symbols play a crucial role in violent extremist ideology.

Thematic markers of possible at risk online activity are allegiance or connections with radical groups or figures. Far-Right extremist user profiles often displayed Nazi insignia and overt allegiances to groups like Aryan Brotherhood and white nationalist ideologues such as David Duke.

Other thematic markers include soldier/warrior identification, expressions of in-group pride and victimhood and out-group derogation and blame.  

Emotional markers of possible risk are anger, contempt and disgust - with disgust being the key ingredient as it indicates the de-humanisation of and intolerability of the out-group - the group must be eradicated like vermin or cockroaches.

A final layer is a warning behaviours analysis that seeks to uncover whether a person, intentionally or otherwise, leaks their intention to commit an act of violence in a communication to a third party.

It is worth noting that there are a number of cases where the perpetrator has, either willingly or by accident, revealed his or her intentions to carry out an act of violent extremism - they do this in two ways.

Fixation is a less overt warning behaviour. It basically describes a pathological preoccupation with a person or a cause. Identification is a behaviour reflecting a warrior mentality. The individual will closely associate with weapons or other military or law enforcement paraphernalia, identify with previous attackers or assassins, or identify oneself as an agent to advance a particular cause.

Leakage is the communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target, usually infers a preoccupation with the target and may signal the research, planning, and/or implementation of an attack.

When we overlay the five online behaviours (Seeker, Lurker, Inquirer, Advocate, and Activator) with thematic, emotive and behavioural markers of risk, we have a comprehensive typology of potential violent behaviour.

Obviously if an individual is demonstrating behaviours associated with the activator phase, has strong thematic and emotional markers, is fixated with a cause, identifies as an agent and leaks their intent, the only option is a law enforcement intervention - to remove opportunity and capability.

Unfortunately sometimes it is too late as leakage may occur hours, minutes or even during the violent attack.

But what this profile of online behaviours allows for is soft interventions at the early stages of Seeker, Lurker or Inquirer.

These interventions may include things like directing seekers to websites that offer alternative views or access to support networks, or using trained interventionists to contact and discuss ideas with Lurkers or Inquirers

In the project that I developed, we used a network of formers - former white supremacists and former jihadists to undertake this work.

To conclude, I’d like to summarise the points I’ve made in today’s address and
re-visit whether we have to accept some compromise to civil liberties in an increasingly securitised world.

In a contemporary environment where opportunity is high and capability is low for violent acts of terror and extremism - we need to focus our attention on intent

But intent is not easily addressed through hard measures - whether they are increased security, military responses or legislation.

Intent is much more effectively addressed through soft measures that rely on tools of attraction and influence- the same tools that terrorist groups use to recruit new members and to regenerate their narrative.

To date a single framework that integrates both hard and soft approaches into a smart framework has deluded governments.

Ideally a smart prevention oriented approach should reduce the reliance on reactionary measure that not only focus heavily on punitive responses but that also threaten to erode the civil liberties that are part of our democratic tradition.