November 29, 2019










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


Thank you to NSW Labor Lawyers for inviting me to speak this evening.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land and to pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Tonight I’d like to talk about some of the contemporary challenges for countering terrorism, with specific reference to returning foreign fighters and the internet. I will draw on some of the research that I was doing prior to becoming a Member of Parliament and some of the findings of that research.

Of course the study of terrorism and its responses is not new.

It dates back to the 1970s, when airline hijacking, kidnappings and hostage takings emerged as the primary modes of terrorist activities.

The 1970s is also the decade when terrorism hit the international stage. Prior to that, terrorist attacks were predominantly domestic, but the realisation that hijackings and high profile kidnappings attracted international media attention heralded a new era in terrorism.

The phrase ‘propaganda by the deed’ was coined long before international terrorism hit our television screens and made front page headlines.

It was in fact borne out of the anarchist movement in late 19th century Europe as a strategy for individual and collective violence.

Today’s terrorist landscape throws up some new challenges - but it also doesn’t differ too much significantly from past waves of terrorism. Terrorists, as I often say, are opportunists - not innovators

Today, Australia boasts one of the broadest reaching and most comprehensive suites of terrorism and terrorism related laws of any other Western nation.

Provisions in Australia’s criminal code alone covers terrorist acts as well as activities that may be associated with those acts and as such cover a broad range of activities including:

  • 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.

All of this is designed and implemented in response to the contemporary threat of terrorism.

But the questions I want to ask tonight are - what does that contemporary threat look like, and is our response the right response?

So today’s terrorism landscape is characterised by lone actors with loose or no affiliations to organised groups, radicalisation to an ideology or cause, returned foreign fighters, low tech attacks with little or no coordination and planning and the use of information and communication technologies.

Much of the contemporary nature of terrorism is described in terms of the spike in lone actors, often referred to as lone wolves. Let me start by dispelling some myths around the lone wolf phenomenon that has yielded a number of theoretical and research based studies offering a typology of lone violent actors.

Firstly I want to emphasise that there is no single profile of a violent extremist actor. Attempts to create typologies of terrorist actors based on demographic characteristics - age, gender, race and ethnicity - are not only of limited use; they can also be counterproductive.

In 1972, while Israeli airport security were focused on the possibility of a Palestinian attack, 3 members of the Japanese Red Army attacked Lod airport, killing 26 and injuring 80.

This case demonstrated the futility of developing terrorist profiles or typologies of would be terrorist actors based on broad demographic traits.

Throughout various iterations of terrorist waves - anarchist, new left, post-colonial, religious - the demographic characteristics of actors remains generally unchanged. They tend to be male, aged 20 - 40, and with no extraordinary history.

Yet there have been persistent attempts to identify individuals vulnerable to radicalisation by profiling, resulting in the securitisation of entire communities and having a counterproductive impact on prevention and countering violent extremism.

And this brings me to radicalisation - a kind of umbrella term used to describe a process by which an individual or group progress from radical or extremist thought to violent action.

Radicalisation is often presumed to be a predictor of violence and indeed has been used as such in models that have informed countering violent extremism policy and programs

Other definitions conflate radicalisation with a tendency towards or support for violence as a legitimate avenue for collective action.

Such a confliction fails to distinguish between cognitive and behavioural characteristics of radicalisation and assumes that radicalisation can predict violent behaviour.

Another important distinction should be made between this kind of de-radicalisation and disengagement, which targets the behavioural component of radicalisation.

Many Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members who have undergone de-radicalisation remained dedicated to the objectives of JI even after they have abandoned violence in pursuit of these objectives.

While some scholars argue that radicalisation cannot be appropriately deconstructed in terms of a fixed series of stages, others contend that radicalisation is a fairly ordered path, with terrorism as the ultimate manifestation of radicalisation.

Attempts to understand radicalisation as a process therefore deconstruct radicalisation as a series of stages or phases through which the individual passes towards a worldview that legitimises violence as a justifiable and effective means of achieving group objectives.

In the policy response to terrorism, the lack of conceptual distinction between what are considered radical values and violent behaviour has yielded an approach that defines certain sections of Muslim communities (most notably young Muslim men) as vulnerable to radicalisation and attempts to address this vulnerability through targeted programs

Individual de-radicalisation programs target individual cognitive radicalisation.

As a result, checklists of radicalisation and vulnerability to radicalisation, often consisting of some rather arbitrary characteristics or behaviours have been used to target individuals – most notably the Silber and Bhatt (or NYPD) model - a four phase radicalisation process.

According to Silber and Bhatt’s model, radicalisation can be segmented along four phases; the pre-radicalisation phase; the self-identification phase; the indoctrination phase and finally, the jihadisation phase.

The pre-radicalisation phase, otherwise referred to as the point of origin, is the period of time at the start of the radicalisation process that describes individuals prior to being exposed to Salafi-Islam.

The self-identification phase is when an individual is exposed to internal and external triggers‘, which may include trauma, social alienation, economic marginalisation or discrimination.

These triggers could potentially cause the individual to commence a search for ontological security. This may include making drastic changes in their lives; where they re-interpret their faith, find new meaning in their lives and associate with different yet like-minded people; adopting new religious ideologies as their own.

The indoctrination phase occurs when the individual will increasingly intensify their belief system to the point that they wholeheartedly adopt jihadi-salafi‖ ideologies and will adopt a worldview in which conditions and circumstances exist whereby action - militant jihad - is justified to support and further the cause.

Finally, the jihadisation phase occurs when members of a select group usually appoint themselves as warriors in a holy war and thus see it as a religious duty to begin planning, preparing, and undertaking a terrorist attack

Perhaps the most problematic part of the model is that the pre-radicalisation phase is described as the point of origin ‘of individuals who are unremarkable’, with ordinary jobs, ordinary lives, and with minor, if any, criminal history.

In essence then, the pre-radicalisation phase can describe any average person prior to the adoption of radical Islamic views.

There is a distinction between two kinds of radicalisation - cognitive and behavioural.

Cognitive radicalisation is the personalisation and internalisation of a set of beliefs associated with a radical or extremist ideology.

Behavioural radicalisation is the acceptance of and willingness to use violence as a necessary means in relation to beliefs and ideology.

Cognitive radicalisation does not necessarily lead to behavioural radicalisation. That is an individual may be radical or extreme in their thinking but may never adopt violence as a result.

A third consideration is that an individual who is both cognitively and behaviourally radicalised must also be presented with or seek out an opportunity to use violence for the intention of carrying out beliefs and ideology.

When we look at radicalisation through this framework of cognitive, behavioural and opportunity we can begin to develop a more useful typology of lone actors.

There are several examples which I won’t go through tonight, but I do want to draw attention to a couple.

Jessica Stern (in 2004) describes lone avengers as individuals who are only loosely affiliated to any ideology and commit acts of violence as expressions of personal vendettas mixed with religious or political grievances.

Feldman (in 2013) distinguishes between terrorists “seeking an ex post facto justification of their violent actions” and those who progress through the terrorist cycle.

One of the most useful typologies of Right Wing/ Neo Nazi actors is Wilhelm’s (2007) typology that distinguishes between Right Wing activists who are ideologically driven, ethnocentric youth who are driven by perceived grievances and criminal youth who have not marked right wing ideological leanings.

Importantly right wing activists typically have prior records for political crime, ethnocentric youth for juvenile crime and criminal youth have a propensity for violent crime.

Criminal youth: “in terms of the propensity to violence, this is a markedly action-oriented, aggressive, and violently disposed type. Here violence is seen not as a means of political conflict, but as a normal element of daily life and conflict resolution which needs no specific legitimation”. 

It is safe to say that much of our efforts in countering and preventing violent extremism and terrorism have focussed exclusively on cognitive radicalisation.

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, programs focused on social cohesion, integration, moderating ideology and civic values while legislation and security focussed on reducing or removing opportunity for carrying out attacks either through law enforcement or target hardening

But what about behavioural radicalisation and the propensity to violence? Have we missed a critical component of the equation that could potentially offer a more useful way of profiling behavioural characteristics and identifying individuals?

We know that the Sydney siege perpetrator had a history of violence; the Bourke street attacker had a criminal history; the Christchurch terrorist actor posted his manifesto which justifies the use of violence before he carried out his attack.

The attacker who ploughed a van into pedestrians in Toronto in 2018, killing 10 people, was revealed to be part of an alarming ‘incel’ sub culture. He openly declared his will to carry out an attack as a salute to Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the Isla Vista shooting and driving attack in 2014. And the list goes on.

These are the questions I asked when I embarked on a research project that looked at 100 case studies of Western-born self-activators-known individuals who either carried out an attack, were arrested in connection with planning an attack, or travelled overseas as a foreign fighter.

That research sought to identify patterns and characteristics of pathways to violence with the presumption that individual propensity to violence is a key personal trait that influences individual trajectories to violence.

The findings distinguished between three different types of actors.

Type one were both cognitively and behaviourally radicalised - they became violent within the context of their radicalisation.

Type two were less cognitively radicalised though were likely to inhabit motifs or symbols of ideology. They were attracted to the violent elements of ideology and that attraction drove their actions as well as their adoption of ideology- they sought ideology to justify violence

Type three were subject to rapid escalation to violence; they exhibited high trait aggression, applied ideology to their act of violence and not their entire world view and often had an ex post facto declaration of ideology.

The question of propensity to violence - behavioural radicalisation - extends to the issue of returning foreign fighters.

When comparing foreign fighters to domestic actors, my research found that domestic actors were more likely to be type one or type three. That is, either they were more cognitively radicalised and came to violence through ideology or they had a high propensity to violence that escalated into an attack.

Foreign fighters were more likely to be type two - less cognitively radicalised, and primarily mobilised by an attraction to violence. 

I believe there are some important insights here that should inform our response to the contemporary challenges of domestic terrorism, rising white supremacist violent extremism and returning foreign fighters.

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

The bill attempts to deal with the assumption that those returning from theatres of conflict in Iraq and Syria would be both cognitively and behaviourally radicalised and would therefore pose a risk to Australia.

The first successful attack by a returnee in Europe occurred in 2014, with the shooting at Brussel’s Jewish museum.

There have since been several other attacks by returnees in Europe, culminating in the coordinated attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016

Studies of past waves of returned foreign fighters demonstrate that veteran fighters can play a critical role in inspiring, influencing and advocating for the perpetuation of violent movements- often from within their prison cells.

But a study of returnees in Belgium, Germany and Netherlands published by Egmont last year highlights some interesting findings.

In these countries, returnees are generally detained until trial upon their return. In prison they are subjected to varying regimes to monitor and manage their conditions.

Once released they are then subjected to various programs - some more intrusive than others.

Among the key findings of the study, some are worth mentioning here.

Firstly, the study found that the most seasoned fighters will no longer return to their countries of origin en masse - most recent returnees are women and children

Prior to the 2014 attack in Brussels, returnees were not systematically prosecuted. Legislative regime changes in the criminal codes of all three countries have been broadened and returnees across Europe, including women, started being systematically prosecuted.

Most interestingly, beyond the judicial response, all three countries developed a range of measures and mechanisms to deal with returnees leading to a comprehensive multi-agency approach involving a broad range of actors and services

There are lessons for us to learn here - if we are open to learning them.

The first is that the judicial response is not enough - it is not enough to prevent would be foreign fighters from leaving Australia for Syria without any programs to redirect them to positive, non-violent resolutions to conflict.

It is not enough to legislate for the temporary exclusion of foreign fighters without a comprehensive, long term strategy for their return or indeed for the right to restitution and justice for their victims.

If we have learned anything from almost two decades of the so called War on Terror, it’s that we cannot defeat terrorism with military action alone; we cannot arrest our way out of this and we certainly cannot ignore new forms and developing iterations of the terrorist threat because they come from those who look like us.

Whether or not we learn these lessons is yet to be seen. But right now, we do not have the kind of comprehensive approach to dealing with terrorism and violent extremism that countries in Europe have developed.

The contemporary nature of the threat in the domestic arena is also characterised by low tech attacks carried out by single individuals and using guns, knives and vehicle ramming or a combination of all three. These kinds of attacks are relatively easy and cheap to carry out, require no planning and hence are able to circumvent security measures. They are also by no means new or innovative.

Terrorists, criminals and those who wish to do us harm will continuously find ways around our capabilities - either by exploiting vulnerabilities, or by circumventing current security measures.

So, in response to an increasing awareness of terrorists’ use of the internet and measures to mitigate any continued threat, terrorists and criminal groups are now migrating to the dark web and using encryption services. The Dark Web allows criminals and terrorists to operate in a haven of anonymity.

What we are also seeing is a more coordinated integration of cybercrime and terrorism. In January 2015, evidence emerged of a terror cell using bitcoin to fundraise operations. In another example an Indonesian based group collected bitcoin donations on the dark web and using a stolen identity from the Dark Web hacked a trading website. The group managed to collect around us $600,000 using a series of cybercrimes.

In the past, cyber terrorism has been a contested concept with no agreed upon definition and several theories abounding about what a cyber terrorism attack would entail. It is generally accepted that cyber terrorism would involve the use of computers or technology to create a severe disruption to critical infrastructure causing death or the spreading of fear; that is, terrorism carried out by technology.

The interface of cybercrime and terrorism - the use of cyber capabilities not as weapons of attack but as enablers of terrorism through cybercriminal activities - presents a more tangible way of conceptualising what cyberterrorism looks like and a concrete target for focussing our efforts and indeed any legislative responses to this threat.

Finally, I would like to make the point that while our law enforcement agencies do a great job of keeping Australians safe, their task is made more difficult as terrorist actors find novel ways of circumventing security measures.

Our success in combatting the risk of terrorism and violent extremism doesn’t just rely on the capabilities, capacity and scope of our law enforcement regime - it also relies on our willingness and ability to comprehend that military action and legislation alone is not enough.